The Sorrow of Okinawa

Since I started writing “Escarpment” I have become more aware of Okinawa’s sorrow; not only the suffering of its people during the Battle, but their heartache before and ever since. Shimizu-san relates:

“Until the fifteenth century, we were a flourishing independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom, living mostly on trade with China, Korea and Japan. But then the Japanese invaded, one of the big Kyushu clans, and we were independent no more. We became servants of the Emperor in Edo. Even the rice we grew was no longer our own. Edo imposed a huge tax on it, and this had to be met before any of the rice got into our mouths.

“By the time of the Meiji Restoration, we had been completely assimilated into Japan. The government that ruled us and the bureaucracy that made sure the government’s demands were carried out in every field and village was staffed completely by mainland Japanese. Our language and many of our old customs were banned. We were treated like natives, and that discrimination continues, in more subtle ways, to the present day.

“Our economy was based on two things. One, the sweet potato. Two, sugar cane. Today, there is a third – tourism. The mainland Japanese loved our sweet potato. They couldn’t get enough of our sugar, either. And for a time, their exportation made us rich.

“My grandparents and the old people in our village used to tell us wistful tales of those days. They spanned the First World War – an era of horror for the populations of Europe, but the Golden Age for our little island, down here at the end of the world. The wealth came from exports of sugar cane to the mainland.

“But then the war ended, and our good times came to an end, too. No one wanted our sugar anymore. The bottom fell out of the market. And we got hit by a double-punch. The tourists come now because Okinawa is a tropical paradise. But this paradise lies slap in the middle of Typhoon Alley. In the typhoon season, the tourists stay away, quite rightly. Our society is hostage to the wind.

“In the same years that no one wanted our sugar cane anymore, the typhoons swept away our sweet potato crops and drowned our rice. They left us nothing to eat. We starved. Have you ever heard of the cyclad? I don’t expect so. It’s an indigenous palm; you can see them all over the island. It’s also very poisonous.

“Those same old-timers who recounted to us kids stories about the golden age, told us in the same breath, not wistful anymore, about “Cyclad Hell”. That damn palm was the only thing left on the whole island to eat. Because it was poisonous, it had to be processed first. When the poison was gone, it was boiled or otherwise cooked and eaten, breakfast, lunch and dinner. The island starved.

“The mainland didn’t send aid. The mainland turned an official blind eye. But there were many there watching closely. Companies set up offices in Naha and sent agents out into the villages, offering hope and a future to desperate people – jobs on the mainland and in other parts of the world. Many thousands took the offer and ended up working as slave-labor in Japanese factories, building the railways, dying of the cold, buried under tunnel collapses, raped and beaten to death in brothels.

“One thing the old-timers never talked to us about were the children, the missing children. Many of the agents traveling about the villages were only interested in buying children.

“Well, those days passed. But the typhoons kept coming through, blowing away everything but the misery of my people. Then Japan started a fool war with America. Near the end of it, the US 10th Army landed on beaches not very far from our village.

“The battle lasted two-and-a-half months. I was right in the middle of it. Seven-years-old. Boy, oh boy. Afterwards, it wasn’t as bad as we’d been told it would be if the Americans won. For a seven-year-old kid, it was great. We were all rounded up into internment camps. The food was good, we got some schooling, the American teachers and nurses, blue-eyed and blonde-haired, were angels. I was in love with one. I didn’t even know what love was, but I was drowning in it and happy to keep on drowning.

“Seven-years-old, going on for eight, what the hell did I know? We were let out of the camps and went back to our villages. There was nothing left of them. The fighting had destroyed our houses and cratered our fields. But little kids don’t see their mothers’ hearts breaking. And they don’t understand the shouting, the fierce arguments, the sudden violence on the edge of a sugar cane field, the big American military policemen, the flash of a bayonet, the sullenness that was everywhere. The military authorities had arbitrarily requisitioned whole swathes of privately-owned land to build their supply depots on.

“The Occupation of Japan ended in 1951, but in Okinawa it continues to this day, as we speak. Listen. Hear the US Air Force jets overhead?

“When the Korean War started, the US Government realized how strategically important Okinawa was in the fight against Communism. There was an influx of American troops, the bases had to be expanded, and land was needed to expand them onto.

“The same thing that had happened in 1945 happened again – the forced requisitioning of privately-owned fields. The Okinawans nicknamed this “Bayonets and Bulldozers”. They were driven off their land at the point of the bayonets and kept back by bayonets while their homes were bulldozed.

“And that’s how it has been here ever since. That same constant, grinding, soul-destroying tension between the Okinawan people and the US military occupiers or oppressors or whatever you want to call them. Our history ever since is just a grudge list of dates.

“1959, a US jet crashed into an elementary school. The pilot ejected safely, but seventeen people, including eleven children died, and more than a hundred were badly injured in the fire that broke and spread.

“1970, Christmas season, a US serviceman, drunk at the wheel, hit and injured an Okinawan. Everybody hit the streets, boiling mad. Military Police moved in and fired warning shots. That started a full-fledged riot. American vehicles were overturned and set on fire. The crowd managed to get inside areas attached to Kadena Military base and burn three buildings down. It took police and US troops six hours to regain control of the streets. Seventy-three US vehicles had been burned.

“In 1995, three US military personnel were arrested for sexually assaulting a young Okinawan girl. This girl, I believe, was under-age. The US Army, citing, as usual, the Status of Forces Agreement, refused to hand the suspects over to Okinawan civilian police. Oh, boy. 85,000 locals turned out into the streets and the parks.

“That’s how we live. Nothing will ever change it.”