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Exploring New Practices for Island Development among Islanders in the Setonaikai, Japan.

By Stephanie Évora, PhD Candidate,

Graduate School of Global Studies,

Doshisha University

Editor's note:

This newsletter is a sequel to “Constructing Morabeza along the island shores in the Atlantic”.

It also contributes to our ongoing series of articles of 'Understanding Development. 'PhD candidate Ms Evora argues that the development (read survival) or demise of the Setonaikai Islands and other small islands elsewhere is dependent on fighting and halting the population decline that endangers their very future existence.

To Set Sail Across the Sea

At last, we return to Japan for our final adventure and dive into exploring Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima, Megijima, and Ogijima islands and observe the attempts at discovering Morabeza in the Setonaikai. We have now understood that island hospitality is deeply interpersonal and intertwined with islandness and the island life. Morabeza is essential to islanders in general not only as a way of life but also as a way of countering the fact that the islands’ population can spread far across the sea, making it necessary for those who remain to attempt to fill the empty spaces. As such, Morabeza is extended not only to those who pass through the islands but also to all individuals living on the island space to erase the distance between individuals to protect the social relationships as part of the island life. Island hospitality, as such, is not commercial or carried out as a passive relationship. On the contrary, it is to welcome the fellow islander tending to their garden or opening their business for the day with an open heart. Furthermore, it is to extend their welcome to those passing through and to charm them with a dream of staying and building their lives along the mountains, shores, and bays.

Our Islands in Japan

In ancient times, the Setonaikai region was a crucial transportation route for Japan, connecting Kinki (Nara and Kyoto) and Kyushu and Japan to China and Korea. In the past, the Setonaikai region underwent extensive exploitation with the expansion of fishery and farming activities. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the government built several factories in the region, thus initiating the region’s industrial development (Kohno 1977). With the presence of several industries in the Setonaikai, the islands attracted workers in droves. However, due to the heavy industrialization efforts in the region, a series of pollution-related issues arose (Yoshimi 2011). The declining economy, environmental issues, and the closure of several industrial sites resulted in the region’s vitality deteriorating and a mass relocation of the island’s residents to more prosperous locations.

Due to the residents’ exodus, the region experienced a huge population loss, the birth rates plummeted, and only the ageing population remained on the islands (Yagi 2010). Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima, Megijima, and Ogijima islands face these problems with significant consequences for the islands’ future. The islands’ inhabitants have decreased at a considerable rate calling into question the longevity of their communities and history. According to Kagawa Prefectural Government (2020), Naoshima has a population of 3071 people, Megijima has a population of 125 people, and Ogijima has 132 people. Teshima has approximately 760 people (Teshima Community Centre 2022), and Inujima, the smallest island, has a population of approximately 40 people, according to islanders interviewed in 2022.

The interest in observing the island hospitality experienced in the islands through an interview-based study is not only to identify similarities to the island hospitality in Cabo Verde but additionally to observe whether, in time, the Morabeza elements taking root in the Setonaikai could expand, serving as a mechanism to increase feelings of attachment to the islands among existing islanders and attract new residents who invest in establishing themselves on the islands for long periods.

To Reach Our Ports

Islanders’ narratives were collected through semi-structured interviews conducted in the five islands in 2022 and the Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima islands in 2019. The interviews were recorded with the interviewers’ permission and later transcribed; they were confidential, and the names of all participants were changed to ensure the anonymity of the interviewees. Since I am not fluent in Japanese, a translator/interpreter was enlisted to assist with the interviews and the complete transcriptions. While on the islands, we approached the islanders to introduce ourselves and explained the motives for the visit. The interviews followed a non-formal format, with some interviewees offering drinks, snacks, and tours through their neighborhoods, leading to a comfortable environment.

However, there was a clear difference in the island’s atmosphere between 2019 and 2022. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the islands’ population has remained cautious of interactions since all the islands have many elderly inhabitants (of the 153 inhabitants in Ogijima, 95 are elderly). With each trip to Inujima, the streets appeared emptier and, at times, practically abandoned. While it is true that Inujima has a population of around 40 inhabitants, and most islanders are elderly, the island appeared to have a quiet and calm atmosphere in 2019, with islanders busying themselves at their own pace. However, by 2022, it had become increasingly difficult to encounter any islanders while walking along the small streets and exploring the neighborhoods. Locating people willing to participate in the study became more challenging for fear of encountering the virus.

Upon arriving in Teshima, it became apparent that locating islanders willing to be interviewed would take more time than initially expected. While attempting to interview a person who seemed to be from the island, a series of events unfolded, leaving my interpreter, me, and the good-natured islander to walk around the Karato area (Teshima is devided into four areas, Ieura, Suzuri, Karato, and Kou) to locate obaachan, whom he assured us would be more than willing to answer any questions regarding the island since she was born and raised in Teshima. Three houses later, a series of pleasantries exchanged along the way, and inquiries on why the interest in Teshima, we locate Ikeda-san on a narrow street going about her daily life. After accepting to be interviewed, we positioned ourselves by the side of the road and conducted an almost one-hour-long conversation regarding Teshima and its inhabitants, with Ikeda-san gifting us energy drinks, brochures, and pamphlets about Teshima and its islanders. The interaction with Ikeda-san and her granddaughter and great-grandson, who joined the interview, exemplified the hospitable atmosphere and friendliness that islanders show towards visitors and their fellow islanders.

Islands and Islanders as One

Morabeza’s practice as island hospitality on the islands had different levels of engagement. The relationship between islanders on the same island proved to be very close, with kindness and friendliness between the inhabitants. This kindness and cooperation between islanders extended to their businesses as well, with Yoshida-san in Naoshima describing:

Everyone is very kind, and this island has discounts for locals. For example, when I said I lived here, they offered discounts…Because there are no young people, islanders talk to them [new migrants] and ask, “where are you from” and “where do you work”. Even if we don’t talk to islanders, islanders will talk to me…Islanders are used to people coming from the outside…For example, they said, “a new restaurant will open, so let’s go”, and “let’s cooperate”. They are very cooperative, kind…and generous (Yoshida-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

While on Teshima, Ikeda-san tried to distinguish the nature of islanders from that of the urbanites: “there is no goodness if we stay here although we get along with each other. We exchange some food between us. In urban areas, they don’t exchange food. Islanders exchange food with each other” (Ikeda-san interviewed by the author, 2022). However, the closeness between islanders can be considered somewhat invasive by some, as revealed by Nohara-san, “this is good and bad; everyone wants to know about each other more than necessary. Everyone has “antennas” directed at everyone. When we are suffering from something, they can help, but they interfere more than necessary.” (Nohara-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

Small islands are known for their close community ties and friendliness. However, the level of intimacy achieved in a small community can also include “pervasive personal connections” (Baldacchino and Veenendaal 2018, 342) that can sometimes overwhelm individuals. As an islander, it was easy to understand the close personal connections that come with being part of a small island community and how it can be considered invasive by those who do not grow up in such an environment. In the case of Nohara-san, who moved to Teshima after getting married, even though she has been living on the island for the past 35 years, it is possible to see that some discomfort is still present.

Morabeza between islanders and new migrants showed an attempt at erasing barriers between individuals and integrating new migrants into the island community. In Naoshima, new migrants, such as Yamada-san, stated that:

Everyone greets each other and brings food. When it rains, they take me to places in their car. I started a café two years after I moved to Naoshima. Islanders came to the café until visitors began coming. They were the ones who recommended I start a café. They cheered me up (Yamada-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

Sato-san recounted that when she arrived in Megijima, “everyone knew about me. They said, ‘this kind of person will come here…Although I didn’t know the islanders, they already knew about me…so I was very surprised about this community” (Sato-san interviewed by the author, 2022). Some islanders like Midori-san showed appreciation for the new migrants along with the change in dynamics they brought to Teshima, “I think it is okay for new migrants to move here. Their lifestyle is different from ours, but it’s okay. We interact with them like they are our children or grandchildren. No one complains about them. I am glad that young people came here because they are very bright and lively” (Midori-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

Although it was possible to see their openness on the islands, it is also possible to identify the expectations and differences that come with the new population. For example, In Naoshima, Kojima-san recalled that:

Local people…we greet everybody but the new coming people, especially from the big city, look at us weirdly…because…talking to strangers…they kind of ignore it. We care for each other like neighbours: are you okay? What did you do last night or yesterday? But for newcomers, it is kind of irritating in the beginning. Maybe it depends on their characters. We need to talk to not have a barrier (Kojima-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

For the long-term development of the islands, one hopes that these apprehensions can decrease with time. New migrants are, after all, islanders themselves or are in the process of becoming islanders by integrating into the community and creating deeper ties to the islands and islanders.

Islanders’ relationship with visitors presented different levels of involvement depending on the specific location on the island, islanders’ occupations, and age. In Inujima, Uchida-san shared that he, too, interacted with visitors “because I work here, I have many opportunities to talk to visitors, for example, I ask them “’where are you from’, but I don’t know about native islanders…how they talk to visitors…some islanders introduce them to my café” (Uchida-san interviewed by the author, 2022). All the islanders and new migrants involved in the service industry and those who somehow had an occupation which put them into contact with the tourists passing through their islands showed the same positive reaction to visitors.

The welcoming heart and spirit to help others demonstrated by the islanders were shared during one interview with Yamada-san, who recounted an episode which had occurred some time ago:

Visitors interact with islanders like obaachan and ojiichan. They visit here many times, then decide to move to Naoshima. There was someone who was wondering where to live. When they came to Naoshima, restaurants were closed, but they were hungry. Then some children came to them, and they talked. The children went home and brought them some food. After that, they decided to live in Naoshima. Compared to other islands, there are many chances for islanders and visitors to talk (Yamada-san interviewed by the author, 2022).

In some islands, the relationship between visitors and islanders seems to fluctuate. Islanders in Teshima and Ogijima revealed that although still friendly, the welcoming mood declined over the years with the overwhelming exposure to visitors. However, if the Morabeza displayed by islanders in the five islands can be foretold, in that case, the islands will return to their friendly and curious atmosphere that they are known for.

To Hope and Wait

The Setonaikai region, as a place of passage, refuge, and opportunities, has shaped the islanders into open and welcoming communities that now struggle with a population decline that endangers their future. Population decline has brought significant social, economic, cultural, and health challenges to Japan (Coulmas 2007; Thang 2013) and East Asia. A massive amount of publications and news have been published regarding the ‘ageing Japan’ and the consequences of such a phenomenon. While the decline in population affects the whole country, one must also think about how this phenomenon affects rural areas and remote islands since remote islands in Japan have high ageing rates among their population (Funck 2020, 178). Islands lose their inhabitants not only because of migration but also because of their ageing society. Therefore, attempts at revitalizing the island life should not only be attracting visitors to these small remote islands by blurring the barriers between the hosts and the guests. It is equally important to attract new migrants by fostering human interactions that connect islanders to non-islanders in a process that benefits the islands’ regeneration in a more humane, intimate way.


Baldacchino, Godfrey, and Wouter Veenendaal. 2018. “Society and Community.” In The Routledge International Handbook of Island Studies A World of Islands, edited by Godfrey Baldacchino, First Edit, 339–52. Routledge.

Coulmas, Florian. 2007. Population Decline and Ageing in Japan: The Social Consequences. London and New York: Routledge.

Eggleston, Karen, and Shripad Tuljapurkar, eds. 2010. Aging Asia: The Economic and Social Implications of Rapid Demographic Change in China, Japan, and South Korea. Stanford, CA: Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Funck, Carolin. 2020. “Has the Island Lure Reached Japan? Remote Islands Between Tourism Boom, New Residents and Fatal Depopulation.” In Japan’s New Ruralities: Coping with Decline in the Periphery, edited by Wolfram Manzenreiter, Ralph Lutzeler, and Sebastian Polak-Rottmann, First Edit, 177–95. London: Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies.

Kagawa Prefectural Government. 2020. “Kagawa Ken No Ritō Ni Tsuite [Remote Islands in Kagawa Prefecture].” 2020.

Kohno, Michihiro. 1977. “The Problems of Industrial Development in Coastal Areas around the Japanese Inland Sea (Setonaikai).” In International Congress on the Human Environment (HESC), Kyoto, 1975. Science For Better Environment, edited by Secretariat HESC Organizing Committee and Science Council of Japan, 447–54. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Teshima Community Centre. 2022. “Teshima Kominkan Dayori [Bulletin of Teshima Community Centre].” Number 514. Teshima Community Centre.

Thang, Leng Leng. 2013. “Aging and Social Welfare in Japan.” In Routledge Handbook of Japanese Culture and Society, edited by Victoria Lyon Bestor, Theodore C. Bestor, and Akiko Yamagatta, 172–85. London and New York: Routledge.

Yagi, Kentaro. 2010. “Art on Water: Art That Revitalizes Insular Communities Facing Depopulation and Economic Decline.” Journal of Environmental Design and Planning 6 (October): 119–30.

Yoshimi, Shunya. 2011. “The Seto Inland Sea: An Asian Archipelago.” In Insular Insight: Where Art and Architecture Conspire with Nature: Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima, edited by Lars Müller and Akiko Miki, 239–53. [Naoshima-mati (Kagawa-ken)] / Baden: Fukutake Foundation / Lars Müller Publishers.


Sato (2022), Interviewed by author in Megijima Island, April 22

Kojima (2022), Interviewed by author in Naoshima Island, April 15

Yamada (2022), Interviewed by author in Naoshima Island, April 15

Yoshida (2022), Interviewed by author in Naoshima Island, April 15

Ikeda (2022), Interviewed by author in Teshima Island, April 16

Midori (2022), Interviewed by author in Teshima Island, April 16

Nohara (2022), Interviewed by author in Teshima Island, April 16

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