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JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3

Stuart Isett/Corbis Sygma for TIME.
Americon icons are hard to avoid in Okinawa.

Identity Crisis
Caught 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?

The 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 battlefield—victors 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 differently—like the relaxed distant relatives of the driven Tokyoites. "We try but can't fully become Japanese," one of Okinawa's former governors, Junji Nishime, famously said.

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.

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And 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."

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 quickly—the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, even Southeast Asia—should 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 times—which, 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 activists—as well as the anti-imf, anti-capitalism crowd that showed up in Seattle and Washington—have 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 appearance—light skin, reddish hair—makes 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 military—or 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 one—and 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 summit—and shortly thereafter Okinawa's governor Keiichi Inamine announced he would support moving Futenma—well, it smelled like a deal. There were denials all around, of course, but that didn't convince many Okinawans.

"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. Medoruma—his pen name—is 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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