Things just disappear sometimes: car keys, jewelry, whole entire islands. It’s just the way things are. Sometimes those things are pretty hard to let go of. If your car keys disappeared, it’s a fair bet that you’d tear your house apart trying to find them. Well, in 2014, Japan named 158 uninhabited islands off its coast to delineate the nation’s territorial waters, boundaries that have become increasingly contentious in recent decades. One of those 158 islands has up and vanished. The Japanese government has responded by initiating a search and rescue mission to locate the island that was seriously just there a second ago.
The island, Esanbehanakitakojima, is—was—located in the cold north ocean off the coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the major Japanese islands. It’s not a particularly impressive island. At only 4.6 feet above sea level, Esanbehanakitakojimaonly barely qualified as a real island. Still, it’s important. The area where the island is located is contentious. Japan and Russia both lay claim to the area, and China is a close and aggressive neighbor. For China’s part, they have been constructing artificial islands off their coast in an effort to inflate their claims on the surrounding sea.
With this island gone, Japan stands to lose about 500 meters of territory. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s concerning enough for the Japanese government to dispatch the coast guard and avoid ceding any territory to their unfriendly neighbors.
The island is unlikely to be found, however. The first report of the vanishing island came in September, when the author of a book on Japan’s smaller islands went to photograph Esanbehanakitakojim. No photographs were taken because the island was not there. When the author said that he couldn’t find the island, a group of fishermen set off on their boats to locate the darned thing. No such luck. Now the coast guard is looking for it, but they do not suspect that their luck will be any different.
The thing is, no one has recorded any data on this now-nonexistent island since 1988, so not only does no one know where it is, no one knows when it disappeared either. Any number of things may have caused its disappearance. Wind erosion, ice bergs, or rising sea levels may all have played a part in the vanishing, but no one knows for sure.
The oceanic boundaries of Japan are constantly changing, however, and when one island disappears, it seems another pops into existence to take its place. In 2013, an undersea volcanic eruption caused an island to spontaneously appear south of Tokyo. That brand new island now has its own ecosystem, as plant and animal life moves in to colonize it. The Japanese government has taken measures to preserve this virgin island, but who knows how long it will be before someone steals this one too.