National | Regional Voices: Okinawa

Former Vietnamese refugee reunites with the Okinawan ship captain who saved him and 104 others in 1983

The Okinawa Times

For the first time in 36 years, a former refugee reunited with an Okinawan man who rescued him and a hundred others fleeing their home country of Vietnam from a cramped and food-depleted boat sailing on a perilous journey.

Masakazu Minami, 50, whose Vietnamese name was Giang Thai Tuan Binh, visited the Okinawan city of Naha on July 13 to meet with Gensho Miyagi, who at the time was the captain of the training ship that saved the refugees.

Minami firmly embraced Miyagi, 75, and tearfully repeated words of gratitude.

Minami told Miyagi: “All these years I’ve been looking for the captain who was my lifesaver. Were it not for your help, I would not exist today.”

Minami, who runs a Vietnamese restaurant called Yellow Bamboo in Tokyo, accompanied his 17-year-old daughter, Arisa, for the reunion at a restaurant in Naha. He also pointed out that his daughter’s existence would also have been impossible without Miyagi’s actions.

Minami and Miyagi first met each other on Aug. 8, 1983. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the north and south unified under a communist government, creating a large number of refugees who could not adapt to the new regime and left the country by boat. The boat people became a social issue due to their deaths at sea and where they would be welcomed.

Minami was one of these boat people. His family had been separated; his father, who was an official of the government of South Vietnam, was arrested after the 1975 fall of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Minami thought he would have no hope for the future if he stayed in the country, and decided to leave.

On Aug. 4, 1983, Minami, then 14, and others boarded a wooden boat that set off from the riverside on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Soon he found himself in dire straits.

The 13.2-meter-long and 3.7-meter-wide boat was crowded with 105 people, including infants and those in their 50s. In only three days, food and fuel ran dry. When drinkable water ran out, some refugees even drank urine to satisfy their thirst.

It was a dangerous crossing on the open ocean that counted on outside help. Whenever there was a sign of another ship, some men would go out onto the deck to call for help, but to no avail.

In the early morning of the fourth day, when many of them were resigned to dying, a ship’s crew noticed the wooden boat. The vessel, the Shonan Maru, which belongs to Okinawa Fisheries High School, was sailing in the South China Sea for Okinawa, having completed training in the Indian Ocean.

The Shonan Maru’s chief officer, who saw the flickering lights from the boat, alerted Miyagi, and although he was worried that it might be a pirate boat, Miyagi instructed the officer to sail closer. As soon as Miyagi saw that the women and children coming onto the deck were Vietnamese refugees, he decided to bring the ship alongside. All 105 people aboard the boat — 63 men and 42 women — were rescued. The training ship already carried 69 trainees and others, so the number of passengers came to be more than double its maximum capacity of 75.

Trainees willingly shared daily necessities, including T-shirts and towels, with the refugees and provided them with meals. All the passengers worked together to get through the predicament by conserving water and food.

Meanwhile, concerns were growing in Okinawa after the authorities were notified about the overloaded ship. The government began seeking ways to get refugees off the ship as early as possible.

Following government negotiations, the Philippines agreed to accept the refugees and the ship in Manila on Aug. 12, four days after they were rescued.

“It was only natural that we offered our helping hand,” Miyagi said.

“Trainees learned through their own experience the importance of life and peace.”

Minami later moved to Japan and decided to make Japan his second home. After going to school in Japan, he acquired Japanese nationality in 1994. He experienced working in Vietnam for a Japanese company, and in 2010 he opened Yellow Bamboo.

About a year ago, a high school teacher from Okinawa visited his restaurant, and a chance conversation with the customer led to the reunion.

Minami said that although he didn’t understand Japanese when he was rescued, he never forgot the name Shonan Maru painted on the ship.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published July 7 and 14.