JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3
Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME.
Americon icons are hard to avoid in Okinawa.
between the U.S. and Japan, Okinawa suffers from a split personality.
Will the island hosting this week's G-8 summit ever find its soul?
By TIM LARIMER Naha
war memorial in Itoman, on the southern tip of Okinawa, is a democratic
monument, the kind that became fashionable in the late 20th century. Completed
in 1995, it is a simple collection of 116 black granite tablets shaped
like folding screens that have been arranged to look like a giant fan.
On each tablet are inscribed the names of those who perished on the Okinawan
battlefieldvictors and vanquished. The 75,219 Japanese soldiers
who fell on their Emperor's sword in a tragically futile attempt to stave
off inevitable defeat now share space with the 14,006 Americans who died
here thousands of kilometers from home. And finally, there are the Okinawans
themselves, some of them soldiers, but most of them civilians caught in
the crossfire, or worse, slaughtered by the Japanese army that was supposed
to be protecting them. Nearly a third of Okinawa's population of 450,000
was wiped out in the 84 days of fighting that ended with the June 23,
1945 capture of the island.
On this small, wind-swept bluff overlooking imposing cliffs, former enemies
are joined together in posterity. Their unlikely union lives on, too,
in the struggle for identity in Okinawa. Genetically linked to China,
culturally influenced by America, legally part of Japan and spiritually
immersed in the tropics, Okinawans don't know who they are anymore. As
it hosts the meeting of the world's industrial powers this week, Okinawa
doesn't seem like it belongs in the G-8 because it doesn't really fit
in Japan. While the rest of the country prospered in the postwar economic
boom, Okinawa was put on ice as a military zone. No wonder it is now poorer
than the rest of Japan, with twice the unemployment. Only 28% of the kids
go on to college, compared with more than 44% in the rest of Japan. Okinawans
even look different from their cousins; their skin is darker, their physiques
stockier and eyes rounder. They certainly behave differentlylike
the relaxed distant relatives of the driven Tokyoites. "We try but can't
fully become Japanese," one of Okinawa's former governors, Junji Nishime,
For more than half a century, Okinawa has been a lost island, a tropical
paradise floating between two powerful nations that used it to fight a
fierce battle against each other and then colonized it to serve their
postwar truce. When World War II ended, the Americans took control and
turned the island into a military fortress. In 1972, it was given back
to Japan, which has administered it ever since as something of a welfare
state, doling out piles of yen to pay salaries of civilians who work on
the U.S. bases that still house 26,000 American troops and more piles
of yen to farmers whose land was confiscated by the U.S. Meanwhile, the
island began to look like California's San Fernando Valley, its wide boulevards
lined with used furniture stores, bars, cineplexes and fast-food joints.
ALSO IN TIME
those marines who conquered Okinawa in 1945? They're still a sore point.
Okinawans were rudely reminded of that this month when a 19-year-old marine
was arrested on allegations that while stone drunk, he stumbled inside
a stranger's unlocked apartment and fondled a 14-year-old girl. "My God,
how can we assure the safety of our children if this occurred in her own
home?" asked Suzuyo Takazato, a member of the city assembly in Naha, Okinawa's
largest city. The alleged crime, like the brutal rape of a 12-year-old
girl by three marines in 1995, is a bitter echo of the indignity Okinawans
have felt since their island was first taken away. "After the war, when
people returned, they found their homes burned to the ground, or confiscated
for the military bases," says Takazato. "Then we had to live in dilapidated
houses alongside those bases. It was humiliating."
edition's table of contents
Zenyu Shimabuku was nine years old when the marines invaded. He, his parents
and his younger sister fled their patch of farm land, with its clusters
of tea plants, sweet potatoes and sugar cane and hid in a cave. Their
father bravely grabbed a soldier's gun as an American unit approached
them. He was taken off to a prisoner's camp. The children were coaxed
out by a slice of bread. They lived behind barbed wire for three years.
Shimabuku's captors would let him out from time to time, once the war
was over. He was shocked to find the tall pine trees, planted decades
before as wind breaks, bulldozed. His mud-and-thatch home was gone, along
with everything inside. Tents had been erected in neat rows for the American
soldiers to live in.
More than half a century later, Shimabuku's land still sits in the middle
of a U.S. base. One day he convinced guards to let him inside. The land
is paved over now, a parking lot near an airplane runway. "The terrible
thing is that there were only two cars parked on this huge parking lot,"
he says. "What a waste!" Most landowners like Shimabuku whose property
was absorbed by the U.S. military gave their permission years ago, and
receive rent payments twice a year from Tokyo; the amount is adjusted
from year to year. But Shimabuku is one of about 100 landowners suing
to get their family parcels back. The government gave the U.S. authority
to use the lands anyway, and pays these landowners back rent in lump sums.
Shimabuku, for example, most recently received $28,000 for five years.
"I visited America. I was surprised at how big it is. So I ask, please
Americans, can't you use some of your own land for these bases?"
Brigadier General Gary H. Hughey of the U.S. Marine Corps has an answer
to that: No.
"Our presence promotes stability in the region," Hughey says. A large,
grim-faced man of 53 who has served four tours of duty here since 1972,
Hughey is firm in his belief that America belongs here. Okinawa is geographically
well situated for the Marines to reach regional hotspots quicklythe
Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, even Southeast Asiashould American forces
ever be needed there. Hughey, like official Washington, sticks to this
assertion even though global dynamics have changed. The cold war ended,
the Soviet Union is gone and even Pyongyang is coming out of the cold
with overtures of peace to Seoul.
Still, Hughey displays a new, softer approach toward Okinawa, an attempt
to improve public relations that began after the 1995 rape and after 85,000
Okinawans held a peaceful protest calling for U.S. troops to go home.
"The Battle of Okinawa was terrible for Americans and Japanese," he says.
"And the Okinawans were caught in the middle."
They still are. The 39 U.S. bases take up 20% of Okinawa's land and account
for three-fourths of the American military installations in Japan. Hughey
acknowledges that "Okinawans bear a heavy burden. The world owes them
a debt of gratitude." The Marines are trying to do something about that
by sending soldiers to help out in schools and hospitals.
The U.S. government feels it owes Okinawa apologies, as well, after three
incidents involving military personnel this month. First, the 19-year-old
was accused of molesting the teenage girl. A few days later, two marines
were accused of scuffling with a taxi driver after a friend didn't want
to pay a fare. Then, an Air Force sergeant was accused of running a red
light, hitting a pedestrian and fleeing the scene in his car. Lieut. General
Earl B. Hailston, the top Marines commander in Okinawa, apologized to
Okinawa's governor and U.S. Ambassador Tom Foley to Japan's Foreign Minister
Yohei Kono. But with President Clinton scheduled to arrive this week and
the world's spotlight briefly focused on Okinawa, the timing of the incidents
couldn't have been worse.
"It makes me mad," complains 23-year-old Air Force Senior Airman Wes Hufnagel.
He was hoisting a beer in a surfer bar earlier this month. "I always thought
the Okinawans didn't really mind us. Then you get some nut who screws
it up for the rest of us. Now I go out and who knows what the local girls
are thinking of me?" The military has imposed a midnight drinking curfew,
on base and off. To avoid any embarrassing events during the summit, commander
Hailston has ordered all marines to remain in uniform at all timeswhich,
by their own rules, prevents them from leaving their bases. But G-8 delegates
will find it hard to miss the U.S. presence in Okinawa. Military helicopters
buzz and fighter jets soar overhead on most days. Anti-base activistsas
well as the anti-imf, anti-capitalism crowd that showed up in Seattle
and Washingtonhave planned a week of demonstrations, including a
sing-in on a beach where there are plans to build a new military heliport,
and a protest that involves encircling the largest military post on the
island, Kadena Air Force Base, with a human chain.
There are other, more subtle signs of the uneasy union of cultures here,
in the form of thousands of Amerasians. One 36-year-old woman, who doesn't
want her name used because she works on a U.S. base, never knew her father.
But her appearancelight skin, reddish hairmakes his nationality
obvious to all. She thumbs through an album of childhood photos; she stands
out in every classroom portrait. "I was the only one who looked different,"
she says. "I hated that." She married and later divorced an Amerasian
man, and they had a child, now a grade-schooler, whose blond locks, freckles
and pasty skin mask his Japanese identity. "I don't want him to experience
what I did," his mother says. "I don't want him to be noticed."
Two years ago, parents of other Amerasian children decided they didn't
want their children to be the focus of unwanted attention in Japan's public
schools, either. So they started their own school, a small, cramped collection
of rooms in the city of Ginowan, near a large U.S. base. The 48 students
have found a haven where kids who have always been different can now be
just like everyone else. The school doesn't get any financial support
from Japan's Ministry of Education or from the Okinawa prefecture or from
the U.S. government, even though the children have American parents. They
cannot attend schools on U.S. military bases because their fathers have
left the militaryor have left Okinawa, abandoning their families.
Two girls, Nicky and Arisa, are lucky because their families are intact.
All the same, they are called "Halfs," a none too subtle reminder that
they can never be completely Japanese.
The children have horror stories about their interaction with other Japanese
kids. "The kids treat me like an outsider," says 12-year-old Arisa. "They
said, 'Go back to America.'" And then there were the teachers. "They said
America started the war, and then the kids said to me, 'You're dad is
an American soldier, he started the war and he killed all the Japanese.'"
There were other, greater humiliations. "One time this teacher told my
class the main reason there were foreign marriages was because an American
soldier comes to Okinawa and meets a Japanese woman and rapes her and
then she has a baby," Arisa recalls. "Then everybody in the class turned
around and looked at me." Her friend Nicky, a 13-year-old, tells of a
parent-teacher meeting where "one person said, 'If Nicky's mother and
father didn't marry and have kids, we would never have had these kind
of problems in school.'"
Three weeks before the G-8 summit was set to begin, the director of the
Amerasian school got a phone call. The local government wanted to give
her a building to use for the school, rent free. They wanted her to visit
three buildings and pick oneand they wanted her to decide quickly
because they planned to have a press conference in a few days to announce
the donation. This episode explains why Okinawans are cynical about their
relationship with Tokyo. They resent being the object of charity. The
island receives more than $2.9 billion annually from Tokyo in the form
of direct subsidies and tax breaks for Okinawan-run companies. "They've
made us a dependent state, like an addict," says Masaie Ishihara, a sociologist
at Okinawa International University.
Letting Okinawa host the summit seemed like an all-too-typical attempt
to pacify the restless natives. It just so happens that Japan and the
U.S. want to move one base, Futenma, from an urban area to a more remote
location on the coast, near the city of Nago. Okinawans have long wanted
to shutter Futenma, primarily because of the ceaseless helicopter noise
and because it sits on prime beachfront property. But many people don't
want a base anywhere else in Okinawa, either. So when the now deceased
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi announced Okinawa as his choice to host the
summitand shortly thereafter Okinawa's governor Keiichi Inamine
announced he would support moving Futenmawell, it smelled like a
deal. There were denials all around, of course, but that didn't convince
"They're trying to buy us off with this summit," says Shun Medoruma, a
39-year-old schoolteacher and author from Nago who in 1997 won Japan's
highest literary honor, the Akutagawa Prize. Medorumahis pen nameis
something of a rarity in Okinawa: while most criticize Tokyo and want
the bases off their island, he calls for out-and-out independence. Last
year, he wrote a satirical piece for the mass-circulation daily Asahi
Shimbun about an Okinawan who kidnaps and strangles a young American boy.
In the story, this isn't as much an act of revenge as a wake-up call.
Protesting outside U.S. bases isn't enough, the character says, rationalizing
his violent behavior. Says Medoruma: "It is impossible for Okinawans to
make our voices heard, we are so small, caught between two big brothers,
the U.S. and Japan."
He picks a curious spot for a meeting to talk about Okinawan independence:
a root-beer joint, the kind that went out of fashion in the U.S. decades
ago. It is packed on a weekday night with young families and groups of
schoolkids crowding into booths with their homework, portable video game
players and earphones. It's a vision of Okinawa that looks very much American,
and very much Japanese. This is exactly what disturbs Medoruma. "It has
been mentally taxing on the people to have lived with such a loss of identity,"
he says. "There used to be a very strong Okinawan personality. Now we're
neither completely Okinawan nor completely Japanese. We have to find out
who we are."
And then, will it really matter? Even the remotest island can no longer
be isolated from the world, free of influence from across the seas. Okinawa
may discover that its ties to the world's two richest nations may not
be such a bad thing after all. It simply needs to figure out how to take
advantage of a strategic position that is obviously valuable to the U.S.
and Japan, and use that position to regain, finally, itself.
With reporting by Takashi Yokota/Tokyo
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