Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Okinawa

General Douglas McCarthy, Supreme Commander of the American forces controlling Japan after the Second World War, took up residence in one of the first tall buildings to be completed in Tokyo after the war. It gave him an excellent view of the Royal Palace and grounds, and even to the naked eye he could see all the comings and goings. The Americans had kept Emperor Hirohito on, though forcing him to renounce his divinity, as a way of coercing the Japanese people, who still greatly admired him.

McCarthy’s worries were unfounded, however. After the surrender public opinion abruptly turned against the General Tojo and the military, under whose power the Hirohito was seen to have been. Soldiers who had been revered were now reviled. Young men grew their long so as not to appear soldiers. And just a few days after the surrender newspaper leaders looked forward to a new peace-loving and prosperous Japan that would forget its bellicose past, when up to 60% of its GNP was spent on defence.

Losing the War had great advantages. Big Brother would look after us. True, he had certain demands. Japan must be firmly anti-communist. In the small port of Nago, two thirds of the way up the island of Okinawa, I saw a plaque to Kyuichi Tokacho, the most prominent citizen to have been born in this small port of Nago, an opponent of the military pre-war Japanese government, but who, as Secretary General of the Japanese Communist Party, was forced to leave Japan for China in 1950.

So Japan became an exemplary pupil of the USA. The huge oligopolies such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi were partially dismantled in order to open up competition; Japan was initially given aid, then procurement contracts in the Korean War, and was now unhampered by military spending, maintaining only a small self-defence force. Japanese industriousness did the rest. Many commentators say the Samurai warrior-like instinct was now turned to business. First steel and chemicals, then toys and radios and household electrical goods; after cars and electronics; now high-tech goods: Sony, Sanyo, Toyota, Nissan, Honda.

The US still defends Japan, or rather, uses Japan as a strategic base for South East Asia and the Pacific. Mostly on Okinawa, some 300 km south west of the main islands, where some 30,000 troops are stationed, and 20% of the island is, to all intensive purposes, part of the US. And, despite rumblings from the Pentagon that it should pay its way and provide a NATO force, such a proposal has limited support and would be electoral dynamite. Deep scars are still there.

Sporadically there is anti-American protest in Okinawa, which was under US jurisdiction till 1972. On Sunday some forty young men gathered in a central square in Naha, the capital of Okinawa to protest against continued American involvement in Iraq. But nothing like the enormous anti-American protests when an Okinawan 12-year-old was raped by American soldiers in 1995.

But they seem to have died down. The pro-Tokyo and therefore pro-American governor, Keiichi Inamine, is now in his second term of office. The bases bring in a lot of money. An Okinawa is one of the poorest parts of Japan.

11 a.m.on a Monday morning in Okinawa City, next to the huge Kadena air base, which the Americans first took in 1945. I seem to be in the seedy district of some small town in the Midwest. Manila Bay, Amazonesu and Moonlight are sweeping up the weekend’s stale beer, cigarettes butts and maybe a used condom or two. A trolley woman asks me for money. Rap, house and hip-hop blare from the cheap clothes shops and army surplus stores. I eat at the Filipino café with the GIs. I pass China Pete’s, surely the toughest of saloons, but no, Pete sells delicate up-market china pottery.

Living in Tokyo, I never sensed that Japan was in many ways just another American state. I experienced little of the American Way of Life. The scale of most things was so small and un-American. I travelled by car once in three months. Everybody came by train to Tokyo University. Many students were completing their PhDs without ever considering how to learn how to drive.

But Okinawa City, like nearly all the island, and much of Japan, is truly American. The drab downtown caters for the old and infirm. The pavements, or rather, sidewalks, are empty but for me, the elderly, and an occasional school student. Economic life is on the strips and in the malls and the fast-food joints, bowling alleys and theme parks. There are no trains, and everyone goes just about everywhere by car.

The local lads go around in rappers’ uniforms. And the tourist shops in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, sell Hawaiian-looking shirts. Maybe Okinawa is another Hawaii or Honolulu? But is has never really been Japanese. The ancient kingdom of the Ryukus was an independent kingdom with allegiance to China until it was conquered in 1609 by the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. But it was left to itself and only in 1879 was it formally made a Japanese prefecture and pressurized to become more Japanese, to use standard Japanese dialect and to pay allegiance to Emperor Meiji. And in the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s many Okinawans emigrated to the Japanese controlled Melanesian islands and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

From my hotel room in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, I look down on what I think are ex-army bunkers. But I am wrong: they are the large Okinawan burial vaults. But I am also right. In the Battle of Okinawa, which raged for some 90 days from 23 March 1945, when Japanese solders were ordered to fight a war of attrition in order to weaken the American forces before their assault on the Japanese mainland, the people of Okinawa were caught in the crossfire. Many took refuge in the ancestral tombs.

The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Park shows revulsion at the behaviour of the Japanese soldiers, who often considered Okinawans to be second-class Japanese citizens. Okinawan people were tricked into the war by “Emperor-oriented militaristic beliefs”. Soldiers threw civilians out of their shelters and stole their food when they should have been protecting them, coerced them into killing each other, and shot those who spoke in the forbidden Okinawan dialect as traitors. 120,000 civilians, a third of the total population, died in crossfire, forced suicide in the name of the Emperor, shelling, malnutrition and disease.

Conscripted schoolgirls worked as nurses, fetching and carrying, looking after the wounded, holding limbs being amputated, burying and burning corpses in the caves that were used as hospitals. At then end of May 1945 the Japanese defence collapsed. Dispensable, the girls were ordered out of the caves but forbidden to surrender. Commanding Officer General Ushijima committed suicide but did not negotiate the surrender of civilians. Japan would fight on to the last man, woman, and child for the eternal cause of the Emperor: Goyoksai – to die gracefully for honour and a noble cause. Many were killed as the US forces mopped up. Some of those schoolgirls that survived, now old ladies, of course, take visitors around the Himeyuri Museum, dedicated to these schoolgirls.

But after all, nowadays Okinawa is not such a bad place to live. The island tourist brochure proudly announces that it has a greater proportion of 100-year-old people than anywhere else in the world!


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