Return to Okinawa

Travel Impressions
by Jim Grogan

I left Okinawa in March of 1961. Reluctantly. But it was either leave or re-enlist, and I had had enough of the military life. The two and a half years I spent on the island were as enjoyable as any tour of duty could be. Picture an emerald isle encircled by the turquoise waters of the great Pacific, rolling hills geometrically terraced for rice cultivation, salt-scented sea breezes, friendly indigenous people, life at a leisurely pace and good scotch at $2 a fifth.

I had fantasized a return visit to Okinawa almost from the moment I left. But it remained just that, a fantasy. I gave it no serious thought. But as the years multiplied and slipped away it dawned on me that life really is finite. I made plans to finally realize the fantasy in the summer of 1988.

The excitement I felt about stepping so far back in time was temporarily dampened by the fully booked, interminable flight from New York to Tokyo. We were all born on that 747 and destined there for eternity. Zombies, I among them, stalked the narrow aisles. I smoked a fist full of cigarettes (an addition I had managed to kick a couple of years previous). How had I endured this trip in 1958 via a lumbering Air Force propeller-driven aircraft? I was thirty years younger and that flight made two stops, Honolulu and Wake Island. The Hawaii stop lasted several hours. I took a tourist cab (Cadillac, no less) to view downtown Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. Wake, a small sandbar in the vast Pacific was dark and humid. We landed at night and I used the airfield's latrine.

But now we're going non-stop. The speed of sound. Suspended animation. Sunset to sunrise the slow blink of a sleepless eye. There goes the International Date Line. Now it's yesterday -or is it tomorrow? The connecting flight from Tokyo to Okinawa was but half full. It was a long-awaited luxury to stretch out on a full row of seats, but sleep was impossible as the drastic time change coupled with the excitement of being close to my destination began to build.

It was during this final segment of the trip that I began to get clues that I was in for a surprise or two. I had a brief chat with an American who operated a karate school in Florida. He had made his first sojourn to Okinawa, the home office of his martial arts specialty, in 1968 and had made periodic trips since. When I explained that I had last been there in early 1961 and was returning on sort of a nostalgia trip he gave me a most curious look and said, "You're gonna find a lot of changes."

Then there were the two young mothers traveling with five or six hyperactive kids of variously early ages (one busily engaged in shredding his mother's custom forms). They were returning to their Marine Corp husbands stationed at Camp Courtney, a large Marine base north of Naha, the island's capital. I overheard them bemoaning the fact that after enduring three days in a California Air Force base terminal awaiting an available flight, and several hours with their brood in cramped airplanes, it was now going to take them two more hours to get to Camp Courtney by car. I know that our plane lands at Naha Airport, near the southern end of Okinawa, and that their destination is little more than twenty miles north. "Traffic, they said, "Lots of traffic." I thought to myself it's not possible for there to be that much traffic congestion on Okinawa! Even in the New York area at rush hour one could cover twenty miles in half that time - and we're landing at 10PM! I was sure the ladies were a trifle delirious from their ordeal.

Our plane droned on through the empty Pacific night. Suddenly the void below was ablaze with thousands of dots of light. A luminescent carpet afloat in the blackness. The captain announces we are preparing to land at Naha Airport.

I had never seen the island from the air at night, but I had a feeling that if I had that quarter-century ago, it wouldn't have looked like this. Was this a sign like Moses encountering the burning bush? It didn't take long after clearing customs to discover that Camp Courtney was indeed two hours away. Motor vehicles abounded. Few in 1961 had any type of personal transportation. Now, roads that then occasionally bore a small truck, cab or military vehicle were jammed with long fuming lines of Japanese cars, trucks, buses, vans, motorcycles and scooters. I could discern no "rush hour." Traffic all day and into late evening. The island had changed dramatically. I didn't return expecting to find my room just as I had left it, but I wasn't prepared to find the neighborhood rearranged. I couldn't be certain that even the terrain was the same. And indeed, they were leveling hills and paddies with Asian gusto. Where farmers once waded knee-deep in rice paddies now stood houses, apartments, shops, car lots, gas stations, a Shakey's Pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken and of course a McDonald's or two. And the backhoes and bulldozers continued to work up a sweat.

Since 1972, the year Okinawa once again became part of Japan (from 1945-1972 it was completely under U.S. control), the Japanese, who could well afford it, invested millions of yen into the island, providing thousands of jobs while turning Okinawa into a nearby tourist Mecca less than three hours flight from downtown Tokyo.


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The village of Ishikawa, where I made my home from 1959 to 1961 bore scant resemblance to any memories I held. The main street seemed about where I left it, but all else was transformed beyond my recognition. It is no longer called a village, but is now ISHIKAWA CITY. And rightfully so. It boasts two supermarkets where once only small open-air grocers plied their trade (gone forever the pungent aroma of dried fish permeating the air). There's a Western-style steakhouse, a Yuppie-like restaurant with hanging plants, a Diary Queen with plastic models of cones and sundaes on display, two large bookstores, two banks, a telephone business office offering the latest designer phones. A huge city government complex takes up several acres that include a minor league-size baseball park and a vast public park that was once an American R&R center. You must understand that when I left Ishikawa in 1961 it had little more than a couple of noodle shops and several rowdy bars.

The Okinawans, being Japanese once again, (though considered second cousins by the mainlanders) are baseball crazy. High schools from all over Japan were competing in a tournament televised from Honshu, the main island. A veritable marathon of games. Turn on a TV, which are ubiquitous, anytime day or night and there it was. Go to a bank to change monies, a restaurant for lunch or dinner, a bar for a cold one and not miss an inning. And when a local team was playing life stood still. A curious side note; I noticed that each and every batter assumed the same upright stance with bat held high. The caliber of play was equally as high.

One would think that one feature of an island, its coastline, would remain unchanged. One would be wrong. Ishikawa's government buildings and the public park rest not on the Okinawa that existed twenty-seven years ago, but stand on a vast landfill that extends out into Kin Bay. The beach and peaceful surf that was once a few feet from my long ago house was now a distant echo off the concrete seawall.

Visiting my old Air Force unit site at Onna Point, across the island from Ishikawa, was a trip into another dimension. The base had an empty look from a distance. Arriving at the gate it became immediately apparent that the emptiness was no illusion. The site was deserted. And not recently. Peeling paint on cinderblock buildings, broken windows, doors fallen from hinges. A silent dog eyed me warily from inside the padlocked gate. I noted that although the buildings were in a state of tropical decay, the grounds had been maintained. Grass cut, hedges trimmed. A lone caretaker/guard graciously allowed entry into what had once been an around-the-clock center of military activity.

Viewing the exterior of these dead buildings I once knew so well was eerie enough, but going through the doorless entrances was a feeling beyond my experience. Was this really happening? Was it really I that spent two and a half years living and working within these walls? Perhaps it was my father who was here, not I. My grandfather? An episode from "The Twilight Zone" I saw years ago?

The rooms reeked of decay and things long gone. I stepped gingerly not only to avoid the debris, but so not to disturb the spirits whose presence were as heavy as the smell of mildew. I went room by deteriorated room, building by building. The compound where all the electronic activity occurred, the very purpose of the base, was definitely the most fraught with feeling. This windowless blockhouse which once had the tightest security - armed guards, Top Secret Clearance and photo ID required for entry - was now secured by a rotting 2X4 nailed across the entrance. In a dreamlike state I walked the dark littered hallways. Is that the constant chatter of Teletype machines I hear? Do I detect the clicking of a Morse code key from that back room where I spent eight hours each day?

From what could be determined from the caretaker, the base was abandoned years ago by the Air Force and taken over by the Marines (as is almost every military installation on the island). And the Marines, apparently not into sedentary entertainment, had converted the old Movie Theater into a racquetball court and the antenna field became an exercise course. The Marines, in turn, abandoned the base and there it sits, crumbling buildings with trimmed lawns. A Pacific ghost town. Perhaps some enterprising Japanese real estate developer will someday turn the site into condos.

A short distance north of Onna, on this western coast, stands the majestic cliffs of MANZAMO. A magical name for a scene of breath-taking beauty. A hundred feet straight down the East China Sea relentlessly pounds the coral and volcanic rock with an intensity that is both violent and peaceful.

The sea had carved many caves into the base of the cliffs. During the exploration of one I found a narrow opening with hewn steps ascending to the top of the cliff. There, a small room had been fashioned into the rock with openings looking seaward. A Japanese lookout post in 1945? It was not at all uncommon to find remnants of World War 2 on or about Okinawa.

Atop Manzamo's highest precipice, on a flat expanse of green, stood a tall stone Torii, an ancient Shinto symbol. The view from this park-like setting was unlimited in all directions. The blue-green sea stretched to infinity towards China. The coast of Okinawa winds past the large out-island of Ie Shima where Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, was killed during this last great battle of the war (you almost made it, Ernie). What enhanced the beauty and serenity of this setting was the absence of people. Just me and my Torii.


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But all that was then - 1959. Now, a battery of souvenir and concession stands must be traversed before setting foot on Manzamo. The specialties item a stuffed two-foot long sea turtle gleaming with polyurethane brightness. Dozens hang on display with beaks agape.

The cliffs of Manzamo are a most popular tourist attraction. Busloads of Japanese vacationers wander the area; discard rubbish and purchase plasticized sea creatures. I almost stumbled over the Torii; its' remains a few inches high - broken stubs protruding from the much-traveled path. Besides the immense landfill there was another change in the island's coastline - litter. The streets of many towns are lined with vending machines, the majority of which dispense cold beverages of various types. One, I imagine a Gator Ade-type, called POCARI SWEAT I avoided with determination. And what a great idea in a climate where just walking a few blocks calls for replenishment of body fluids. But one ends up with a bottle or can with no-deposit, no-return. Much ends up being chucked into the ocean since it's frequently near by. I don't know if it's the Okinawans newfound prosperity or the large influx of tourists that set the litter machine in motion. Living, as I have, for the past fifteen years in the New York City area I've become somewhat inured to the product of people's thoughtlessness and indifference, but to find this same behavior 10,000 miles away in the magnificent Pacific was sad to behold. Even areas around some ancestral tombs, a most sacrosanct place for Okinawans, I found littered.

In my hotel room that first night in Ishikawa, I prepared to go out with some trepidation. I recalled only too well the street scene of twenty-seven years back; drunken teenage Marines in division strength bristling with belligerence, staggering locals overdosed on sake, the night I was left bleeding and unconscious from a rather forceful mugging. I could deal with all that at the age of twenty.

I was dressed and on the street by 9pm in lock and load mode. I stood in the street outside the hotel for a long minute and I knew, once again, that something wasn't the same as I remembered. I was alone!

A glaring change in the more urban areas was the near-total absence of GI bars - bars catering to the American military. These establishments were, in solid military tradition, hotbeds of prostitution. So what's going on here? There remains a vast military presence on Okinawa, and it seems highly unlikely that young American manhood has forsaken sins of the flesh. I saw nothing that resembled the bar-lined streets that were dominant in 1960. I'm sure the islands return to Japan was responsible for this transformation. It couldn't be that the current generation of American servicemen is of a less libidinous strain.

That there was a great alteration in the island's social scene was obvious. There still existed a plethora of bars, but their signs were in Japanese. Gone the gaudy ginmills with brightly painted exteriors screaming with the vulgarity of a circus sideshow.

I stayed at the hotel in Ishikawa the entire ten days I was on Okinawa. Very few Americans come there anymore - and none to partake of its nightlife, because it doesn't exist for them anymore. The bars and restaurants have a strictly local clientele. I saw one American (non-military, I think), and he paid me no mind. I think he lived in Ishikawa, as I saw him again a few days later. There was another Anglo living in the city. I also saw him twice. At both encounters he gave me a classic double take and SPLIT! Once on a bicycle going the wrong way down the main street. Wonder if there's a story there?

Crime, I was told, is all but non-existent on Okinawa - serious crime, that is. It's a very orderly society. When crossing signs flash the Japanese equivalent of "DON'T WALK," pedestrians DO NOT WALK, oncoming traffic or not. I ignored the sign once and instantly felt like a pariah in the middle of the deserted intersection. I didn't do it again. With all the traffic congestion, and it can become pretty fierce in 100 degree weather, I seldom heard the blast of an impatient horn and never the shouted expletive of an irate motorist (a profound culture shock for someone who lived in Manhattan for ten years!) Good manners were always at the forefront. The young man at Hertz bowed low as I drove out of the rental lot that first day. I saluted in return, imaging myself a Zero pilot taking off for Pearl Harbor or Midway Island. Bank tellers and supermarket cashiers couldn't thank me enough for honoring them with my business. On two occasions I forgot that tipping is not a Japanese custom. I left a small gratuity at a bar and was literally chased down the street by the barmaid who was sure I had forgotten to pocket my change. The second time a waitress returned a tip I had left the previous evening. At least the graciousness and civility I fondly remembered was still intact. I was informed that an anti-American feeling existed among the populace, but I happily didn't encounter it.

I remain with ambivalent feelings concerning my "nostalgia trip." Perhaps memories are best left undisturbed. Maybe it's true that "You can 't go home again." But I do know that the return gave me a lesson loud and clear about the passage of time. And I remind myself that any feelings of paradise lost are selfish and unimportant. What was an empyrean island for me in 1959 was certainly a squalid existence for a great many Okinawans.


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