With its relative isolation as a fishing community in the middle of Lake Biwa, Okishima is a unique place in Japan, the only inhabited fishing village on an island in a lake in the country. It’s history goes back to at least the middle of the 12th century when seven surviving soldiers of a defeated army reportedly made the island their home. From these seven did many of the island’s sub-500 residents descend from, many of them still sharing the same surname of these soldiers.
Administered by the city of Omi Hachiman two kilometers away on the eastern lake shore, the island has no tourist attractions but has nonetheless gained attention for its slow-paced, healthy and basic lifestyle. One in every three residents is 65 or older but only four elderly people are bedridden. The 1.5 square kilometer island, shaped like a lying Buddha, has a few paved roads although there are no motor vehicles.
The majority of residents rely on its small fishing industry for income. The island has a fishing port, a fishing-gear warehouse, a small shipbuilding yard, and plants where local catch is cooked to make preserved food for sale. Almost seven out of every ten islanders make their living out of harvesting what Lake Biwa offers: corbicula, small freshwater bivalves, and fishing gobies, sweet fish, chubs, eels, etc. There is also a Shinto shrine, an elementary school, a few restaurants, and a post office. Many residents commute to schools or jobs off the island.
The Okishima community has faced a crisis in recent years with an aging population and the departure of its younger residents after finishing school for the jobs, opportunities and lifestyle of Japan’s bigger cities. The number of attendees at the elementary school has fallen to, at last report, five. The water quality around the island has also deteriorated and the fishing has been stagnant.
Unlike other communities in similar situations, the residents of Okishima have resisted development and instead drawn up a ’21st Century Dream Plan’ in which its goal is to preserve the traditional culture and lifestyle of the island. Included in the plan are measures to secure distant medical care for the growing elderly population, creating more educational opportunities for the school and its students beyond the island, and promoting its fishing industry on the mainland and to tourists.
The island is about 12 kilometers in circumference, but despite having those few roads, it is not possible to walk completely around the island. Nevertheless, Okishima is a fascinating place to walk through its docks and thin alleys to study a unique community and lifestyle.
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