Friday, July 17, 2015

Pagan Island in the Distance

The island of Pagan, in the northern Marianas has made international news as it might soon become yet another beautiful island to be destroyed by the US military for its testing and training purposes. Although now I regularly hear news about Pagan, in years past I scarcely heard about it in a Chamorro context, but rather always in either a strict environmental context or in a Japanese historical context. Environmentalists are the first line of defense in some ways against militarization, although history has shown they often have trouble working cooperatively with the locals and natives who claim those lands. For them Pagan is an ecological paradise and needs to be protected. I would hear random tidbits about Pagan in this regard, as being a place with exciting species (including snails) that should be researched and explored. 

I also heard about it in the context of Japanese, as settlers lived there during the Japanese colonial period in the CNMI. In fact in historical terms, the Japanese history sometimes seemed to erase the Chamorro aspects of its existence, in ways that were sometimes disturbing. This is one way that you can illustrate the idea of power/knowledge. That the ability to create knowledge that is considered formal or proper, such as from a government agency or a academic scholar can go a long way in terms of establishing the framework through which power will flow and function. Both the Japanese colonial discourse and the environmental gem discourse have helped create an erasure of the Chamorro connection.

Pagan is part of the Gani Islands, or the chain of islands north of Saipan which Chamorros were forcibly removed from during the Spanish period. The contemporary Chamorro, especially in Guam has largely been cut off for these islands and has little to no conception of them. For some families in the CNMI with ties there, they have a larger, stronger imagining or identification with them, but for most Chamorros today these islands might as well exist in another dimension. The moves by the US military to use Pagan for training and target practice has helped to change this, as more and more Chamorros, not just in the Marianas are starting to see it and feel their connection to it.

In the current context of militarization in the Marianas, any discourse that leads to seeing Pagan as a sacred or special site, something worth saving can be useful. The article below refers to a book released last year about Japanese memories of Pagan. The title uses the metaphor of distance in order to make a number of theoretical and political points, for the activism surrounding Pagan today, it is also a good thing to consider.


"Pagan Island in the Distance" Now Available Online
By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor
Marianas Variety

A collection of Japanese-era memoirs related to living on Pagan is now available.

Northern Marianas Humanities Council program officer Eulalia S. Villagomez told Variety yesterday that “Pagan Island in the Distance…,” which holds a collection of personal memoirs about Japanese era life on Pagan Island in the Northern Mariana Islands is now available online. 

Villagomez said that Jessica Jordan, a Ph.D. in history candidate in the University
 of California, San Diego, with the assistance of Horiguchi Noriyasu published the website “Pagan Island in the Distance” with an English translation of excerpts of the original contents from Okamoto Mariko’s website, “Harukanaru Pagantô yo…”

Jordan is the project’s translator, project manager and primary English language correspondent.
Horiguchi served as translation editor, researcher and primary Japanese language correspondent.

Jordan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, San Diego specializing in modern Japanese history. She earned her degrees in Japanese and Religious Studies from Arizona State University in 2002, and completed Japanese language training at the Inter-University Center in Yokohama in 2003.

Jordan presented an essay assessing the historical and contemporary relevance of this online collection at the First Marianas History Conference held in Saipan in June 2012.

The website and the electronic book becomes available today, Oct. 15.

Three grants made the publication of this website and electronic book possible.

Jordan said that two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities administered by the CNMI Historic Preservation Office helped with the translation of the content of the entire website.

“I did the translation in two installments in 2008 and 2011,” said Jordan in her translator’s preface.

She also said that Okamoto asked her to delete certain text from the original publication.
She also said that the chapters of the e-book were arranged in the same order they appeared in the original website.

Jordan also received a Pacific Rim Research full-scale research grant on Oct. 11 through Sept. 2012 which helped her undertake the research to complete the glossary and preface.
The publication of the website, in English, was made possible through funding from the Northern Marianas Humanities Council.

Villagomez told Variety yesterday that the original Japanese website was published in 2000.
It was a compendium of memoirs in Japanese written by Japanese civilians and edited by Okamoto Mariko.

Villagomez said Okamoto Mariko is the daughter-in-law of Okamoto Eiko who moved to Pagan in the 1930s with her parents who worked there as schoolteachers during the time of the Japanese colonial administration of the region.

She explained further that “Harukanaru” hosts a collection of memoirs written by Japanese civilians like her mother-in-law, along with memoirs by former military personnel.
“Harukanaru” is both a website and a 116-page booklet.

Villagomez said that the stories on the website provide vivid details about what it was like to live during the Japanese colonial period and the Second World War on Pagan Island.
In her prefatory message to the booklet, Okamoto said the website introduces the history of Pagan and an outline of island life.

It is also a collection of stories contributed by people “with a relationship to the island.”
Mariko said she began the project in April 2000.

As she was working on the website, Mariko said she received information and stories from Hattori Hideo and members of the All Pagan Island War Comrades Association and the Pagan Island Repatriates Assembly. 

“I was allowed to cite many episodes from Pagan Island Garrison Record published by the War Comrades Association,” she said.

Mariko narrates that she came to know Pagan through the stories relayed to her by her mother-in-law.

“When mom was a child, along with her parents who were public school teachers, she crossed over from Saipan to Pagan Island where she lived until the end of the war,” she said.
She said before the war, Pagan was paradise.

“Mangos and papayas ripened all over the island,” she said.

Meanwhile, in her translator’s preface, Jordan said that the first half of the collection is about the peoples’ memoirs while the second half includes “stories written by others and edited by Mariko.”

In the first few chapters, she said, Mariko wrote about Eiko’s recollections of the island’s flora and fauna, wartime recipes, attending Pagan elementary school, and interactions with both Japanese and American military.

“It is the hope of the Okamotos and those who collaborated to produce this English translation that this website might contribute to public knowledge of the history of Pagan and the NMI, and might promote appreciation and understanding of postwar Japanese memories of empire and war in the region,” said Villagomez.

To read the entire collection, visit

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