Tanegashima Island: A strategic casualty

The day we flew out of the “cosmoport” of Tanegashima, a remote island (ritō) off the southern coast of Kyushu, was actually historically significant. Not because of my presence of course.

A port through clouds seen from an airplane
Nishinoomote, the main port of Tanegashima from the air

We spent a few days exploring the island that we were initially planning on moving to for the remote island study program, before ultimately opting for Ikijima. The island is notable for being the first place Europeans set foot on Japan (and consequent introduction of firearms) in 1543, and also for the Tanegashima Space Center where the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been launching rockets since it was built in 1969. I will write up a full trip report for the island, especially about the tour I took of the rocket launch facility, but I want to do a slight digression about why I find remote islands fascinating and keep travelling to them.

As the “edges” of Japan, remote islands have always been of strategic importance: they are bridges for first people crossing over from the continent and maintaining Yamato era colonies on the Korean peninsula, initial contact points for the Portuguese, and stepping stones for the US Marine Corps during WWII, just as a few examples. There is all kinds of action out on the edges of Japan, beyond Tokyo and Kyoto. In fact, I reviewed a great book on this topic. Typically, the news out of these islands gets ignored in the metropol, which tends to look at the islands for their strategic value only. I might have had this view too if not for spending a year and half living on such an island, getting to know the people and their struggles.

Take the space center for example. To place a rocket launchpad the Space Development Agency (long before it was JAXA) needed a clear eastward launch line (in order to travel with the Earth’s rotation) that did not pass over any population, and located as close to the equator as possible. In 1969 the Okinawan islands were still in the hands of the Americans. Of course, the requirements list was much longer, and Tanegashima did not tick all the boxes, but it was chosen nonetheless. There are all sorts of legitimate justifications of why to put the space center here for sure. However, I was mostly struck by the class differences on the island. It reminded me a bit of Hawai’i. We didn’t have to deal with this kind of thing on Iki, and to be honest I am thankful for having lived on an “inner” island which is largely protected from these kinds of calculations.

Now, back to the day we took off from the airport: that evening a massive dredging crane made landfall on Mageshima the tiny island off the west coast of Tanegashima. Mageshima is a seasonally inhabited island that has been the center of flying fish harvesting for thousands of years. Now the small island is being turned into a military base used for training USMC pilots, and to be a strategic landing strip between Okinawa and the USMC air station at Iwakuni.

Talking to a local we heard that local prices have risen significantly on the island as many “tens of thousands” of contractors are estimated to be passing through the island over the next four years constructing the base. (I suspect the specific number related to me was overblown, but I cannot find any official estimate. The MOD says the island will have 100-200 people stationed on the island once complete). Tanegashima currently has a population of 30,000 people.

Magejima is only 20 minutes by boat from the main city of Nishiniomote. Rents have shot up “tenfold”. The hotel we stayed at books most of its rooms by year rather than by night. Apparently fisherman are using their boats to ferry workers across charging contracting companies lucrative fees rather than actually fishing, causing shortages on supermarket shelves. Things are already out of whack and it is just starting. But, what will happen in four years when the contractors leave? I wish I knew more about what happened during the spaceport construction so I could compare.

I don’t mean for this blog post to be alarmist about rising militarism in the East China Sea (but I don’t don’t mean it to be). I enjoyed my trip to Tanegashima, and made a number of observations during my time there. But this repeated strategic jerking around of Tanegashima was worth considering on its own. Besides, this as an example of the kinds of things you learn when you get out of the big cities. Usually we’d only get the occasional wire article so it is easy to miss. Getting out into the field and see what is happening on the edges of Japan is refreshing. Just as I learned about the effects of climate change and depopulation on Iki, I think remote islands are like early-warning sensors for the future of Japan, and totally worth visiting.

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