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Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010

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The mysteries of counting islands


Today I'd like to uncover some of the mysteries of the Seto Inland Sea. The Inland Sea, or Seto Naikai, is a 450 km-long sea with 700 to 3,000 islands, or sometimes 2,000 islands, depending on who you talk to. Why such a discrepancy? Island counting is a special skill and the way you count them depends on your interpretation of the word "island."

Mysterious islands

When someone says, "island," you might think of a sandy island in the middle of the sea, a lone palm tree growing on it with a tourist (probably yourself) sitting under the tree enjoying a margarita. This is the island ideal.

Can Japan, an "island nation," live up to this image? That's a lot of margaritas.

Although people think of island as being round, they can be all kinds of shapes. Tiny Awashima, in Kagawa Prefecture, resembles the shape of a three-armed starfish. Ushishima, also Kagawa, is named for its likeness to the shape of a cow (or the sound it makes, I'm not sure which). And look at Honshu, long and skinny, practically choking the Japanese population into a couple major pipelines of highways and railways. I get this definite sense of being squeezed whenever I disembark on Honshu. Perhaps we will all someday adapt by taking on the bodies of weasels and be able to slither through even the smallest openings.

Mysterious Counting System

When you hear that there are 3,000 islands in the Seto Inland Sea, it makes you wonder exactly how they count the islands. For example, do they count all the islands, or just the inhabited ones, or those with a postal code? Or do they only count the islands that appear on the official sea charts? Is an outcropping of rocks an island? Perhaps they count just the islands that have names, or only those larger than 0.1 km in circumference.

My definition of an island is easy — it's an island if it's big enough to enjoy a margarita on. There are many one-margarita islands in the Inland Sea. From there, you move to two-margarita islands and three margarita islands until you find the island of Margaritaville, where the margaritas never stop flowing.

It turns out that there are specific criteria a landmass must fulfill to earn island status. It sounds like another one of those certification programs the Japanese have dreamed up for aspiring Japanese islands. But remember, there is no guarantee that any island will go on to succeed. Indeed, entire populations in Japan have abandoned their islands in favor of the city life.

To be an island in the Seto Inland Sea, the landmass must:

1. be naturally made and completely surrounded by water

2. be visible above the surface of the water even at the highest tide and

3. have four sides of the island visible (North, South, East and West).

So, is an outcropping of rocks an island? Yes. As long as it is visible even at high tide and as long as you can enjoy a margarita on it.

Mysterious Naming System

Something that may surprise you about islands in the Inland Sea is that many of them have the same name. Kojima (small island) leads the list with 14 islands sharing this name. Hey, it's not that strange when you consider that in the U.S. alone, over 4 million people are named John, and we think nothing of it.

When it comes to Oshima (big island), just six islands lay claim to the name. The second most popular name is Bentenshima (Benten Island), referring to the famous Goddess of the Sea (and island real estate mogul) Benten. Twelve islands in the Inland Sea have been named after her, providing her with 12 shrines to live in. And for some reason unknown to me, 11 islands have been named Nabeshima (pot island).

Mysterious Pronunciations

Although shima means "island," it can become jima when following the island name. Sometimes it's difficult for foreigners to know when to use shima and when to use jima. In addition, even the Japanese don't always know. Take, for instance, Mukaishima (over there island), one of the Onomichi Islands in Hiroshima Prefecture. The islanders pronounce it Mukaishima, but those who live on mainland Onomichi pronounce it Mukaijima. Or, consider that while Kojima is usually pronounced with a jima, on sea maps it is always written Koshima.

The prefecture with the most islands in the Inland Sea is Hiroshima (wide island — though actually not an island at all) with 142 islands. This count only includes islands larger than 0.1 km circumference. But if you count the islands with names that appear on the sea chart, there are 153 islands. If you include all such islands, including those on the sea charts, Ehime has 133, Yamaguchi 127, Kagawa 112 and Okayama, where I live, has 87.

Jimmy Buffet would love it here. "Wasted away again in Margaritaville, lookin for my lost shaker of salt."



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