When I lived in Okinawa in the early 1980s, I often dreamed that I was leaving there.  In the dreams, I was surrounded by the ethereal blue-green ocean, heartsick at the idea of never seeing it again, and I would wake up in a panic.

I happened to mention this to one of my American neighbors at the time and she said, “Oh, yeah, everyone has that dream.”  This was reassuring, but I kept on being tortured by it and waking up flooded with relief as I realized I was still on what the GIs, my students, called “the Rock.”

Though the idea of a subtropical island conjures up images of paradise, when I first saw Okinawa, it did not look like one: its landscape was odd and misshapen and speckled with a hodgepodge of cement buildings.  I later figured out that everything had been rearranged during the Battle of Okinawa, a protracted World War II battle that killed thousands of people, including over 100,000 civilians, and then during the postwar period, as the U.S. bulldozed everything that was in the way, took over Japanese bases, and built new ones.  In 1972, we gave Okinawa to the Japanese but continued our expanding military presence there unabated.  In 1984, as I was leaving, the bases were undergoing a building boom because we had been kicked out of the Philippines, and apparently since that time, several more have been created.

At first, Okinawa was definitely no Shangri La.  Though it was October when we arrived in Okinawa, the air was so humid that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to breathe.  The weather was perpetually uncertain: soon after our arrival, we were trapped by a typhoon for several days in our temporary quarters, a BOQ room in which geckos skittered across the walls all night.  Nothing was quite what I had expected: on finding a shrine at the side of a road, I discovered that it was strewn with litter, including a number of strange long plastic tubes that turned out to be popsicle containers.  Outside Kadena Air Base, the main road, Gate Two Street, was a strip of tacky businesses that sold souvenir samurai swords.  I remember seeing an elderly woman on the side of the road vending black velvet paintings of characters from “Peanuts,” on one of which was a very pregnant Lucy with a caption that said, “Fuck you, Charlie Brown!”

But as I got to know the island better, I discovered that beyond this weird military occupation was a luminous beauty. The northern part of the island was uncrowded, with beautiful beaches, and we bicycled through silent fields of sugar cane and tiny villages with walls of coral.   Fields of pineapple sprawled across the Motobu Peninsula.  At Hedo Point, the northern island’s tip, the East China Sea and the Pacific crashed into each other. A small village on the east coast still had the old-style thatched roofs.  Somewhere in the depths of the lush northern foliage was a waterfall that we never found.  On the Pacific coast was a village of potters where an artist named Jissei Omine made ceramics from rough brown local clay inlaid with shapes that represented the moon.  In the village of Hentona was the best sushi I’ve ever had, made by a man from Osaka who scuba dived during the day and made colorful wheels of fresh sushi by night.

Speaking of food, Okinawa seems to be known by most Americans because of its diet, which is thought to be the reason behind the Ryukyu Islands‘ disproportionate number of centenarians.  I find this rather perplexing given that Okinawans seemed to consume an incredible amount of Spam, which they used as flavoring in dishes such as Goya Champura, a stir-fry made with a very bitter squash.   I once ordered pork that arrived in a pool of fat.  A colleague of mine who had lived there for many years told me that Okinawan pigs were fed a lot of fish, so their fat was actually healthy, but I was skeptical.  (The Okinawans are known for using every part of a pig but its squeak.)  Okinawa produced the most delicious tofu I’ve ever had, made from peanuts, not soy beans, and a type of seaweed there, long and slimy, that I’ve never found anywhere else. 

All told, it was a strange, often contradictory, and ultimately haunting place in which to spend three years.  After we had finally left there in real life, I continued to dream about it for a long time.  Like Okinawa itself, the dreams were a mixture of the ethereal and the quotidian: in some, I would be shopping in a small department store on the main street that led to my house, which was on a narrow hilltop above the zoo and overlooked both the Pacific and the East China Sea; in other dreams, I would be surrounded by the ocean that always seemed disconcertingly high on the horizon.

For the past few weeks, Okinawa has been much in the news because of a spate of protests against the presence of Futenma, a U.S. Marine base in highly populated Ginowan City.  I thought I remembered where Futenma was, but the other day, for no particular reason, I realized it was actually not where I’d thought, and a memory returned to me of putting a nickel in a slot machine there and winning twenty dollars.  

The people who live around the American military bases that occupy so much of the central portion of the island have not been so lucky.  Some terrible incidents have occurred there over the years, including the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three Marines, as well as some fatal car crashes.  In 1993, Donald Rumsfeld called Futenma “the most dangerous U.S. base in the world” and was evidently amazed that there had been no accidents there; a year later, a U.S. helicopter crashed into a university just outside the base’s gates.

It’s obvious why people would want the U.S. bases moved–but to where?  Suggestions have been made that Futenma be moved to one of the less populated islands in the Ryukyan chain.  Other proposals have suggested the northern part of Okinawa, which is already home to a Marine base.  This proposal seems to involve platforms off the coast, an idea that makes environmentalists shudder, since the coral reef that surrounds the island has been beleaguered for decades and that coastal area is home to dugongs, distant relatives of the manatee that have apparently often been mistaken for mermaids.

The presence of the bases has been debated since my time there, but has acquired even more traction recently due to Japan‘s current prime minister Yukio Hatoyama‘s campaign promise to get rid of Futenma, and his credibility is said to rest on fixing the problem somehow.  The May 24 New York Times announced what it termed “a victory for the Obama administration” and the humiliating capi
tulation of Mr. Hatoyama, who has pledged his support for the plan to relocate Futenma in “the island’s less populated north” near the fishing village of Henoko, i.e., the habitat of the dugong.

This month, after 26 years, I will be visiting Okinawa with my son, who has been living in Japan for the past four years.  He was a baby when we moved to Okinawa and a toddler when we left, and he probably doesn‘t remember the Japanese nursery school he went to, the sushi bars where friendly people carried him around in their arms while we ate, the beaches where he dug in the coarse sand and played in clear water that was as warm as a bath.  

On Youtube one may find a number of videos of dugongs foraging in undulating fields of sea grass.  As they make their slow, peaceful way through the water, the ocean that surrounds them is the same color I always saw in my dreams.

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About the Author

Abby Bardi
Takoma Park expatriate Abby Bardi explores the wickedness of modern life in her Voice column, "Sin of the Month." Born and raised in Chicago, Abby has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England’s country and western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George’s Community College. Author of "The Book of Fred," (Washington Square Press: Simon & Schuster 2001), she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.