Despite being the founding member of the stippy.com diving club, I have a confession to make: I’m a complete and absolute “resort diver.” Although in my younger, delinquent days I was silly enough to wander into the miso soup-esque waters of Izu, I now exclusively dive in tropical waters where it’s even warm in the rain and the visibility is great all year round. Yes, that means that I don’t dive in Japan. (If you think that I’m being a little shortsighted, feel free to suggest any “must dive” Japanese sites in the comment section below.)
Because most nice dive locations are hard to get to, the only real chances for me to getaway are Golden week and Oshogatsu. This Christmas was no exception and I’ve just come back from a relaxing two week break in Palau. I had never heard of Palau before I began diving, but it is a small republic (the youngest member of the UN) off the coast of the Philippines. Amongst divers, Palau is often referred to as one of the seven underwater wonders of the world for its rich diversity of fish (especially pelagics) and coral. (If you’re considering a trip to Palau, then please check out a selection of my underwater shots to get a better feel: a Grey Reef Shark hunting for dinner at the Blue Corner, an inquisitive Napoleon Fish looking for a playmate, and careful coral grouper hiding behind some coral.)
After spending a week diving the reefs of Palau, I decided that spending a leisurely couple of days on land should be a fun way of letting the nitrogen seep out of my arteries and ideally a good chance to learn about the history of this strange little country. It was less than an hour after regaining my land-legs that I started to notice something strange. After checking into my sea-side hotel I decided to replenish the bar fridge with some local brew and headed for the mini-mart around the corner. While there was a small selection of San Miguel and Bud, I was quite (pleasantly) surprised to see that fully half of the refrigerator was filled with Asahi Beer! What’s more, it wasn’t just “Super Dry”; they also had Hon-Nama and Aqua-Blue!! Given that there is no tax on beer in Palau, I’m really not sure why they were stocking both regular beer and 発泡酒 (happoshu, low-malt beer) but it was even a bigger mystery why there would be a market for 50% fat free Aqua-Blue in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To be clear, no shuzei (酒税, beer tax) means that the price for Hon-Nama was only 10 US cents less than that for a Super Dry – now is that a ripe piece of bean knowledge, or what?! More to the point, why on earth would Asahi Beer be going to all the effort to distribute beer (let-a-lone happoshu) to a small country with barely 20,000 people (especially when the RRP is a mere US$1.)
Turning out of the store and heading back to my hotel, I was confronted with a large add for Yamasa Soy-Sauce and some run-down neon signs for about five different karaoke Bars. When I noticed that even my hotel was boasting an “Okama Bar” on the ground floor and was sporting some great Engrish in the bathroom, I was seriously starting to question which country I was in. It felt more like I was in an “Umi no Ie” somewhere near Wakayama than a hotel in a South Pacific Resort.
Everyone knows that Hawaii and Guam may as well be the 48th and 49th prefectures of Japan, but to me it was an eye opener that Japanese tourists (and Japanese companies) had such a large footprint in Palau, too. It turns out that there is an interesting tale behind the Japanese fascination with Palau. Although it (as I’m sure you will have guessed) is a tale that begins with the Japanese occupation of the islands in the early 20th Century, it has a twist in that there was no blood shed by either locals or the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan actually gained possession of the Palau Archipelago (against the will of the United States) officially in 1919 as a part of the Treaty of Versailles that carved up Germany’s colonies following their defeat in WWI.
The Japanese had been active in the region for quite a few years, monitoring Germany’s military efforts via her own version of the East India Company (called fittingly “The Japanese South Seas Trading Company”, or NBK, 南洋貿易会社). The strategic location of Palau instantly gave Japan a central location to monitor its activity in the Asian region and by 1922 Japan had transformed Palau into its central administrative center (南洋庁, nanyocho) for all Japanese possessions in the South Pacific. Apparently the Japanese introduced capitalism (transferring ownership from clans to individuals) and built an advanced infrastructure ranging from schools and factories to sewerage and even sento (銭湯, public baths)! Many of the post-war presidents were educated in the public schools run by the Japanese during this era (including Ngiratkel Etpison, the boy fourth from the right in the front row of this photo).
Due to the strategic importance of the Palau base to the Japanese, the entire island was subject to extensive bombing when the Americans were preparing to take back the Philippines. The surrounding waters are filled with numerous sunken Japanese war ships, planes and tankers. The three month battle in 1944 on the tiny island of Pele Liu is said to be one of the bloodiest (and more pointless) of the Pacific War. You can take a day tour to see the extensive cave systems dug by the Japanese soldiers into the limestone hills that are eerily reminiscent of those you might have seen in Naha, Okinawa. The islands were transferred to US administration (along with the Marianas (Saipan) and the Marshalls (Bikini Atoll)) following the War and Palau quickly moved from a Japanese speaking nation to an English speaking nation that uses the American Dollar (although many older Palauns still refer to dollars as yen).
I was reminded of the cultural impact this tie with America has had on Palau when the hotel manager assured me that if the TV in my hotel room wasn’t broken, I would’ve been able to watch HBO!! Apparently this is part of the current presidents’ policy to reduce the “digital divide” between Palau and the West. Remnants of the West, however, end there. For all intensive purposes, the country seems to be filled with Japanese tourists and sushi restaurants (Okay, I admit it, I was eating sushi too… but at least I didn’t eat whale!). The over representation of Japanese corporates in the archipelago (50 according to the MOFA!) makes me feel as though the Japanese government must be channeling a lot of “foreign aid” dollars into the country as part of its WWII apology. I’m sure it is no coincidence that the dera huge bridge joining the airport to the capital, Koror, is called the “Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge.”
Despite the bad reputation it receives in the international community, Japan really does try hard to contribute to the development of a lot of Pacific countries. It seems that in nearly every Pacific island that I go diving in, there is evidence of Japanese aid. Japanese health workers are dotted throughout Micronesia trying to help cure diseases and Japanese government sponsored schools are surprisingly prevalent in many island nations. I remember being amazed the first time I stumbled across such a school in Fiji. It is a well kept secret that the Japanese government regularly sends teachers from Japan to these schools throughout the undeveloped world (and it is quite a sought after job.)
These schools are not for expat Japanese kids, they are for local children, yet all classes are taught in Japanese (even math and English, etc.) For those of us born in English speaking countries it is easy for us to question the merits of this but to me they are clear. If a child has the choice of an education in Japanese or no education at all then they are clearly better off with a Japanese language education – even if that person child sets foot on Japanese soil in her life. I think you’ve got to take your hat off to the Japanese government for having the courage and determine to push something like this forward and it shouldn’t be confused with the recent resurgence of the right-wing in Japanese politics. Hey, what is your country doing to raise education levels in lesser developed countries (especially those with no strategic political value)?
Basic Stats on Palau:
Name: Local language (Palauan): Belau, English/Japanese: Palau (used to be called the Caroline Islands during Spanish Occupation in the 19th Century)
Population: Approx. 20,000. Reached a historical peak at the height of Japanese occupation of over 40,000 people but only 10% of them were native Palauans (60% were Japanese and the rest were Korean and Chinese labourers “imported” by the Japanese). Currently about 1/3 of the population are Philippinos.
Location: 73˚0’ North Latitude, 133˚30’ East Longitude (click for google maps). Land Area: 444km2 (over 300+ islands in the archipelago)
Official Website: www.visit-palau.com (or in Japanese here)
Access: most common route is via Guam (Continental) but there are also limited (and much cheaper) flights via Taiwan (Far Eastern Air) and Philippines (Asian Spirit) Occasionally JAL offers charter bins from Tokyo/Osaka.
Most famous diving spots: Blue Corner, German Channel, Ulong Channel, Jellyfish Lake.
Best Sashimi in town: Krämer’s Café
Highly recommended diving liveaboard: Pacific Explorer