yakushima – a brief history

Yakushima history – Jomon Period

Yakushima history dates back to around 17,000 years ago with evidence of fishing implements found in the south of Yakushima.  No evidence of habitation arises until around 6,000 years ago with evidence of dwellings, ceramics and fishing implements.  The reconstructed dwelling above is perhaps an example of how a dwelling may have looked.     The lack of much evidence of habitation is largely due to the fact that their have been very few archeological searches on Yakushima.


Yakushima history – Heian Period

Chinese priests began arriving to Japan regularly in the 7th century.  The most influential of these to visit Yakushima was Ganjin (his Chinese name was Jianzhen 鑒真) in 753.  Ganjin was on his way to Nara to ordain newly formed Buddhist temples in the Nara region (the most famous of which was the Todai-ji).  Ganjin did not find Yakushima particularly appealing, but he did acknowledge that the island was abundant in natural medicines.

yaku gaiDuring the 9th and 10th centuries, Yakushima rose to fame as the exporter of precious shells called Yaku-gai (or Yako-gai).  The Heian era (794 – 1185) aristocracy would collect them as ornaments.


Yakushima history – Kamakura Period

Records taken at the end of the 12th century neglect to mention Yakushima, but they do include much of the neighbouring island of Tanegashima (種子島).  Tanegashima was (and still is) a far more agriculturally productive island and so it is assumed that there was not much interest in Yakushima during this period due to its lack of productivity. The Kamakura Period was also when the ruling clan – the Shimazu family – took control of southern Kyushu and islands further south for the next 800 years.  The Shimazu clan were an extremely powerful and influential family throughout Japanese history, but particularly leading up to the Meiji Restoration.


Yakushima history – Sengoku Period

The tradition of pilgrimage to pay homage to the gods begins in 1488.  This practise is known as `takemairi` and villagers on Yakushima continue to go to the mountains once (or in the case of some villages – twice) a year.

A few Portuguese arrived to Tanegashima in 1543 with sweet potatoes and musket guns.  Potatoes became an essential addition to the national diet and guns were first put to use on Yakushima.

At the end of the Sengoku Period the ruling warlord – Hideyoshi Toyotomi – sent a huge army into Kyushu to quash the Shimazu clan who playing their usual rebellious role.  After their defeat the Shimazu clan were ordered to send huge trees to Kyoto to commemorate their defeat to Toyotomi and so, for the first time, some of the large sugi trees on Yakushima were cut down.  One of these trees is thought to have been the giant tree which is now where we can find Wilson Stump.  However, debate continues whether this tree and others sent at the same time ever got to Kyoto.


Yakushima history – Edo Period

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 native of Yakushima called Tomari Jochiku returned to Yakushima from his many years abroad in Kyoto, Okinawa and China.  On his return Tomari persuaded the inhabitants to ‘make use’ of the abundance of lumber.  Tomori declared that he had counseled with the gods and they had given him their permission to start cutting down trees.  He was more likely to have counseled with the Shimazu clan 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.

Although the Portuguese had inadvertently found themselves on the neighboring island of Tanegashima due to bad weather in 1543, contact with Europeans on Yakushima began with the arrival of an Italian missionary called Giovanni Batista Sidotti in 1708.  Sidotti was a `lone-wolf` missionary and travelled to Japan under his own volition.  He was taken prisoner and finally sent to Nagasaki where he befriended an influential politician/scholar named 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.  This angered the authorities (Christianity had been outlawed since the 1630`s in Japan) and Sidotti was imprisoned in the cellar of the building where he died soon after.  Remains of Sidotti were found in 2014 in Tokyo.

Yakushima ‘re-appeared’ in the record books again when land surveys were taken.  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.

Yakushima history – Modern Period

2014-01-26 12.45.34The hiragi industry continued for hundreds of years and the tiles were still being produced until just after the Pacific War (1941 – 1945).  Soon after the collapse of the Shogunate in 1868, the hiragi industry began to suffer from a lack of organization.  The country had other things on its mind at the time.  Throughout the Meiji Period land allocation was a topical issue and access to the interior of Yakushima was a confusing matter.  The locals requested that the Government re-open the interior so as they could improve the economy of their island.  Matters were settled in the 1910s and with the aid of National Government assistance the infrastructure to log the interior was set up very quickly in the early 1920s.  The majority of trees in the interior region were felled after the Pacific War and especially after the introduction of the chainsaw in 1956.  The trees were transported 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 logging in this area stopped in 1970 and the last villager left Kosugidani in 1972.  The remains of the village walls and steps can still be found.

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 sugar 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 and the orange industry is the main source of income for Yakushima farmers.

Since the 1980s tea has been grown on Yakushima and it is becoming a major export from the island.

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 or bonito was the target catch.  However, encroaching large fishing fleets from the mainland forced the village of Isso to consider catching a different fish and so they switched to catching mackeral.   Flying fish are the main catch from the Anbo Port, but this fish was caught on a large-scale from the 1920`s when knowledge of a particular fishing technique was introduced by immigrants.  So great were the numbers of flying fish that they could often be netted from the shore, but this is no longer the case.

Village Life

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 rarely left their village as access from village to village was very difficult (either walking over the mountains or paying a fisherman if you could afford it).  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 prosperous 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 in 1993 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 around 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.  The current debate regarding the future of the island is the development of the Yakushima Airport.  The plan is to extend the runaway to allow jets to land on the island (currently only propeller aircraft arrive).  The reason is to encourage flights from Kanto (Tokyo) as about 60% of visitors to Yakushima come from this region.  Having witnessed the great changes made on islands such as Ishigaki in Okinawa after the introduction of jet aircraft then the future of this beautiful island is a cause for concern.