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Sotetsu (Sago Palm)


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

Some hot springs are called “Hell of XXX”.1 A heaven-like hell excellent for health, that refreshes both body and mind. Once, there also existed a “Hell of Sotetsu” in Okinawa, and a “Hell of Muscovado” in the Amami Islands.

The Hell of Sotetsu is a period from the end of the Taisho era to the early Showa era when Sotetsu fruits and trunks were eaten out of hunger. The Hell of Muscovado refers to the severe labor for muscovado production under the direct control of the Satsuma Domain in the early-modern period.

Sotetsu fruits and trunks contain starch, therefore they are noted as a hardy crop on the Ryukyu Noumu-chō (Book on Ryukyuan Agricultural Affairs) with its cultivation method and were requested to be planted. However, it also carries a toxin named cycasin and needs to be thoroughly soaked in water and completely detoxified to avoid intoxication. Cycasin had caused death on Miyako Island, and a cow died by drinking the poisonous water on Amami Island.

Sotetsu fruits
Photo: TARUMI Kengo

Despite its pronoun, hell, sotetsu has saved people’s life at crucial moments, processed into porridges or miso. Before and after the war, sotetsu leaves were exported from Amami Islands to Germany as an ideal Christmas ornament. The leaves were collected in December and inspected all together at the forum of the village. Children cheerfully bundled the qualified leaves. This event was a special moment in December, called the “Sotetsu Binding,” and gave the children some nice pocket money as an otoshidama2. Since then, sotetsu has been applied to various purposes, including roadside planting, ornamental use, afforestation of desert lands, etc., as is well known. 

On top of such numerous use, the greatest feature of this plant is its amazing vitality. They exist since 150 million years ago, the age the dinosaurs ruled the land. When a giant meteorite hit the earth and caused a sudden climate change, sotetsu survived, while the dinosaurs didn’t. They are truly tough. They would even endure a typhoon, draught, or desert land. It is said that “Cranes live a thousand years, and a turtle lives ten thousand years”3, but sotetsu lives a hundred million. Longevity would be a more suitable pronoun than hell. Albeit the fact that the prefectural flower of Okinawa is deigo (Indian coral tree), and the representative flower of the Amami and Naze City (today the Amami City) is hibiscus—an imported species—the plant representing these lands that once proudly recorded the longest longevity of Japan must be no other than sotetsu.

Sotetsu appears in songs too, such as the “Akai Sotetsu no Mi mo Ureru Koro” (When That Red Sotetsu Berries Would Ripe) or the hit song “Shima Sodachi” (Islander), the new folk song of Amami, “Sotetsu no Nari” (The Sotetsu Fruit). Sotetsu is still planted on the boundaries of the fields today. They are strong, durable, and a better windbreaker than stone walls. There is a vast jungle of sotetsu on the cape at Kasari (today Amami City) on Amami Oshima, along with “Mt. Sotetsu” in Ankyaba, Tatsugo City, where sotetsu covers a whole mountain, and the sotetsu tunnel promenade in Kanami, Tokunoshima City. 

The town government of Setouchi Town on Amami Oshima has been promoting its production since 1997 as a local specialty. Yoro Island in the same town developed a sotetsu housing. Called hell, like the hot springs, sotetsu are even more beneficial than the latter.4

Editor’s Note:

  1. In Japan, hot springs can be sometimes referred to as hell given their appearance. For example, a series of hell exists in the hot springs of Beppu, known as the “Hells of Beppu”.
  2. In Japan, children are offered some pocket money at the end of the year, to celebrate the coming year. This is called otoshidama.
  3. “Cranes live a thousand years, and a turtle lives ten thousand years” is a proverb from Japan, celebrating longevity.
  4. In 1990, a sotetsu production association was formed on Yoro Island, however, was dissolved due to the decrease in members.