The island of Okinawa lies in the East China Sea some four hundred miles to the south-west of mainland Japan. Before I visited it, at the invitation of the Japanese Foreign Press Centre, I knew of it only because of Ry Cooder’s rollicking ‘Going Back to Okinawa’ and its reputation as the site of the last, horrendous battle of World War Two.
The few Japanese I know glowed at its mention. It was a place, they said, that they had always wanted to go to. One described it and the Ryukyu archipelago of which it is part as ‘Shangri-la’. Everyone told me how different the Okinawans are from other Japanese. They look different, speak a different dialect, eat different food and have a distinctive culture and religion. Above all, their attitude to life is different. In my mind’s eye I formed a picture of a tropical paradise with clear blue seas, coral reefs, sandy beaches and hippyish, easy-going people who take things pretty much as they come. One book I read – The Okinawa Way: How To Improve Your Health and Longevity Dramatically by Bradley J. Wilcox and others – reinforced this impression. Thanks in part to diet, in which bitter melon and turmeric tea feature significantly, remarked Wilcox, Okinawa boasts more centenarians per head of population than anywhere else. Its inhabitants are thus the longest-lived people in world. Heart disease is uncommon, breast cancer is so rare that screening mammography is unnecessary, and most aging men have never heard of prostrate cancer. Hence the sobriquet, ‘the land of the happy immortals’.
It was hard to reconcile such sunny thoughts with what had happened at the fag-end of WW2. Over the course of eighty-two nightmarish days, US forces pulverized the islanders into submission. Though the figures vary, it’s believed that more than 120,000 Okinawans, including 94,000 civilians, lost their lives or were posted missing, due either to Japanese or American combat action or suicide, or were murdered by their soi-disant compatriots to prevent their surrender or to steal their food. By way of comparison, some 130,000 people were killed by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That so many Okinawans lost their lives was indicative of the way they were viewed by other Japanese who were inclined to regard them as expendable. Economically, socially and politically, Okinawans had reason to believe that they were second-class citizens and could expect no favours from their masters on the mainland. On the contrary, anyone able to bear arms was conscripted and ordered to fight on even when it was obvious that it would result in their doom. To this day, many Okinawans remain bitter about their treatment, caught as they were in the Americans’ tetsu no bofu – ‘Typhoon of Steel’.
My trip began and ended in Toyko where I spent a couple of days. in between, together with a couple of other journalists from the US and Canada, Mr Murata, our punctilious translator, and Mr Suguwara, a sparky representative of the Foreign Press Centre, I travelled by plane first to Ishigaki island and then Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture. It was an intense itinerary. Over the course of five days there were back-to-back interviews with academics and politicians, fishermen and fighter pilots, representatives of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and the American military. Most of these encounters were on the record though restrictions on note-taking, recording and photographing were politely – if firmly – requested. The ostensible reason for the visit was the growing tension in the area. For the most part this is due to China’s increased expansion in the East China Sea, especially in the corridor between Ishigaki island and the uninhabited Senkaku islands, which are under the jurisdiction of the City of Ishigaki and have long been a cause of an ownership dispute between Japan and China. Of late there has been an increasing – and alarming – number of Chinese government vessels and fishing boats in waters surrounding the Senkaku islands. Meanwhile, the frequency of scrambles against Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea has jumped dramatically. Ten years ago, for example, there were just six scrambles while last year there were at least 644.
For many of the people I met this was seen as sabre-rattling and disconcerting. Of late, fishermen have been told to avoid the area with the result that their catches – and income – have been severely depleted. ‘We are scrambling to defend or protect our territorial air space,’ said Colonel Masanori Tsuji, a Vice Commander of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force at Naha Air Base. Others I interviewed described the situation as ‘dangerous’ and ‘frightening’. The unspoken word was ‘war’. What China’s ultimate aim is was anyone’s guess. Meetings apparently take place at official level but given the increased activity in the air and sea they appear to have little effect. ‘We do not conduct any provocative actions,’ said Mr Tsuji. ‘We do not know the intention of China. We only know their activities have intensified.’
* * *
Travelling by car from Naha to Kadena, the US’s airbase on Okinawa, we passed stores selling stetsons, cowboy boots, army surplus gear and Spam – the canned cooked meat, not the stuff that plays havoc with computers. Hereabouts, Mr Suguwara said, it is regarded as a delicacy and used in stir fries. ‘Would I like to try some?’ I said that if he didn’t mind, I’d rather not. Spam was one of the more visible signs of the American presence. Another was the ear-splitting, repose-ruining roar of F-15 fighters which are a constant reminder to Okinawans that their nirvana is also a potential apocalypse. Over 23,000 people – including 6,600 US Air Force personnel – live or work at Kadena Air Base, which is ‘the hub of airpower in the Pacific’ and home to ‘Team Kadena’ – ‘a world-class combat team ready to fight and win’. Nearly a fifth of the island is given over to it and other bases. There is a golf course, familiar fast food outlets and other facilities designed to counter homesickness. Sean Bryant, a military PR man, welcomed us ‘on behalf of General Cornish’, the base’s commander. ‘We are a team of professionals committed to peace in the Pacific,’ he stressed. He was also keen to underline the US’s commitment to working with the people of Okinawa, many of whom would like to be shot of the base and the F-15s, which are a constant reminder of the precariousness of their existence.
The situation in which the Americans find themselves is deeply ironic. Having been the aggressors they now prefer to promote their role as defenders. Over the years, however, several unsavoury and calamitous incidents have soured relations between the native inhabitants and the incomers and made efforts at rapprochement troublesome. One notorious crime took place in 1995 when three US servicemen abducted a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, duct-taped her mouth and eyes and beat and raped her. Since then there have been numerous other incidents which have not helped improve relations between Okinawans and Americans. For many Okinawans, many of whom are ardent pacifists, the very idea of American forces on their island is an affront. The island’s two main newspapers are against what they regard as an occupation. Increasingly, though, public opinion is said to be shifting. For instance, a majority of young people, who have no memory of the war, appear to be generally in favour of the bases.
* * *
Second guessing what China is up to in the environs of the Senkaku Islands is an exercise in frustration. All local people can do is point to what has been happening; more Chinese boats and planes entering Japanese air and sea space and landings by Chinese ‘activists’ on uninhabited islands. The history of Sino-Japanese relations is replete with examples of manufactured crises. It would not be surprising, many commentators believe, for the Chinese to manufacture a situation in which Japan was made to look like the aggressor and fabricate an excuse to seize the islands and take control of the waters around them. In such circumstances, what would the US do? Would Donald Trump rush to defend an ally on whose soil so many of his servicemen and women reside? Or would he simply turn the other cheek and put America first? To the relief of many in Okinawa, US Secretary Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Japan earlier this year, reaffirmed the strength of the US-Japan alliance and to the defense of the Senkaku islands. For the likes of Yoshitaka Nakayama, the personable mayor of Ishigaki City, such reassurances may be welcome but he is still concerned over the detrimental impact of the Chinese on the local fishing industry. Over dinner, however, at a restaurant specializing in traditional fare, he relaxed and encouraged guests to drink as much beer as they felt able to consume since the tariff was all-inclusive. Plate after plate arrived, the contents of which you would need to be an oceanographer to identify. One of the delicacies I was persuaded to try, perhaps because of its life-prolonging properties, consisted of a tangle of seaweed soaked liberally in vinegar. Suffice it to say, I demurred when asked if I would like a second helping.