Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Devil in the Details

Today I went swimming in Oura Bay, a body of deep blue water exposed to the Pacific Ocean about half- way up the island on the thickly forested east coast. Bobbing in the water would be a better term than swimming. I felt like a jelly fish, floating about in shallow water about 40 meters (we don't say yards here) from the shoreline where the bottom drops out from the coral-sand floor of the bay. I back-paddled a bit to make sure I could stand in the gentle surge. I gazed at a rocky coastline wrapped mangrove. I saw helicopters in the sky.

They were fat stogie-shaped aircraft that buzzed their way from somewhere in the north to nearby Camp Schwab, one of the dozen or so U.S. military bases pocking the island of Okinawa.  Swimming was my hidden agenda today. I supposedly came up to visit a small down-at-the-heels fishing village called Henoko, situated on the other side of Schwab. A barbed wire fence on the Henoko beach separates the military base from civilian territory, but it’s only two-feet tall. Its purpose, it seems, is not to keep out intruders but to provide a place for protesters to string up colorful banners and streamers bearing anti-military slogans. You have to squat to read them.

Henoko is the notorious site where American military strategists have been planning (secretly) for decades to relocate the Futenma Air Station training operations out of the over-crowded city of Ginowan down south. (See post about the Futenma brouhaha below.)  The proposal to move to Henoko resurfaced in recent years as one of several options, and it now appears to be the only option. Japan’s Prime Minster Yukio Hatoyama is rumored to be panning a visit the nearby city of Nago Sunday to give a speech that would justify breaking his campaign promise to move Futenma’s operation out of Japan. The newspapers today said a formal decision to build at Henoko may be announced next Thursday, days before Hatoyama’s self-imposed deadline to resolve the Futenma issue.

On the demilitarized side of the little Henoko fence a gaggle of protesters have set up an encampment under a large white canvas tent where they educate visitors on the environmental and social impact of the airstrip. A V-shaped runway would be built in the middle of an algae forest on landfill running along the beach front and fishing harbor. It would ruin a lot more than the view

Teru Onishi, a former high school teacher from the area, chairs the Nago Peace Committee  and runs the Henoko protest operation that attracts activists from across Japan. He is a calm man who looks very tired. But he got revved up during our short conversation about the air base and ended in a flourish. “They’re going to build a fortress for the devil,” he said, pointing out to sea. “A fortress for the devil.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time Traveling

Visiting your past can be stupid unless you watch out. My return to Okinawa is no exception. Especially here in Japan I run the risk of perpetrating upon myself drippy nostalgia and worse, regretting what I could have done and should have done but didn't. Going back also has its benefits insofar as you exploit memory lane as a highway to the the beyond. When the past is magical you can imagine a boundless future.

There were a couple of  personal landmarks in Naha I had resigned to never finding again after my 20-year absence, places I used for purposes of navigational on long night time walks around the city when I was down here on assignment. One was a used bookstore.

Had I combed over maps and asked people  I never would have found it. I had a general idea where it used to be, south of the canal and west of the top of Kokusai Dori, the city's  main strip. I was pretty sure it had vanished among the new ferro-concrete buildings. I accosted  an ancient couple hobbling along the canal to ask whether they knew about the bookstore and was shocked when the old lady said yes, it was actually her shop, and she closed it long ago.

Discouraged, I kept walking through the warren of small alleys in the Makishi district, allowing my body to flow wherever it wanted, and when I turned a corner at a busy intersection it was right there in front of me.

The facade with its piles of used manga comic books along the front was unchanged, but inside was a different story. The shelves that once held an erratic collection of unusual books in English and Japanese had been refilled with video tapes and DVDs. Only a scattering of old books had survived.

I recognized the proprietor, who had turned husky and gray. "People don't read books anymore," he explained.  He looked me over. "I remember you. You're the guy who came here once looking for Vonnegut." 

My other navigational landmark is Urizun, a classic Okinawan bar that serves Awamori and traditional Okinawan food. I stopped there on every visit to talk to the locals about the events of the day. It was a long stroll from my hotel. I'd walk there and, incapacitated by drink, take a taxi home. This is were I leaned my my first word in the Okinawan language, Nee-hey-DEB-iru, which means thank you. It comes in handy when you want to make a positive impression, and dispel any lingering assumption you're another ugly American connected to the military.

I rediscovered Urizun by chance. My comrade from UC Berkeley and I were wandering about looking for a good izakaya pub to eat and drink awamori in the Sakae neighborhood, an old red-light district popular for its eccentric bars. I asked a passer-by where to find Urizun, and he pointed to the sign a few meters away. The place got famous since I last visited so famous it became a place for mainland tourists to visit and take each other's photos. It opened a branch in Tokyo, riding on the tide of the awamori boom.

Awamori is the local fire water, a cousin of shochu but unique for the use of long-grain Thai rice instead of potatoes. It's distilled, not brewed, and famed for its high voltage: about 40 percent alcohol by volume., or 80 proof. (Shochu is 25 percent alcohol). I remember drinking it straight and getting used to the faint smelly-sock flavor. But proper etiquette seems to be serving it with water and and ice, like a highball.  Could it be that watering it d0wn is an adaptation to make it more palatable to mainland Japan's drinking public? I didn't have time to find answers. And to my chagrin, I didn't bring my camera to Urizun that night and can't show you the woodsy earth-tone decor.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Trouble in Ginowan City

Saturday marked the 38th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese sovereignty from U.S. rule, something you might suppose would be cause for celebration. Wouldn’t a people who chafed under military occupation for 27 years after World War II feel good about the day? A liberated population breathing the freedom of self-determination. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

The occasion was marked this weekend by double-barrel protests that put thousands of Okinawans on the streets. One barrel pointed at the U.S. military for the crushing burden that its bases place in crowded urban areas. The other barrel aimed at Japan’s central government for its ineptness in resolving a decades-long struggle to reduce the bootprint of the Americans on Okinawan soil. It’s even still more complicated than that. 

People lined up in the pouring rain Sunday to form what protest organizers called a “human chain” along the 8-mile perimeter of the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, a facility tucked in the center of the city of Ginowan. This is where the Marines practice taking off and landing their very noisy CH 53 helicopter gunships all day and night, spooking neighbors and making them fear accidents. Some Ginowanians remenber the 2004 crash landing on the campus of nearby Okinawa International University like it was yesterday.

The protest would have attracted sparse attention if Japan’s hapless prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, hadn’t promised to solve the problem for once and for all by deciding on a plan to move the base elsewhere by the end of May. But moving it where? To Guam? To a seacoast in northern Okinawa where opponents say a planned offshore runway would destroy the local marine ecosystem? To a remote island called Tokunoshima where residents adamantly oppose the idea? Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Snakeskin Banjo

One thing you can say about Okinawa is that people here love the sanshin. In the United States we worry about drivers texting on their cell phones in traffic, but here the problem is playing the sanshin while driving.  This was demonstrated on our trip from Naha airport to the hotel Thursday. The taxi driver in question keeps his instrument wedged between the two front seats of his cab, itching to pluck and sing at the first opportunity,

The sanshin is a cousin of the three-string  shamisen, the classical Japanese banjo most famously played by elegantly seductive geisha when they dance and entertain intoxicated male patrons in tea houses. The shamisen is an instrument associated with classical music and high art in Japan, but the Okinawan sanshin is the people’s instrument. Its soundboard is stretched with snakeskin, making it unmistakably unique to Okinawa. Instead of sounding haughty and overly refined the sanshin produces a raw and gutsy range of moods from melancholy to joyful. It makes you want to dance rather than sit and listen politely.

Okinawa’s folk music has become very popular in recent years, not just in mainlnd Japan but also in the World Music genre consumed by Westerners who like its jumpy island beat. Okinawans are proud of their history and culture and leap at every chance to distinguish themselves from ordinary Japanese. The sanshin is one of the greatest symbols of their Ryukyu cultural identity, along with a locally brewed rocket fuel they drink called awamori. More on that later.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Journey Begins in Berkeley CA

I'm feeling my way here. The idea  is to set up a traveling blog for my upcoming trip to Okinawa.

I made a lot of trips there when I was a newspaper correspondent in Tokyo during the 1980s and I last visited in 1995 from Hong Kong when I was working for a busines magazine whose mission was to rank billionaires and glorify the architects of greed.

The editors didn't understand why I was writing about Okinawa in a "wither Japan" feature article, for which I persuaded them I should travel around the country to take the pulse. I thought it would be a great place to explore the dynamics of change in the Japanese economy that was then sailing into the doldrums of its infamous "lost decade." Okinawa, after all, is Japan's Third World prefecture in terms of it relative poverty and unemployment. It is a remote place without any industry to speak of, a place where chowder heads in the prefectural government were encouraging farmers to cultivate pineapples just as the global market for that commodity was collapsing.

The magazine's editors thought I had lost my mind. They deleted every reference to Okinawa from the text. In blistering business-journalism rage they rewrote my article top to bottom and refocused it on the Japanese auto industry.

The fact is, Okinawans get no respect. The world doesn't understand Okinawa. Mainland Japan doesn't understand Okinawa. The U.S. Military, which crassly occupies a big chunk of the main island of the Ryukyu Arcipelego and annoys the natives almost to the point of insurgency, doesn't understand Okinawa.

I don't understand Okinawa.

June 10. 20010

Post script:

Not understanding Okinawa didn't stop me from traveling there to help a colleague from UC Berkeley's journalism school who was taking a half-dozen student into the field to train them on state-of-the are digital TV cameras so they could film short documentary stories. I ssupposedly playing the role of advisor.

About the 0nly thing tangible I did for them was to line up a session with Oto Masahide, the former governor  of Okinawa Ppefecture and an anti-base historian I interviewed a couple of times many years ago.  I don't think her really remembered me but he took my word for it and gave tbe students an incredible breifing on Okinawan politics.

By the way, the fix was in one the base relocation. The Americans didn't budge on their position and Henoko is going to be absorbed by Camp Schwab to make way for the Marine Corps airstrip. Prime Ministe5r Hatoyama was forced out of office, largely because of the Okinawa base issue.