When Japan Ruled the Waves: The Forgotten Colonies of Micronesia

When Japan Ruled the Waves: The Forgotten Colonies of Micronesia

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How Japan defeated the German Empire in World War I and ruled over Micronesia for three decades - before it all came crashing down.

In the first week of 2017, I and a few friends fled the notoriously cold Fukushima winter for a short vacation in the warmer climes of pacific Palau.

A tiny island-bound nation-state lying 3200 kilometers due south of Japan, Palau ranks 180th for land size within the UN. It’s the fourth smallest independent state in the world by population. (At only 21,000 people, the entire sovereign country of Palau has only three times the population of the small rural village in Japan where I was employed at the time.)

But the appeal of the island nation belies its size.

Locals speaking perfect Japanese

Japan’s Forgotten Micronesian Colonies

How Japan defeated the German Empire in World War I and ruled over the scattered islands of Micronesia for three decades – before it all came crashing down. Our main site: www.unseenjapan.com Follow us on Twitter:https://twitter.com/UnseenJapanSite Support Unseen Japan by becoming a Patreon patron — it’d mean the world to us.

An audio-visual version of this post is available on our YouTube channel.

There we were greeted by the bright blue skies, turquoise seas, lush vegetation, and thousands of limestone islets for which the country is famous. We whiled away our days in Palau relaxing in a small family-owned resort by a sparkling bay, spending time with a Palauan guide who took around the big island of Babeldaob, making forays into the main population hub of Koror for food and fun, and snorkeling in the pristine waters off the mainland, under which slumber the wrecks of over 60 separate Japanese WWII ships.

One evening, after returning from a day of snorkeling and swimming in sun-drenched lagoons, my friends and I found ourselves having dinner at a local eatery in downtown Koror. Finishing off our meal by cracking open a few coconuts, my fellow sunburnt friends and I found our conversation slowly code-switching into Japanese. Our sudden shift of language did not go unnoticed. A middle-aged Palauan man, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, who until then had been quietly sipping a beer and eating his food, immediately turned his gaze towards the direction he had suddenly heard Japanese emanating from. He stood up and walked towards us.


“Excuse me, but are you from Japan?” The older man had asked in a voice that was heavily-accented, and yet was speaking, unmistakably, in Japanese. My friends and I were surprised (26 years of American control and 37 years of political free association with the US have left Palau in many ways an English-speaking society), but responded in Japanese in kind. Though clearly rusty, he seemed overjoyed to be speaking the language, and told us about how his mother – a native Palauan herself – had spoken Japanese, and had taught him the language. We managed to get through a short, enjoyable conversation using our variously-accented non-native Japanese, and bid the man goodnight as we exited the restaurant.

Why did this man, who lives thousands of kilometers away from Japan, have a Japanese-speaking mother who thought teaching him the language was of value? The answer ties into an interesting fact about Palau – that it is the only state on Earth, including Japan, to have Japanese as a governmentally recognized language. The history behind Palau’s connection to Japan and Japanese is one it shares with the other nations of the region known as Micronesia, and lies in a seemingly forgotten time that proceeds even World War II, when Japan ruled the waves of the South Pacific by internationally-sanctioned decree. The answer lies in the story of 南洋庁 – nanyo-cho, Japan’s forgotten south pacific colonies.


Japan’s Colonial Ambitions in the South Seas

The story of Japan’s entrance into Micronesia – that is, the various chains of small islands in the Southwest Pacific Ocean that lie between Polynesia to the East and the larger islands of Melanesia to the South – began, interestingly enough, with the First World War. Japan’s involvement in the Great War is perhaps not so well known, and while the impact it had on the war’s main theaters in Europe is indeed negligible, Japan’s engagement with German colonies in China and the Pacific earned the country a seat at the victor’s table and cemented its place on the world stage. It also netted Japan some brand new colonies to call its own, and changed the lives and futures of many of the peoples who called those colonized islands home.

In fact, Japan had been eyeing the islands of the South Pacific for some time. The end of extreme isolationism imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate that came with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 let loose long-suppressed expansionist desires. The fact that Japan suddenly entered the internationalizing modern world just as 19th century colonialism was arguably coming to a fever pitch is a historical coincidence, and one that explains the extreme effort Meiji-era Japan would put into developing their own colonial empire – most famously in Taiwan and later Korea and their puppet state in Manchuria. A desire to be seen as an equal power, and to extract the resources the Japanese islands sorely lacked, coupled with the impulse to have spaces to send an overburdened population (see my article on Japanese immigration to Brazil for more on this theme) lead to Japanese trailblazers and adventurers searching their backyards for more and more places to conquer.

To the North, expansionism lead to Hokkaido becoming fully integrated into the home islands, and the southern half of now-Russian Sakhalin becoming Karafuto Prefecture. As southern, tropical Okinawa become fully ensconced in centralized Japanese control, the idea of sundrenched, unnamed islands further south than even Okinawa – even Taiwan! – came to serve as a source of inspiration for those with a real sense of imperialistic adventure. Travelogues of the first Japanese to traverse these southern waters exposed more and more people to the idea of slightly-peopled islands just waiting for Japanese to arrive and, paternalistically, lead them into the modern era.

These ideas were given political heft behind closed doors, where navy minister (and former Tokugawa-loyalist and president of the short lived separatist Republic of Ezo) Takeaki Enomoto helped ferment the ideas that would become the Southern Expansion Doctrine (南進論), a policy that held that Japan’s future lay in control and influence over the islands of Micronesia and the countries of Southeast Asia. Furtive attempts were made to secure island colonies for Japan in the Marshall Island and other places in these years, but the clique pushing these policies and the fledgling Imperial Japanese Navy were not yet fully prepared to match the other empires scrambling for the Pacific – including the equally new German Empire, which managed to snatch away much of the Pacific islands before Japan ever had a real chance.

That the Empire of Japan and the German Empire would come to loggerheads in the distant shores of the Pacific is another historical coincidence. Both empires had been suddenly born in the 19th century only years apart; the Empire of Japan emerged following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 with the final defeat of the loyalist samurai class, the restoration of power to the emperor, and the abolishment of the class system. The German Empire emerged only three years later in 1871, as Prussian might convinced the majority of the formerly independent German-speaking kingdoms and grand duchies to finally form into a single political unit.

Germany first went about gaining a foothold in the Pacific in 1885 by purchasing the Marshall Islands from the waning Spanish Empire, who had long held nominal sway over most of the islands of Micronesia but tended to consider many of them of little import. 14 years later, in 1899, Germany put an end to Japanese aspirations in Micronesia in one fell swoop. The Spanish Empire had been dealt a death blow by its defeat in the Spanish American war, and was subsequently selling off all its vast Pacific territories – the treasured colonies of the Philippines and Guam went to the victorious Americans, while Germany managed to buy the Carolines, the Northern Marianas, and Palau to add to their colonial collection. Japan had been beaten to the punch.

That is, until an amazing opportunity presented itself to Japanese expansionists in the form of the First World War.

Japan, Victorious Allied Power of WWI

Siege of Tsingtao by Japanese army
A Japanese picture of Japan’s forces laying siege to Tsingtao.

Japan had signed a mutual-defense treaty with Britain in 1902, bringing the Anglo-Japanese Alliance into being. Both countries had come closer together in large part because of fears of Russian expansionism in Asia, but with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 this treaty became the perfect excuse for Japan to engage in some expansion of its own. Ten days after the outbreak of the war, the British Foreign Office invoked the terms of the Alliance by asking for Japan’s assistance in tracking down the armed German merchant fleet that was plying the East China Sea. Less than a day of deliberation was needed for the Empire of Japan to decide that it was going to war with the German Empire.

But Japan had no intention of simply fending off the few ships of the German Navy in East Asia for the sake of the British. An ultimatum was issued to the Germans: abandon East Asia and the South Pacific. When the main German forces in their Chinese concession in Kiautschou Bay and their local capital of Tsingtao did no such thing, the Japanese military struck.

By the time an overwhelming force of naval battleships and 50,000 Japanese troops began to put siege to the 6000 German soldiers in China, the plan to partake of Germany’s Micronesian colonies was already underway. In mid-September, the first and second South Sea Squadrons left harbor at Yokohama and Sasebo and steamed towards the Marshall and Mariana Islands. Although official policy had at first been to take no outright action to occupy the island colonies, a brash Vice Admiral landed on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshalls anyway, taking it without a single shot fired. Though initially ordered to vacate the atoll by his higher-ups in the navy, the ease with which the island was taken may have shifted perceptions of what could be accomplished. Navy Minister Rokuro Yashiro changed course, and ordered a “temporary occupation” of the islands. By early October, the Japanese navy was occupying the main islands of the Marshalls to the East, the Carolines and Palau to the West, and Saipan and the Marianas (save America’s Guam) to the North. Only Germany’s colonies to the south were left for others to claim; Nauru, Samoa, and New Guinea were too close to Australia to not incite tensions with Britain if taken by Japan.

In almost an instant, Japan had garnered virtually all of Micronesia for itself, and without a single casualty – what Germans there were on the islands had given no fight. The battle in China was more deadly, but resulted in a total surrender by the German garrison. Japan reigned victorious in the Pacific just as the war in Europe was heating up for what would become a prolonged, terrible four-year battle of attrition. And before 1914 came to an end, the South Seas Squadron would be given a new name, signifying just how “temporary” the occupation of these islands would be – the Provisional South Sea Islands Defense Force. Japan had come to stay.

1919, the year following the end of the Great War, saw the convening of the monumental Paris Peace Conference. Here the victorious allies all had a seat at the table, deciding what would become of the confiscated territories of the great empires that had fallen during the war; the Austrian Empire, the vast Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire. Japan, now not simply an ally but an ascendant, bona fide Great Power, sat at the table as one of the five major powers who controlled the congress itself. Secret arrangements had been made prior to the conference, with Japan and Britain promising to split Germany’s pacific holding between themselves on a North-South basis – it should thus come as no surprise that the Paris Conference, in concordance with the newly formed League of Nations, awarded Japan the Marshalls, Carolines, Palau, and Northern Marianas as a class C mandate. Nanyo-cho had been born, setting the course for three decades of Japanese control of Micronesia.

Japan Rules the Waves

Headquarters of Nanyo
The headquarters of the Nanyo government (南洋庁庁舎). (Source: Public domain photo)

A League of Nations Mandate was never meant to be a direct colony, nor were the mandated territories to be militarized in any way. Japan was simply supposed to be assisting the territories it now held until they were deemed ready for independence. Despite this, Japan’s administration of the islands treated these entrusted islands as simply another part of the Japanese Empire, disallowing trade and migration between the nearby Australian-held mandates in the Solomons and Nauru and keeping foreign vessels away. By 1922 they were even rejecting requests from League of Nations oversight groups to inspect the islands. Indeed, Japan famously left the League of Nations in 1935, something which legally meant they no longer had any right to administer their Micronesian mandate, and something which of course affected the Japanese occupation not a whit.

Initially Nanyo was ruled by the Japanese Imperial Navy (which had so stressed the Southern Expansion Doctrine against the Army’s Northern ambitions on the Asian continent) and which had captured the islands. They spit the territory into five districts: Palau, Saipan (in the Northern Marianas), Truk, Ponape (both in the Carolines and now part of the Federated States of Micronesia), and Jaluit Atoll (in the Marshall Islands). By the end of WWI in 1918, Micronesia was administered by a new civilian government. While Truk served as the headquarters of the initial military administration (and would continue to be at the center of Japanese military might in the region), Saipan and Palau quickly developed into the twin hearts of Nanyo, with Saipan seeing the development of a booming sugar plantation economy and Koror on Palau becoming the HQ for the civilian administration of the entirety of the South Seas Mandate. Both saw large waves of immigration from the Japanese home islands and occupied Korea, and within a decade the local Chamorros of the Northern Marianas and the Palauans on their own islands were becoming overwhelmed by the immigrant Japanese populations (interestingly, as much as half of these initial immigrants were impoverished Okinawans, themselves a sort of colonized people within Japan). In 1938, there were more than double the amount of Japanese in Palau than there were Palauans themselves (15,669 vs. 6,377).

Wherever the Japanese arrived en masse, setting up fishing companies, canning factories, mining operations, and small service sectors, the affectations of Japanese communities came with them. Newly built towns in Koror, Saipan, and Truck came to look like rural inaka cities in Japan (just with a few more palm trees), replete with department stores with signage in kanji, movie theaters, sake shops, bars, geisha houses, and (during this period of increasingly militaristic state-sponsored religion) Shinto shrines. The towering Nanyo Shrine (南洋神社) arose in Koror in 1940, serving as the ichinomiya (一宮, the highest-ranked shrine in a province or prefecture) for the whole of the South Seas.

One of the first actions the Japanese government made in newly-occupied Micronesia was one geared towards educating the local peoples in the Japanese language. Neither the former Spanish nor German occupiers had put much effort into education for their colonial charges, generally leaving the so-called “betterment” of the natives to the few Christian missionaries who set up a scant number of schools on the islands. Japan, on the other hand, was already establishing a Japanese education system for Palau in 1914, almost immediately after landing in the islands

Local children would go to kogakko (公学校), schools for Japanese learners that kept them separate from any arriving Japanese children. They had three years of mandatory education, followed by an extra two years for those deemed gifted enough. Japanese language acquisition was stressed, with many schools banning the use of native languages after the second year of study. By 1935 over 97% of Micronesian children were attending such schools – all of which sounds noble indeed, although a major part of education in these schools was about ingraining worship of the Japanese emperor into these young colonial charges.

A collection of oral histories taken by the Belau National Museum gives an image of what life was like for the Micronesians under Japanese rule. Palauan elders who were young in the “Japanese Time” remembered the sounds of Okinawan three-stringed sanshin being played from their Japanese neighbors’ houses, remember yelling “banzai!!” in honor of the emperor and bowing towards the north, and promising each other to become “good Japanese.” Many had Japanese names, taken from honored Japanese family friends or associates, or from Japanese fathers who often left for other regions while their children were still young. They learned Japanese schoolyard games and could recite the fairytale Urashima Taro by heart. Some visited Shinto shrines or went to kindergarten at Buddhist temples, but retained their native Palauan religions (which were not outlawed) or adopted Christian faiths (Spanish and German missionaries were allowed to continue their work under Japanese rule). Some retained fond memories of the Japanese, while others were treated more cruelly and unfairly – they recall being referred to disdainfully as “tomin” (島民, islander) and feeling like second-class citizens on their own islands.

And so the Japanese rule over Nanyo continued, with Japanese corporations extracting what value they could from phosphate mining in Palau and factories and plantations throughout the region (with the Saipan sugar plantations eventually becoming the most profitable venture by far), using their islands as refueling stations for the ever-increasingly massive naval fleets prowling the Pacific, and training the local Palauans, Yapese, Chuukese, Chamorros, Marshallese and others to be good colonial subjects who venerated the emperor. All the while the islands become more and more militarized as their strategic importance was better realized, the pledge to the League of Nations regarding demilitarization long forgotten. Many islands became veritable “unsinkable airships,” lined with airfields, bunkers, and minable harbors. Truk became so fortified that it earned the moniker “the Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

Cataclysm and the End of Japanese Micronesia

The Ally From The Far East – Japan in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

See WW1 planes in action and meet Indy & Crew this summer in Essex, UK: http://bit.ly/TGWStowMaries Japan’s participation in World War 1 is an often overlooked part of their history – even in Japan itself.

The last days of the Japanese era in Micronesia began on December 7th, 1941, as Japanese attack bombers devastated the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an attack which had been coordinated out of the Nanyo military HQ in Truk. Japanese forces swept across the Pacific, invading and capturing those Micronesian lands previously denied them in Guam, Nauru and the Gilbert Islands (modern Kiribati). For a brief time, as the Japanese defeated and captured western colonial military outposts throughout Southeast Asia, the East Pacific become momentarily a Japanese lake. The Pacific War had begun.

But despite these striking early Japanese victories, the tide of the Pacific theater of World War II quickly turned against the Japanese. The counter-attacking British and Americans began implementing their strategy of “leapfrogging” from Japanese held island to island, sometimes staging incredibly bloody full-on assaults on entrenched Japanese positions in Micronesian islands while conducting air raids on others, and simply cutting off some islands from Japanese support and leaving them to sit out the war. In Saipan alone, 29,000 defending Japanese troops perished during the 1944 American campaign to take the island.

By the beginning of the war, most Japanese civilian settlers had already been evacuated back to the Japanese mainland, leaving behind their businesses and homes – as well as many Palauan wives and children, some of whom they would never see again. Throughout Micronesia, many of the local people fled into the interior jungles, subsisting on root vegetables and local fauna and flora for upwards of a year while bombings and battles occurred in the towns. As in so many battlegrounds in the war, many of those caught in the crossfire lost their lives, victims of bombings, starvation, and aggressive policies carried out on their land by occupying foreigners.

By the time the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces on August 15th, 1945 following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese colonies of Nanyo-cho had already fallen, simply another lost colonial territory amidst the huge Japanese colonial empire. The Japanese civilian settlers and military men who had variously ruled over, befriended, mistreated, educated, discriminated against, married, and generally lived with the Micronesians for three decades were gone. Even those who may have wanted to return to their families and homes following the war were barred from doing so by the American military for some decades to come. Yet memories of the “Japan time” lived on in Micronesia, just as memories of a once-held South Sea colonial empire in Japan dwindled, the ambitions of the men of Meiji onwards all brought to naught. Who could think of the those lost specks of land in the Pacific amidst the ruin of the entire Empire of Japan, amidst the millions of lives lost in the most ruinous war Japan was ever to know?

Forgetting and Remembering in Micronesia

Sun and Moon Flags at the remains of Nanyou Jinja
The Japanese rising sun flag and the Belau moon flag side by side near the remains of the Nanyo Shrine (南洋神社), which is now a memorial for the war dead. (Source: TAKEZOOO)

In 1947, the League of Nations South Seas Mandate was officially (and rather belatedly) revoked by the newly formed United Nations. The various islands groups Japan had controlled fell under yet another foreign power as the United States administered them as the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. They would mostly go on to become their own independent nations in the following decades (the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia gained independence in 1986, with Palau following almost a decade later in 1994). Today, only the Northern Marianas remains a territory of the US, joining Guam as the most western extent of the United States in the Pacific. All three independent countries, however, maintain an extremely linked existence to the US via a “Compact of Free Association” they share.

The “Japanese Time” in Micronesia was replaced by an “American Time,” which itself has now been mostly supplanted by independence, yet traces of those years and a renewed connection to Japan remain. Those Micronesians who received Japanese schooling and are still living can almost all uniformly speak proficient Japanese (indeed, a version of Japanese that contains antiquated words from the ‘30s and ‘40s that have since fallen out of use in Japan), and many have passed down Japanese names and surnames to their children. Countless Japanese words have entered the lexicon in Micronesian languages like Palauan. And as mentioned earlier, the Palauan state of Angaur remains the only place in the world where Japanese is enshrined as an official language in a government constitution (phosphate mining there during the Nanyo decades meant a huge Japanese presence, and the connection with Japan there continued even during the 50s when the rest of Palau was off limits to Japanese visitation). Japanese tourists flock to Micronesia, and especially Palau, although almost all go there for the famed diving or to pay respects to the war dead rather than to investigate a latent post-colonial relationship.

The modern Japanese government has taken new interest in its political ties to these former colonies, even if memories within Japan of Micronesia are otherwise scanty. Constructed with Japanese grant money in 2002, the Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge, which reaches across the short span of seas that separates the island of Koror with the big island of Babeldaob, and which I crossed numerous times while staying in Palau, is testimony to this new-old relationship.

Before heading to Palau, I had read that the Nanyo Shrine, the highest ranking of Shinto shrines in the Japanese-held South Pacific, was only a short walk away from the small resort I would be staying at. When, however, I inquired with the owner of the resort about the site, she said she didn’t know what I was talking about. Unperturbed, I allowed Google Maps to guide me to the spot the internet insisted the shrine lay on. My phone informed me to take a left at a small clearing in the dense jungle that surrounded the main road that lead towards downtown Koror. Upon entering the clearing, I searched around the rubble and grassy outcroppings, hoping to find a telltale red torii gate or perhaps the gabled roofs of an inner-shrine honden. None presented themselves. The only sign marking what was once the center of Japanese state religion in Nanyo-cho was two weathered stone toro lanterns, cracked and broken. Nanyo Shrine, it seems, had been completely destroyed in 1945.

Other Shinto shrines have since sprung up on Micronesian islands wherever Japanese soldiers fell, built over the years for the use of Japanese relatives and military comrades visiting the final resting places of compatriots and loved ones. But of the Nanyo Shrine, where once Japanese settlers and soldiers from around Micronesia prayed, and where colonized Palauans worked and, occasionally, had bowed reverently northwards towards a foreign emperor, nothing else remained.


Peattie, Mark R. Nan’yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese in Micronesia, 1885-1945. University of Hawaii Press, 1992

Mita, Maki. Palauan Children Under Japanese Rule: Their Oral Histories. National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. 2009.

Long, Daniel and Imamura, Keisuke. The Japanese Language in Palau. National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo. 2013.

Melzer, Jürgen. Warfare 1914-1918 (Japan). 1914-1918 Online, 19th October 2017, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/warfare_1914-1918_japan. Accessed December 27th, 2018.

Chen, C. Peter. Mariana Islands. World War II Database. https://ww2db.com/country/Mariana_Islands. Accessed December 27th, 2018.

Mesley, Pete. History of Truk Lagoon – An Introduction. Pete Mesley’s Lust 4 Rust, https://petemesley.com/lust4rust/18-truk-lagoon/history/background.php. Accessed December 27th, 2018.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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