This Japanese Island Disappeared… And Nobody Noticed

This Japanese Island Disappeared… And Nobody Noticed

Esanbe Hanakita Kojima, a small island in northern Japan, has vanished…and nobody seems that worried about it.

It’s not a great time to be an island. After the disappearance of Hawaii’s East Island during hurricane Walaka 15 days ago, it looks like it’s now the turn of a tiny stretch of uninhabited land in northeastern Japan to vanish with hardly a trace. 

Esanbe Hanakita Kojima was one of 158 uninhabited islands named by the Japanese government in 2014 in an effort to enlarge its exclusive fishing zone. These islands have gained a certain political importance as Japan battles it out with China and Russia to claim a greater swath of territorial waters. And in taking control of them, Japan has managed to push back the limits of its economic zone.

A writer notices something’s missing

Esanbe was located a few kilometers from the village of Sarufutsu on the northern tip of Hokkaido. The inhabitants were informed of Esanbe’s vanishing by writer Hiroshi Shimizu, a specialist in hidden Japanese islands, who was performing research for a new book on the subject. Shimizu contacted the local fishing cooperative, which sent boats to the place where the island should have been…only to find nothing there.

The Japanese coast guards reported that the last time Esanbe was indexed in 1987, it measured a little over four and a half feet above sea level. But local fishermen avoided the area due to an underwater reef there that could prove dangerous to boats.

Victim of wind and ice floes

Experts believe that the island fell victim to erosion by wind and ice floes. The Okhotsk sea that borders northern Japan releases huge blocks of ice every year that drift to the Japanese coasts. Some of these almost certainly damaged the island…to the point of sinking it. ‘It’s not impossible for small islands to be swept away by the elements,’ a Japanese coast guard confirmed.

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However, the islands are also threatened by more sinister phenomena, such as rising sea levels due to climate change, even if this region tends to be generally less vulnerable. According to international law, countries can claim an island as part of its territory as long as it is visible at high tide.

In this area, pieces of land also appear

Other than the disappearance of the island itself, Japan will also face another consequence: the shrinking of its territorial waters.  Japan’s exclusive economic zone will now be about a third of a mile closer to its coast—a loss in a region in which every island counts, as Russia also pushes to increase its territory.

But for Japan, the news isn’t so terrible. Land in this region might be swallowed by the sea, but it also sometimes rises from it. For example, in 2013 a landslide caused a stretch of earth almost a quarter of a mile long to emerge from the coast, allowing the country to tack a bit more area onto its territorial claims.

• Lily Reeves
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