Koza: the carbonized city

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

My first glimpse of Koza was a burned out car on a monochrome print I picked up at a recycle shop in Naha. I would see the image again when I visited the history section of the Okinawa City Hall, where there was a prominent display on the Koza Riot of 1970.

In a possible attempt to erase memory through association, the name was changed to Okinawa City in 1974, but like Ho Chi Minh City — which locals, to the despair of the central government, still prefer to call Saigon — Koza remains the name of choice. Even the local buses retain the name.

Contingent with U.S. Kadena Air Base, the largest of its type in the Pacific, the skies of Koza can get noisy. On the way to the city I stopped to photograph a group of activists protesting the presence of Osprey helicopters, which are abhorred not just for their noise levels but poor safety record.

A pair of fighter planes flew low overhead as I rode along the base perimeter, their engines producing a deafening sound. I stopped at the fence of an elementary school to watch the children playing a lively game of catch as the aircraft passed by, two more planes appearing in quick succession. It was clear from their gestures that the children were bellowing out encouragement and taunts to each other in their loudest voices, but it was a little like observing the actors in a dumb show, where no sound issues from open mouths.

The temperature was in the high 30s when I arrived in the neighborhood where my guesthouse was supposed to be located. It wasn’t easy to find. An alley reeking faintly of urine, with a snarling dog chained to a spike, seemed to match the address, but turned out to be a wrong lead. This part of town looked as if remnants of the Serbian Army had recently passed through. A mood of dereliction clung to the buildings, as if the funds needed to maintain them had run out a long time ago. Streaks of mildew discolored homes, once painted white. There were gouges out of the concrete walls of houses; exposed iron rebars were in advanced stages of erosion, like carbonized bone. Some of the houses had galvanized roofing, which must have made the interiors unbearably hot.

In her short story “Passing into Twilight Alley,” Okinawan writer Tami Sakiyama offers up the gritty street vernacular of an unnamed place that sounds a lot like Koza, the city where she resides: “In these cul-de-sacs, there were shabby human shacks, more like horse corrals than human houses. These crooked tin-roofed shacks were covered in a dust of poverty.”

My guesthouse, the Goya-so, bore the same traces of dereliction, but the flowering yellow allamanda at the entrance and the wooden interiors of the old house added grace notes. Its friendly owner, Hide Noshita, handed me a map of the area. It was a short walk from here to Gate 2 Street, the half-kilometer-long shopping and entertainment drag that ran to the military base. There were traces of migratory patterns linked to war and colonialism here, among them a number of tailor shops run by Indians. Their stock appeared to consist of double-breasted tweed ensembles, leather jackets and Kashmir waistcoats. There was a dinner jacket in one store that would not have looked out of place at Somerset Maugham’s Villa La Mauresque near Cap Ferrat.

War and relentless occupation had left identity distorting imprints on some of the locals: an old woman in hot pants and a baseball cap, an ancient man with a faded T-shirt bearing the legend “13th Wing Squadron Force.” Koza and its entertainment districts act as release valves for letting off some of the steam that builds to a head among the U.S. military personnel based here, serving a country that can seem at times addicted to war.

Koza Gate Street was an interesting phenomenon, with no shortage of things to do. There was pole dancing at a club called Amazons, karaoke at Prince and speed rock bands at Fujiyama. Little cubbyhole shops embroidered military patches and badges for whatever happened to be the current American campaign. At the Ryukyu Horiyoshi Tattoo Studio you could get your body covered in Okinawan dragons, anime characters and benign sea monsters. Ippon-Do sold samurai swords. Most of them looked fake, as if they had been acquired at a job lot from an old movie studio specializing in chambara films, but the blades were real enough and could sever you in half.

Koza Gate Street and Route 330 converge at the Goya Intersection, the very spot where the riot began. During the Vietnam War, America took its domestic problems abroad. One of these was racism, the segregation policies of the Deep South. In 1969, in an area of Koza known as “The Bush,” a stifling medina of clubs, bars and brothels set up for black American GIs, and an area known for its heated Black Panther activism, racial tension and antiwar sentiment flared into violence and rioting between white soldiers and African-Americans.

The Koza Riot that began on the evening of Dec. 20, 1970, a violent reaction against Americans on the streets of the city, came just days after an American serviceman had been acquitted in a military court of killing an Okinawan women in Itoman, despite all the evidence pointing to his culpability. There were no doubt compound reasons for the violence, among them the prolonged occupation of the islands, the fact that Okinawan jungles were being used as a rehearsal for the Vietnam War, the confiscation of ancestral land, the Japanese state’s unholy alliance with the U.S. and, perhaps, even a few undeclared personal grudges.

Driven from their own streets by American riot troops, locals reacted by dragging American men and women from their cars, flinging bottles of gasoline, hurling stones against Okinawan police and American soldiers, tearing down base gates, and creating heaps of debris and car wreckage over the streets. The most enduring image was the sight of heavily armored phalanxes of U.S. soldiers advancing on the crowd with their bayonets fixed.

Some people who were there remember the figure of a woman dressed in an Okinawan kimono. Back lit by flames, her body and hands turned rhythmically in the air as she performed the katcharsee, an Okinawan dance of celebration and joy. The woman was never seen again. Those who were transfixed by this sight of a figure dancing with sublime imperturbability amid advancing soldiers, burning vehicles and furious rioters, wondered if they were witnessing an apparition. Journalists who observed the scene later talked about the odoru shimin gerira, or dancing citizen guerilla.

At night, the mood along Gate 2 Street changed. It wasn’t a subtle one either, moderated by the sultry tropical evening. Young off duty military personnel swaggered along the street with a sense of entitlement, a dangerous thing for men barely out of their teens. On a distinctly mellower note, Koza is justly rated for its music scene. Hard rock Okinawan bands such as Murasaki and Condition Green got their start in late ’60s, early ’70s Koza, cutting their teeth in front of audiences of servicemen just in, or about to be, deployed to the jungles of Vietnam. Like the tank crews of a later war, playing Rage Against the Machine tracks at full volume as they rumbled into Iraqi villages, these earlier recruits sought temporary oblivion in the loud, raw sounds of early Okinawan metal. These days you’re more likely to find disc jockeys spinning hits by Bruno Mars and Nicki Minaj, but at Jack Nasty’s, a club owned by a former member of Condition Green, the acts keep faith with the best traditions of Koza rock and blues.

There are several venues where Okinawan minyo (folk music) can be heard. One of them, Hime, is owned by Yoriko Ganeko, a fine singer. The same goes for Nantahama, which has the honor of being the oldest club in town. Most of these venues are owned by well-known musicians, who also perform there. It’s a short walk from here to Nakanomachi, a former Occupation-era red-light district. I noticed a residue of buildings from the 1960s, still carrying their faded cabaret and bar signs; on another street the vinyl stools of a disused diner were just visible behind a fly-splattered window.

Meanwhile, there are any number of places to eat. Along Gate Street 2 the air smelt of meat, barbecued racks of beef. But elsewhere, there were hamburger bars, several Philippine joints, steak houses, pizza parlors and a vegan restaurant called Casbah. The unpromisingly named Titi-Caca sold Peruvian fare. There were even some Okinawan restaurants advertising “Food and Awamori.”

A lot of these places were happy to accept dollars. At one hole-in-the-wall eatery, four military types were ordering hotdog and egg soup for just $2. I felt compelled to dine at Charlies Tacos, a legendary eatery along Chuo Park Avenue Street, better known as BC Street. The initials stand for “bring cash,” and refer to the raunchier U.S. Occupation period, when the street was known for its strip bars, brothels and snake shows.

Back at the guesthouse, night had already fallen over the poorly lit streets. Someone was crooning a popular song called “Juku no Haru,” or “Spring of Nineteen.” The singer turned out to be Hide, who beckoned me over to an outside table where he practiced the sanshin, the three-stringed Okinawan instrument, every evening. Pouring me a glass of cold sanpincha, the local tea, he resumed playing, switching to a plangent melody by the great composer Rinsho Kadokawa. Sitting here you could sit and breathe in the fragrance of the allamanda. For a moment it almost felt like being in Okinawa.

Getting there: Koza, or Okinawa City, is about 30 minutes north of Naha. Regular buses run from both Naha Airport and the city bus terminal. Get off at the Goya Intersection. The Goya-so Guesthouse (0120-996-517) is just five minutes’ walk from Gate 2 Street.