The Bonin Islanders in Photographs

On Chichijima, of the Ogasawara Islands, some call themselves the Bonin Islanders. Nagasawa Shinichiro has been photographing them for over a decade.
"St. George's Church, the built by the U.S. Navy" © Shinichiro Nagasawa The first to allow Nagasawa Shinichiro to take his portrait was the pastor of St. George's Church, Ogasawara Aisaku.

Astonished by Photographs of Bonin Islanders from 100 Years Ago

The Ogasawara Islands are a group of more than 30 Pacific Ocean islands about 1,000 kilometers south of central Tokyo. The second-largest island, Chichijima, covers an area of 23.45 square kilometers and has a population of 2,119. The Japanese once called the group bunin, or "uninhabited islands," which in the West became the Bonin Islands.

Photographer Nagasawa Shinichiro has been visiting the islands for over a decade, inspired by a 100-year-old photograph. He was astonished to see children in Japanese kimono with chiseled features that suggested foreign roots. Wondering whether such a Japan still existed, he was driven to learn more about Ogasawara.

"I went to Chichijima that year and told the locals that I wanted to learn about their history and photograph them, but they immediately declined. "Later, I learned that this aversion to photos was due to the fact that in the past they had been treated and photographed not as people but as research subjects," he said.

Fortunately, Nagasawa soon met some islanders who allowed him to photograph them, and he built up trust while taking their portraits and photographing the landscape. By showing the islanders one image after another, he gradually won the trust of those who had initially refused to be photographed.

It took a long time for Nagasawa to learn about the history of the Ogasawara Islands, take photographs, and present them as works of art.

Chichijima Islanders at the Mercy of the Times

Chichijima has a complicated history. The first people to settle on the uninhabited island in 1830 were five European-Americans and several dozen Kanaka people from Hawaii. After Japanese settlement started in 1876, those who had come earlier, including those of Polynesian descent, were known as indigenous westerners.

Although the islanders became naturalized Japanese citizens in 1882, during World War II, when all islanders were forcibly evacuated to the mainland, they were seen as enemy aliens and suffered harsh discrimination. After the war, under U.S. administration, only indigenous westerners and their spouses were allowed to return to Chichijima. They lived as Americans until 1968, when the Ogasawara Islands were returned to Japan.

"Stanley Gilley, Captain of the Pink Dolphin" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa

Upon opening The Bonin Islanders, a 2021 collection of photographs of the Ogasawara Islands by Nagasawa, the first thing that leaps out is a powerful message: "We are neither American nor Japanese, but Bonin Islanders!" These words were uttered by Stanley Gilley, the first person in the Ogasawara Islands to refuse to allow Nagasawa to photograph him. These words embody the strong will of a people proud to know their roots.

"When I first started my work, I didn't often hear people say the phrase 'Bonin Islander.' But as I continued, I began to sense something. When I showed them photos I'd taken, they gradually began to clearly refer to themselves as Bonin Islanders or Ogasawara people. They even showed me birth certificates drawn up by the U.S. Navy using the term 'Bonin Islander.' I realized that this was key to their identity, so I chose it as the title of my collection.

Visualizing History Through Photography

Nagasawa's photographs of the Ogasawara Islands were on display at the T3 PHOTO FESTIVAL TOKYO, an outdoor international photography festival on the east side of Tokyo Station (October 1-30, 2022). Photo: Courtesy of Shinichiro Nagasawaa

Nagasawa hopes that his photographs will make the history of the Ogasawara Islands more visible. Of the approximately 2,100 people living on the islands today, "I don't think there are more than 200 Bonin Islanders," he continues.

"If their history is not preserved, they will lose their identity. The photographs I have taken of the islanders reveal a history not found in textbooks. I hope these photos help people learn more about the Bonin Islanders and see them in a new light."

Because images of beautiful seas and nature are so predominant, the Bonin Islanders have not been adequately discussed in the past. Nagasawa's photographs have raised the profile of the Bonin Islanders, shining light on their identity.

"Birth certificate from the U.S. Navy" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa
"Snack Dorothy (Dorothy Savory)" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa
"From Nagasaki Observation Deck" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa
"Family tree created by the U.S. Navy in 1959" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa
"Cemetery" ©Shinichiro Nagasawa

Nagasawa Shinichiro

Born in Tokyo in 1977. Studied under Tamotsu Fujii from 2001. Became independent in 2006. Mainly shooting advertisements, he is known for the JR Tokai Nara campaign. In 2008, he started shooting in Ogasawara for his own project. In 2021, he released "The Bonin Islanders," a photography collection published by Akaakasha, and held his first solo exhibition. In October 2022, he also held an exhibition on Chichijima in the Ogasawara Islands.
Interview and writing by Kuramochi Yuji
Photo (portraits of Nagasawa Sinichiro) by Tomomura Seiji
Translation by Amitt