At 2 o’clock on a spring afternoon, Chuo Park Avenue in the city of Okinawa belongs to the cats. They preen outside its bankrupt nightclubs, spit and hiss over scraps of garbage, and sleep atop piles of moldy utility bills in the doorways of the shuttered stores.
The ginger toms and tabbies have this 1 km stretch of street to themselves. There’s no people. There’s little reason for them to be here. Three-quarters of Park Avenue’s shops are closed and the rest are struggling to survive.
Standing like an oasis in this desert of “For Lease” signs is Indo-ya (The India Store). From 50 meters away, you can hear its staccato tabla music. From 20 meters, you can smell its incense, as sweet and spicy as cinnamon rolls.
Drawing closer, the store’s owner, Victor Sitlani, points across the street to where workmen are fixing boards over the windows of Park Avenue’s latest casualty. “That used to be a watch shop,” Sitlani says. “It was in business here for 35 years. Back then, Park Avenue was called B.C. Street.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, B.C. (Business Center) Street used to be one of the liveliest streets on the whole of Okinawa. Located less than 1 km from Kadena Air Force Base, its bars and stores flourished thanks to free-spending GIs who were keen to let off steam before heading to the war in Vietnam.
Sitlani’s own arrival in Okinawa echoed the nervous excitement of those soldiers who were away from home for the first time. “I was born in Gujarat (in western India). But when I was in my early 20s, I moved to Hong Kong to work for an uncle’s suit-making business. I loved the job, but I felt some pressure working for a family member. So when I was given the opportunity to come to Okinawa with a different tailor’s business, I jumped at the chance.”
Sitlani arrived in January 1972. At that time, Okinawa was still under U.S. rule. “There were soldiers and airmen everywhere I looked. The money was flowing on B.C. Street. There were bars in every basement and clubs on every second story. The ground floors held the souvenir shops. And the tailor’s where I worked.”
In those days, Sitlani’s store was very busy. “Each morning, the soldiers would come in and we’d measure them for suits. We’d send the pattern to our workshop across town. They’d have the suit finished by the evening of the same day — ready for the soldier to wear to the clubs that night. Sometimes on pay days, men would come in and order six or seven suits at a time.”
A lost-looking American crosses the empty avenue toward Indo-ya. After Sitlani finishes giving him directions back to the base, his eyes survey the young man’s baggy jeans and basketball shirt. “Back in the 1970s, Americans dressed much more stylishly,” Sitlani says when the soldier’s out of earshot.
Four months after Sitlani arrived, Okinawa reverted to Japanese control. But this did little to dent B.C. Street’s thriving economy — the bases remained and the dollar stayed strong. Business was so good that soon Sitlani was able to open a tailoring business of his own.
“Those days were not without their problems. This town was divided into an area for the black soldiers and an area for the whites. There were often fights between the two groups. I was lucky. I got along with both of them. The only time I had trouble was during the (1979-1981) Iranian hostage crisis, when some soldiers thought I was from the Middle East. They called me a few names, but I just smiled. They were too young to know any better.”
Despite these boom years, Sitlani could see that the good times would not last forever. The dollar was beginning to weaken and there was talk of relocating the bases. In the early 1980s, Sitlani realized he’d need to diversify if he wanted to stay successful. After touring Okinawa Island and mainland Japan, he decided to convert his tailor’s into Indo-ya — Okinawa’s first store specializing in Indian goods.
The interior of Indo-ya is a grotto of bright cotton clothes, packets of incense, postcards of Hindu gods and brass tableware. Sitlani sips a cup of spicy “chai” and sits with me in an alcove beneath a wooden shrine set with a statue of Vishnu.
Sitlani’s establishment of Indo-ya was accompanied by wider changes in the city itself. In an attempt to shed its base-town image, the local government changed B.C. Street’s name to Chuo Park Avenue, and constructed an arcade roof over the entire street. These moves counteracted the slowdown in business from military personnel by attracting tourists from the mainland.
One of these visitors would become Sitlani’s wife. “Her flight was canceled due to a typhoon. So she came to Park Avenue to take some photographs of the workmen putting up that roof. I just started talking to her and . . . .” Sitlani offers up a sheepish grin. His mother in Gujarat had been coaxing him into an arranged marriage at the time, and he was nervous about how she’d react when he told her he wanted to marry a Japanese. His fears were groundless, though, and she gave the couple her blessing.
Like many business owners in the city of Okinawa, the 1980s and early ’90s were prosperous years for Sitlani and his wife. They opened two other stores and, to handle the surge in business, they took on part-time staff. The chamber of commerce welcomed Sitlani into its ranks, and it seemed the good times were here to stay.
“The tour buses arrived every afternoon and we’d get 80 or 90 customers a day. They wouldn’t just buy one or two souvenirs, they’d buy a dozen for all of their friends back home. Bags, purses, sandals. I was making as much money as when I was a tailor.”
The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s changed all that. The tour buses stopped coming to the city and the number of customers plummeted. Sitlani was forced to lay off his staff and close down his extra stores. When he asked the chamber of commerce for a loan to help him through these difficult times, they turned him down. From the shuttered stores along the street, it’s obvious that Sitlani’s was not the only application it rejected.
Family-run shops that had remained open through decades of typhoons, earthquakes and race riots went bankrupt at the turn of the millennium, or relocated to the greener pastures of suburban shopping malls.
“I have no plans to follow either of those routes,” says Sitlani. “I won’t close down and I won’t move. I’ve invested all of my savings into this store and I’m determined to stay. Even if it means tightening my purse strings.” He brings a lunch box from home every day, and folds paper bags from recycled leaflets to keep himself busy.
Despite the economic downturn, Sitlani says he’s optimistic about the future. “The city has plans for a library at the end of the street. And soon there’ll be a new supermarket, which will bring foot traffic back to the area. Now I’ve reached the bottom of my luck. I have to come through. I have confidence.”
Sitlani takes a stick of incense from a packet and carries it to the wooden shrine. He lights it, bows twice and sets it to smolder. In times like these, it seems everybody could use a little extra fortune.