Koza remembered

With debate on re-siting or removing U.S. military bases in Okinawa now a hot issue between Tokyo and Washington, Jon Mitchell returns to the scene of the island's biggest anti-American riot

by Jon Mitchell

It’s October 2009, and I’m sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store in Koza city, taking photographs of the sidewalk. I’ve been here for close to an hour — surrounded by a dozen old photographs, four maps and reams of photocopies all weighed down with chunks of brick to stop them blowing away in the brisk autumn wind.

It’s the store’s teenage clerk who finally plucks up the courage to walk over and ask me what I’m doing. I tell him that it was here — right on this very spot — that the largest riot in Okinawan history began.

“Here?” the clerk asks me.

“This is where it all started. Three thousand rioters dragged American soldiers from their cars and beat them up in the street. Then they set alight to their vehicles and stormed the nearby air force base.”

“That happened here?” repeats the clerk, glancing around incredulously.

I nod and reach for the black-and-white photographs to show him. But I’m too late — he’s already hurrying back to the sanctuary of the shop, no doubt berating himself beneath his breath along the lines of, “I knew I should have watched the television news this morning.”

In 1970, Koza city, together with the rest of Okinawa, was U.S. territory. Cars throughout the islands drove on the right, people shopped in dollars; now they drive on the left and shop in yen. Okinawans wanting to visit Tokyo or the rest of Japan required a passport to do so; now, of course, they don’t. Even on an island dominated by American culture, Koza always felt more American than anywhere else in Okinawa due to its proximity to Kadena U.S. Air Force Base.

The largest American military installation in the Pacific, and the hub of U.S. air power in the region, Kadena, straddling the cities of Kadena, Chatan and Koza and home to more than 30,000 U.S. military personnel, was a massive, self-contained chunk of Nixonian Americana — bowling alleys, tended lawns and fast-food diners — cut up and pasted on top of this subtropical island.

While the base undoubtedly provided employment opportunities to some Koza residents, it also brought trouble.

From the early-1960s, a series of military accidents in the area scared and angered the local population. In 1965, an aircraft dropped a trailer on an 11-year-old schoolgirl, crushing her to death. The next year, an Okinawan man was killed when a jet fighter crashed on Kadena. This was followed in 1968 by the explosion of a B-52 bomber in which a further four residents were injured. Rumors that the Americans were storing chemical weapons on the base were confirmed by a 1969 leak of VX nerve gas that hospitalized 22 soldiers.

Incidents such as these made the residents of Koza feel as though they were living in a war zone — an impression heightened by the sight and sound of dozens of those gigantic B-52 bombers taking off daily on carpet-bombing missions over Southeast Asia.

But American aggression was not confined to the jungles of Vietnam and Laos. Okinawa was an R&R disembarkation point for thousands of combat troops who, less than 24 hours previously, had been fighting for their lives.

Many of these battle-traumatized GIs and U.S. Marines found it impossible to adjust overnight to a peacetime frame of mind, and it was all too often the civilians of Koza who bore the brunt of their pent-up aggressions — soldiers raped and murdered bar girls, they assaulted taxi drivers and robbed store owners.

The perpetrators of these crimes were rarely punished and, as U.S. military police refused to cooperate with the gathering of evidence, American judges into whose courts such matters might occasionally stray almost always dismissed the cases.

Indeed, even when the severity of a crime drew so much media attention that the military was forced to take action, those accused were regularly found not guilty — as in a 1970 case where an American driver struck and killed a housewife in Itoman.

Taken together, these factors combined to create a feeling of outrage among the people living near the Kadena base — and a lack of faith in American justice.

It was a seemingly inconsequential event that ignited the clashes of Dec. 20, 1970. At 1:05 a.m., an American driver clipped an Okinawan man as he was crossing Highway 24. The American was driving over the speed limit; both men had been drinking. When the local police arrived on the scene, they found the victim bleeding from his left knee and hip, but his injuries were not life-threatening.

A couple of hundred onlookers gathered from the nearby Nakanomachi drinking district to see what had happened. As the police took away the American and the injured man, the crowd harangued them with hisses and jeers.

With the departure of the police, the bystanders remained in the street discussing the accident. A few moments later, another American driver came speeding down the road. He swerved to avoid the crowd and rammed into the rear of a local’s car. This second crash in the space of less than an hour infuriated the onlookers. Chanting “Don’t let this be a repeat of Itoman!” (a reference to the recent acquittal in the hit-and-run killing of the housewife), they surrounded the American’s vehicle and smashed its windows.

Military police rushed to the scene to protect the frightened driver. They fired warning shots into the air, buying just enough time for them to escape with the car’s owner beneath a hail of bricks and bottles.

At the sound of the gunfire, the crowd rapidly swelled to around 3,000 people. They blocked the road and began to pull over American-owned cars (easily identifiable by their yellow number plates).

Daniel Keenan, at the time a 22-year-old Air Force mechanic, was one of those stopped. “The Okinawan taxi drivers tried to signal to me to turn around and flee, but I was already surrounded by the crowd. They threw a concrete block through my back window. I either got out of the car or was dragged out. I tried to run but I was stopped. I fell down and 10 or 12 young men kept hitting and kicking me. I think I passed out. I came to 10 minutes later in a small police station.”

Over the following three hours, the rioters would assault another 55 Americans in the same way as Keenan, before torching their cars. However, by 4 a.m., the mob was no longer content with attacking individual Americans — now they had their sights set on far larger prey.

Approximately 500 rioters broke away from the main crowd and marched toward the gates of Kadena Air Force Base. They set fire to cars and rolled them, burning, toward the line of sentries. The guards fled and the rioters tore down the fence. They razed the Military Employment building and the offices of the Stars and Stripes newspaper. They raided a school and, according to some accounts, dragged a Santa Claus mannequin into the road and set it alight with bug spray and matches.

The authorities finally regained control of Koza at 7 a.m. The police had been forced to call in reinforcements from all over the island, before finally resorting to tear gas and water cannons to drive away the crowds. By the time the sun came up, there were so many charred American cars along Highway 24 that it would take the military a full day to tow them all away.

Now, of course, the traffic is moving again on the highway — but it’s driving on the left side. This isn’t the only thing that’s different about the city. In 1974, two years after the islands returned to Japanese control, the local government changed its name from Koza to (a rather uninspired) Okinawa city. The revision was an attempt to disconnect the city from its memories of that night four years before — and from the reaction of the young convenience-store clerk, it appears to have succeeded.

So, in October 2009 I’m here to see whether the rest of Koza has forgotten the Koza Riot 39 years ago — and if they haven’t, to see how they remember the uprising today.

As I walk through the city, the first thing that strikes me is its poverty — with island-wide unemployment at 12 percent and personal savings the lowest in the nation, Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture. Billboards advertising consumer-loan companies dominate the main road and the shuttered doors of bankrupt stores mar the side streets. One of the few businesses that still seems to be thriving is Charlie’s Tacos — a Koza stalwart since 1956. As I’m waiting for my order, I study the framed photographs on the walls of B-list mainland talent hanging alongside Vietnam War-era soldiers. I wonder if any of these smiling Americans were dragged from their cars by the rioters.

“They belong to the Fighting Third Marines.” There’s a young American standing next to me dressed in desert camouflage shorts and a Dragonball T-shirt. He asks me what has brought me here and I tell him I’m writing an article about the 1970 riot.

To my surprise, he’s heard about it. “I guess the communists were everywhere back in those days.”

When I ask him what he means, he tells me his unit was told all about the riot during their cultural-awareness briefing when they first arrived on Kadena. “The riot was planned by students from Tokyo who’d come to Okinawa to cause trouble. The crowd was already drunk so it was easy to stir them up with anti-American slogans.”

It’s a version of events that I’ve heard on previous trips to Okinawa city from both American and Japanese people. They maintain that there were mainland elements in the bars of Nakanomachi on the night of the riot, and allege that some of them had been seen buying gasoline to make the Molotov cocktails later hurled at the police.

It is historical fact that Japan’s campuses were racked by political demonstrations at the time, but was the Koza Riot the work of student agitators?

In search of an answer, I head to Histreet (a blend of History and Street) — the city-run museum devoted to documenting Koza during the U.S. Occupation.

Tucked around a corner at the back of the small room, there’s a display chronicling the riot that includes photos of burning cars (including Keenan’s Nissan Prince) and newspaper clippings from the aftermath.

I ask the museum’s curator about the rumors of outside radicals. She digs into a drawer and brings out the list of the 21 people arrested during the riot. Ranging in age from 17 to 51, they included a high school student, a bartender, a business owner and a City Hall employee.

None of them was from mainland Japan — all of them were Okinawan.

When I ask whether the agitators may have been too cunning to be arrested, she shows me a report from the U.S. Department of Defense. The 1970 investigation concluded that the riot was “a spontaneous, unplanned explosion of underlying anti-American feelings.”

So why have the stories of radical agitators persisted? Perhaps for the same reasons that the Black Panthers and other leftwing groups continue to be blamed for urban conflagrations in the United States at the same time; it’s more convenient to hold outside elements responsible than actually try to tackle deep-rooted issues of poverty, brutality and injustice that make people feel they have no way to voice their resentment other than to riot.

When I put this idea to the curator, she cautiously agrees that the base did create many problems in the city.

“So do you think the riot was justified?” I ask.

Suddenly, she seems to remember she’s a local-government employee talking to a foreign writer about an illegal incident. She grows guarded, steps back and asks me if I’d like to see their display of 1960s children’s toys.

Unlike the rest of the city, the Nakanomachi drinking area does not seem to have changed much since its patrons flocked into the streets that night of the riot in December 1970. Tattered hoardings advertise local awamori liquor and island songs trickle from beneath the doors of tiny bars.

An Okinawan friend has given me a name and an address, “Go find Mr. Aragaki. He knows more about the riot than anyone.”

The address turns out to be that of a small bar, furnished with a counter and half a dozen stools. Only two are taken tonight by a pair of builders lost in their bottles of awamori. A man in his late 60s stands behind the counter — he’s wearing a pair of taped-together spectacles and there’s an Orion beer towel wrapped around his head.

“Mr. Aragaki?”

He crosses his arms in a large X and tells me the bar is full. I eye the empty seats and drop the name of my friend. “I heard you know a lot about the Koza Riot.”

Mr. Aragaki laughs. “I should do. I was in it.”

His attitude softens and he clears me a place at the counter, then pours me a glass of beer. “That night I was working in a bar close to here. When we heard the (military police’s) gunshots, we all ran outside. There were hundreds of us. We filled the street.”

I ask him who was in the crowd that night.

“It was them,” he says pointing to the pair of 30-something builders who hadn’t even been born at the time.

I frown.

He gestures out of the window to where three salarymen are drunkenly flagging down a taxi. “And them, too. It was everyone who’d ever been jostled by an American. Or looked down upon. Or called a Jap. You should have seen it. People were tipping over American cars, shouting ‘Wasshoi! Wasshoi!’ (‘Heave ho! Heave ho!’) and cheering.

“There was a teacher I knew, a high school teacher; he was stamping and dancing on the roof of a broken car. It felt just like a festival.”

Mr. Aragaki smiles at the memory. I remember my conversation with Daniel Keenan. “I’m sure the Americans didn’t share your celebratory mood.”

Mr. Aragaki shakes his head. “You’ve no idea how it was. This was the first time we’d stood up to the Americans. The first time we all came out and made our feelings known.

“Do you know the only other time I saw people with the same expressions?”

It’s my turn to shake my head.

“I saw them on TV when they broke down the Berlin Wall. I’ll never forget the look on their faces. Anger and elation mixed with a sense of doing something right for once.”

After leaving Mr. Aragaki’s bar, I walk back toward the convenience store that now stands where the riot started. Kadena Air Force Base is as busy as ever, and tonight’s the start of a payday weekend for its thousands of servicemen. Tight packs of young Americans run the gauntlet of strip-bar touts and nightclub barkers. The soundtrack on the night of the riot would have been The Stones and The Supremes, but now in 2009, it’s all Beyonce and Slipknot, and the soldiers wear jackets sporting Iraq and Afghanistan tour-of-duty patches instead of those from Vietnam.

I head into the convenience store to talk to the clerk I met in the morning, but there’s a different man working the evening shift. So I buy a can of beer and take it out to the parking lot. A thunderous American transport helicopter passes overhead — almost low enough for me to brush my fingers along its khaki underbelly.

I check my watch. It’s approaching 1:05 a.m. On the road, a large scarlet Chevy Avalanche plows downhill — its car- navigation system lighting the faces of its buzz-cut occupants a sickly green. As it overtakes a slow-moving delivery scooter, the truck’s passengers lean from their windows and toss the driver middle fingers.

Back in Mr. Aragaki’s bar, I’d told him about the trouble I’d had trying to identify the scenes of the riot in modern Okinawa city. “It’s difficult to tell where it all happened. The roads. The buildings. It’s all so different.”

Mr. Aragaki squinted at my pictures through his broken bifocals, then he handed me back my camera.

“Nothing’s changed. The base is still here. The fights, rapes and robberies. Koza may be back in Japan now. But our problems are still made in America.”

All archive photographs in “Koza remembered” are used, with thanks, courtesy of Okinawa City Hall General Affairs Department — History Compilation Subsection.