The Commonwealth's center of government is located in the village of Capitol Hill on the island. Since the entire island is organized as a single municipality, most publications term Saipan as the Commonwealth's capital.
The current Mayor of Saipan is David M. Apatang, who was sworn into office on June 12, 2015.
Saipan is the second-largest island in the Mariana Islands archipelago, after Guam. It is located about 120 mi (190 km) north of Guam and 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) northeast of Tinian, from which it is separated by the Saipan Channel. Saipan is about 12 mi (19 km) long and 5.6 mi (9.0 km) wide, with a land area of 115.38 km2 (44.55 sq mi).
The western side of the island is lined with sandy beaches and an offshore coral reef which creates a large lagoon. The eastern shore is composed primarily of rugged rocky cliffs and a reef. A narrow underwater bank of Marpi Reef lies 28 mi (45 km) north of the Saipan, and CK Reef lies in the west of the island.
The highest elevation on Saipan is a limestone-covered mountain called Mount Tapochau at 1,560 ft (480 m). Unlike many of the mountains in the Mariana Islands, it is not an extinct volcano, but is a limestone formation. To the north of Mount Tapochau towards Banzai Cliff is a ridge of hills. Mount Achugao, situated about 2 miles north, has been interpreted to be a remnant of a stratified composite volcanic cone whose Eocene center was not far north of the present peak.
Saipan's flora is predominantly limestone forest. Some developed areas on the island are covered with Leucaena leucocephala, also known as "tangan-tangan" trees, that were spread broadly some time after World War II. Tangan-Tangan trees were introduced, primarily, as an erosion-prevention mechanism, due to the decimation of the landscape brought on by WWII. Remaining native forest occurs in small isolated fragments on steep slopes at low elevations and highland conservation areas of the island. Coconuts, papayas, and Thai hot peppers – locally called "donni' såli" or "boonie peppers" – are among the fruits that grow wild. Mango, taro root, breadfruit (locally called "Lemai"), and bananas are a few of the many foods cultivated by local families and farmers.
Saipan is home to multiple endemic bird species. Among them: the Mariana fruit dove, white-throated ground dove, bridled white-eye, golden white-eye, Micronesian myzomela and the endangered nightingale reed warbler.
The island used to have a large population of giant African land snails, introduced either deliberately as a food source, or accidentally by shipping, which became an agricultural pest. In the last few decades, its numbers have been substantially controlled by an introduced flatworm, Platydemus manokwari. Unfortunately, possibly due to the flatworm, the native tree-snails also became extinct.
Saipan has a borderline tropical rainforest climate (Köppen Af)/tropical monsoon climate (Köppen Am), moderated by seasonal trade winds from the northeast from November to March, and easterly winds from May to October. Average year-round maximum temperature is 84 °F or 28.9 °C. There is little seasonal temperature variation, and Saipan has been cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the least fluctuating temperatures in the world. However, temperature is affected by elevation; hence the island shows considerable variations between the coastal and mountainous areas
The drier season runs from December to June and the rainier season from July to November. Typhoon season runs from July to December and Saipan, along with the rest of the Mariana Islands, is subject to at least one typhoon each year.
Traces of human settlements on Saipan have been found by archaeologists ranging over 4,000 years, including ancient Latte Stones, and other artifacts pointing to cultural affinities with Melanesia and with similar stone monuments in Micronesia and Palau.
Saipan, together with Tinian, was possibly firstly sighted by Europeans by the Spanish expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, when it made a landfall in the southern Marianas on 6 March 1521. Again, it is likely it was sighted by Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa in 1522 on board of Spanish ship Trinidad, that in an attempt to reach Panama he commanded after the death of Ferdinand Magellan. This would have happened after the sighting of the Maug Islands in between the end of August and end of September. Gonzalo de Vigo deserted in the Maugs from Gomez de Espinosa's Trinidad and in the next four years, living with the local indigenous Chamorro people, visited thirteen main islands in the Marianas and possibly Saipan among them. The first clear evidence of Europeans arriving to Saipan was by the Manila galleon Santa Margarita commanded by Juan Martínez de Guillistegui, that wrecked in the island in February 1600 and whose survivors stayed in it for two years till 250 were rescued by the Santo Tomas and the Jesus María. The Spanish formally occupied the island in 1668, with the missionary expedition of Diego Luis de San Vitores who named it San José. From 1670, it became a port of call for Spanish and occasional English, Dutch and French ships as a supply station for food and water. The native population shrank dramatically due to European-introduced diseases and conflicts over land and the survivors were forcibly relocated to Guam in 1720 for better control and assimilation. Under Spanish rule, the island was developed into ranches for raising cattle and pigs, which were used to provision Spanish galleons on their way to Mexico.
Around 1815, many Carolinians from Satawal settled Saipan during a period when the Chamorros were imprisoned on Guam, which resulted in a significant loss of land and rights for the Chamorro natives.
After the Spanish–American War of 1898, Saipan was occupied by the United States. However, it was then sold by Spain to the German Empire in 1899. The island was administered by Germany as part of German New Guinea, but during the German period, there was no attempt to develop or settle the island, which remained under the control of its Spanish and mestizo landowners.
In 1914, during World War I, the island was captured by the Empire of Japan. The Empire was awarded formal control of the island in 1918 by the League of Nations as a part of its mandated territory of Nanyo. Militarily and economically, Saipan was one of the most important islands in Nanyo and became the center of subsequent Japanese settlement. Immigration began in the 1920s by ethnic Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Okinawans, who developed large-scale sugar plantations. The Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha built sugar refineries, and under Japanese rule, extensive infrastructure development occurred, including the construction of port facilities, waterworks, power stations, paved roads and schools, along with entertainment facilities and Shinto shrines. By October 1943, Saipan had a civilian population of 29,348 Japanese settlers and 3,926 Chamorro and Caroline Islanders.
Japan considered Saipan as part of the last line of defenses for the Japanese homeland, and thus had strongly committed to defending it. The Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy garrisoned Saipan heavily from the late 1930s, building numerous coastal artillery batteries, shore defenses, underground fortifications and an airstrip. In mid-1944, nearly 30,000 troops were based on the island.
The Battle of Saipan from 15 June to 9 July 1944 was one of the major campaigns of World War II. The United States Marines and United States Army landed on the beaches of the southwestern side of the island, and spent more than three weeks in heavy fighting to secure the island from the Japanese. The battle cost the Americans 3,426 killed and 10,364 wounded, whereas of the estimated 30,000 Japanese defenders, only 921 were taken prisoner. Weapons and the tactics of close quarter fighting also resulted in high civilian casualties. Some 20,000 Japanese civilians perished during the battle, including over 1,000 who committed suicide by jumping from "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff" rather than be taken prisoner.
Seabees of the U.S. Navy also landed to participate in construction projects. With the capture of Saipan, the American military was now only 1,300 miles away from the Japanese home islands, which placed most Japanese cities within striking distance of United States' B-29 Superfortress bombers. The loss of Saipan was a heavy blow to both the military and civilian administration of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō, who was forced to resign.
This history is also interpreted on Saipan at American Memorial Park and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Museum of History and Culture. After the war, nearly all of the surviving Japanese settlers were repatriated to Japan.
After the end of World War II, Saipan became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States. The island continued to be dominated by the United States military. Since 1978, the island has been a municipality of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The military presence began to be replaced by tourism in the 1990s, but still plays an important role in the local economy.
Music on Saipan can generally be broken down into three categories: local, mainland American, and Asian. Local consists of Chamorro, Carolinian, Micronesian Hawaiian Reggae and Palauan music, often with traditional dance for many occasions. Mainland American consists of many of the same varieties that can be found on U.S. radio, and Asian consists of Japanese, Korean, Thai and Philippine music, among others. There are seven radio stations on Saipan, which play mainly popular and classic English-language songs as well as local and Philippine music.
Local television stations on Saipan are the following:
Travel to and from the island is available from several airlines via Saipan International Airport. A ferry once operated between Saipan and Tinian but was halted in 2010, reportedly for maintenance, but in fact it was never reinstated. Taxis are available within Saipan only.
One of the island's two main thoroughfares, Beach Road, is located on the western coast of Saipan. At some parts of the road, the beach is only a few feet away. Flame trees and pine trees line the street. The street also connects more than six villages that lie on the western coast of the island. Middle Road is the island's largest road and runs through its central section. Like Beach Road, Middle Road connects several villages throughout the island. Several offices, shops, hotels, and residences lie on or nearby these highways. Middle road is labeled "Chalan Pale Arnold" on maps, but very few people call it that.
The island of Saipan has a total of 30 "official" villages. However, there are many sub-areas and neighborhoods located in certain villages such as Afetnas in San Antonio and Tapochau and I Denne in Capitol Hill. Those marked "SV:" are the sub-villages.
Tourism has traditionally been a vital source of the island's revenue and economic activities. In years past, one of the main economic driving forces in Saipan was garment manufacturing. The USA agreed that the CNMI would be exempted from certain federal laws, including some concerning labor and immigration. One result was an increase in hotels and tourism. However, dozens of garment factories also opened; clothing manufacture became the island's chief economic force, employing thousands of foreign contract laborers while labeling their goods "made in the U.S.A." and supplying the U.S. market with low cost garments exempt from U.S. tariffs. The working conditions and treatment experienced by employees in these factories were the subject of controversy and criticism.
As of March 2007, 19 companies manufactured garments on Saipan. In addition to many foreign-owned and run companies, many well-known U.S. brands also operated garment factories in Saipan for much of the last three decades. Brands included Gap (as of 2000 operating six factories there), Levi Strauss, Phillips-Van Heusen, Abercrombie & Fitch, L'Oreal subsidiary Ralph Lauren (Polo), Lord & Taylor, Tommy Hilfiger, and Walmart.
Currently, there are no garment manufacturers on the island, with the last one having closed on January 15, 2009. On November 28, 2009, the federal government took control of immigration to the Northern Mariana Islands.
Jack Abramoff and his law firm were paid at least $6.7 million by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) from 1995 to 2001 to change and/or prevent Congressional action regarding the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and businesses on Saipan, its capital, commercial center, and one of its three principal islands.
Later lobbying efforts involved mailings from a Ralph Reed marketing company and bribery of Roger Stillwell, a Department of the Interior official who in 2006 pleaded guilty to accepting gifts from Abramoff.
Excerpted from "Immigration and the CNMI: A report of the US Commission on Immigration Reform", January 7, 1998:
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) immigration system is antithetical to the principles that are at the core of the US immigration policy. Over time, the CNMI has developed an immigration system dominated by the entry of foreign temporary contract workers. These now outnumber US citizens but have few rights within the CNMI and are subject to serious labor and human rights abuses. In contrast to US immigration policy, which admits immigrants for permanent residence and eventual citizenship, the CNMI admits aliens largely as temporary contract workers who are ineligible to gain either US citizenship or civil and social rights within the commonwealth. Only a few countries and no democratic society have immigration policies similar to the CNMI. The closest equivalent is Kuwait.
The end result of the CNMI policy is to have a minority population governing and severely limiting the rights of the majority population who are alien in every sense of the word.
On March 31, 1998, US Senator Daniel Akaka said:
The Commonwealth shares our American flag, but it does not share the American system of immigration. There is something fundamentally wrong with a CNMI immigration system that issues permits to recruiters, who in turn promise well-paying American jobs to foreigners in exchange for a $6,000 recruitment fee. When the workers arrive in Saipan, they find their recruiter has vanished and there are no jobs in sight. Hundreds of these destitute workers roam the streets of Saipan with little or no chance of employment and no hope of returning to their homeland.
The State Department has confirmed that the government of China is an active participant in the CNMI immigration system. There is something fundamentally wrong with an immigration system that allows the government of China to prohibit Chinese workers from exercising political or religious freedom while employed in the United States. Something is fundamentally wrong with a CNMI immigration system that issues entry permits for 12- and 13-year-old girls from the Philippines and other Asian nations, and allows their employers to use them for live sex shows and prostitution.
Finally, something is fundamentally wrong when a Chinese construction worker asks if he can sell one of his kidneys for enough money to return to China and escape the deplorable working conditions in the Commonwealth and the immigration system that brought him there. There are voices in the CNMI telling us that the cases of worker abuse we keep hearing about are isolated examples, that the system is improving, and that worker abuse is a thing of the past. These are the same voices that reap the economic benefits of a system of indentured labor that enslaves thousands of foreign workers – a system described in a bi-partisan study as "an unsustainable economic, social and political system that is antithetical to most American values." There is overwhelming evidence that abuse in the CNMI occurs on a grand scale and the problems are far from isolated.
In 1991, Levi Strauss & Co. was embarrassed by a scandal involving six subsidiary factories run on Saipan by the Tan Holdings Corporation. It was revealed that Chinese laborers in those factories suffered under what the U.S. Department of Labor called "slavelike" conditions. Cited for sub-minimal wages, seven-day work week schedules with twelve-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities (including the alleged removal of passports and the virtual imprisonment of workers), Tan would eventually pay what was then the largest fines in U.S. labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1200 employees. At the time, Tan factories produced 3% of Levi's jeans with the "Made in the U.S.A." label. Levi Strauss claimed that it had no knowledge of the offenses, severed ties to the Tan family, and instituted labor reforms and inspection practices in its offshore facilities.
In 1999, Sweatshop Watch, Global Exchange, Asian Law Caucus, Unite, and the garment workers themselves filed three separate lawsuits in class-action suits on behalf of roughly 30,000 garment workers in Saipan. The defendants included 27 U.S. retailers and 23 Saipan garment factories. By 2004, they had won a 20 million dollar settlement against all but one of the defendants. Levi Strauss & Co. was the only successful defendant, winning the case against them in 2004.
In 2005–2006, the issue of immigration and labor practices on Saipan was brought up during the American political scandals of Congressman Tom DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who visited the island on numerous occasions.
On July 19, 2007, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Insular Affairs David B. Cohen testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Regarding S. 1634 (The Northern Mariana Islands Covenant Implementation Act). He said:
Congress has the authority to make immigration and naturalization laws applicable to the CNMI. Through the bill that we are discussing today, Congress is proposing to take this legislative step to bring the immigration system of the CNMI under Federal administration. […] [S]erious problems continue to plague the CNMI's administration of its immigration system, and we remain concerned that the CNMI's rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation may make it even more difficult for the CNMI government to devote the resources necessary to effectively administer its immigration system and to properly investigate and prosecute labor abuse. […] While we congratulate the CNMI for its recent successful prosecution of a case in which foreign women were pressured into prostitution, human trafficking remains far more prevalent in the CNMI than it is in the rest of the U.S. During the twelve-month period ending on April 30, 2007, 36 female victims of human trafficking were admitted to or otherwise served by Guma' Esperansa, a women’s shelter operated by a Catholic nonprofit organization. All of these victims were in the sex trade. Secretary Kempthorne personally visited the shelter and met with a number of women from the Philippines who were underage when they were trafficked into the CNMI for the sex industry. [...I]t is clear that local control over CNMI immigration has resulted in a human trafficking problem that is proportionally much greater than the problem in the rest of the U.S.
A number of foreign nationals have come to the Federal Ombudsman’s office complaining that they were promised a job in the CNMI after paying a recruiter thousands of dollars to come there, only to find, upon arrival in the CNMI, that there was no job. Secretary Kempthorne met personally with a young lady from China who was the victim of such a scam and who was pressured to become a prostitute; she was able to report her situation and obtain help in the Federal Ombudsman’s office. We believe that steps need to be taken to protect women from such terrible predicaments.
We are also concerned about recent attempts to smuggle foreign nationals, in particular Chinese nationals, from the CNMI into Guam by boat. A woman was recently sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to smuggle over 30 Chinese nationals from the CNMI into Guam.
A movement to federalize labor and immigration in the Northern Marianas Islands began in early 2007. A letter writing campaign to reform CNMI labor and immigration was debated in the local newspapers. Worker groups organized a successful Unity March December 7, 2007. Despite a strong lobby effort by Governor Fitial to stop it, President Bush signed PL 110-229 into law in May 2008 and the US takeover began November 28, 2009.
Contract laborers arriving from China are usually required to pay their (Chinese National) recruitment agents fees equal to a year's total salary (roughly $3,500) and occasionally as high as two years' salary, though the contracts are only one-year contracts, renewable at the employer's discretion.
Sixty percent of the population of the CNMI is contract workers. These workers cannot vote. They are not represented, and can be deported if they lose their jobs. Meanwhile, the minimum wage remains well below that on the U.S. mainland, and abuses of vulnerable workers are commonplace.
In John Bowe's 2007 book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, he provides a focus on Saipan, exploring how its culture, isolation and American ties have made it a favorable environment for exploitative garment manufacturers and corrupt politicos. Bowe goes into detail about the island's factories, and also its karaoke bars and strip joints, some of which have had connections with politicos. The author depicts Saipan as a vulnerable, truly suffering community, where poverty rates have climbed as high as 35 percent, and proposes that the guest worker setup, by allowing many native islanders to avoid work, has actually crippled the competitiveness and job readiness of the native population.
Chinese national, Chun Yu Wang, in her 2009 book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan (as told to Walt F.J. Goodridge), provides the only known first-hand account of factory work conditions and life in the barracks, a historical timeline of the garment factory era on Saipan, and provides revealing insights from a Chinese perspective into the experience typical of many of the garment factory workers on Saipan.
Despite an annual rainfall of 80 to 100 inches (2,000 to 2,500 mm), the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation (CUC), the local government-run water utility company on Saipan, is unable to deliver 24-hour-a-day potable water to its customers in certain areas. As a result, several large hotels use reverse osmosis to produce fresh water for their customers. In addition, many homes and small businesses augment the sporadic and sometimes brackish water provided by CUC with rainwater collected and stored in cisterns. Most locals buy drinking water from water distributors and use tap water only for bathing or washing as it has a strong sulfur taste.
According to the 2010 United States Census, Saipan's population was 48,220, a drop of 22.7% from the 2000 US Census; the population decrease is largely attributed to working immigrants and their families either returning to their home countries after the collapse of the garment industry or moving to other locations with economic opportunities such as Guam and the United States. The population of Saipan corresponds to approximately 90% of the population of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Large numbers of Filipino, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Nepalese and smaller numbers of Sri Lankan and Burmese unskilled workers and professionals migrated to the Northern Mariana Islands including Saipan during the late 1900s mostly during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, a large percentage of the island's population includes first-generation immigrants and their descendants from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh and immigrants from other Micronesian islands.
According to the 2010 United States Census, Saipan was 50.9% Asian (35.3% Filipino, 6.8% Chinese, 4.2% Korean, 1.5% Japanese, 0.9% Bangladeshi, 0.5% Thai, 0.4% Nepalese, 0.3% Other Asian), 34.9% Pacific Islander (23.9% Chamorro, 4.6% Carolinian, 2.3% Chuukese, 2.2% Palauan, 0.8% Pohnpeian, 0.4% Yapese, 0.1% Kosraean, 0.1% Marshallese, and 0.5% Other Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander), 2.1% white and 0.2% others.
The majority of the native Chamorro and Carolinian population are Catholic. Probably an equal portion of people on the island are foreign contract workers, mainly Catholic Filipinos. Numerous Christian churches are active in Saipan, providing services in various languages including English, Chamorro, Tagalog, Korean and Chinese. In conjunction to the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands, there are Chinese and Filipino Protestant and Catholic churches, a Korean Protestant church, two mosques for the Bangladeshi community and a Buddhist temple.
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Public School System serves Saipan.
Northern Marianas College is a two-year community college serving the Northern Mariana Islands. Eucon International College is a four-year college that offers degrees in Bible and Education. Also there are many private schools on Saipan, including the Marianas Baptist Academy, Saipan International School, Mount Carmel School, Whispering Palms School, Saipan Community School, Grace Christian Academy, Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School, and more.
Saipan was a major part of the plot in the Tom Clancy novel Debt of Honor. The 1960 movie Hell to Eternity tells the true-life story of GI Guy Gabaldon's role in convincing 800 Japanese soldiers to surrender during the WWII Battle of Saipan. Key to Gabaldon's success was his ability to speak Japanese fluently due to being raised in the 1930s by a Japanese-American foster family.
Much of the action in 2002 film Windtalkers takes place during the invasion of Saipan during World War II.
In 2011, a Japanese film about Captain Sakae Oba took place in Saipan. Titled Oba: The Last Samurai, it revolved around Oba holding out on Saipan until December 1, 1945.
A significant part of the novel Amrita by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto takes place in Saipan with regular references to the landscape and spirituality of the island.
It also appears in Kyō Kara Ore Wa!! manga as a place that Mitsuhashi visits after winning a lotto.
Saipan is the setting for the P.F. Kluge novel The Master Blaster. This novel is structured as first person narratives of 5 characters, 4 of whom arrive on the same flight, and the unfolding of their experiences on the island. The book weaves together a mysterious tale of historical fiction with reference to Saipan's multi-ethnic past, from Japanese colonization to American WWII victory and post cold war evolution of the island. The Master Blaster is the home-grown anonymous critic who blogs about the corruption and exploitation by developers, politicians, and government officials.
Saipan is also known in the association football community as the site of the training camp for the Republic of Ireland national football team prior to the 2002 FIFA World Cup in which an incident of heated argument occurred between then-captain Roy Keane and then-manager Mick McCarthy which eventually led to the dismissal and departure of Keane from the squad. This incident has come to be known colloquially as "the Saipan incident" or "the Saipan saga".
Location for South Korean band, TVXQ's All About TVXQ! Season 3 Storybook in Saipan. Location for MNET's South Korean dating show featuring Choi Siwon, Donghae, and Kibum of Super Junior and model Lee Eun Jung called Super Summer.
Saipan was the main site for a South Korean dating reality TV show Kko Kko Tour, the location for the South Korean Variety Show "Lets Go! Dream Team Season 2" Survival Special; which was used to find the true ace of the program, the location for the South Korean TV show "Hot Brothers" air date 6 October 2010 at Pacific Islands Club.
It was also one of the locations on the first part of the vacation special in the South Korean variety-reality show The Human Condition.
It was an important part of the setting of the South Korean drama Can You Hear My Heart?, the characters of the drama lived in Saipan for a time.
Saipan was the location for the popular South Korean Girl Group Secret's Music Video of 'Yoohoo'.
Saipan was the also the location for the South Korean singer BoA's Japanese music video of 'Tail of Hope'.
During 2014, this was also the location for the popular South Korean Girl Group Sistar's music video of their song "I Swear", the main song of their special album Sweet and Sour.
For 2015, a Korean variety show, Weekly Idol, shot a special episode there featuring a very famous Korean Girl Group, Apink.