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Iwo Jima Soon Won’t Be

Asahi.com is reporting (J) that Iwo Jima, the site of a fierce battle during WWII, will soon have its official name within Japan changed back to what it was before the war.

Prior to WWII, Iwo Jima (actually more properly romanized as Iou-jima) was usually called Iou-tou. Shima and Tou are two different ways to read the same character (which means island), so both are written the same way and mean the same thing, but “Tou” was the pronunciation used by the residents. Meiji-era Japanese naval maps, however, showed “jima,” and probably as a result the Allied forces called the island “Iwo Jima” rather than “Iwo Tow.” When the island was returned to Japanese control in 1968 it was changed back to “Tou,” but when official Japanese maps were revised in 1982, “Iou-jima” was shown as the standard pronunciation.

There were once about 1000 people who made their homes on the island, but during the war the residents were forcibly relocated by the Japanese government. For these former inhabitants and their decedents this renaming was a lasting reminder of the loss of their homes. They had unsuccessfully petitioned to have the reading changed back to what it had been. The attention generated by the recent film Letters From Iwo Jima was enough to finally move their efforts forward.

The way Japan’s government is structured, the many outlying islands are legally considered to be part of one of its mainland prefectures. In the case of Iwo Jima, it is (from an administrative standpoint) the village of Ogasawara, which is part of the prefecture of Tokyo (where the city of Tokyo and much of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is located). The Governor of Tokyo gave the Mayor of Ogasawara permission to directly petition the Japan Geographical Survey Institute to have the reading of the name changed. And, on June 18th, the Institute announced that the reading of the name would be returned to the original Iou-tou. The contour map on which many textbooks and other maps are based will be officially changed this September.

Although the island is now primarily used for military training, for the families of those who once inhabited the island, this change will provide some sense of closure.

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