The life of Islanders

In the old days, the life of islanders existed according to a folklore that stated, “10 days to the sea, 10 days to mountains, 10 days to the village.” People were led by this principle and coexisted harmoniously with nature. Islanders revered and protected the mountains, cultivated crops on land, and caught fish in the sea. The small island that provides natural resources has led the people to cherish nature and the relationship between villagers. Thus, they have a close-knit relationship in which a variety of traditional customs are practiced.

Today, public infrastructures have made the logistics of Yakushima to run efficiently. The entire island of Yakushima, as well as Kuchinoerabu-jima, has became a part of Yakushima-cho district and various public administrative services are adequately placed. Despite having a low birthrate and an outflow of youth to bigger cities, the population maintains about 13,500 people. Many immigrants have also moved to Yakushima due to its attractive qualities found here on this island. This is rare considering the remoteness of the island in Japan, but it has supplemented the population to a stable 13,000 level.

There are only about 10% of the population that engages in primary industries (agriculture, forestry, stock-breeding, hunting and fishing), which used to be considered the main source that supported life. However, 70% of people are engaged in service industries today, making tourism a vital component of Yakushima’s way of life. Some of these service industries include tourist guides, restaurants, lodging business, medical care, welfare and etc.

In Yakushima-cho, there are 26 villages in total which includes 24 villages along the main road and 2 villages in Kuchinoerabu island. Today, it takes three hours by car to go around the island, but villages were once separated by rivers which made traveling a problem. It is even said that communication was difficult among them because of the differences in dialects. Nevertheless, distinct regional cultures and traditions have developed and villagers now enjoy sharing their life together.

Although some traditions and customs have been lost in time, there are festivals and events that have been revived and are carried out within each village. One such example is the “Summoning of Flying Fish” performed in Nataga village. It is a traditional ritual that has once been passed down for generations. Women dressed in a traditional costume take hold of colorful decorated bamboo sticks, wave them in the directions of an open sea and sing in hopes of luring the flying fish.  It is considered a rare ritual that incorporates two distinct traditions from both Japan’s mainland and Okinawa islands which are close to Taiwan. The use of bamboo has a symbolic significance in Shinto rituals in Japan, and women from the southern islands perform a similar ceremony in hopes of bringing good fortune from the distant ocean. Thus, it is not too much to say that Yakushima is a link between two cultures.

Takemairi (pilgrimage to the island deity)

Takemairi is also an important custom that has been inherited for generations. It is a form of mountain worship and the process first involves the representative of a village performing a purification ceremony at the sea water or river. Then they take prepared offerings to a stone shrine in Okudake located at the peak in the central mountains. Prepared offerings usually consists of salt, rice, and shochu (distilled liquor). At the stone shrine, the representative pays his respects to Ippon Hoju Daigongen, and prays for prosperity and good harvest for their village. The entrance of the mountain trail was once called “Yamaguchi” or “Moisyo,” and it was considered a boundary between gods and humans. In the old days, villagers, particularly women, who could not participate in Takemari paid homage at the entrance and waited for the safe return of representatives. Upon the return, a banquet was prepared in honor of their effort and people enjoyed eating meals together. Today, the ceremony has become informal to some extent where some villagers only climb to the Mae-dake, which is the frontal mountains of each village. Despite this, people still practice the tradition to show their gratitude for the gifts provided by nature.