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  Issue Date: 2 / 2017  

Japan's 'Secret' Island

Norman Sklarewitz

Ritsurin Park / Photo Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization Click image to enlarge.

        Throughout much of Japan today, industry is distinguished by its world leadership in the use of industrial robots, in totally automated assembly lines and in other advances in high tech industry. But that is not the way it is on Shikoku, smallest and least-known of the four main Japanese islands.
        There visitors are able to watch artisans ply trades little changed in centuries. In tiny towns of Oasa and Uchiko among many others, local craftsman painstakingly produce by hand such objects as paper parasols, wooded geta, lacquer ware, tableware, candles, classical garden gates, rice paper and ceramics. These artisans and artists obviously live and work in 21st century Japan. Yet, in many respects, the visitor watching feels that life here is as it was in more tranquil years past.
        "Shikoku is the real `old Japan' that perhaps doesn't exist anywhere else in Japan," says an official of the Kagawa Prefectural Government. "Much of Japan has become industrialized and not retained its natural beauty and traditional ways. But Shikoku has."
        Not surprising imposing castles raised by feudal war lords – the daimyo - and painstakingly restored, are the centerpiece attractions in the cities of Kochi, Marugame, Uwajima and Matsuyama.

Otanibakedi / Photo Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization Click image to enlarge.

        Everywhere one turns on Shikoku it seems that the past is present. For example, during the more than 250 years of the Edo Period beginning in 1603 that marked the reign of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, the island was divided into 13 feudal fiefdoms.
        With the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in the late 19th century, these were consolidated into four prefectures or states. Thus the feudal Land of Sanuki became Kagawa Prefecture; the Land of Tosa was renamed Kochi; the Land of Awa became Tokushima and the Land of Iyo was renamed Ehime Prefecture.
        Surprisingly, though, those original names are still often used today. The dialect spoken in Tokushima, for example, is called the Awa dialect and the region's distinctive and extremely popular folk dance festival is called the Awa Odori. And the people of Kochi Prefecture call themselves Tosakko -- "natives of Tosa". Held throughout Shikoku are such traditional events as the Yosakoi Matsuri Festival in Kochi City.
        Relative isolation played a major part in keeping Shikoku out of the mainstream of Japan's headlong rush to westernization and industrialization. Shikoku is only separated from Honshu Island by what westerners call the Seto Inland Sea, a relatively narrow body of water dotted with thousands of tiny picturesque, pine covered islets, likely the cones of extinct volcanoes. In Japanese, this body of water is called the Seto Naikai or The Sea Within Channels and extends for some 300 miles between the islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku.
        It was only in 1988 that the massive Seto-Ohashi Bridge was completed to give Shikoku a land link to the rest of Japan. Built at the staggering cost of $8.7 billion, it was then Japan's biggest construction project of the century. The Onaruto Bridge connects Shikoku Island with Awaji Island and then via the Akaishi Kaikyo Ohashi Bridge to the main island of Honshu.
        By no means does this semi-isolation suggest that the people of Shikoku are backward. They do, just the same, acknowledge that they might probably be perceived that way. Suggests a Kochi Prefectural staffer, "We are not so sophisticated as others perhaps, but such sophistication is not always a good thing. We on Shikoku like simple things, we are very honest and don't like to deceive."
        It would be a mistake, too, to assume that this island is the least bit underdeveloped. Far from it. Its healthy economy is well balanced with the growing of rice, fruits and vegetables; fish farming; pearl cultivation, ship building and some major industries. Shikoku, in fact, is home to several very large enterprises, including the Otsuka chain that produces a wide variety of food, pharmaceutical and other products, Nichia Kagaku, a world-leading company responsible for the creation of LEDs and related products, Mitsubishi and Nissan plants as well as a 213-year old brewery and a sake and shochu maker who started business in 1603.
        Still, Shikoku residents are just as happy that their island has no rush hour traffic jams, no Bullet trains, no polluted bays or rivers and no subways. The choice of television stations is limited and reception of signals for TV and for cell phones isn't the best due to the high mountains. But the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) is quick to point out that “Wi-Fi access points are available throughout the coastal areas where the population is densest.” And the residents there somehow manage without professional sumo wrestling. If these are shortcomings, no one seems to mind a bit.
        “Compared to other parts of Japan, Skikoku may be the least developed area of Japan in terms of business and industry," readily admits a management executive from Tokyo who fled the capital to go into business in Uwajima. "But that means it has less pollution, it has preserved its heritage, traditions and culture better and it has more natural beauty."

Norman Sklarewitz brings to travel a solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes staff positions as a Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on major international events throughout Asia, including the Vietnam War.
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