Finding America in Okinawa.

One of the things I was most interested in when we were planning this trip to Okinawa was its historical and current relationship with the US. I knew that the US had bases on Okinawa, and that it had been a major part of the WWII offense against the Japanese. I was curious to see what sentiment remained today around Americans, and also what remained of the history from that era.

We got to learn more about that when we visited the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum on our second day. It was a wonderfully detailed museum with plenty of English captioning, and we spent a long time watching videos, checking out some amazing audio-visual exhibits, and being absolutely amazed by the wealth and the breadth of history covered here. There was a stunning projector display of the weather patterns around the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the biggest), as to where typhoons typically go, and currents which have guided historical trading patterns with the Chinese and the Japanese. The more traditional exhibits didn’t disappoint either, with a lot of detail about how Chinese influence led to imperial adoption of dragons and similar architecture, and Japanese influence led to imposing a feudal samurai-and-peasant structure.

The most touching parts came later on, though, as Okinawa moved into modern history, becoming a part of Japan and the subsequent Battle of Okinawa. During WWII, many, many Okinawan civilians died as a part of the casualties during the war, and from mass suicides encouraged by the Japanese government. The saddest piece of the whole museum came in a three-foot wooden plaque, which bore characters originally painted by one of the Ryukyu kings; it was damaged in the occupation, when US soldiers cut a circle of wood out of it to use it as a toilet seat. Being American, I paid a lot of attention to the latter parts of history from this museum. I didn’t know before coming here that the US military actually occupied and administered Okinawa for almost two decades, from the end of World War II to 1972. There was a lot of artifacts from that recent time in history, from textbooks used to teach English and flyers about socials held by the American military to Okinawa license plates and neon signs. The Okinawans were very resentful of this, and saw it as being pointedly un-democratic, since it was a military occupation. The reversion agreement to hand Okinawa back to the Japanese was also negotiated exclusively with the Japanese government, and many Okinawans felt that their voice was not heard. Even more astonishing was that as of today, I saw nearly 50% of the island is still retained for US military camps and bases, and the museum noted that crimes are still committed against Okinawans and their property by US military members.

Steve and I debated about this on the way home for a while. The museum’s stance is doubtlessly a popular one, but only one of many. It was certainly not objective in its views of how Okinawa’s sovereignty had been violated, but I think it was also true. If any foreign military had occupied Boston, and set up a military base over Cape Cod, I don’t think we would stand for it. It’s an absolute insult to the people who live here that so much land on the island is still in the hands of a foreign power, and that their military regularly come and go freely, sometimes not treating people with the respect that they deserve. On the other hand, the objective that is being served is to protect the interests of democracy abroad, which is now kind of a glib phrase that I’m inclined to take cynically, but has practical implications. For example, Steve brought up that mostly everyone would agree that keeping North Korea in check by showing that we have the Seventh Fleet right here (stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, which is in Kanagawa Prefecture). It’s also no doubt subtly a reminder to China that the US can fulfill the promise of the Taiwan Relations Act to militarily defend the island. All good things that can come about because of walking around the world with a big stick. We barely had the chance to really talk to Okinawans and ask them what they really think about the American presence here, but at least one answer came in the form of several highly advertised Navy surplus stores around Naha.

Military thrift shop, all used goods from the base. Shop was playing Aerosmith.

A photo posted by Steve Blackwell (@teamloomis) on

Further evidence of a curious and welcoming attitude to Americans came in the form of Mihama American Village. We had debated about going there, and in the end, made the trek because it was in close proximity to two beaches. On our last day, we took a bus from Naha north about an hour. Originally one of the many areas occupied by American forces during WWII, the neighborhood of Mihama in the larger region of Chatan was re-developed in 2004 to become Mihama American Village, an entertainment complex with restaurants, stores, malls, arcades, cinemas, etc. that had an American theme, complete with a large Ferris wheel. It’s considered one of those places to see home away from home, and indeed, we saw many Americans there, including some families that were going off-base for the day to entertain themselves. We got a few beers and actually tried out a Mexican-themed place, that had the smallest serving of nachos I’ve ever seen. Oh, well. One of the stores had a ton of American clothing and goods: differently-scented car fresheners, flannel shirts in sixteen different shades, camoflague you-name it, and t-shirts that said things like Batman or California Republic (with the bear).

We then strolled to Araha Beach, which lies just south of Mihama American Village, basking in the weather. We spent about an hour lying around on Araha Beach, wading into the Pacific Ocean, which felt only a little cooler than bathwater. The sun was incredibly bright, and I took the time to do a challenging watercolor of the distant shoreline of Naha and the shifting clouds and seascape. We saw several American families around, and a pair of runners from the base, who nodded at us as they ran by, and said, “How’re you doin'”. It was a gesture that would have been so commonplace as to have been unconscious in the US, but it was a startling reminder of what we miss being in the large urban cities of Asia.

A few more stories from our time in Okinawa to come!


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