Marianas Variety

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Variations | The past isn’t what it used to be

“MUCH modernization occurred” in the NMI and other Micronesian islands during the 30 years of Japanese administration, according to the 1966 economic report prepared by Robert A. Nathan Associates and commissioned by the U.S. through the Trust Territory government.

Economic expansion fueled by Japanese investments and imported labor benefitted many islanders considerably, the Nathan report added. The NMI and the rest of Japanese Micronesia “enjoyed a wider variety of goods and services, greater sources of income, and greater opportunities to develop abilities, and to get jobs than they ever experienced before or, in many instances, since.” On the major islands, most of the people “became accustomed to manufactured and processed goods, including tools, chemicals, foods, utensils, equipment, materials, machinery, fuels, power, toiletries and cosmetics, and many kinds of services, including medical and health, education, sanitation, transportation, communications, and restaurants, retail stores, and movies. In fact, the [islanders] located near the centers of activity generally had access to most of the kinds of goods and services available to the small-town farmer or fisherman in the industrialized nations of the world during the 1930s.”

Then came the war.

In his invaluable 1954 book, “Saipan: The Ethnology of a War-Devastated Island,” American anthropologist Alexander Spoehr cited an even earlier work, Edward Gallahue’s “The Economy of the Mariana Islands” (1946) which stated that “Chamorros are accustomed to dealing with basic institutions involved in a price and exchange economy… Exchange of goods by sale is the common form of transfer in the Marianas. Formal, as well as implied contracts, are recognized not only in daily transactions and custom, but also in law and in courts… Chamorros have been governed by formal law for generations…”

As for the Carolinians, Spoehr said they “became familiar in Japanese times with most of the economic institutions noted above.”

After the war, he added, “there was a heavy demand for the extensive employment of [locals] as office workers and as skilled and unskilled laborers on [U.S.] base construction and maintenance projects. The arrival of the families of official personnel also created a demand for domestic help. A local economy soon developed that depended on government employment. The extent of farming…was minimal.” (My italics.) This economy, Spoehr added, was “extremely vulnerable and started to collapse as soon as [U.S.] military installations began to close down.”

By the summer of 1950, he said, only the U.S. Navy’s administration unit remained as a source of employment. In a report to the Trust Territory high commissioner, an economic survey board stated that Saipan “is…in the worst economic straits of the inhabited islands of the northern Marianas chain. Saipan’s economy since the war has been established on a false, untenable basis, almost complete reliance on wages paid by the [U.S.] military for types of work that contribute nothing to the real wealth of the island. So few basic necessities are produced on Saipan that an excessive amount of foodstuffs as well as other commodities have to be purchased….”

In 1950, Spoehr wrote, “the Chamorros of Saipan were far from supporting themselves by farming, but the drop in wage work was driving many people to take up at least a minimum of subsistence agriculture.”

During the Japanese era, “the bulk of the Chamorros and Carolinians leased or sold most of their land to migrating Okinawans or the sugar company, living primarily on their rents or on a certain amount of wage labor…. To judge from the remarks of [local] men who are capable farmers, in the last years of the Japanese administration the extent of knowledge of agriculture suffered a decline which continued through the immediate post-war period simply because so little real farming was practiced.”

Spoehr said an “important factor in local agriculture is attitude toward farming as an occupation.” There was “little prestige attached to farming, and it is not a profession to which young men aspire, although there is respect for the competent farmer.” Islanders “recognize land as income-producing wealth and as a basis of human livelihood. It is merely that many would prefer to receive the income in rent than engage in the actual manual work of production.”

Farming, Spoehr added, “is not easy on Saipan. Foremost among the farmer’s handicaps are the pests…. Working with hand tools, in the tropic sun, the most adept of farmers must work long hours for a modest return on his labor and planning.”

In contrast to farm work, “non-agricultural wage-work — particularly white-collar work — enjoys high prestige. …[S]ince the war many have worked for wages and feel that they can make more money than by farming, which…has been anything but profitable. Also, the skills that the Chamorros have learned in the last two decades have been those that characterize wage-work rather than farm work. Formal education in Chamorro eyes is a ladder to the store, the shop, or the office desk, not to the farm…. Wage work is at present fixed in Chamorro values as a desirable thing. One often hears, ‘Many like to work for wages,’ or ‘If the NKK came back tomorrow many people would be very happy to lease their land and if possible work for wages.’ ”

NKK stood for the Japanese-era Nan’yo Kohatsu Kabushiki, “the biggest single commercial enterprise in Micronesia [whose] agribusiness transformed the social and physical face of Saipan,” as Thomas F. King, Ph.D. pointed out in “The Islands of the Japanese Mandate in 1937.”

NKK was founded by Matsue Haruji, a.k.a. the Sugar King.

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