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Facing Both East and West : Descendants of American, European Settlers Find Island of Acceptance Among Japanese

January 01, 1991|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICHIJIMA, Japan — Moses Savory is not your typical Japanese fisherman.

He grew up harvesting the abundant reefs around the Ogasawara Islands and knows these waters like few other men. A Japanese citizen who attended only Japanese schools, his gestures and speech are pure Japanese. But he has always looked as different as his name sounds.

Savory inherited a square jaw, a ruddy complexion and a rather prominent nose from his great-grandfather, Nathaniel Savory, the Massachusetts whaler and adventurer who led the first settlers to these remote islands in the western Pacific, 600 miles south of Tokyo.

He looked different enough that during World War II, in the intolerant mood of those times, people derisively called him keto --"hairy barbarian." The military police harassed him as a suspected spy because he spoke English to his kinsmen, or mixed it with Japanese in the local pidgin. Wartime prejudice barred him from finding a wife on the island where his family had thrived for more than a century.

Yet Savory adapted and endured--and stayed. Today, at 77, he is a respected elder in a small and unique community of Japanese with American and European ancestry.

"I had some terrible experiences during the war," Savory said in his native Japanese, which he prefers to English. "But I'm content now. This is my home. This is where I'm from."

Japan is a country with few minorities. A stubborn aversion to ethnic diversity on the main islands has prevented generations of Korean and Chinese residents from assimilating fully. And Westerners who have put down roots in cosmopolitan cities like Yokohama and Kobe or even Tokyo must resign themselves to being emotionally quarantined as gaijin (foreigners) in perpetuity.

But an accident of history has seen Ogasawara's Western "barbarians" integrated meaningfully into rural village life. They were here first, after all. When patriarch Nathaniel Savory charted his course across the Pacific in 1830 with a mixed crew of 31 Americans, Europeans and Hawaiians, the subtropical islands were empty.

Indeed, scholars think their original name, the Bonin Islands, derived from bunin , an archaic Japanese word for "uninhabited" that apparently was marked on early maps.

Japanese who migrated to the islands under claim of sovereignty in the latter half of the 19th Century classified the Savorys, the Webbs, the Gilleys and the other Western clans as zairai tomin-- "native islanders." They came with the territory, which Japan considered its own because a seafaring feudal lord named Sadayori Ogasawara "discovered" the islands in 1593, half a century after the Spanish explorer Francisco de Villalobas first touched ashore.

The Civil War-era American government looked the other way, Victorian England abandoned its tentative claim, and Japanese settlers soon took control.

The accident repeated itself in 1946, when occupying U.S. naval forces built a base on Chichijima, the administrative center of the Bonins and the Volcano chain--which includes the notorious World War II killing grounds of Iwo Jima to the south.

Ogasawara's civilian population had been evacuated in anticipation of an American assault, which never came. After Japan's surrender, the U.S. military sealed off the chain, except to a group of about 130 islanders--people of Western heritage and their families. Thousands of ethnic Japanese were not permitted back until 1968, when the islands reverted to Tokyo's rule.

Savory, who returned from Yokohama in 1946 with a new Japanese bride, was classified like the others as an "enemy national" by the U.S. Navy. Still, the Navy shipped his fish to market in Guam and gave him odd jobs around the base for $3 a day.

Even that ambivalent status brought relief after years of repression under militarist Japan. Nearly 50 years later, Savory softens his bitter wartime memories with wry humor.

"They accused me of being a spy, but if I had the brains to be a spy, I wouldn't have been on an island like this," he said. "I would have been in a much bigger place."

Savory's four daughters attended high school in Guam and all have immigrated to the United States, a pattern that is not unusual among Ogasawara's fifth-generation zairai tomin, considering the limited economic opportunities here.

This cluster of 103 islands, four of which are inhabited, has no airport. The only regular transportation linking Chichijima to the outside world is a 3,500-ton passenger ship that sails about once a week and takes 28 hours to reach Tokyo--at a cost of $350 round-trip, in steerage. One in every three jobs in Ogasawara is in civil service, mostly in the Tokyo Metropolitan government, which subsidizes as well as administers the islands.

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