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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Japan on the Island of Yap


Stone money and coconuts on Yap Island, Micronesia.
Stone money on Yap Island.

My partner and I visited Yap last week for four days. Yap is one of the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap is tiny: you can easily drive around it in a day, and its population is about 11,000.

Stone money at Yap Airport.
Stone money symbol at Yap Airport.

Yap is probably best known for its stone money: hefty disks of rock quarried and hewn mainly in neighboring Guam and brought here to serve as markers of wealth and status. They can be seen throughout the island in sizes ranging from dinner plate to millstone.

Traditional Yap house with stone money, Micronesia.
Traditional house on Yap, with stone money.

Yap's recent history is quite closely tied up with Japan's. After World War I, Yap went from being under German control to Japanese, under the auspices of the League of Nations. Then after the end of World War II, Japan was relieved of Yap by the United States which held it under the auspices of the United Nations until 1986, when Micronesia became a country.

There was a small population of Japanese on Yap in the 1920s - no more than about 150, which swelled to about 4,000 during the Pacific War, in the form of military personnel.

Mindful of this history, we therefore kept our ears and eyes open for evidence of any Japanese influences that remain on Yap.

Fake made-in-Japan goods on Yap.
Chinese influence on Yap, posing as Japanese.

We were told that there was a Japanese-owned dive shop in Maap, up north, but on driving there we found that it, and the other one in the town, were closed at least for that day.

We saw no evidence of Japanese food anywhere, or Japanese names. I had read about the wrecks of a few Japanese planes around the old airstrip on Yap, but an hour of meandering around the area in our car didn't lead us to any. (Yap is no exception to the rule that hardly anyone knows where anything in the neighborhood is.)

Kaday Village Community Office, Yap, built by Japan.
Kaday Village Community Office, Yap, donated by Japan.

In fact, foreign influence of any sort seems to be rather superficial in Yap, and the old ways seem very much alive and well. There seemed to be an almost complete lack of any yearning for things Western and modern on the island, and visitors were treated with the very same matter-of-fact courtesy, kindness and good-humor that typified the everyday lives and dealings of the locals: no extremes of cozying up on one hand or defensiveness on the other, just good warm human contact wherever you went. Perhaps the most memorable evidence of how strong the culture is in the face of Westernization was the sight of a bare-breasted old woman waiting for someone at the airport, and not warranting a second glance from anyone.

Plaque of the Kaday Village Community Center, Yap.
Sign on wall of Kaday Village Community Center, Yap.
The only concrete evidence of a Japanese presence was the Kaday Village Community Center: a small building that was staffed by a somewhat dour woman. I noticed a plaque on the building's wall that read:

The Project for Development of Small Scale Fisheries in Yap

Granted by the government of Japan as a token of friendship and cooperation between Japan and the Federated States of Micronesia, 1997.

I asked her about it, but she dismissed the inquiry with a wave of her hand saying "That was a long time ago," suggesting, perhaps, that the project has lost its steam.

Community project poster, Kaday Community Center, Yap.
Steps of the Kaday Community Center, Yap.

If so, it's too bad, because judging by the state of things there, specifically the fact that virtually all of the very few restaurants near where we were staying were out of fish while we were there, commercial fisheries is something the island could do with.

The Kaday Community Center, Yap, Micronesia.
Kaday Community Center, Yap

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