Japan's myopic bureaucrats can't see the tourist potential of Yonaguni. Go now--before they smarten up.
It boasts the best blue marlin fishing in the world, unspoiled beaches, jungles alive with egrets and submerged cyclopean formations some think are remnants of Atlantis. Its huge moths were the inspiration for Mothra, legendary foe of Godzilla. Yonaguni--the southwesternmost island in Japan's Okinawan archipelago--is poised to pop as a tourist destination. Right now, though, hardly anybody goes there.
The island, about half the size of Hawaii's Oahu, gets a few thousand visitors a year. Its population of 1,850 is one-seventh what it was before WWII. Yonaguni's mayor, Yoshikane Otsuji, blames the island's undeserved obscurity on Tokyo bureaucrats who, from 1,000 miles away, have tried unsuccessfully to micro-manage its economy.
"We used to support a much bigger population," says Otsuji, a jolly man who likes to hand out free samples of Yonaguni's signature 120-proof rice brandy. Tourism between the island and nearby Taiwan (a Japanese colony until 1945) once flourished. But after Taiwan was freed, Tokyo insisted Taiwanese have visas. Tourism tanked.
To keep Yonaguni and other islands in the archipelago afloat, Tokyo has funded make-work projects, of which the latest is a $3 billion base for the U.S. military, to be built offshore from Okinawa's main island. When completed, it will assume some of the functions now performed by a nearby U.S. Marine base, the largest in Asia. Between 1945 and 1972 the entire archipelago was U.S. territory. The islands still house 25,000 U.S. troops, 75% of all those stationed in Japan.
Anti-U.S. demonstrations have escalated in recent years, and locals now are split over whether or not to keep the bases. The antibase faction objects to noise from military jets and from live-fire training drills. Okinawans also fear suffering collateral damage in any fight between the U.S. and North Korea.
These sentiments are similar to those that induced the U.S. to quit Vieques in the Caribbean. The difference? Many Okinawans don't just want the U.S. out, they want Japan out, too. Before the Japanese arrived in 1870, Okinawans had enjoyed 7,000 years of independence. Explains Yukikazu Kokuba, head of the Okinawa Association of Corporate Executives: "We look at the Japanese like the Irish look at the English."
What local businessmen want most is for Tokyo to relax its stringent visa requirements. Taiwan, with 22 million potential visitors, is just 80 miles from Yonaguni--so close it can be seen on a clear day. Millions more Chinese live less than an hour's flight away. (For advice on how to get to Yonaguni and where to stay, visit forbes.com/yonaguni.)
Curious to savor the island's odd charms? Then do so now, while tourism is still a trickle. Divers will want to examine Yonaguni's perplexing underwater stone formations. Most scientists think these pyramidal structures, 75 feet below sea level, are natural, though a minority claim to see in them the hand of man. Locals who lead scuba tours conjure images of Lemuria, Mu and other legendary lost worlds. (Almost plausible: In the sixth millennium B.C. the "ruins"would have been above sea level.)
The fishing may be even more extraordinary than the diving. This writer was lured out on a half-day trip by a 100% guarantee of catching a fish and got very excited landing a 10-pound tuna. Then the captain explained that this was suitable only for bait. Put on a hook, it helped land a 357-pound marlin.
Jungles teem with giant moths, whose wings are each the size of a man's hand. They were the inspiration for Mothra, the ill-intentioned insect that went wing-to-fang with Godzilla in cult-classic Japanese monster movies of the 1960s. You can see flocks of cattle egrets--huge, white storklike birds--not to mention varieties of snakes and horses unique to Yonaguni. There are, too, hallucinogenic mushrooms. But given all the eerie fauna and flora, these hardly seem necessary.
Copyright © 2003 Forbes.com