A Ja­panese is­land qui­etly dis­ap­peared — and no one no­ticed un­til now


Ja­pan has a lot of un­in­hab­ited is­lands, about 158 of which the gov­ern­ment named in 2014 to en­sure that the wa­ter around them con­tin­ues to be­long to Ja­pan.

But now, one of those islets has dis­ap­peared, Ja­panese news­pa­per Asahi Shim­bun re­ported this week. And no one seemed to no­tice un­til now.

The Ja­panese Coast Guard is ap­par­ently plan­ning to search for the islet, called Esan­be­hana ki­tako­jima, just over half a kilo­me­tre away from Saru­futsu, a vil­lage on Hokkaido is­land.

Hiroshi Shimizu, an author who pub­lished a pic­ture book about Ja­panese is­lands, was the one who re­ported that the islet wasn’t where it’s sup­posed to be. He wanted to visit Esan­be­hana ki­tako­jima as part of a fol­lowup book project, but the Ja­panese news­pa­per re­ported that he just couldn’t find it. That’s when he reached out to Saru­futsu’s vil­lage fish­ery to ask where it might be.

It turns out the Ja­panese Coast Guard had last sur­veyed the islet in 1987, and it was known to be around 1.3 me­tres above sea level. But now it can’t be seen from land at all.

“There is a pos­si­bil­ity that the islet has been eroded by wind and snow and, as a re­sult, dis­ap­peared,” se­nior coast guard of­fi­cial To­moo Fu­jii told the Asahi Shim­bun news­pa­per. A coast guard of­fi­cial also told Agence France-Presse that the dis­ap­pear­ance “may af­fect Ja­pan’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters a tiny bit ... if you con­duct pre­ci­sion sur­veys.” Land dis­ap­pear­ances are not un­heard of. A study pub­lished in En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search Let­ters in 2016, for ex­am­ple, found that five reef is­lands in the Pa­cific Ocean’s Solomon Is­lands had dis­ap­peared be­tween 1947 and 2014. That study de­ter­mined that al­though sea-level rise has caused ero­sion in the cen­tral Pa­cific, re­search in the west­ern Pa­cific found that “ex­treme events, sea­walls and in­ap­pro­pri­ate devel­op­ment” were likely re­spon­si­ble for the ma­jor­ity of shore­line changes in that re­gion. For its part, Ja­pan has taken mea­sures to en­sure it lays claim to cer­tain is­lands to avoid fur­ther ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes with its neigh­bours.

In 2016, Ja­pan an­nounced it would spend $140 mil­lion to re­build the ob­ser­va­tory tower on a Pa­cific is­land called Okino­tor­ishima, which is about 1,600 kilo­me­tres south of the cap­i­tal Tokyo. The Guardian re­ported at the time that Bei­jing had claimed the is­land was made of only rocks and thus dis­qual­i­fied Ja­pan from in­clud­ing it in its ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone. A United Na­tions con­ven­tion claimed that “rocks which can­not sus­tain hu­man habi­ta­tion or eco­nomic life of their own” don’t qual­ify for such a zone.


Res­i­dents of a vil­lage on the main is­land Hokkaido, pic­tured, didn’t re­al­ize that one of the small, un­in­hab­ited is­lands, Esan­be­hanaki­tako­jima, off the coast, had van­ished com­pletely.

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