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‘The last flies of summer’

Life in a community of Japanese working poor in north Okinawa

by Jon Mitchell

Three years ago, I was lying on the beach of a package hotel, watching a pair of jet skis churn the sea to muddy silt. J-pop blared from the shore-side Tannoy, and two lifeguards were pinning down a hysterical toddler, while a third doused vinegar over a scarlet welt of jellyfish sting.

I’d come here to northern Okinawa, looking for some reprieve from my Tokyo life, but I could feel myself becoming more and more stressed by the minute.

On the other side of the bay, perhaps 6 or 7 km distant, there was a stretch of coast void of any of the hotel blocks which pressed in all around me. I could just about make out a mass of dark green jungle fronted by a strip of white sand. It seemed so far away but so much closer to the holiday I wanted. I stood up and looked for someone to ask about what was over there.

At the side of the hotel, I found a Japanese man in his early thirties, hosing sunscreen oil and sea water from a 5-meter-long banana boat. Tanned almost black, he was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a Murasaki T-shirt. I asked him about the patch of shore I could see. He smiled and told me he was about to head there himself if I wanted to come along. I expected him to walk me towards the road, but instead he doubled back to the beach and pointed to a plastic kayak.

“You don’t get seasick, do you?”

As he propelled the craft over the flat water, he introduced himself as Tomo. Originally from Saitama, he’d first come to Okinawa 20 years ago.

“The moment I saw the hibiscus flowers at Naha Airport, I knew this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Okinawans have a word for it — that sense of magnetism to a place — they call it jiba.”

Once he’d graduated high school, Tomo packed up everything he owned and moved here. His first job was in a beach shop, selling cold beers and ice cream. At the end of the season, the owner left without paying him for his four months’ work.

“Getting fleeced by stores and small businesses happens a lot around here. I learned my lesson, though. Now I only do jobs where I get paid by the week.”

Since that time, Tomo had worked as a waiter, a dishwasher, a noodle cook and a tour guide. This was his second year driving a banana boat.

“The money’s not good. But I enjoy the commute. Who can say they go to work by canoe every day?”

It was dark by the time we reached the other side of the bay. I helped Tomo to drag the kayak up the beach. We set it down above the high tide line beside what on first glance I thought was a young boy sleeping in the sand. Drawing closer, I saw it was actually a tiny old man. He had a shock of bright white hair and he was dressed in a pair of cotton shorts, with a body as smooth as sea glass. His right fist was clenched tightly around an empty bottle of awamori liquor. Next to him was a smoking coil of mosquito repellent.

“That’s Mr. Higa, our landlord,” Tomo explained. “He owns this stretch of beach.”

Tomo pointed to half a dozen huts aligned before us on the shore. The largest was made from blue tin sheets with a deck covered by a plastic corrugated roof. Close by, set back in the deigo trees, were a handful of smaller buildings — some were cobbled together from gray wooden planks, others were shipping containers with the names of the cargo companies bleeding through their whitewash. Tomo opened the door to one of them and told me that this was where he slept.

Inside, there were two sets of homemade bunk beds with mosquito nets draped over their sides. I spotted a picture on the wall cut from the pages of a TV magazine — a young Japanese woman stood smiling in front of the Taj Mahal. Tomo saw me looking at it and he seemed embarrassed. He ushered me towards the door.

“Let’s get some food.”

Six or seven people were already on the deck, sitting around a low wooden table. Its surface was pitted and scarred, but arranged incongruously upon it were full settings of sterling silver cutlery and bone china plates. I picked one of them up. In gold leaf, it bore the name of the hotel where the 2000 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit was held.

“Bill Clinton or Vladimir Putin might have dined off that one,” Tomo said. “But whatever they ate, it couldn’t have been as delicious as Mimi’s fish curry.”

Mimi was a Japanese girl with short-cropped blonde hair. She wore a cotton summer dress, and as she bent over to ladle a spoonful of yellow curry onto my plate, the fabric opened to reveal a small tattoo of a bright pink bus. The tilt of her head, the lilt of her Fukuoka accent, I thought she seemed familiar so I asked her if we’d met before.

“You may have seen me on TV,” she replied. A few people groaned good-naturedly and one of them said, “Here we go again.”

Unperturbed, Mimi told me she used to be on a popular reality show about a group of young people who go around the world on a bus. The contestants are only allowed to disembark when they fall in love with each other. “I was on the show one of the longest.”

“She turned down every man who came on,” said Tomo.

It was then that I realized it was Mimi’s picture that was tacked to his bedroom wall.

“Waiting for Mr. Right?” I fished.

She shook her head. “It wasn’t that. I just wanted to see the world. I’ve been traveling ever since the show ended.”

Mimi told me that now she hostessed in a karaoke bar in one of the smaller resort hotels.

“I get my drinks for free and the customers are pretty well-behaved. After being in the sun all day, they’re never very frisky. One or two beers and they usually pass out midway through my rendition of Namie Amuro.”

Over Mimi’s fish curry, I grew to know the rest of the residents of the small community. In their twenties and thirties, they’d all come from mainland Japan, and now they were employed at sub-minimum-wage jobs on the fringes of the resort hotels. They fried noodles, shaved ice and turned takoyaki. They plaited hemp-twine jewelry and hawked it from tiny stalls. Some of them dyed henna tattoos onto middle-aged tourists, while others painted children’s faces to look like tigers, monkeys or Ultraman.

Satoshi, a 35-year-old from Hyogo Prefecture, steered a miniature steam locomotive around a tropical fruit farm. “I also constructed the shower system here,” he added with pride.

The jobs they worked were all paid cash in hand, and they were at the mercy of their employers. Like Tomo, each of them had been cheated out of their wages at one time or another. None of them had a contract, so they had no recourse if they were ripped off, laid off or fell sick. They owned two health insurance cards between eight of them — one for the men and one for the women.

“The system works well,” Satoshi told me. “We just have to be careful to remember our assumed name and not go back to the same hospital too frequently.”

Tomo told me it wasn’t only the insurance cards they pooled. They washed each other’s clothes. They took it in turns cooking dinner. They supported one another financially and emotionally when they were sick or depressed.

“Mr. Higa isn’t too strict about paying the rent on time. He’s never kicked anybody out for being late with their monthly ¥25,000.”

I asked Tomo how they survived the off season when many of the hotels were closed. “We try to save enough in the good months to see us through. When funds run low, some people work the ski season in Hokkaido. The rest of us find jobs picking citrus fruits and tobacco, or lending a hand on construction projects.”

He pointed to the roof we were sat beneath. “I helped put that up six years ago, and we built most of those huts ourselves.”

Towards the end of dinner, Mr. Higa came to the table, rubbing his eyes. Mimi had saved him the best part of the fish and an extra large serving of rice. Another tenant rushed over to fill his glass with awamori and water. He lit a coil of incense, then sat down next to me and ran circles round my standard Japanese in local dialect as thick and tonal as Cantonese.

After I was thoroughly lost, he broke into a smile, followed by fluent American-accented English. “I learned it living near the bases when Okinawa was still a U.S. territory.”

“Back then — before the hotels — this bay used to be famous for its dolphin hunts. Every year, the fishermen would herd hundreds of them towards the beach. The schools closed and store owners shut up their shops. It was like a national holiday. The whole town would wade into the surf with three-foot spears. By the time we were finished with those dolphins, the sea was thick and red like strawberry syrup. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of those Tokyo girlies if we did that today?”

He let out a chuckle, and even though I’m sure they didn’t understand what he’d said, everyone laughed along with him. He was the master of this paradise and they were eager to retain his favor.

I waited for a moment when the others weren’t listening before asking Mr. Higa what he thought of these city folks living here, working poverty-line jobs. He grinned and told me he loved having them around — they made him feel young.

He lifted his empty glass, and almost immediately a young man from Osaka was at his side to top it up. Mr. Higa took a long sip then, almost to himself, he added, “Besides, what would I do without them?”

That night we drank until late. Mimi danced. Tomo sang ’70s rock ballads. At one point, someone emerged with a sanshin banjo and wooden castanets. By the time I stood up and made my excuses to leave, Mr. Higa told me the buses had stopped running and it would be hard to find a taxi at this hour. He invited me to stay. I started to thank him, but he shook his head.

“It’s rare for me to be able to practice my English. And for that I’ll give you a special discount rate.”

The next morning, after a breakfast of Satoshi’s fresh pineapple hotcakes and peanut tofu, Tomo took me back across the bay. The sea was choppier than the day before, but Tomo guided the kayak with an easy confidence.

As we were about halfway across — close enough for me to see the Coca-Cola parasols of my hotel — something thudded beneath the kayak, swamping us to our shins. I stared at Tomo, panicked. He smiled and pointed 20 meters away to where a gray-backed dolphin broke the surface and snorted a large rainbow into the air.

Tomo gave me a wink. “Don’t tell Mr. Higa or he’ll be sharpening his spear.”

Call it fate. Call it jiba, but over the next two years I was fortunate enough that my work would take me back to Okinawa every few months or so.

No matter how tight my time, I always made sure to set aside a few hours to visit the other side of the bay. Tomo was still there and, despite almost drowning in an autumn squall, continued to make his daily commute by kayak. He still drove the banana boat, and he told me he’d almost perfected the art of tipping it just right so the girls on board would lose their bikini tops each and every time.

It was clear, though, where his true affections lay — his flame for Mimi burned as bright as always. Whenever she brushed against him or her dress slipped open to reveal her tattoo, he’d blush so deeply his dark skin purpled the color of aubergine.

Regardless of her frequent talk of moving on, Mimi kept staying there, too. She had changed the hotel where she worked, but she was doing the same job, “pouring drinks, singing songs and fending off wandering hands.” Her new hotel wasn’t as upmarket as the last, but at least no one there had heard the stories of her TV glory days, and she was able to tell them all over again.

Satoshi was gone — he’d managed to derail the train after tweaking its engine once too many times — but his legendary showers lived on. Other faces were missing, but more had taken their place — men and women from the big cities who’d come here when they were younger and felt something they hadn’t found elsewhere. People who were tired of the concrete and the pressures of their families. Those who could no longer hack the jobs handing out tissues, filling boxed lunches or forcing smiles behind convenience store counters.

The work in Okinawa was no better than that they’d left behind, but here at least they weren’t so alone. They’d formed their own community — a far cry from living isolated in the tiny rooms of a weekly “mansion” or the sticky cubicles of an Internet cafe.

Mr. Higa was there, too — the lord of his manor, accompanied by his bottle of awamori and constant curl of mosquito smoke. He reminded me of Benjamin Button — the older he got, it seemed, the more boylike he became.

The past year, Japan underwent a transformation. The Nikkei imploded. Unemployment soared. The poor grew poorer. In the winter of 2008, a hundred jobless temp workers lined up in a cold Hibiya Park in Tokyo to receive handouts of rice and sandwiches.

Watching the scenes on TV, I couldn’t help thinking of northern Okinawa. I remembered Mimi’s curry that first night and Tomo singing “Whole Lotta Love.” It had taken me almost three years to realize it, but finally now I knew this for sure: On the other side of the bay, they’d had the right idea about how to live all along.

It wasn’t only the factories and banks that were hard-hit by the recession, and it was another eight months before I could make my own trip to Okinawa. I packed some spices for Mimi, some bootlegged Deep Purple CDs for Tomo and, as an afterthought, a bottle of scotch for Mr. Higa.

As I drove north from Naha Airport through the fields of sugar cane, I entertained the idea of perhaps moving here for good. I could find a job making traditional British food or repairing the broken English on signs and menus. I parked my rental car at the turnoff to Mr. Higa’s land. Walking towards the shore, I listened for the sound of cooking or Mimi’s Kyushu-hued laughter.

When I got nearer, I could tell something was wrong. The shipping containers stood empty with their doors propped open. The patch of beach where Tomo laid his kayak was separated off with bright plastic tape. At first, I thought it was a police scene cordon, but when I saw the sign, I realized it was something just as calamitous: “Construction Notice — Oct. 1, 2009.”

Beneath the date, there were the plans for the 10-story hotel that was going to be built — it belonged to the same chain as the one where I’d stayed three years before.

A spoon clattered in the kitchen of the main hut. Obviously the place wasn’t as deserted as I’d thought. I found Mr. Higa standing at the stove, dragging a ladle through a pot of stew. I’d never seen him cooking before — I’d never even seen him help with the washing-up.

He must have heard me because he turned around. Dressed in a bright yellow Pokemon T-shirt and mismatched Crocs, he looked younger than ever.

I inquired about where the others were and he told me that most of them had left. I asked him about the sign — about what had made him decide to sell the land. He stared into the pot and became sheepish for a moment. Then he told me that the land had never really been his to begin with.

“I was kind of a — .” He stopped mid-sentence, for once lost for words. “Mudan kyojusha?” I prompted. He nodded. A squatter. “What about the rent you charged them?”

Before he could answer, I heard footsteps crunching on the coral beach behind me. Tomo and Mimi were walking towards us. Tomo carried two grocery bags in one hand, his other was holding Mimi around her waist. She was wearing the same peasant dress as always, but this time the cotton was stretched across the swelling of her belly. I smiled — I reckoned she was six months gone.

“Time to get off the bus?” I asked. Tomo tightened his grip around her. Mimi nodded, “The final stop.”

Later, as we sat around the scuffed table and five-star plates, I was surprised when Tomo and Mimi invited Mr. Higa to join them. They didn’t seem angry with him for cheating them all these years, but no longer did they honor his talk with the undivided attention that they used to. He received the same-size serving as the rest of us and he had to pour his own drinks.

I asked Tomo what he planned to do when the bulldozers moved in. He told me he’d heard there was an empty plot of land a few kilometers away. They had a friend with a truck and he’d already offered to help them relocate a couple of containers. Nearby was a waterfall and they could grow sweet potatoes and possibly pineapples. Mimi said she’d saved some money and, what with Tomo’s job on the boat, they’d be able to get by and look after the baby.

“We might even buy a goat,” she added. “Higa could milk it every morning,” Tomo joked. The young, old man smiled into his glass and I understood there really was a chance they’d take him with them when they went.

By around 10 o’clock, the scotch was finished and the conversation had slipped into silence. The moon was out and 10,000 stars powdered the sky like spilled sugar.

I remembered the first night I came — the songs and dances. We’d drunk until 2 a.m. Tomo must have been thinking the same thing, because he caught my eye and smiled sadly. Mr. Higa’s mosquito incense sent a ribbon of smoke in the direction of Mimi’s nose and she sneezed twice. Tomo licked the tips of his fingers, reached towards the coil and pinched out its orange tip.

“We’re all that’s left,” he said, looking around the table. “We’re the last flies of summer.”

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