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Love-hate ties bind Okinawans, U.S. military

Islanders forge enduring relationships with American personnel but are angered by crimes

by Takuya Asakura

OKINAWA CITY, Okinawa Pref. — Many former American soldiers who once stayed at the Diego Hotel near the U.S. Kadena Air Base here regard the hotel’s manager with a reverence usually reserved for their own mothers.

Yet they are probably unaware of some of the bitter memories harbored by the 71-year-old Takako Miyagi.

Miyagi said she just received another call from a former American guest who stayed at the hotel about 25 years ago and still refers to her as “Mama-san.”

She said she remembers the homesick soldier sobbing on the stairs of the hotel after the Vietnam War.

He has called her almost every year since he returned to the U.S., although Miyagi said she does not understand his English very well.

Despite the bloody confrontation with U.S. forces, Okinawa’s postwar occupation and problems involving U.S. military personnel even after its reversion to Japan, many residents of Okinawa have built warm friendships with U.S. soldiers over the past half century.

Some outsiders are puzzled therefore when this apparent affability is offset by the islanders’ explicit anger toward members of the U.S. military over various crimes and misdemeanors.

Okinawans say, however, that these two faces constitute no contradiction given the history of the prefecture, which has always been forced to pander to the whims of Tokyo and Washington.

Miyagi has never forgotten April 2, 1945 — the day after the U.S. forces landed on the main island.

Before dawn, Miyagi, then 14 and staying in an underground shelter, was told a shocking piece of news by her aunt.

While trying to lay their hands on some food, her mother and grandfather had been shot by American soldiers who had occupied their home.

Miyagi immediately set out from the shelter with her grandmother on a rescue mission.

“I was too young to be scared,” she said. “And I was taught that the Japanese army was strong and Japan always wins.”

She later learned that the Imperial Japanese Army had already retreated in the face of the U.S. landing.

As the pair approached the house, Miyagi’s grandmother was shot dead.

Fortunately, Miyagi managed to hide under a bush and was not spotted by U.S. troops. She spent the whole day under the bush, holding her breath.

After darkness fell, Miyagi ran back to the shelter, bullets whizzing past her head.

When she finally reached the dugout where her young brother and relatives were waiting, she burst into tears.

Miyagi could not recover the bodies of her mother and grandparents. She instead retrieved pebbles from the ground where they were killed and placed them in their graves instead of ashes.

During the final throes of World War II, Okinawans were forced to sacrifice themselves to defend the Japanese mainland. Okinawa eventually lost about a quarter of its population in the ensuing battles.

“That is how the citizens of Okinawa fought,” wrote Rear Adm. Minoru Ota of the Imperial Japanese Navy in his final telegram to Tokyo before his suicide. “(I hope they) are granted special consideration in the future.”

During the postwar U.S. rule of Okinawa, Miyagi, like many Okinawans in the central part of the island, initially had no choice but to work on a U.S. base.

That was until she opened the Diego Hotel in 1958 with her late husband.

And yet, she said, she did not mind serving members of the U.S. military.

“Individual soldiers were not responsible (for the death of my family),” she said, adding that she does not know why she feels this way.

“We were tamed by them as they gave us food when we had nothing.”

During the Vietnam War, she shined U.S. soldiers’ muddy shoes when they returned from the battlefields on leave.

The young soldiers looked sad when they were sent back to Vietnam.

“I was sad because they looked so sad,” she said.

“I like them personally” was a common answer uttered by many Okinawans when asked for their views on U.S. soldiers.

Many Okinawans viewed the American soldiers as being frank, easygoing and family-loving — traits generally shared by Okinawans themselves.

Discontent over human rights infringements suffered under U.S. military rule was smoldering, however, among the local populace.

Instead of the “special consideration” specified by Adm. Ota, Tokyo approved U.S. rule of Okinawa under the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.

A 1947 letter sent by Emperor Showa to the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces also shows that he hoped the United States would continue its military occupation of Okinawa to defend both Japan and the U.S. from the threat posed by the Soviet Union.

During 27 years of U.S. military rule, private property was confiscated and used for military facilities, while residents suffered violence and fatal accidents at the hands of U.S. service personnel.

Local police officers were powerless to counter the latter.

In December 1970, a minor car accident involving members of the U.S. military and a local man in Koza — known today as Okinawa City — led to an unprecedented riot.

A throng of local people surrounded the American driver, his passengers and military police who tried to clear the scene, accusing them of trying to evade charges.

Incidents of vandalism were triggered by warning shots fired by the MPs, with locals burning some 80 vehicles owned by Americans throughout the night.

This flash point came a week after a military court had acquitted an American service member of fatally running over a local woman in his car while drinking and breaking the speed limit.

The victim had eight children and had long looked after her sick husband.

In addition to the thousands of traffic accidents caused by U.S. service personnel, local police in 1970 were thwarted by the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement when they tried to arrest a U.S. soldier who brutally raped and stabbed a local high school girl.

Ko Yoshioka, a photographer who witnessed the vandalism in Koza, said it was “a struggle for Okinawans to retrieve their pride as humans.”

Many people here still talk about the riot with pride.

This is partly because the frenzied rioters somehow retained some semblance of discipline, only burning vehicles carrying yellow license plates that identified them as being owned by U.S. service personnel.

Author Chihiro Isa, who depicted the riot scenes in his award-winning book “Enjo” (“Burning,”) described the riot as a “one-night feast.”

This was because the rioters vanished before dawn and returned to the world of U.S. rule the next day.

Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule came about shortly after the riot. In contrast to the expectations of Okinawans, however, most of the U.S. bases remained and their green lawns still stretch through the central part of the prefecture even today.

The number of brutal crimes and tragic accidents involving military personnel gradually decreased after the 1972 reversion, but Japanese authorities are still bound by the SOFA treaty.

About a decade after the reversion, Isa remembers that an editor employed by a major Tokyo publisher asked him why Okinawans could not understand that Japan’s prosperity — including that of Okinawa — is founded on the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

“Why don’t you say it at a bar in Naha?” he responded.

“Whom do you think you owe for what you call economic prosperity? Isn’t it the people on the mainland who rest on the sacrifice of Okinawa citizens?”

The anger and frustrations of Okinawans exploded again in 1995, when a 12-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by three American soldiers.

The U.S. military refused at that time to hand over suspects to Japanese authorities before indictment under SOFA.

Tokyo has repeatedly shrugged off pleas by Okinawa for revisions to the bilateral agreement.

“Please give us back the quiet Okinawa, the island without military, and without tragedy,” said Sugako Nakamura, then a senior at Ginowan High School near Futenma Air Station, to nearly 80,000 residents who gathered at the city’s beach park in 1995 to protest the rape.

Nakamura said that she was chosen to represent Okinawa high school students at the rally accidentally.

She also appears in the documentary “Guntai no Nai Kuni” (“A Country Without Military,”), centering on Costa Rica, which has abandoned its own military since 1949. The film is now touring independent cinemas across the nation.

“I was just curious if the ‘country without military’ is really possible,” she said, citing the reason behind her decision to accept the offer to appear in the film.

Nakamura used to live near the air station.

“Your television cannot be heard on full volume” while helicopters fly in formation, she said.

People on the mainland say the U.S. bases are there to bolster the “bilateral alliance” and “peace in the region,” but Nakamura feels such views are phony.

“There are all kinds of opinions among the people of Okinawa, too,” she said. “But at least there is no one who feels that they are protected by U.S. bases.”

In fact, she added, many people on the mainland have canceled their trips to Okinawa, fearing terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Though Nakamura personally feels a distance between herself and activists who shake their fists and shout loud antimilitary slogans, she understands why people must adopt such confrontational positions to get their voices heard.

“We have no choice but to obey what the Japanese government and people on the mainland decide,” she said.

“There are a lot of grandpas and grandmas in Okinawa still suffering pain from their experiences in the war. I wish we could bring back the islands of peace while they are alive.”