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Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008

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Mourning lost Japan


I recently visited Osakishimo Island off Hiroshima Prefecture in the Seto Inland Sea. Since the Jomon Period, this island has only been accessible by boat.

Osakishimo is one of six islands under the jurisdiction of the city of Kure, a maritime town famous for building the famous battleship the Yamato.

Seven bridges that form the Akinada Tobishima Kaido will connect these Kure islands when the project is finished next month.

The Japanese are indeed magnificent bridge builders and each of these connecting bridges is built aesthetically and in keeping with the surrounding scenery. But what they are linking isn't just islands, but separate island cultures. And this, I have my reservations about.

Some of the great things about the Inland Sea are the individual clusters of cultures that exist on each island. These people are as diverse as you will find anywhere in Japan. If Tokyo and Osaka people think they are different from each other, they haven't even begun to understand the culture of the islands. Each island is unique and its people and customs are too.

Another great thing about the Inland Sea is that you can come to the islands to get away from it all. Not for much longer though. At the rate they are building bridges to the islands, the islands will be surprisingly similar to . . . the mainland! And the unique island cultures and lifestyles will soon be gone forever.

In this day and age, you wonder why, instead, these islands aren't seen as mode ls of "green living." Most people living on small islands have no carbon footprint at all. Just a carbon "toe print." These are the roots of Japan, the real world, where people live among nature and live sustainable lives. Unfortunately, for most of the rest of Japan, the real world is something completely artificial.

Imagine, for a moment, if Hawaii or Fiji were just exits off the highway, would they still be unique?

In preparation for its new highway exit status, Osakishimo has deployed old people who ride around on bicycles with signs on their baskets that read kagi kake undo, which is a campaign to remind people to lock their bicycles. Apparently, no one locks his or her bicycle because no one would ever think of stealing one. They are getting ready for the crime wave which will make its way over the bridges. They are also losing a lifestyle.

Osakishimo Island has been untouched by the motoring weekend warrior tourists. Yutaka-machi, at Mitarai, is an old Edo Period town that still functions doing modernday business. Many of the buildings have been preserved and you can get that Edo feeling walking around the streets. But how will a town, originally built to serve passing traders on ships and samurai on their way to Edo, deal with the new crowd buzzing through in automobiles looking for a convenience store? What's next, speed bumps? The Golden Arches? And what about, um, parking? Has anyone thought about what we're going to do with all these cars once they get here?

What was wrong with the old system where people left their polluting vehicles on the mainland? Surely the next thing they'll need is a bypass, to avoid the crawling traffic.

The Shimanami Kaido is another series of bridges that has connected six islands from Honshu to Shikoku since 1999. But people are not coming to see the old towns or the island lifestyle. Instead, they are drawn by the prospect of reaching the other side, since the bridges connect Honshu and Shikoku.

In an attempt to attract tourists, the islands built big fancy tourist information centers selling souvenirs. Attractions are actually being built because the islands themselves are not enough of an attraction for people to stop. Maybe they just need bigger magnets.

But with the Akinada Tobishima Kaido, the goal is merely to connect the Kure islands. Once you get to the end of the last bridge, you only have one choice: to turn around and come back.

If this is a bid to stem the depopulation of the islands, I would like to suggest that rather than paying for big bridge budgets, that they just pay people to live there. On that kind of money, everyone could retire upon birth and live there for the rest of his or her life.

When you think about it, since Japan's population is not increasing, by making the islands more accessible, they're really just redistributing the current population.

As one foreigner who was recently interviewed on NHK said about one of the smaller islands in the Inland Sea, "Everything about Japanese culture can be found here on this island."

The islands are special. They are living museums of Japanese culture. While we should be preserving this, we're really just destroying it.

Lost Japan, indeed.



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