Saipan is a tiny island in the North Pacific and part of the Northern Mariana Islands. We travelled to Saipan in 2003 for just a few days – to relax and for a bit of Saipan sightseeing. Back then we lived in Japan and Saipan was quite easy and cheap to reach from Tokyo.
Like probably all transportation between Japan and Saipan, our flight is a holiday charter jet full of Japanese tourists in flowery shirts on “two nights, 3 days” excursions. During the three-and-a-half hour flight, the flight staff organise a bingo game with a chance to win some ghastly bags. We are lucky enough not to win any.
Our three nights/four days holiday package also includes hotel accommodation and bus transfers. We are the only ones getting off at the golf hotel, which was a bargain but is far away from everything. Never mind, we buy a weekly pass for the shopping shuttle bus that covers most of the island, and walk a lot during the few days of our stay.
One day, we rent bicycles – with helmets and a map! – and ride all the way to the other end of the island. This is where the suicide cliff is located, Saipan’s main sightseeing attraction.
In WWII, Saipan was the stage for one of the fierce battles between Japanese and US troops. Japan had held Saipan as a colony for nearly 30 years and brought in many Japanese (and Okinawan and Korean) peasants to work the sugar cane fields. During the war, many of them took shelter in some caves high up on the rock faces.
When the Japanese troops were losing the battle in July 1944, the commanders forced scores of the inhabitants to commit suicide by jumping from the highest cliff, rather than surrendering to the Americans. Some Japanese civilians were even killed by Japanese troops in order to prevent surrender. Most of the Japanese soldiers also died or committed ritual suicide (seppuku).
We visit the memorial on the suicide cliff. Remnants of Japanese weapons are on display at the “Post of last command”. Nearby there is also a memorial for the Korean victims of the battle of Saipan. At that time, Korea was “annexed” to Japan. This meant that Korean forced labourers ended up in all corners of the Japanese empire. Thousands of them also died in the war battles.
In August 1945, the Enola Gay – the US airplane that dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima – started from the neighbouring island of Tinian.
Exploring the German colonial history of Saipan
We also visit the island’s local library and find some colonial materials in German. Excitedly, the librarian brings more old documents – perhaps we could read some of them? Before the Japanese took over, Saipan was briefly a German colony. The Germans bought the Northern Mariana Islands from Spain in 1899, but mostly for strategic reasons in connection with other business interests in the Pacific.
The German rule is remembered rather positively, the librarian tells us. Apparently, there were never more than 20 Germans on Saipan during the colonial time. Although they did introduce some new plantations and work procedures, their impact on daily life was quite low in comparison with the Japanese period afterwards. Even the German “standing army” of 12 Indonesian police soldiers was quickly abandoned. There was just no need for it. With the beginning of the First World War, Germany lost its tiny Pacific colony.
On our last day on Saipan, we join our Japanese fellow tourists in the huge American-style shopping mall. Most had focused on “beach and shopping” instead of beach and Saipan sightseeing … The charter plane back to Japan is painted with huge tropical flowers inside and out, to keep the holiday feeling for a bit longer.