yakushima – a brief history

yaku gaiYakushima history dates back to the evidence of agriculture and fishing from the Jomon era (14,000 – 300BC). 

Chinese priests began arriving to Yakushima (and the rest of Japan) around the 7th century.  It appears they didn't stay on the island for very long!  During the 9th and 10th centuries, Yakushima rose to fame as the exporter of precious shells called Yaku-gai.  The Heian era (794 – 1185) aristocracy would collect them as ornaments.

Records taken at the end of the 12th century neglect to mention Yakushima, but they do include the neighbouring, Tanegashima (種子島).  Tanegashima was a far more agriculturally productive island (then as well as now) and so it is assumed that there was not much interest in Yakushima during this period.

Tomari Jochiku

The lumber industry began in the early Edo period (1603 – 1868).  Yakushima was one of many areas that were heavily logged during the early Edo Period as after a few hundred years of constant warfare there was a great building frenzy around the country with many castles, temples and monuments being commissioned around this time.  Prior to this era the trees near the coastal area of Yakushima were cut down for domestic use (building and firewood), but the islanders revered the large Yaku sugi trees (as well as the rivers, mountains and rocks).  However, a priest and former resident of Yakushima called Tomari Jochiku, returned to Yakushima.  Tomori had trained and practised in Kyoto, Okinawa and Taiwan.  On his return he persuaded the inhabitants to 'make use' of the abundance of lumber.  Tomori declared that he had counselled with the gods and they had given him their permission to start cutting down trees.  He was more likely to have counselled with the local clan (the Shimazu clan based in Kagoshima) who had been looking for ways to profit from the abundance of lumber on Yakushima and cash in on the building boom at the time.  Hence, the lumber industry began under the control of the Shimazu clan and continued for around 350 years.  Tomari was eventually considered a local 'saint' because he used his accumulated wealth for the benefit of the locals.

2014-01-26 12.45.34Hiragi (roof tiles)

Yakushima 're-appeared' in the record books again when Hideyoshi Toyotomi began taking land surveys.  Yakushima was noted as having fishing and 'mountain' value.  The 'mountain' value being Yaku sugi roof tiles called 'hiragi'.  Rich in resin, the hiragi are an excellent water-resistant, rot-resistant and light product.  So profitable was the hiragi industry that the island's annual stipend was paid in hiragi rather than in the usual form of rice.

The hiragi industry continued for hundreds of years and the tiles were still being produced until just after the Pacific War (1941 – 1945).  However, from the 1920`s when the national government finally got its hands on the island, the trees were transported whole down to the coast and shipped off to the mainland.  The village of Kosugidani (小杉谷) on the Jomon sugi trail, located deep in the interior of the island, was a village founded in the 1920's on this trade.  The loggiing stopped in 1970 and the last villager left the village in 1972.  The remains of the village walls and steps can still be found.

Arrival of the Europeans

Although the Portuguese had inadvertently found themselves on the neighboring island of Tanegashima due to bad weather in 1543 and thereafter Tanegashima was the first area in Japan to receive such items as the potato and the gun from the Portuguese, contact with Europeans on Yakushima began with the arrival of an Italian missionary called Giovanni Batista Sidotti in 1708.  He was taken prisoner and sent to Edo where he befriended an influential politician/scholar (Arai Hakuseki) who eventually found Sidotti a passage to Edo (Tokyo) where he continued his relationship with Arai until his premature death in 1714.  Sidotti remained under house arrest until his death and he was discovered to have converted his `jailors` to Christianity that angered the authorities (Christianity had been outlawed by this stage in Japanese history) that caused him to be imprisoned in the cellar of the building where he died soon after.

Agricultural History

By the end of the Edo period, sugar cane had become an important product grown on Yakushima as well as many other southern Japanese islands.  However after the Pacific War, with the arrival of cheaper imports, the industry faded and had ceased by the 1970's.  It was during this time that the ponkan orange became the successor to sugar cane.  Ponkan arrived to Yakushima from Taiwan in the late 1920's and due to a limited seasonal harvest (only 4 weeks in December) then in the 1950's the tankan orange was brought from Taiwan.  The tankan harvest is from early February to late March.  Nowadays the tankan orange numbers outweigh the ponkan harvest.

Fishing History

Fishing has always played an important part in Yakushima's history.  Although the current fishing industry is based around flying fish and mackeral, this hasn't always been the case.  Up until the Taisho Era (1912- 1926) skipjack tuna was the target catch.  However, encroaching large fishing fleets from the mainland forced the island to consider catching a different fish and so they switched to catching mackeral.   Flying fish are the main catch from the Anbo Port.  So great were the numbers of flying fish that they could often be netted from the shore, but this is no longer the case.

Island Pigrimage

The older villages on Yakushima give us some idea of what life was like on the island before the Pacific War.  In Nakama (中間 – a village close to Kurio), Isso (一奏) and Kusugawa (楠川 – just south of Miyanoura) you will find small houses huddled together.  In these villages many of the residents will have the same surname.  Years ago, people very rarely left their village.  Access from village to village was very difficult and most often they would have to travel by boat (if they could afford to pay the fisherman!).  One reason to leave the village would be when a prayer had been answered and the villager would go on a pilgrimage to all the shrines on the island (shimamawari – 島周り).  There was a tradition of hosting the pilgrim and creating life-long friendships between the pilgrim and the village host.  But this tradition, like so many others, faded away after the Pacific War.

After the Pacific War

Even after the Pacific War, when Japan experienced a great properous change, life on Yakushima improved only very slowly.  There are currently residents on the island who can recall a time when they would have to walk for hours and hours to get to a shop.  There was no electricity and most people lived a self-sufficient lifestyle.  By the 1960's and 1970's, Yakushima was beginning to catch up with the mainland.  Roads, power and a sewage system became the norm (it wasn`t uncommon for locals to make their own fertilizer from their own sewage up until the 1970`s).  By the 1980's tourism was beginning to show signs of it becoming a major source of income for the island and once UNESCO recognized Yakushima as a World Natural Heritage Site of Natural Beauty then the number of tourists increased dramatically.  By 2007, there were more than 300,000 visitors a year.  After the 'banking crisis' of 2008, the number of tourists has steadily dropped to closer to 220,000 a year.  But even with a drop of 50,000 visitors in 5 years, the annual number of visitors still puts a great strain on the island's forests and mountains.  A constant cause for concern is the sustainability of Yakushima's tourist industry in a fragile natural environment.


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