Beside their coastlines, there are other insistent geographical features that identify islands. In Okinawa, there is the great escarpment of Tindahanata on Yonaguni-jima Island, while Ishigaki Island has the strangely occult form of Mount Maapee, shaped like a sorcerer’s hat.
Iejima Island is defined by a weirdly splendid peak, best seen from the coastal roads of mainland Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula. This is Gusuku-yama, or Mount Gusuku, a 172-meter peak at the epicenter of the island. In the Okinawan language, “gusuku” denotes “fortress.” In local dialect, the mountain is rendered as Ijimatatcchu, the name retaining the island’s martial associations.
Little trace remains of the dreadful four-day battle that took place on the island after the 77th Infantry Division landed on April 6, 1945. An estimated 4,706 Japanese died in the ensuing conflict. The principal mortalities were among the civilian population, many of whom had been dragooned into serving Japanese soldiers as nurses or laborers. Two hundred and fifty-eight American soldiers were lost in the fighting, and a good deal more wounded.
Ideal as an early warning air defense system for operations on Okinawa, its airfields were invaluable to the Americans for their invasion of mainland Japan. From certain perspectives, the island, with its sharp pinnacle, bears a passing resemblance to a huge aircraft carrier. Improbably, Iejima possessed at the time of the U.S. landing, the largest airfield in Asia. Today, a U.S. Marine training facility occupies the westernmost of the island’s three existing airstrips, the original Japanese airfield now requisitioned as a road linking the northern and southern coasts of Iejima.
It was difficult to conjure up such savage scenes in such an agreeably laconic place. But there it was in a war period photo from the island I later found in a book— one depicting three grinning U.S. marines who had just hung an effigy of a Japanese soldier from a tree. Beneath the figure, they had written the legend “Son of Tojo,” a reference to the wartime Japanese prime minister.
The best-known casualty of the fighting on Iejima was not a soldier but the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Taylor Pyle. The correspondent was known as the “GI’s friend” for his sympathetic accounts of military heroism, and his practice of staying close to the action rather than reporting from the sidelines. Pyle was probably the world’s most famous reporter at the time of his death.
As he left to join the troops on Iejima, a fellow reporter warned, “Keep your head down, Ernie.” Pyle is said to have responded, “Listen, you bastards — I’ll take a drink over every one of your graves.”
The bravura failed to protect him from getting shot by a Japanese sniper. The bullet penetrated his left temple, just below the rim of his helmet. The spot where he fell is near the port and the adjacent village of Ie-ko. A monument bears the message, “On this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April, 1945.” The dedicatory stone is respectfully cared for by the U.S. authorities in Okinawa. Every year, members of the American Legion attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument.
Driving along this eastern stretch of coast on a rented scooter, I passed fields where the earth is as red as African laterite; several snakes, run over and left in the sun, had become steam-pressed on the road surfaces. You don’t have to be a dead reptile to feel the heat streaming off the asphalt and coral roads. The sunbaked beaches here, edged with large rocks, fields of jagged coral and tropical plantings, such as pandanus, wild hibiscus and clumps of bird’s nest ferns were gloriously empty, save for the odd fisherman.
Taking the east-west road to the old converted aerodrome, any sense of meandering at will came to a rude halt as an inland deviation brought me face to face with the long barbed wire fences of the U.S. Training Area.
The land here was requisitioned from farmers in 1955, after a period of legal skullduggery in which owners were deceived into signing away their ancestral holdings. Those who opposed the occupation were “evicted” by some 300 rifle-toting soldiers and bulldozers, who then proceeded to demolish their homes. The cordoned off area, a silent dead zone, was yet another instance of the legacy of a war that is far from over for Okinawans.
There were several groupings of sea-facing tombs along the coastal roads near the military installation. The sarcophagi, known as kamako-baka, are shaped in the form of a womb, suggesting the position taken by pregnant women when they give birth. Life and death arranged in this manner, evoke the plausibility of rebirth. The ancestral spirits, making seasonally timed visitations to household altars and graveyards, are believed to coexist in a realm that is invisible but parallel to the living. In the spring, families gather for shimi, a month of sporadic prayer, feasting and the imparting of news to the ancestors.
In this way, tombs remain a focal point for the quick as well as the dead. I was always struck by the comfortable nonchalance of children playing among tombs, old women cultivating vegetables on the peripheries of graveyards, neighbors stopping to chat at the entrance to a crypt, the odd evening drunkard, supine and snoring beside a mortuary tablet, as if the whole of life was little more than a dream.
Ultimately, all roads on Iejima lead to the magnetic center of Gusuku-yama. Resembling one of those rock cones in Utah, or the peak in the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” its form, erupting out of the flatness of the island, is a monument to the curious geological processes of nature. Despite my frequent tirades against despoilers of the environment, I was praying to find a vending machine with icy drinks at the trailhead of the peak. Then one conveniently materialized at the base of the pinnacle, beside a small shrine dedicated to safe navigation. It may be less than 200 meters to the top, but it felt like an almost vertical ascent. Climbing during the blistering heat of noon did, though, mean I had the ascent up the narrow stone steps almost entirely to myself.
From the peak, with its 360-degree views, you see that, with the exception of Gusuku-yama, the island really is as flat as an ironing board. This, along with its highly fertile soil, makes it ideal for extensive farming, which may explain why, with more than 5,000 inhabitants, Iejima is a relatively populous island. Among its agricultural bounty are sugarcane, sweet potato, tobacco, Okinawan vegetables such as the turnip-like tanmu, any number of tropical fruits, and chrysanthemums — a flower not immediately associated with Okinawa.
The same can be said of the lily, though it flourishes in southern Kyushu and throughout the Ryukyus. Iejima’s Easter Lily Festival in April is a massive draw card, attracting visitors from all over the country and requiring as many as nine ferry sailings a day during its peak. Over 1 million flowers bloom at Lily Field Park along the northeastern shore of the island. Those who have attended attest to the invigorating scent of blooming lilies and bracing salt breezes.
In this anniversary year marking 70 years since the war, the Niiya-teiya Cave on the southwestern side of the island makes a particularly poignant sight. One thousand residents hid in the sea-facing cavern during the war, hence its other name, Sennin-hora, or One-Thousand Person Cave. A legend is attached to a large rock known as Bijuru, or “Power Stone,” inside the cave. Locals believe that any woman who can lift the Bijuru will succeed in quickly becoming pregnant. The weight of the stone, however, defeats most women.
If caves make you claustrophobic, the top of Wajii Cliffs offers bracing air and superb sea views. An observatory platform takes you a little higher into the breezes, cantilevering you above a sheer drop, enough to get the heart pumping.
A large group of clearly well heeled French tourists with carefully cultivated suntans, were waiting for the last ferry when I arrived for the return trip to Motobu Port. Whisked to and from the exclusive YYY Resort, where most guests seem to spend their time on the beach or at the bar, I wondered what they made of Iejima’s unfinished looking villages, their old concrete and wooden homes ruinous with dank stains. Compared to almost any village in rural France, it must have looked traumatized by a poverty that is defenseless against tropical erosion.
When I thought about the homes in the French village I once lived in, their front rooms shuttered during the autumn and winter months and inhabitants as quiet as door mice, the sunny, ramshackle communities of Iejima seemed altogether more alive.
Iejima is a 30-minute ferry ride from Motobu Port. There are four boats a day, five in the peak summer months, with return tickets at ¥1,370.
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