Ex-MP revisits Okinawa’s Koza Riot

Bruce Lieber returns on 40th anniversary of the island's largest anti-American disturbance

by Jon Mitchell

On a mild December night in the city of Okinawa, Bruce Lieber, a 61-year-old Ohio native, found himself surrounded by a cluster of Japanese journalists. Photographers and TV crew jostled for position while reporters asked him how it felt to be back on the island.

Lieber had been answering their questions for over an hour, when he suddenly fell silent. Gazing at the weather-worn buildings, he rubbed his eyes and broke into a bemused smile as though remembering the last time he was standing on this very same corner in the city then called Koza.

That was 40 years ago — almost to the day — and he was encircled by a mob then, too. But on Dec. 20, 1970, people were bombarding Lieber with bricks rather than questions — and Lieber was fighting to escape from the midst of the Koza Riot, the most violent anti-American uprising Okinawa ever witnessed.

Lieber first arrived on Okinawa in May 1970, when the prefecture was controlled by the U.S. authorities. “At that time, Okinawa was a staging post for American troops heading to the war in Vietnam,” said Lieber. “There were 40,000 servicemen and their dependents living here. The Okinawan civilian police had no power over Americans and so that job fell to us — the Ryukyu Armed Forces Police.”

Lieber’s initial few months as a military policeman were busy. He and his partner patrolled the bar districts, calming down drunk soldiers and attempting to defuse any trouble they encountered.

Lieber’s rounds often took him to Okinawa’s central city — home to a popular entertainment quarter that catered to servicemen from neighboring Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in the Pacific. “One of the most common problems was traffic incidents involving Americans. So when we received the call to assist with a minor car accident at 1:30 on the morning of Dec. 20, 1970,” explained Lieber, “we didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.”

Arriving on the scene, Lieber found an Okinawan man in the back of an ambulance. He’d been run down by a car driven by a drunk American, and although his injuries appeared minor, an angry swarm of onlookers had gathered. “While my partner and I discussed what to do, I spotted another American man with his girlfriend. They’d wandered into the crowd and people were pushing them around. I jumped out and pulled both of them back into our patrol car. Okinawans surrounded my vehicle and began to rock it. I became seriously worried so I picked up the radio and called in a ’10-2′ — an emergency request for assistance.”

After managing to edge his car through the crowd, Lieber drove the relieved soldier and his girlfriend out of danger. He advised them to leave the area immediately, then he returned to his colleagues to see whether they needed help. “That was when we heard the sound of a second car accident. Another American had crashed his vehicle close by. It was only a fender-bender but the onlookers grew furious. They tried to drag the driver out of his car.”

Lieber and his fellow MPs rushed to rescue the man, but they were hindered by the crowd. The Okinawan police were able to weave through the mob, though, and they bundled the frightened driver to safety. With the path back to their own patrol cars blocked, Lieber and a dozen other MPs retreated to a side street. From there, they watched the riot escalate.

“The crowd now numbered in their hundreds. They shunted American-owned cars (identifiable by their yellow number plates) out of parking lots. They pushed them into the middle of the street. Then they set fire to them. More people climbed onto the rooftops and they threw rocks and empty bottles at us.

“We discussed how to disperse the rioters. Our commanding officer gave us the OK to fire warning shots over their heads. I fired three times into the air — the first time for me to shoot my pistol in the line of duty. The noise was incredibly loud and the tactic worked. The crowd retreated for a few moments and we managed to leave the side street.”

Compared with barely 30 minutes earlier, the main road was unrecognizable. “It was full of the smoke from a dozen burning vehicles,” recalled Lieber. “People were yelling as they shoved the American cars into each other and flipped them on their roofs.”

Lieber and his fellow officers made a few unsuccessful attempts to apprehend the rioters. However, the crowd had swollen into the thousands and soon the Americans resigned themselves to the fact that the situation was out of their control. “The Okinawans burned car after car and kept throwing bottles and bricks at us. I was hit in the head and the arm. We retreated down the street. Whenever they advanced upon us, we just backed away.”

Four hours later, Lieber and his colleagues finally reached the south end of the main road where over 200 reinforcement MPs and regular marines brandishing ax handles had set up a line of defense. “There was a sense that this was the last stand. If the rioters had broken past that point then they would have been close to the army officer housing area. The military used tear gas canisters to push back the rioters. They quickly dispersed.”

The crowd might have retreated, but the riot was far from over. As Lieber was receiving treatment for cuts and contusions at the army’s hospital, Okinawans stormed the gates of the Kadena Air Base. They rolled cars toward the ranks of American guards, then set three buildings alight within the installation itself.

It was not until 6 a.m. that the riot finally died down. Around 80 cars had been burned and 60 Americans injured.

Despite the massive scale of the violence, according to Lieber, its impact on the lives of the U.S. military stationed on Okinawa was short-lived. For a month or so, American authorities imposed a midnight curfew on soldiers and ordered MPs to travel in jeeps to assert a firmer image, but soon it seemed as though the riot had never occurred.

So it came as a surprise to Lieber when, in March 1971, he received a summons to headquarters. Along with six other MPs who had responded to the riot, Lieber received official acknowledgment for his actions that night — in particular his rescue of the soldier and his girlfriend and his attempt to save the American driver of the car involved in the second accident.

The Certificate of Achievement presented to Lieber reads: “His professional competence, initiative and outstanding devotion to duty contributed immeasurably to the successful accomplishment of the mission.” Asked how he felt about the award, Lieber said, “I was proud for being recognized for what I did that night. I did what I was trained to do. I protected who I needed to protect.”

In August 1972, Lieber left the military to study graphic arts at university. Over the next few decades, he raised a family and pursued a successful career as a commercial printer. Throughout this time, Lieber’s memories of the riot remained strong, but his feelings of pride gradually grew tinged with more complex emotions.

“When I was on Okinawa, I was 21 years old. Call me naive, but the riot was exciting — it was an adventure. Only years later did I read about the history of Okinawa — its 17th-century seizure by Japan and the sufferings people experienced in World War II.

“Around four years ago, I discovered a book by Chalmers Johnson (the late president of the Japan Policy Research Institute). It put into perspective the 25-year-long U.S. occupation of the island. Not to mention the crimes and brutality committed by Americans.”

Johnson’s writing sparked in Lieber memories of the injustices which occurred all around him during his service on Okinawa — the rampant use of hard drugs among his fellow servicemen, the beatings and the rapes of local women. Then there was the case of Lieber’s fellow MP — “a high-strung heroin addict” — who robbed Okinawan family stores in his spare time. “One of the owners finally recognized him and filed a complaint. What did the military do? The same as always. They stalled and slowed down the investigation. Then they shipped him off the island.”

This sense of collusion in the oppression of Okinawa convinced Lieber of his need to return for the 40-year anniversary of the Koza Riot. “I wanted to make up for my role in the things that went on here. Even if I was the only one present on the anniversary, I wouldn’t have minded. I just wanted to be there for that moment of history.”

Lieber traveled to Okinawa in December. As it turned out, he was far from alone in commemorating the riot. Retracing the streets he used to patrol as an MP, he spotted the bright lights of a Japanese camera crew filming a report on the uprising.

Lieber told them that he had been one of the first American police officers on the scene but his claim was met with skepticism. When he dug his former MP insignia from his rucksack, though, he was quickly swamped by TV, print and online journalists. As Lieber recounted his story of the riot, more people flocked from the nearby drinking area — attracted by a very different commotion than the one that lured them from the same bars 40 years ago.

Toward the end of an interview, one of the journalists asked Lieber a question that was on everybody’s mind — whether he thought the Koza Riot was justified.

Without pausing a beat, Lieber nodded. “Absolutely. Okinawan people were pushed around by the American military too much. My only question is what took them so long to rebel.”

The next day, as Lieber headed to a photography exhibition on the riot at the city’s Histreet museum, it was clear that many residents who had watched Lieber’s television interview agreed with his comments. Passersby stopped him on the sidewalk to shake his hand, they asked him to pose for photographs and the owner of a local coffee shop even refused to let him pay for his drink.

The welcome at the museum was equally as warm. Representatives from City Hall guided him around the displays and when Lieber told them he wished to donate his MP insignia to the museum, they assured him they would give them pride of place.

Having handed over his former signs of authority, a weight seemed to lift from Lieber’s shoulders. “I’m glad I could finally find a home for them. Back in the States, I try to tell people about the problems the U.S. bases are still causing here but they don’t want to listen. I wish they would open their eyes and understand what’s happening here on Okinawa.”

The city of Okinawa’s Histreet museum will be exhibiting photographs from the Koza Riot — and Lieber’s insignia — until the end of February. Inquiries can be made at (098) 929 2922.