by Abby Bardi
Last month, just before I left for Japan, the Japanese prime minister resigned, having lost popular support because of his failure to negotiate the removal of US military bases from Okinawa, the issue on which he had been elected.
Although years ago I used to teach on them, I could understand voters’ aversion to the bases. Okinawa is only seventy miles long and seven miles across at its widest point, with a fragile coral reef, and Henoko, the site of a proposed new base, is home to the dugong, a mermaid-like mammal who feeds on sea grass.
My trip to Japan was to visit my son, who has taught there for the past four years, and take him to Okinawa to show him the magical island on which he had spent the first three years of his life. Flying to Okinawa seemed like time travel, but when we got there, I found, not surprisingly, that it had changed considerably in the 26 years since I had been there. Driving around the island felt at times like one of those post-apocalyptic movies where you barely recognize landmarks: there were new roads, even a highway; the golf course where I had always turned left to go home (there were no street signs then) had closed and looked ghostly; the red light district has been renamed Park Avenue and is now a genteel shopping area; the covered market that once housed the designer clothes store “We The Theme Produce of Ropé” is now shabby.
After multiple false starts, we managed to find the winding road that
led to our house. The enormous palace of a Yakuza was still at the
foot of the hill, but my son’s nursery school was gone, and there were
new apartment buildings. This, of course, was not unexpected–it had
been almost three decades–but it felt uncanny. Our house at the top of
the hill still had a clear view of the East China Sea side of the
island, but on the other side, overgrown jungle foliage had totally
obscured the view we used to have of the Pacific.
But when we left the built-up central part of the island and began to
make our way up its west coast, things began to look more familiar:
though it was the tail end of the rainy season and often overcast, the
ocean was still an ethereal shade of blue-green, and while huge
beachfront hotels had sprung up, once we got past them, there were the
long stretches of gorgeous coastline I remembered.
My son wanted to try one of Okinawa’s specialties, pigs’ feet, and I
craved peanut tofu (jimami-dofu), so we found a restaurant that served
We were not disappointed: the food was delicious, and
jimami-dofu is still to die for. But later in occurred to me that
back in the day, there was no such thing as Okinawan food: there was
just food. Now, perhaps thanks to the book The Okinawa Program, which
attributes Okinawa’s large number of centenarians to its diet, the
foods peculiar to the islands are no longer the object of ridicule
(“They eat every part of the pig!” a Kyoto hotelier once told me) but
are alleged to constitute “the healthiest diet in the world.” And in
general, the island seems to have become hyper-aware of its identity:
in the gift shops were armies of souvenir shisha, the pairs of lion
dogs that guard the tiled roofs of Okinawan houses, and rows of plastic
goya, the bitter gourd that is the staple of Okinawan cooking.
Years ago, I heard a talk by a professor from the University of the
Ryukyus on the complicated question of Okinawan identity. The Ryukyu
Islands, AKA Lew Chews, were independent until 1372, then colonized by
China until 1609, when they were taken over by the Japanese shogunate.
At the end of World War II, the islands became a U.S. possession. We
gave them back to Japan in 1972–though perhaps “back” is a vexed
term–and Okinawa is now a popular tourist destination, and its
identity, once so complex, seems to have become a brand.
On our loop around the island, we drove past Henoko, the proposed site
that will replace Futenma, the base slated for closure after having
been declared by Donald Rumsfeld the “most dangerous base in the world”
because of its location in a heavily populated area. Though the final
agreement had been reached the week before, construction on the new
base had clearly already begun. After reading about the threats to the
habitat of the dugong, I expected to find a stretch of unspoiled
coastline that the base was about to ruin, but the fact is, the area
appears to already be heavily under construction. Cynic that I am, I
began to wonder if part of what is driving the extreme antipathy to US
bases is that they interfere with other commercial interests on the
In fact, as we circled the coastline, I began to think that perhaps the
U.S. military presence is the least of Okinawa’s environmental
concerns. The Japanese tourist industry is aggressively marketing
Okinawa as a destination and aims for 10 million visitors a year.
Though the coastline is still beautiful, signs of environmental and
cultural destruction are rampant: where years ago colorful wooden boats
lined the coast, now there were speedboats. The northwest part of the
island, known for its “traditional-style” villages, still contains tiny
hamlets with narrow walled streets, but their walls are made of
concrete, not coral, and thatched roofs are no longer in evidence. The
village architecture I remembered had been swallowed by what can only
be termed suburban sprawl.
Nowhere were signs of change more evident than on Ikei-jima, a small
island off the east coast, where we used to drive across a brand-new
bridge to a tiny unspoiled beach the GIs called the Blue Lagoon. I
remembered it as paradise, and in fact, it was still incredibly
beautiful, a small cove of clear deep-blue water between two tall walls
of craggy rock and jungle foliage. We spent the day there, just as we
had all summer when my son was a toddler, and the water was still a
complex tapestry of colors–though no longer very warm, I noticed, with
small waves that I did not recall from the past, perhaps signs that the
coral reef that surrounds Okinawa is no longer serving as a protective
barrier. I couldn’t check on its condition because the beach no longer
allowed snorkeling, and the patch of coral I used to swim to was now in
a speedboat lane.
Off the coast, between two rocks, was a large metal structure. As we
were leaving, I asked the man in the ticket booth (a concrete building
that had not been there 26 years ago) what it was. “For drilling oil,”
he said, cheerfully.
On the plane back to the States, I watched an Okinawan movie called
Sunshine Ahead, based on a true story of a man who found a way to farm,
transplant, and regenerate coral to replenish the reef he had loved so
much as a boy, fighting the skepticism of scientists and the cynical
designs of the fishing industry. It was a sweet, hopeful movie with a
happy ending that bespoke the innocence and sunny disposition of the
Okinawa I remembered.
The movie did not mention the bases–and if I supported their removal
before I went back to Okinawa, while there I began to think that
perhaps the issue of the bases was as complicated as Okinawan identity
used to be. As my son pointed out to me, Japan‘s economy is in such
dire straits that it really can’t finance a standing army, so the US
presence there, while perhaps undesirable in many ways, provides
protection from North Korea and China at a bargain price. In fact, the
bases struck me as only one facet of a larger set of problems that
threaten Okinawa and its way of life. When I picture the richly
textured deep blue of the water on Ikei-jima, now I see that oil rig in