On October 12, 2009, Hawaii surprised the Pacific Rim when its Congress authorized the creation of a new colony in Ogasawara, also known as the Bonin Islands. The bill, signed into law by Governor Pilago four days later, followed years of grassroots activity by the Ogasawaran community on the island of Maui, and months of negotiation between the leaders of Hawaii, Australia-New Zealand, and Japan. On October 20, Alaskan journalist John Ryan conducted this interview with Maui Congressman Dennis "Danny" Mateo, sponsor of the Ogasawara Bill, as it has come to be called, and for years an advocate for the Ogasawaran community in the Hawaiian government.
JR: Congressman, thank you for speaking with me today.
DM: It's a pleasure, John.
JR: Congressman, you have been one of Hawaii's leading voices on Ogasawara for many years, and you were in many ways behind this grand plan, what some have called a reckless plan, to resettle them; and in doing so you've raised new questions on Japan's relationship with the Anglo Pacific. Could you--
DM: I wouldn't --
JR: ...give us some -- I'm sorry.
DM: I wouldn't give me all the credit, that's all, John. The bill we passed last week was the joint effort of hundreds of Hawaiians.
JR: Well, Congressman, could you give us a little background on this re-settlement plan, and tell us about your role in it?
DM: Certainly. The Ogasawarans have been living in my district in Maui since 1993 --
JR: Now that was after they were rescued from their islands by the Hawaiians, correct?
DM: Correct. Now, details are sketchy on just what their experience was before then. They were a thousand km from Japan proper and essentially cut off for ten years, that much is certain. We know that the Japanese state was in chaos during those years, so that's no surprise. The only military presence would have been a small base on Iwo Jima, actually the old base from World War Two. We do not know what happened to the soldiers there; all we know is that they abandoned it and definitely did not stop at Ogasawara. The Japanese government say they don't know what happened to them either, so maybe they sank in a storm while escaping, maybe they went somewhere we don't know about, we just don't know.
Now the stories of the survivors differ on whether anyone at all arrived at the islands during the next decade, but there certainly was not anyone bringing any real aid. The Ogasawarans had the clothes on their backs and food from the sea, that's it. Their first real contact with anyone was with the American explorers on the Benjamin Franklin, on that famous round-the-world journey.
JR: And that was when all of you decided to bring them to Hawaii.
DM: That's right. The Franklin would have found them in... 1991, and their reports would have been first seen in '92, and we sent our own ships there in '93. There were less than a thousand of them then, mostly due to malnutrition and disease, but also exposure and ten years' worth of storms and disasters. At their request, we took every last one of the survivors back to Maui, because it would not have been feasible to support them over such a distance in those days. We set aside some land on Maui in what would become my Congressional district. Many of them were organized into a new farm collective, others ended up in a few fishing work groups.
JR: What has life been like for the Ogasawarans in Hawaii since then?
DM: Well, much better than if they hadn't been rescued, certainly. Their numbers have grown, and they have become quite integrated into our state, which is very diverse and welcoming, anyway. Many of them have moved away from their original settlement, to Hilo or to other places. But they've stuck together as a community through it all. Roughly ten years ago, talk began of going home. Not that the community wasn't grateful, not that they were not welcome... but many of the Ogasawarans wanted to see their home again.
JR: Were they afraid of losing their identity while in Hawaii? Of becoming too Hawaiian?
DM: That's... that's hard to asnwer. Because it's not as though you can't get by in Hawaii speaking Japanese. But Ogasawara has a very specific dialect, a very specific heritage and set of experiences. They are their own people, and they wanted their homeland again. It was the year 2000 that the community began petitioning the government in an organized way, petitioning for a resettlement program. That was the same year I was elected to Congress for the first time.
JR: Were you involved with the community at that stage?
DM: Oh, definitely. I hadn't been there two weeks when I first met with Professor Kyoichi Mori, the leader of the Ogasawara Alliance. Now, Kyoichi is definitely what you might call an American success story. He came over with the survivors in 1993, he got his doctorate almost right away and began teaching at the university in Hilo; and he started bringing some of the kids from the survivor community over there to attend college too. And he asked me to be an advocate for the Ogasawarans, and to do what I could for them. And that really became my cause, bringing them home.
JR: Now, you had personal reasons for sympathizing with the Ogasawaran community, I understand.
DM: Yes. I should have mentioned earlier that my family and I were survivors, too. I was born on Maui, but my wife Clarissa is from Moloka'i, and when we got married that was where we settled and raised our children. Moloka'i, as you may know, was almost totally evacuated shortly after the war because it was just baked in radiation coming over from the blasts at O'ahu. So when Kyoichi first approached me, we instantly found that we had a lot in common.
JR: So where did you go from there? How did you get things started?
DM: OK, in 2003 Kyoichi and I had our first meeting with Governor Waihe'e.
JR: Governor John Waihe'e. How did he respond?
DM: I think that John was most attracted to the idea of a new Hawaiian colony. There's never been a more patriotic Hawaiian than John. And he did sympathize with the community, with the Ogasawarans; it was the first time he had met with a representative from the survivors, as governor. But he also said it was not feasable, and he was right. There wasn't the money for it then. And there was still that fear of the unknown when it came to Japan.
JR: What do you mean by the fear of the unknown?
DM: Well, Japan hadn't been opened yet. We all thought it was empty, a ghost town, in those days. It could have been filled with pirates, or, we didn't know what.
JR: So how did things change once contact was made with the Japanese government?
DM: Well, that's when we did the thing that made Jervis Bay so angry with us. Linda Lingle was governor by then, and she was a definite supporter of resettlement. She's from Moloka'i too, we knew one another well from our time on Maui in the survivor community there. One of her great causes was Imua Moloka'i, the resettlement project for our own home island, so she and the Ogasawarans were definitely kindred spirits. The barrier again was cost, of course. But Linda agreed with us that we should send a delegation to Japan to discuss resettling Ogasawara. And that's what initially put us at odds with the Commonwealth government - that we would go over their heads like that, send a delegation without asking them first.
JR: Were you part of that delegation?
DM: Yes, I was (chuckles). I don't know how much good I was, since the entire meeting was done in Japanese, which I still speak very badly. But we were received by a mamber of the Japanese Regency, and we met with the foreign minister himself.
JR: What was the meeting like?
DM: It was.. a very cool welcome. It was clear that Japan still did not trust Americans, still blamed the USA for starting the war. From the beginning we tried to present ourselves as an independent nation, with ties to Australia and New Zealand, not with North America at all. And we definitely tried to emphasize the good of the Ogasawarans themselves. Because Professor Mori, and the community overall, definitely preferred to return home under the auspices of Hawaii, rather than become part of Japan again.
JR: Why was that? Did they feel that Japan had abandoned them?
DM: Partly, maybe. But it was much more that for almost fifteen years we had lived together, Ogasawarans and Hawaiians. And many Ogasawarans, including Professor Mori, planned to continue living in Hawaii at least part time, and freedom of movement between the islands was important.
JR: Now, that was last year. And your meeting angered the ANZC government, correct?
DM: Oh, yes. It was a very audacious thing to do, really, to initiate contact with a foreign power without consulting them first.
JR: Are you glad that Hawaii did it that way?
DM: Oh, absolutely. Because the ANZC would have said no. They announced, last year, that they'd prefer Ogasawara to be an ANZC territory rather than a Hawaiian one. And in a way, Jervis Bay's -- the fact that Jervis Bay was upset with our proposal, in a way, made Japan more willing to see eye to eye with us. I think so, anyway.
JR: So by alienating the Commonwealth government, you think you may have actually helped to win over the Japanese?
DM: Somewhat, yes, I think so.
JR: Why is that?
DM: I think it helped show that it wasn't some American-Australian plot to take over Japanese territory. That it really was a project that was happening from the initiative of Hawaii, not the ANZC itself. I think that Japan felt threatened by the idea of an ANZC presence so close to their backyard. That's why, in the final agreement, Japan was so insistent that when we do resettle Ogasawara, it becomes a purely Hawaiian colony, and the ANZC has to stay out.
JR: So there is to be no ANZC presence in Ogasawara at all?
DM: They are not allowed to build any bases in the islands, the whole thing is to be overseen by Hawaii's Marine Militia. Now, if there is an emergency, the ANZC does have a base that's actualy quite close, at Marcus Island. But that's as close as they can get unless we or Japan specifically asks them for help. Also -- this agreement was made in August, by the way, between all three governments -- also, we are to limit our settlements to the three islands of Ogasawara proper. Iwo Jima and the islands down around it are to be left for Japan, if they ever want to reoccupy them.
JR: Were you a part of those negotiations last August?
DM: No. By then it was in the hands of the real diplomats. I was busy by then trying to put together a bill in Congress that would fund the thing.
JR: All right. So that's how it all came to be.
DM: That's it.
JR: What do you think will be the effect of this whole process on relations with Japan?
DM: Overall, positive, I think. This process has opened up dialogue with Japan. It's gotten us together to work at solving real problems. And most of all, it's helped all sides to focus on the people. Through all of this, the question all sides kept asking was, "What is best for the survivors?" And if we can recognize our common humanity like that, I think it can't help but improve our relations, diplomatically.
JR: What will this do for Hawaii's relations with Jervis Bay?
DM: That's... more complicated. The Commonwealth has made it clear that they won't be letting us do anything like this again, without asking their permission. Um, one columnist said that "we've pushed our luck for the last time" on this one. But... if we're going to push our luck, I'm very happy that it was for a cause like this one.
JR: Some have called the planned colonization "reckless". Is Hawaii prepared to fund this project?
DM: I think so. The bill provided for defense, construction, food shipments, the beginnings of agriculture... and look, the Ogasawarans who do want to go back home have said that they're prepared to put up with some privations. They know things won't be quite as plentiful as on Maui or in Hilo. But they'll be starting over in their own homeland. And that's very important to a people. And I've been so proud and so ... blessed to be a part of that.
JR: Thank you, Congressman.
DM: Thanks, John.
JR: Congressman Danny Mateo represents part of Hawaii's Maui island; for nine years he has advocated resettling the islands of Ogasawara. John Ryan, Alaska Broadcasting Corporation.
This transcript has been saved in the WCRB's Media Archive.