THE STRANGE RUINS OF YONAGUNI: JAPAN’S ATLANTIS?
Text by Bonnie Waycott
Images by various contributors Somebody get Indiana Jones a scuba set! Just off the coast of Japan a mysterious stone structure could be evidence of an ancient civilisation
In the deep blue sea off Okinawa’s Yonaguni Island lies a stone structure of epic proportions. But is it natural or manmade? Mystery, history, mythology and geology all come together at this enigmatic underwater structure off Japan – the Yonaguni Monument – that raises more questions than it answers. Does this underwater structure provide evidence of a sophisticated, ancient civilisation? Or have years and years of seismic activity given way to a bizarre natural formation?
YONAGUNI, 100 KILOMETRES from Taiwan and 2,900 kilometres from Tokyo, is dotted with green sugar cane fields, tropical scrub, and grassy patches of land grazed by the tiny Yonaguni horse. With stunning lookouts, white sandy beaches and colossal rocky cliffs falling into the clear blue-green seas, the island also happens to be Japan’s westernmost inhabited place and the last in the chain of Ryukyu Islands in Okinawa prefecture. One small town, two very small villages and two sheltered harbours form the human addition to the island, while coral bommies rest in the shallow water. Benefitting from the full brunt of the Kuroshio Current, it’s known for swordfish, tuna, giant cuttlefish, barracuda and schools of hammerhead sharks that gather in the waters to breed during the winter – so ubiquitous, in fact, that divers travel from all over the world for a chance to swim with them.
But underneath the clear blue waters lies something else, a mystery of epic proportions, literally and figuratively. Yonaguni is famous for some mysterious underwater ruins called the Yonaguni Monument, and the mystery comes from the fact that nobody knows what they really are, when they were built or by whom. Their existence has led to countless debates, and neither the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs nor the government of Okinawa Prefecture recognises the ruins as important cultural artefacts. In fact, no government research or preservation work has been carried out on them.
Fifteen minutes away from Yonaguni’s harbour, the seas can be mildly rough with fairly strong currents, and the breaking waves look like dark, roiling storm clouds creating the perfect atmosphere for something strange and mysterious. Here, where the ruins are, the stones (sandstone and mudstone dating back to around 20 million years ago) are cleft at sharp angles and there are other shapes like arches and steps, waist-high passageways and conical borings in the rocks. The main feature, the “Monument”, is rectangular, with its top about five metres below sea level.
What is known, however, is that the ruins were discovered in 1987 by a local fisherman named Kihachiro Aratake, who happened to be diving for hammerheads
in the hope of finding a new spot to show tourists the huge sharks. Instead, he came across something even more exciting, and felt shivers up his spine as he back-rolled on top of an enormous pyramidal structure that began relatively close to the surface before its walls plunged into the deep. Aratake, who now runs his own dive centre, Sou-Wes Yonaguni, was convinced that he had discovered the remains of an ancient civilisation, and named the dive point Iseki Hanto, or “Ruins Point”, from the structure’s resemblance to an old pyramid-like temple.
Word then spread across the island, as Aratake began to seek the advice of experts. As the ruins were visited by divers more often and their structure mapped out, further discoveries were made, such as arched entrances and carvings, narrow passageways and matching obelisks that seemed perfectly aligned. Over the following years experts descended upon the site to determine whether the structure was natural or man-made. Yet to this day, it remains a great, unsolved mystery.
He felt shivers up his spine as he back-rolled on top of an enourmous pyramidal structure
NATURAL OR ARTIFICIAL?
The ruins divide their viewers into sceptics and believers. Initially, it was suggested that the ruins were built around 10,000 years ago when the area was above sea level. Indeed, some argue that they are the remains of Mu, a lost civilisation of mythical proportions and Asia’s equivalent of Atlantis. One person who maintains this is Professor Emeritus Kimura Masaaki, a marine geologist and professor at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa’s main island. He
believes that the structure is evidence of an ancient civilisation, a huge continent that existed in the West Pacific Ocean, which Okinawa was once a part of. He also believes they are the remains of a city that could have sunk due to seismic events. Since 1992, Professor Kimura has visited the ruins over 100 times to gather rock and coral algae samples for testing and to take photographs. He has identified 10 structures off Yonaguni and a further five related formations off the main island of Okinawa, and believes the ruins resemble gusuku, or castles, of the 14th and 15th centuries. He also claims to have found tools from the ruins, and rocks bearing carved symbols, while features such as the flat parallel faces, sharp edges and right angles also point to a conclusion that the ruins could be man-made.
But Dr. Robert Schoch, a geologist and Professor of science and mathematics at Boston University, is convinced otherwise. According to his website, he believes that the Yonaguni ruins are a natural rock formation. In 1997 he led an expedition to the island with the Morien Institute, an archaeological non-profit research group, and wrote in his book, Voices of the Rocks, that he was not convinced that the features or structures of the ruins are man-made steps or terraces. He has also analysed samples of the ruins and refers to basic geology and classic stratigraphy for sandstones, which tend to break along planes and give very straight edges in areas with plenty of faults and tectonic activity such as Yonaguni, which is in a very earthquake-prone area. There is also some evidence on the island, including tombs and structures that have been carved from the bedrock, that indeed indicate that Yonaguni was once a site of ancient human habitation, and
Some argue that they are the remains of Mu, a lost civilisation of mythical proportions and Asia's equivalent of Atlantis
Dr. Schoch suggests that in ancient times humans on the island may have modified, used or enhanced the natural rock structure in some way.
Will we ever discover the answer? Some say that there is something quite altarlike about the ruins, and although it is difficult to cast a vote either way, staring at the vast formations underwater it is easy to sense something mysterious, much bigger than man and beyond the ordinary. Indeed, the island has ancient graveyards overlooking the ocean, where each tomb looks just like a unique piece of art. There are also obelisks inscribed in archaic Japanese, caves high up on the cliffs and rocky pinnacles in the sea. And yet tectonic instability is huge in Japan. Lying just next to the spot where the Pacific Plate and Philippine Sea Plate converge, 10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes can be found in Japan, making severe earthquakes a usual phenomenon. Could the fractured sandstone bedrock around Yonaguni, the cracked and piled terrain, be caused by natural seismic activity? History and mystery come together here; stone weathers into art or back again into rock.
At the southernmost tip of the island, where the oceans are filled with powerful currents and the surges and gnaws of the ferocious waves, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more strangely dramatic and mysterious dive site. Meanwhile, the debate surrounding the ruins goes on...
The Yonaguni formation is uncannily geometrically regular and reminiscent of the remains of many other ancient civilisations from around the world
LEFT The site is made up of a variety of familiar formations like arches, obelisks, passageways and bore holes
Bonnie Waycott was born in the UK and became interested in the sea after learning to snorkel off the Japan Sea coast near her mother’s hometown. She became a certified diver four years ago and has been exploring Japan’s waters ever since. Based in Tokyo, she writes for diving-related websites in Japan and abroad, while maintaining her blog Rising Bubbles, a comprehensive guide to Japan’s diving scene.
LEFT PAGE Could ancient humans living on the island before a seismic shift, have altered a preexisting natural formation?
LEFT Divers prepare to descend on the Yonaguni Monument to decide for themselves whether or not the structure is natural or man-made