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Okinawa in American Literature

Summary and Keywords

The several works of American literature set in Okinawa or about Okinawans include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Perhaps the earliest, Francis L. Hawks’s 1856 Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, is an account of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854 when he forced his demands on leaders of what was then the Ryukyu Kingdom, allowing Americans to land, travel, and trade there. Hawks also provides informative and colorful descriptions of the local residents, architecture, and natural environment.

A century later, Okinawa commanded all of America’s attention in the spring of 1945 during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War. Two Okinawan immigrants to the United States published autobiographical accounts in English of mid-20th-century Okinawa, including the battle and its aftermath. Masako Shinjo Robbins’s My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa (2014) describes life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. Sold as a child by her father to a brothel in the 1930s, she barely survives the battle after being trapped in a cave collapsed by shelling. Jo Nobuko Martin’s novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (1984) depicts the horrifying ordeal of the Princess Lily Student Corps of high school girls, the author among them, and their teachers, who were drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. Writing from the American side of the battle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent. His account in The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950) begins with American battleships’ shelling of Okinawa and ends the day he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the offshore island of Iejima.

Over more than 12,500 Americans died in the Battle of Okinawa which took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked with bringing “democracy” to Okinawa, which many Americans considered feudalistic. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1951. Later adapted into two plays and a film, it is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawaii (1965) by Jon Shirota depicts the experience of Okinawans in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first novel by an Asian American writer to become a bestseller and one of several works portraying the lives of Okinawan immigrants including three plays by Shirota and an autobiography by Hana Yamagawa.

Victory in the Pacific War brought Okinawa under American military occupation for the next twenty-seven years, 1945–1972. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. government constructed a vast complex of bases to support hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Sarah Bird’s novel The Yokota Officers Club (2001) depicts the bases’ effects on Okinawans and Americans living in close proximity yet in separate worlds during the U.S. occupation. Today, more than four decades after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area. Bird’s Above the East China Sea (2015) juxtaposes the ordeals of an American military dependent living on base in present-day Okinawa who contemplates suicide after her soldier sister dies in Afghanistan with a student medic in the 1945 battle ordered to kill herself to avoid capture by the Americans. Drawing on extensive research in Okinawan culture, Bird evokes Okinawan religious beliefs and observances relating to death and the afterlife to frame her narrative and inform her readers.

Keywords: Commodore Perry, Ryukyu, Okinawan history, Battle of Okinawa, compulsory suicide, U.S. occupation of Okinawa, U.S. bases in Okinawa, Okinawan immigrants, Okinawan religion

For an island in the Western Pacific 67.5 miles long and an average 6.75 miles wide, Okinawa looms surprisingly large in the number and variety of American works set in what is now Japan’s southernmost prefecture. They include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Since the mid-19th century, American attention has focused on Okinawa for its “strategic” location within convenient transport distance of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. When Okinawa was the Ryukyu Kingdom, this location made possible a rich entrepôt trade for its merchant ships. However, it also proved to be a curse for local residents starting with Japanese invasion and subordination in 1609. In the mid-19th century, ships from Western nations made unwelcome visits seeking port privileges and supplies. These intrusions culminated in Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854, forcing his demands on Ryukyu’s leaders for Americans to land, travel, and trade in the kingdom. In 1879 Japan deposed the king and annexed Okinawa as a Japanese prefecture, sparking a sovereignty dispute with China in which former American President Ulysses S. Grant served as a mediator. Then, from early April to late June in 1945, all of America focused on Okinawa during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War, the only one fought in a Japanese prefecture. The American victory brought Okinawa under U.S. military occupation for the next twenty-seven years. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. constructed a vast complex of bases to support its hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and its Cold War against the Soviet Union. Today a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area and about 1 percent of its population.

Commodore Matthew Perry: Narrative of the Expedition to the China Seas and Japan, 1852–1854

School textbooks in America describe what a U.S. naval squadron did in 1853–1854 as “the opening of Japan.” In fact, it was gunboat diplomacy much like what the United States imposed on the nations of Latin America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Commodore Perry sailed his steam-powered warships, armed with the latest-model cannons and high-explosive shells, into Edo (later Tokyo) Bay in July of 1853. He was convinced this was the only way Japan, a nation without large ships of any kind, would accept trade relations with the United States. During this intrusion, the squadron fired blank rounds from its seventy-three guns, which Perry claimed was in celebration of American Independence Day. After delivering a letter stating U.S. demands, the squadron left Japan for Hong Kong. His much larger fleet arrived in early 1854, forcing Japanese officials to sign an agreement to begin trade relations.

Historian George Kerr called Perry “a statesman of high measure in the sense that he explored the meaning of technological change and economic expansion in terms of fundamental, long-range national policies and the continuing military needs of the United States. He foresaw, accurately, that Britain and Russia would become rivals to American interests and influence in the northern Pacific and Far East and, with this in view, shaped his policies of forcing Japan to come to terms.”1 Kerr also described him as “humorless, immensely vain and a hard disciplinarian.”2 Perry maintained strict supervision of his crew, including treatment that would be considered abusive today. He regretted the decision of the navy, shortly before his squadron’s departure for Japan, to ban flogging as a punishment.

Less is written in school textbooks about the two intrusions Perry’s squadron made in 1853 and 1854 into what was still the Ryukyu Kingdom, before it was abolished and annexed by Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan,3 published in 1856, provides dramatic and colorful accounts of Perry’s visits to Ryukyu. Written by Perry’s close friend author Francis L. Hawks, the Narrative’s lively descriptions of contemporary Ryukyu are invaluable as history and compelling as literature.

Perry’s four warships approached the kingdom’s main port at Naha for the first of his unwelcome visits on May 26, 1853. The Narrative quotes Bayard Taylor, a journalist with the voyage, in a description of the scenery that has much in common with the later impressions of first-time visitors to Okinawa:

The shores of the island were green and beautiful from the water, diversified with groves and fields of freshest verdure. The rain had brightened the colors of the landscape, which recalled to my mind the richest English scenery. The swelling hills, which rose immediately from the water’s edge, increased in height toward the centre of the island, and were picturesquely broken by abrupt rocks and crags, which, rising here and there, gave evidence of volcanic action. Woods, apparently of cedar or pine, ran along the crests of the hills, while their slopes were covered with gardens and fields of grain. To the northward, the hills were higher, and the coast jutted out in two projecting headlands, showing that there were deep bays or indentations between.4

First to board Perry’s flagship Susquehanna were officials of the kingdom:

The ships had not been at anchor two hours, before, notwithstanding the rain, a boat came off with two officials. On reaching deck, they made many profound salutations, and presented a folded red card of Japanese paper, about a yard long. The principal personage wore a loose salmon-colored robe of very fine grass cloth, while the dress of the other was of a similar fashion, but of a blue color. On their heads were oblong caps of bright yellow; they had blue sashes tied around their waists, and white sandals upon their feet. Their beards were long and black, though thin, and their ages were seemingly some thirty-five or forty years. They had the Japanese cast of countenance, and in complexion were dusky olive . . . The Commodore, however, acting on his previously determined plan, declined seeing them, or receiving any other than one of the principal dignitaries of the island: and they accordingly returned to shore.5

Shortly after Perry abruptly ordered the Ryukyu officials to leave his flagship, Bernard Bettelheim, a Protestant missionary from England who had resided in Ryukyu for several years, arrived unexpectedly to offer his services as interpreter and as expert adviser on the island and its people. From the narrative:

Scarcely had [the Ryukyu officials] gone before Dr. Bettelheim came on board in a native boat; and such were the relations in which he stood to the islanders that he hailed the arrival of the squadron with delight, and manifested no little excitement of manner. He was conducted to the Commodore’s cabin, where he remained for two or three hours; . . . in the course of the interview it appeared . . . that a year and a half had elapsed since any foreign vessel had been at Napha, and that he was almost beside himself with joy.6

The Narrative’s reference to “the relations in which he stood to the islanders” recalls Bettelheim’s own intrusion at Ryukyu, arriving uninvited with his wife and daughter in 1846. He bribed and cajoled his way onto the island and, after being brought as an overnight guest to the local Gokoku-ji Buddhist temple, refused to leave, taking the temple over from the clergy as his family’s residence for the next seven years. He declared his occupation of the temple a small victory for Christianity. Since the islanders were prohibited from commercial dealings with foreigners, he and other missionaries simply took what they needed from local shops, leaving whatever coins they thought the merchandise was worth at a time of impoverishment and famine in Ryukyu. As for his evangelizing, Bettelheim boasted in his letters that when residents refused him entrance into their homes, he simply broke through the surrounding fences, punched a hole in the matt siding of houses, and forced his way inside. “I was little moved with the cries of the women or the frightened screams of children, but seated myself in the first room I could get access to and began to preach.”7 According to the Narrative, “he and the inhabitants [of Ryukyu] were living in a condition of undisguised hostility toward each other. It was soon but too apparent that the presence of the missionary, however meritorious he might be, seemed to promise but little for the extension of Christianity in the island at that period.”8

Having refused to meet the officials of Ryukyu sent earlier to greet him, Perry agreed a few days later to receive the regent of the kingdom, Sessei Ōzato Chōkyō, and his counselors for an elaborate dinner on board the Susquehanna. During this meeting Perry announced that he and his crew would go ashore and that he would visit the royal palace, conveniently ignoring President Millard Fillmore’s instructions that he was to act in Ryukyu only “with the consent of the natives”9 and Secretary of State Edward Everett’s admonition to “see that your coming among them is a benefit and not an evil to them.”10

[Perry] informed his guest that he should do himself the honor to return his visit at the palace . . . on the following Monday week (June 6th). This information caused some consternation and discussion between the regent and his counsellors; but the Commodore put an end to it stating that he had fully made a determination to go to the palace on that day, and should surely execute it. He further added that he should expect such a reception as became his rank and position as commander of the squadron and diplomatic representative of the United States.11

The regent attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince the commodore to give up his intentions of entering Shuri Castle, and further tried, also unsuccessfully, to dissuade Perry and his men from going ashore. He was only able to “request that that they would in no case intrude themselves where their presence might seem to be disagreeable to the natives.”12 The Narrative quotes Bayard Taylor on how local residents reacted to the Americans’ first visit ashore:

Several groups of Lew Chewans [Ryukyuans] watched our landing, but slowly retired as we approached them. The more respectable, distinguished by the silver pins in their hair, made to us profound salutations. The lower classes wore a single garment of brown cotton or grass-cloth, and children were entirely naked. Even in the humblest dwelling there was an air of great neatness and order. Most of them were enclosed within high coral walls, in the midst of a small plot of garden land, some of which contained thriving patches of tobacco, maize, and sweet potatoes . . . [Among] persons who had evidently received a special appointment to watch us [were] many fine, venerable figures—old men with flowing beards and aspects of great dignity and serenity; but no sooner were any of those addressed than they retreated in great haste. The houses were all closed, and not a female to be seen. The roofs were of red tiles, of excellent manufacture, and this, with the dark-green foliage of the trees which studded the city, the walls topped with cactus, and the occasional appearance of a palm or banana, reminded me of towns in Sicily.13

Unmoved by the regent’s pleas that the queen dowager was ill and that the king was a mere boy of ten, Perry bullied his way into the palace on the morning of June 6. He was carried to the entrance in a sedan chair accompanied by a detachment of marines, the squadron’s marching band, and two artillery pieces decked with American flags.

The gate of the palace was closed. A messenger, however, was dispatched, at full speed, to cause it to be opened, and make preparations for the Commodore’s reception. On arriving at the entrance, the artillery and marines were drawn up in line, and the Commodore and his suite walked past them into the castle or palace; the troops presented arms, the ensigns were lowered, and the band played “Hail Columbia.” . . . The Commodore was conducted into the hall of audience, and placed in a chair at the head of the room; the officers followed, and were ranged in chairs on a single line, next to the Commodore, according to rank . . . The queen dowager, who had been so pathetically represented as being sick, did not, of course make her appearance; nor did the boy prince, for whom the regent governed.14

Although unable to prevent him from entering the palace, Perry’s reluctant hosts persuaded him to repair with his entourage to the regent’s neighboring residence for an elaborate twelve-course banquet featuring Ryukyuan cuisine, some of which is recognizable today.

It was at once apparent that most hospitable preparations had here been made for the entertainment of the American visitors. Four tables were set in the central apartment, and three in each of the wings, and these were covered with a most bountiful collation . . . A pair of chopsticks was placed at each corner of every table; in the center was an earthen pot filled with sake, (the intoxicating drink made by Lew Chewans [having] the taste of a French liqueur) . . . surrounded with four acorn cups, four large coarse China cups, with clumsy spoons of the same material, and four teacups . . . The exact basis . . . of some twenty dishes . . . no America knoweth, [but] possibly it was pig . . . There were sliced, boiled eggs, which had been dyed crimson, fish made into rolls and boiled in fat, pieces of cold baked fish, fragments of lean pork, fried, [and] salad made of bean sprouts.15

With his attitude perhaps softened by his enjoyment of this and subsequent social occasions provided by his reluctant hosts, Perry did not press further for a face-to-face meeting with the king during his two uninvited visits to Ryukyu. The first ended on June 9, 1853, with his ships sailing out of Naha for the Bonin Islands. However, upon the squadron’s return on July 14, 1854, an impatient Perry “demanded at once an interview with the regent; the demand was immediately granted.”16 Again ignoring President Fillmore’s instructions to “act only with the consent of the natives,” he ordered the following of the regent through the squadron’s interpreter S. Wells Williams, as recorded in the Narrative:

Establish a rate and pay for rent of a house for one year. State that I wish a suitable and convenient building for the storage of coal, say to hold six hundred tons . . . Let the mayor understand that this port is to be one of rendezvous, probably for years, and that the authorities had better come to an understanding at once . . . We should have a free trade in the market. And the right to purchase articles for the ships. It will be wise, therefore, for the Lew Chewins to abrogate those laws and customs which are not suited to the present age, and which they have no power to enforce, and by a persistence in which they will surely involve themselves in trouble.17

Perry had earlier sent a letter to President Franklin Pierce proposing to seize Ryukyu as an American “protectorate” with permission for “the occupation of the principal ports of those islands for the accommodation of our ships of war.”18 Pierce’s advisors promptly rejected Perry’s “embarrassing . . . suggestion.”19 Yet it foreshadowed events a century later when the U.S. military occupied Okinawa from 1945 to 1972 and continued its disproportionate presence in this small island prefecture to this day, bringing deadly accidents and crimes, including rapes and murders. The Narrative describes a drunken spree of mayhem by three sailors in Naha, starting with a robbery.

One of the sailors attempted in the market to take from the butcher certain of his meats without paying for them. The butcher naturally endeavored to secure his property, when the sailor struck him with a knife; a scuffle ensued, in which the sailor was beaten with a club . . . The butcher, instead of resorting to force, should have reported the sailor . . . However, . . . the general feeling on board the ships was that the sailor got no more than his deserts, as the matter seems to have gone no further.20

The Narrative reports “a far more serious incident” that followed.

On the 12th of June, a man named Board was found dead in Napha, under circumstances which justified a strong suspicion that he came to his end by violence . . . The Commodore, upon enquiry soon became convinced that the man’s death, though unlawfully produced, was probably the result of his own most gross outrage on a female, and, in such case, not undeserved . . . The facts, as well as they could be ascertained, appeared to be these. On the 12th of June three American sailors, one of whom was named Board, passing through the streets of Napha, forcibly entered the house of one of the inhabitants, and taking therefrom some saki soon became intoxicated. Two of them found a sleeping place in the gutter, but Board, clambering over a wall, entered a private house, where he found a woman, named Mitu, and her niece, a young girl. He brandished his knife, threatened the woman, and attempted the foulest outrage; she cried out until she fainted and became insensible. Her cries brought some Lew Chew men to the spot, and circumstances clearly showed the purposes of Board. Some of the Lew Chewins seized him and threw him to the ground. More than half drunk, he rose and fled towards the shore, seeking to escape. Many persons had by this time assembled, and pursued Board, throwing stones at him, some of which struck him, and, according to the statements of the native witnesses, in his drunkenness, he fell into the water and was drowned.21

Though conceding that “a most gross outrage on a female” had been committed and that Board “fell” into the water, Perry demanded a “judicial trial” for the Ryukyuans who had pursued him, leading to his death. Officials duly rounded up two men they identified as the ringleaders, and later ordered them banished to outer islands in the Ryukyu chain, one to Yaeyama for life and the other to Miyako for eight years. Perry seemed satisfied with this outcome, though according to Hawkes, the author of the Narrative, “It seems doubtful these sentences were rigorously executed.”22 For his part, Perry ordered courts martial for the other two Americans responsible for that day’s disturbance, who were “dealt with according to their deserts.”23

During his last uninvited visit to Ryukyu, Perry forced Ryukyuan officials to sign what he called the “Lew Chew Compact.” According to the Narrative, “the articles of the compact [were] cheerfully assented to” by the regent and “arrang[ed] satisfactorily to both parties.” However, an American observer, missionary-interpreter Samuel Wells Williams, reported coercion. According to his account, when first presented to the king’s officers, they refused to put their seals to a document listing demands to which they were being forced to submit and to attest in writing that they were signing it “voluntarily.” The officials wanted it to show clearly that they were signing under compulsion. Informed of their reluctance, Perry ordered a company of marines deployed to Ameku Temple at Tomari Port until they agreed to sign the entire document. Signatures were exchanged at Naha Town Hall on July 1, 1894, after which Perry sent gifts to the regent and other officers as a well as “a handsome present to the poor woman who had been the subject of Board’s outrage.”24

The “compact” stipulated, among other things, that “the government of Lew Chew shall appoint skillful pilots . . . to conduct [U.S. ships] in to a secure anchorage”; that U.S. ships “be supplied with food and water at reasonable prices”; that “whatever articles [American visitors] ask for . . . , which the country can furnish, shall be sold to them”; and that Americans “be at liberty to ramble where they please, without hindrance, or having officials sent to follow them.”25 Though not specified in the “compact,” Perry agreed to arrange transport for Reverend Bettelheim and his family out of Ryukyu to Shanghai, relieving the kingdom of a prolonged and heavy burden.26

My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa

Masako Shinjo Summers Robbins wrote My Story27 in English, which she learned after coming to the United States from Okinawa with her first American husband in 1952. Her account of life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa compels the reader to experience the history of this tumultuous era from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. As a child in the 1930s, she was sold by her father to a brothel in Naha, Okinawa’s capital city. Drafted by the Japanese military as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa, she barely survived sheltering in a cave that collapsed around her from shelling. After spending several months in a refugee camp at the end of the battle, her family returned to their village to find their home destroyed. Her strength, resourcefulness, and resilience through these horrifying ordeals are nothing short of astounding.

Of her childhood at the family home in the Imadomari section of Nakijin Village on the Motobu Peninsula of northern Okinawa, she writes, “We were so poor that we didn't have a decent door to close when we all went to bed.”28 Later, she describes her life after her father sells her to a woman managing what she calls “a house, not a home,” and the fear and disgust she felt when the woman sold her virginity to a wealthy businessman. After U.S. firebombing in October of 1944 destroyed most of Naha City, including the brothel where she worked, she felt relieved that “now [the woman] had no power over me.”29

Six months after the bombing of Naha, U.S. forces invaded Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. Masako watched from a cave shelter as U.S. Navy ships offshore fired cannon barrages. “The American ships were so close that, as we lay on the ground watching, we could see sailors moving about on deck, or in the distance a kamikaze attack.”30 After U.S. forces occupied the central and northern regions in fighting that caused heavy casualties on both sides and among Okinawan civilians, Masako and the other women refugees were moved from shelter to shelter by the Japanese army in its long, chaotic retreat under fire to the southern portion of the island in which thousands more soldiers and civilians died. She tells how Japanese soldiers seized food from Okinawan homes, killing a family who tried to hide one cup of rice, and how they killed a baby inside cave a shelter whose crying, they said, might attract the attention of the enemy.

In late June American soldiers captured Masako and a friend from her school days hiding in a sugar cane field. “We were quickly surrounded by what seemed like fifty American soldiers standing in the sugar cane. All had weapons and they were pointed at us.”31

Robbins describes the months that followed, most of which she spent in refugee camps where the internees, prohibited from returning to their villages, were fed and sheltered, but where some American soldiers raped young women and girls. Later, she is hired to work in the post exchange at the Okuma Officers Rest Center in northern Okinawa. This was one of the many installations the U.S. military took over from the Japanese army, greatly expanding them and building vast new bases for their occupation (1945–1972), which lasted twenty years longer than the Allied occupation of mainland Japan. This disproportionate American military presence continues in Okinawa today.

A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus

Jo Nobuko Martin’s autobiographical novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus,32 like My Life, was written in English and based on the author’s experience before, during, and after the Battle of Okinawa. It won the University of Michigan’s prestigious Hopwood Award in 1972. The title refers to the Himeyuri (Star Lily) Student Corps of 222 high school girls, the author among them, and eighteen of their teachers drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. They tended to severely wounded and dying soldiers in makeshift cave field hospitals that were constantly relocated to avoid advancing U.S. forces. In Japan perhaps what is best known about the battle are the suicides of student nurses who jumped off cliffs or detonated hand grenades to avoid capture by American soldiers. Their story, exploited at times for commercial and nationalistic purposes, has been portrayed in manga, film, and anime with a mixture of sentimentality and eroticism that Japanese audiences seem to find irresistible.33

In December, 1941, the author was a teenage schoolgirl in Naha when the principal called all students and teachers into the auditorium for an emergency assembly.

“I have an official announcement from Imperial Headquarters,” Mr. Masaoka began . . . He paused about five seconds to prepare us for the news. “We have just declared war on Britain and the United States . . . Our mighty bombers have wiped out an entire unit of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.”34

Soon makeshift military training was added to the school curriculum.

We had no metal for weapons, but bamboo grew abundantly in backyards and in the countryside. Bamboo was light and supple, and made excellent spears; . . . straw dummies with the heads of Churchill or Roosevelt were fashioned.35

Six months after the October 10, 1944, air attack that destroyed the capital city of Naha, U.S. forces landed on the Keramas, just off the coast of Okinawa Main Island, in late March of 1945. Thus began the last and worst battle of the Pacific War, taking some 230,000 lives, more than half of them Okinawan civilians, and destroying most standing structures.

Nobuko, as one of the Himeyuri student medics, had made her way through an “iron tempest” of “falling . . . shells” to the underground field hospital where she’d been assigned.

Wounded men lay on bunk beds lining the walls. In addition to the usual musty odors associated with cave life, there was the stench of putrefying flesh, pus, and medicines. The air was thick with fluffy soot from the many kerosene lamps on the walls . . . In the operating room under a naked electric bulb two masked doctors in white were bending over the operating table. A nurse stood by, holding a tray with gleaming instruments. Their patient groaned in pain. To eyes accustomed to the yellowish light from kerosene lamps, the white, glowing electric light was blinding, and the brightly illuminated operating room contrasted harshly with its shadowy surroundings. The scene reminded me of a horror movie I had once seen, in which a mad doctor was performing an operation on a screaming victim.36

In late June, Nobuko, her classmates, and other refugees heard a loudspeaker announcement in Japanese from a U.S. Navy ship off the coast of southern Okinawa Island. “The war is over. Come out. We won’t hurt you.”

We had been moving northward along the coral beach for fifteen minutes or so when, all of a sudden, there they were—fifty of them, at least—huge men with rifles! . . .

I turned around. Someone took hold of my shoulder . . . “Where are you going?” he asked, in Japanese. It was bookish, heavily accented Japanese, but quite comprehensible.

. . . I stared up at him for a moment. He had blue eyes—blue eyes! . . .37

Later, much later, some of us learned a Japanese officer named Akamatsu had ordered the inhabitants of [Kerama] island to commit mass suicide to avoid being captured . . . Hand grenades were distributed. There was one grenade for twenty to thirty people—Not nearly enough for a clean, instant death for everybody. Those who did not die immediately used clubs, axes, grubbing hoes, razors or rocks to finish each other off.38

In ordering their suicides, the Japanese military had told Okinawans that if they were captured, the Americans would torture them for information, then rape the women before killing all of them. In a dispatch dated April 23, 1945, less than one week before he was killed in the battle, American war correspondent Ernie Pyle described how some civilians reacted after realizing they’d been misled:

After a few days the grapevine carried the word to them that we were treating them well so they began to come out in droves and give themselves up. I heard one story about a hundred Okinawan civilians who had a [Japanese] soldier among them, and when they realized the atrocity stories he had told them about the Americans were untrue, our MPs had to step in to keep them from beating him.39

The Story of Ernie Pyle

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle’s writing about Okinawa, where he accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent, starts with a premonition of his own death there. As the American invasion force in navy ships headed for the island, he wrote, “Sometimes I get so mad and despairing I can hardly keep from crying . . . I worry so much about what might happen to me, I’ve even gotten to brooding about it and sometimes can’t sleep.”40 “On the last day we changed our money into newly manufactured ‘invasion yen,’ drew two days K-rations, took a last bath, and packed our kits before supper. We had a huge turkey dinner. ‘Fattening us up for the kill,’ the boys laughingly say.”41 While the temporary calm prevailed, he recorded his impressions of Okinawa, praising the local scenery in a description reminiscent of Bayard Taylor’s account of Perry’s arrival in Ryukyu ninety-two years earlier. The landscape that had reminded Taylor of “the richest English scenery” impressed Pyle for “the similarity with the villages of Sicily.”

Since this island is the closest to Japan we’ve landed on and since we seem to feel this really is Japan, rather than just some far outpost . . . There are tropical-like trees . . . All through the country are narrow dirt lanes and now and then a fairly decent gravel road . . . We had read about what a worthless place Okinawa was, but I think most of us have been surprised about how pretty it is.42

Pyle gives his impressions of local residents:

Okinawan civilians we bring in are pitiful. The only ones left seem to be real old or real young. And they all are very, very poor . . . The people here dress as we see Japanese dressed in pictures: women in kimonos and old men in skin-tight pants . . . We found two who spoke a little English. They had once lived in Hawaii. One was an old man who had a son (Hawaiian-Japanese) somewhere in the American Army! . . .

They were obviously scared to death . . . After all the propaganda they’ve been fed about our tortures, it’s going to be a befuddled bunch of Okinawans when they discover we brought right along with us, as part of the intricate invasion plan, enough supplies to feed them, too!43

He writes of American battleships barraging Okinawa with thousands of shells, and of planes launched from aircraft carries dropping bombs armed with napalm. “The ghostly concussion set up vibrations in the air—a sort of flutter—which pained your ears and pounded upon you as though . . . with invisible drumsticks.”44 His description seems to mirror Masako Robbins’s account from the other side in the battle of “bombing and gunfire from offshore . . . The American ships were so close that, as we lay on the ground watching, we could see sailors moving about on deck.”45 Just before going ashore with marines in a small landing craft, Pyle again contemplates the possibility that he will not survive the invasion. “There’s nothing romantic whatever in knowing that an hour from now you may be dead.”46

Pyle shared the marines’ astonishment at the total absence of Japanese resistance to the regiment’s initial landing on the beaches of central Okinawa. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he wrote. “And we don’t either. It just can’t be true. And yet it is true. The regiment of Marines I am with landed this morning, on the beaches of Okinawa absolutely unopposed, which is indeed an odd experience for a Marine. Nobody among us dreamed of such a thing. We all thought there would be slaughter on the beaches . . . We don’t expect this to continue, of course.”47 And he quotes the first words he heard spoken by a marine on Okinawa. “Hell, this is just like one of MacArthur’s landings!”48

Later, Pyle describes the capture of two Japanese soldiers: “They were real Japanese from Japan, not the Okinawan home guard . . . Fortunately, they happened to be the surrendering kind, rather than the fight-to-the-death kind, or they could have killed several of us.”49 His observation is important for countering the widespread impression of Japanese soldiers as monolithically committed to joyful “banzai” suicides honoring the emperor to avoid the shame of capture. In fact, although many fought until they were killed, and some strapped explosives on themselves to attack tanks and bunkers, thousands also surrendered in Okinawa and were held in prisoner-of-war camps during and after the battle.

The calm that initially greeted Pyle and the marines soon ended, and the counterattack began, as it had earlier at Iwo Jima, by Japanese soldiers firing from fortified caves and bunkers. According to the official history of operations in Okinawa, the Seventy-Seventh Marine Division, which had fought on Guam and Leyte in the Philippines, “was to meet the stiffest opposition in its experience.” Pyle biographer Lee Graham Miller quotes a marine officer’s description of the enemy on Iejima Island just off the coast of northern Okinawa: “He killed until he was killed. He remained hidden until our troops passed him, and then he fired at their backs. He came out of hiding at night, every night, to kill as many Americans as he could before he was cut down; he made a living bomb of himself and threw himself under tanks and into foxholes against groups of GIs.”50 In the six days of fighting on Iejima, the Seventy-Seventh lost 172 killed and 902 wounded. Almost five thousand Japanese died. On April 18, 1945, Ernie Pyle was traveling with four marines in a jeep. Coming under machine gun fire, they jumped out to take cover in a ditch by the roadside, where he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in the left temple and died instantly.51 A monument stands there today honoring perhaps the best-known American correspondent of World War II.

At This Spot

The 77th Infantry Division

Lost a Buddy


18 April 1945

The Teahouse of the August Moon

Ernie Pyle was one of 12,500 Americans to die in the Battle of Okinawa. It took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s resident population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year. As Pyle noted, the U.S. invasion force had prepared for this chaotic aftermath, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. Starting in 1946, the U.S. Congress voted funds for GARIOA, Government Aid and Relief in Occupied Areas, which not only delivered food supplies and materials to rebuild destroyed communities but later provided college scholarships for Okinawans to study in the U.S.

U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked, as in mainland Japan, with “reforming” Okinawan society, considered by many Americans to be backward and “feudal.” This was to be accomplished by implementing American conceptions of democracy, or “demokurashii,” a word invoked so often in Japanese that it became a punchline for jokes about the occupiers. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, was assigned as commander of Tobaru, a village of five thousand in central Okinawa. Based on this experience, he published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon,52 in 1951, adapted in 1953 by John Patrick for a Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway play,53 in 1956 for a film starring Marlon Brando in the role of the commander’s Okinawan interpreter,54 and in 1970 for a Broadway musical, Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen.55The Teahouse of the August Moon, in its four incarnations, is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa.

The curtain opens on Patrick’s play with a monologue by the interpreter Sakini giving the audience a history lesson in a stereotypical “oriental” patois. From the perspective of today’s sensitivities, it must be remembered that Teahouse is a satire of American images and attitudes and of Okinawan responses to them.

Lovely ladies, kind gentlemen: Please to introduce myself. Sakini by name. Interpreter by profession. Education by ancient dictionary. Okinawan by whim of gods. History of Okinawa reveal distinguished record of conquerors. We have honor to be subjugated in fourteenth century by Chinese pirates. In sixteenth century by English missionaries. In eighteenth century by Japanese war lords. And in twentieth century by American Marines. Okinawa very fortunate. Culture brought to us . . . Not have to leave home for it. Learn many things. Most important that the rest of the world not like Okinawa. World filled with delightful variation. In Okinawa . . . no locks on doors. Bad manners not to trust neighbors. In America . . . lock and key big industry. Conclusion? Bad manners good business. In Okinawa . . . wash self in public bath with nude lady quite proper, Picture of nude lady in private home . . . quite improper. In America . . . statue of nude lady in park win prize. But nude lady in flesh in park win penalty. Conclusion? Pornography question of geography. But Okinawans most eager to be educated by conquerors. Deep desire to improve friction. Not easy to learn. Sometimes painful.56

Yet the “painful” cultural “friction” in Teahouse is felt much more by the occupying Americans than by the occupied Okinawans. At one point, Colonel Wainwright Purdy, the commander of the central island region, who is hoping for a promotion to brigadier general, says in frustration, “My job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy, and they’re going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them.”57

In one major misunderstanding early on, Captain Jeff Fisby, commander of Tobiki Village and a central character in the story, has unwittingly given permission to Mr. Motomura, a wealthy man from Awasi Village, to reside in Tobiki. Only later does he learn that Mr. Motomura had been expelled from Awasi for corrupt activities. They involved two geisha, whom he now presents to Captain Fisby as a “gift of gratitude” for permission to live in the village.

[He] turned to Sakini. “But I can’t own geishas,” he protested.

Sakini scratched his head. “Don’t understand, boss. A very honorable profession.”

Fisby groped for words, tried to think. Then he smiled. “Well, it’s just not allowed, Sakini. You see, once there was a great man in our country. We called him the Great Emancipator.”

“The great who?”

“Emancipator. And he said that people can’t own other people, so—” Fisby shrugged and eased himself back into the swivel chair, pleased with his explanation.

Sakini considered carefully. “Boss, did the Great Emancipator say you can’t own geishas?”

In self-defense, Fisby edged forward on the chair. “Well, not exactly. In the first place, I don’t think he knew about geishas.”

Sakini nodded slyly. “Everything all right then, boss. You own.”58

The two geisha, who, it turns out had been the cause of the breakdown in social order at Awasi, have the same effect in Tobiki. They distract the men from their assigned reconstruction tasks, sew jealousy among the women, and sabotage Captain Fisby’s pet project of constructing a school with U.S.-aid-funded materials and labor, which the villagers vote unanimously must be used instead to build a teahouse for the geisha to entertain. Unable to resist their demands for “democracy,” Fisby resigns himself to arrest and court martial with the visit to Tobiki of Colonel Purdy along with a congressional committee monitoring the expenditure of U.S. aid funds and the progress of occupation policies. Instead, the story ends happily as the congressmen are deeply impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit in Tobiki and “American get-up-and-go in the recovery program.” Besides the success of the teahouse, the villagers are running a lucrative business brewing potato brandy in home distilleries. “The Pentagon is boasting. Congress is crowing. We’re all over the papers,” exults Colonel Purdy.59

Risa Nakayama compares the novel, play, and film versions of “Teahouse” in her article “Perverted Okinawa: De-Okinawanization in the Adaptation of The Teahouse of the August Moon.”60

Because Vern Sneider, the author of the novel, stayed in Okinawa during and after World War II, the way he describes Okinawa and Okinawans is more or less realistic . . . On the other hand the film, and the play adapted by John Patrick, apply a form of slapstick comedy, using stereotyped characters.61

Nakayama notes that the play’s director, Robert Lewis, had initially wanted an Asian actor in the role of Sakini but had settled on David Wayne in “yellow face.” For the film, Brandon was chosen over others for his box-office draw (Mickey Rooney was also considered for the role) at a time when it was common for white actors to play Asians in Hollywood films, sacrificing verisimilitude in favor of star power. Nakayama also notes the “juvenilization” of Okinawan characters as one aspect of what today would be called “Orientalism.”62

Author James D. Houston also writes of the “child-like” characters in the play version of Teahouse, but calls it an early breakthrough for literary and dramatic portrayals of Asians by American writers:

In a way it’s a miracle that in 1952 such a play was produced at all: a bilingual production with dialogue in both English and Japanese, with an Asian character in a leading role, an Asian we are actually allowed to like, rather than encouraged to mistrust which had been the norm, in film and fiction, from the days of the Gold Rush onward.63

Lucky Come Hawaii and Other Immigrant Literature

Jon Shirota was born on Maui in 1928, the son of immigrants from Okinawa. His writing depicts the Okinawan immigrant experience in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups—Caucasian, mainland Japanese, Okinawan, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, and Native Hawaiian. “Shirota gives his Okinawan characters cultural and ethnic traits that distinguish them from other Japanese,” explains Katsunori Yamazato.

The troubled relations between Okinawa and the rest of Japan have continued since 1879, when the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by the rising East Asian empire of [Japan]. Even after Okinawans settled in Hawai’i and the United States, they must struggle for an identity of their own, Japanese and yet undeniably Okinawan.64

Lucky Come Hawaii, originally published by Bantam Books in 1965 and reissued by University of Hawai’i Press in 2010, was the first novel by an Asian-American writer to become a bestseller. Shirota adapted the story as one of a series of plays produced in Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo. It is set during and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That day Kama Gusuda, an Okinawan immigrant and the central character, is delivering one of the pigs he raises to a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu. The elderly proprietor Lin Wo suddenly informs a stunned Gusuda, “God-tem Jap-anee! Kill ’em lotsa ’Melican sailah and soldiah, Pear’s Har-bah! . . . You no heah radio, Gusuda?” . . . God-tem Jap-anee! . . . Al’time kill, kill. Kill ’em lotsa Chineee in China. Now kill ’em lotsa ’Melican soldiah and sailah.”65

Shirota portrays reactions to the attack among characters of the various ethnicities, focusing on a split between first- and second-generation Okinawans. Gusuda and other immigrants are proud of Japan’s military successes and expect to benefit from an anticipated Japanese conquest of Hawaii. However, the younger Okinawans born and raised there worry about rising anti-Japanese sentiment and the U.S. government’s interrogations and detentions of local residents wrongly suspected of planning sabotage. Young men soon feel pressures to join the U.S. military in order to prove their loyalty. Another of the older immigrants, Mr. Higa, paints a rising sun flag on his roof so that Japanese planes in the successful invasion he anticipates won’t bomb his house. “Japanese soldiers are too brave for the Americans,” he explains. “Whenever the ’Merican soldiers come across the Japanese soldiers they’re sure to run.” But, hearing about the interrogations, he hurriedly washes off the flag. Gusuda’s second-generation daughter Kimiko wonders, “How foolish can people be? . . . Those superstitious fools, starting a war! Wanting to die for the Emperor because he was supposed to be a God—a descendant of the Sun.”66

Through the characters’ recollections, Shirota portrays the immigrant experience and mainland Japanese prejudice against Okinawans in Hawaii. “The Naichis [mainland Japanese] are always looking down on us, [but] they’re no better . . . Like us, they had to come to Hawaii because they were poor back in Japan.”67 Shirota writes that Gusuda recalls “the hardships he himself had gone through back in Ginoza Village in Okinawa. Everyone had always been so poor and hungry there.”68

He arrived in Waipahu, Oahu, near Pearl Harbor in 1905. He had never worked so hard in his life: cutting sugar cane with a heavy bolo knife under the scorching tropical heat . . . six days a week . . . After living in Waipahu for two years, convinced he could never return to Okinawa a wealthy man, he paid a local marriage broker . . . to have a picture bride sent from Okinawa.69

Lucky Come Hawaii concludes with MPs, guns drawn, bursting into the home of a Japanese American family falsely reported to possess a short-wave radio, which turns out to be a phonograph playing children’s songs.

“Get your hands up!” the Sergeant bellowed, stabbing his automatic at the frail-looking, middle-aged Japanese man in sleeping kimono, and two pajama-clad girls, about eight and ten . . . A small phonograph on the floor kept on playing soft Japanese music . . . “Peterson, search the house for that radio set,” the Sergeant ordered. “And I don’t give a damn if you wreck the joint finding it.” . . .

“Hey, Sarge,” the driver said . . . “[T]here ain’t no radio set in this heah house. I’ve searched everywhere.” . . . The Sergeant said, “These people ain’t got no business listening to Jap music.” He picked up the record off the phonograph and crushed it over his knee, [then] bent down to grab a handful of other records.70

Among the two thousand men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry arrested, detained, and interned in Hawaii, no evidence of espionage or sabotage was found, and no charges were ever filed.

The author of two other novels, Shirota adapted Lucky Come Hawaii as a play produced in Los Angeles, Hawaii, and New York in the early 1990s. His 1999 play Leilani’s Hibiscus71 was produced in Los Angeles, Hawaii, and New York and, in a Japanese translation by Katsunori Yamazato, in Tokyo and Okinawa. Set in Hawaii during the early postwar period, it features seven characters, two of whom are speaking posthumously at their grave site, who reminisce about their lives filled with hardship as immigrants working on the plantations, as soldiers serving in Okinawa, and as members of a minority facing discrimination.

Fifty-year-old Yasuichi Gusuda immigrated to Hawaii in the 1930s but chose to return to Okinawa in 1941 just before the start of the Pacific War. “Bad timing,” he says.72 He served in the Imperial Japanese Army in the Battle of Okinawa. His nephew Ichiro Gusuda, ten years younger, served on the other side of the battle in the U.S. Army, which made use of his proficiency in Japanese and Okinawan languages. “Come to think about it,” he says, “you and me, we always avoided talking about the war.” “What’s there to talk about,” says Yasuichi. “Your side won; mine lost.”73 Ichiro goes on to explain how he used his language skill to talk a teenage girl out of committing suicide with her classmates by jumping off a cliff. “We were told American barbarians would rape the young girls and torture everyone else before killing them,”74 recalls his uncle, who asks, “What happened to her family?” “They all jumped off the cliff: her father, mother, two older sisters and a baby brother,” answers Ichiro, who then reveals for the first time that the girl he rescued is his wife, Mayumi.75

Shirota’s play Voices from Okinawa takes place more recently, at the time of the Iraq War.76 As during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the U.S. military used its bases in Okinawa to train troops and store weapons for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The central character, Kama Hutchins, lives in Hawaii and is in Okinawa to trace his family’s roots as part of his PhD thesis on immigration. “I’m one-quarter Okinawan, three-quarters American . . . My grandmother married an American, and her daughter, my mother, married an American.”77

Most of the play addresses the ubiquitous effects of the U.S. postwar occupation and military presence in Okinawa. Kama explains one of its effects to his Okinawan student, Yasunobu Hokama:

Did you know that millions of American military have come and gone through Okinawa since 1945 . . . leaving behind offspring with tall noses and round eyes? The influence of Americans is everywhere today: music, language, clothing.78

Yasunobu explains why he is learning English:

I am barber. My barbershop near Kadena Air Base. Most of my customers GIs. GIs sure talk funny. Always say, “Gotcha.” What they got, I don’t know. Even when speaking to just-a-one man, they say “Y’all.” I come to Naha English School so I can speak like ’Mericans in ’Merica; not on’y like GIs in Okinawa.79

Much of the play’s dialogues are filled with such humor, but when Kama meets his relatives, he learns about the devastating consequences of the sixty-year military presence. His great-aunt tells him how she has been offered “millions of yen” to lease her land for a military base, but that she is determined to stay in the home where she has lived all her life. The woman who is the principal of the English school where he teaches supports her decision. “Lease, sell—what’s the difference? More army camps, more abused young girls.” Referring to the 1995 rape of an elementary schoolgirl by three American serviceman, the principal adds, “She was just twelve years old!”80 In act 2 Kama’s great-aunt tells him a U.S. Army interpreter, a Japanese American soldier, came and threatened to burn her house and sugar cane field if she refused to sign a lease and move out.

The immigration odyssey of Hana Yamagawa stretched over five decades, three countries, and two continents. Her autobiography, edited by her daughter Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett, was published as From Okinawa to the Americas: Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminiscences of a Century. Memories of her childhood include having her hair arranged in the Okinawa-style topknot, watching as young men in her village were drafted for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, and encountering prejudice from mainland Japanese. “Even if they looked down on us, there was nothing we could do.” In 1912 she left Okinawa for contracted labor on a sugar plantation in Peru.

Contract-labor ships were slow in those days. We stopped for about four hours in Honolulu . . . Then after Honolulu we went directly to Peru. During the trip, all in all about fifty days, the tough calluses on the soles of my feet flaked off.81

Of their life on the plantation, she writes,

There was a shortage of hands, and the men worked overtime, night and day and on into two nights in a row . . . On those nights, Mrs. Shimabukuro and I slept together uneasily behind a locked door.

Pretty soon, overworked and weakened, my brother and Cousin Kwangoro got sick with malaria. There was no medical care, and, as soon as they seemed improved, the foreman forced them back to work, until they were sick again with fever and chills. We could see that those dying were new arrivals, like ourselves, who were worked too hard before they could get used to the climate.82

Later the family moved to Lima for a time, but then decided to leave Peru and head north on a dangerous journey through Mexico and the California desert. They lived briefly in the Imperial Valley, finally settling in Los Angeles.

The first house we had in Los Angeles was an old four bedroom house on Koehler Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets. After settling in, I went to a walnut ranch in Covina, twenty miles from Los Angeles, to work as a cook for a camp of about twenty Japanese laborers, getting paid twenty-five cents per laborer fed.83

“A Monument on Okinawa”

The work of Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gary Snyder reflects an immersion in Buddhist spirituality and a devotion to environmental preservation. He lived in Japan for several years and translated Japanese poetry. His 1958 poem “A Monument in Okinawa” on the shrine dedicated to the Himeyuri student nurses (discussed in the section “A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus”) evokes their compulsory suicides during the Battle of Okinawa and shows how militarization of the island has continued.84 The families of farmers whose land was seized by U.S. occupation forces for base expansion and construction in the 1950s, as well as many others, were forced in the devastated local economy to find gainful employment in the “military service” sector.

  • “One hundred twenty schoolgirls
  • Committed suicide together here.”
  • Dead now thirteen years,
  • Those knot-hearted little adolescents
  • In their fool purity
  • Died with a perverse sort of grace;
  • Their sisters who lived
  • Can be seen in the bars—
  • The agreeable hustlers of peace.

Devoid of the sentimentality and nationalistic overtones in Japanese films and manga on the Himeyuri schoolgirls, this poem radiates a tone of bitter irony in describing their “fool purity” and the “perverse grace” in their deaths. The irony seems to turn cold when Snyder depicts women, many compelled to work in GI bars by economic circumstances in Okinawa under U.S. military occupation, as “agreeable hustlers.” They might smile agreeably for their customers but could hardly be said to enjoy their work. Perhaps the poem’s ultimate irony is Snyder’s reference to the “peace” in Okinawa, a bastion of weapons, troops, and warplanes for America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor

Both Norma Field and Sarah Bird spent time growing up amid the vast American military presence in Japan. Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor provides a compelling portrait of Okinawan activist Chibana Shoichi.85 In 1987, Chibana burned the Rising Sun Flag at the opening ceremony of the National Athletic Meet in Okinawa to protest the Japanese government’s continued denials of responsibility for wartime atrocities and its disproportionate imposition of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. He was arrested, jailed, and subjected to right-wing death threats. The market he owned was destroyed by firebombing.

Shoichi is instantly likable. Tall, striking, and unaffected, he is a warm host. He doesn’t show a trace of irritation with questions he has doubtless answered a hundred times . . . He speaks with a freshness undiminished by repetition and a conviction free of ostentation. Indeed, the conviviality he generates threatens to obscure the seriousness of his act—burning the Rising Sun Flag as a deliberate gesture of civil disobedience—and the chain of reactions it unleashed: arrest, detention, and trial on the one hand, death threats and village besiegement by right-wing groups on the other.86

Field also writes of an older Okinawan, Higa Heishin, who persuaded battle survivors to speak publicly about one of its worst atrocities, long a taboo subject among local residents of Yomitan Village where it occurred. At the start of the U.S. invasion, American soldiers approached a cave where villagers had taken shelter. Told by the Japanese army that the Americans would capture, torture, rape, and then kill them, many committed what Field has termed “compulsory suicide.” At first there was a “violent disagreement within the cave” over this course of action.

Then a woman gave in to her eighteen-year-old daughter’s pleas that she kill her with her own hands while “she was still pure.” The mother thrust a kitchen knife into the girl’s neck. Next a twenty-five-year-old army nurse who had observed the behavior of the Japanese army in the course of its advance on the continent called her family together, confirmed their identities (for the cave was dark) and injected them with the poison she kept in her kit. Many others begged her to inject them, but she refused, saying she had just enough for her family and relatives . . . Some walked out [of the cave] not in hopes of escaping, but simply because . . . they though it would be easier to be shot dead by the Americans. In the end eighty-two people were dead, forty-seven of them children under the age of twelve.87

Field concludes her portraits of the two activists on a guardedly hopeful note:

From that sympathy emanates the faith that impels Shoichi to awaken his people and through them, all of Japan, to their historical responsibilities . . . Shoichi’s efforts are fraught with contradiction. Necessarily so, for he continues to be an aspiring member of [a] successful society. Yet thus far he has not overcome, or perhaps, been abandoned by, his innocence, sustaining an ethical imagination that allows him to recount the past as if in the first person so as to earn the right to address the future.88

The Yokota Officers Club

The daughter of an air force officer stationed at Kadena Air Base during the Cold War, Sarah Bird has written two novels set in Okinawa. The Yokota Officers Club89 features tumultuously comic scenes of a military family’s life on base and their visits to the adjacent base town (in both senses of the word), a sharp contrast to the tone of bitter irony in Gary Snyder’s poem “A Monument in Okinawa.” Her novel reveals the rigid hierarchy among American officers’ wives that results in bullying of the younger women among them. The story concludes with tense drama when the main character’s father, an air force pilot, narrowly escapes death in a dangerous reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.

Returning to the airbase one afternoon shortly after arriving in Okinawa, the family encounters a protest demonstration against B-52s in Okinawa that were flying bombing missions to Southeast Asia.

Back at Kadena, the knot of demonstrators at Gate Three has swollen by several hundred. The new protesters are not the polite suit-jacketed crowd that was there the other day. A Japanese man in Trotsky glasses, his hair in a spiky brush-cut, marches back and forth in front of the demonstrators, yelling into a bullhorn, and beating his fist in the air in time with his message. Like many of the other new demonstrators, he has a look of pasty-faced fanaticism that I recognize from the ringleaders of the protest movement in college. This time many signs are in English.


“Do you think they mean ‘remove’?” [my sister] asks.90

Bird pointedly contrasts the Okinawan world of crowded streets and cramped living conditions with the wide-open spaces and comfortable living quarters for American military personnel and their dependents on base.

On base, we move from a chaotic, congested world crowded with small vehicles and small people into a world where armored personnel carriers and broad-beamed six-footers roam an orderly, expansive landscape of boulevards, runways, and fields, most of them ringed with white-painted rocks.

Among the most expansive of the many rolling spaces on-base is a parade ground.91

Bird describes what the family sees driving through Koza, Okinawa’s most notorious base town, just outside the largest air force and army bases on the island

Koza is like a low-rent tropical Bourbon Street populated by roving groups of GIs. The white boys are unmistakable in their newly plucked haircuts, JC Penney Dacron shirts and trousers, and the twitchy air that comes from their effort to channel homesickness and vulnerability into swaggering machismo.

Pawnshops, tattoo parlors, tailor shops, and optical, electronics, and T-shirt shops are scattered among the bars: Ace High, Okay Joe, New Pussycat No. 3, Gentilemans Club, Stateside Bar. Promises of SEXY FLORR SHOW! or GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! or GO-GO SHOW! are illustrated with posters of dark-haired girls—either totally naked or encumbered only with go-go boots, pink baby dolls, and a whip—thrusting out perfect breasts . . .

A group of black servicemen in locally tailored suits of lavender, lime green, coral, and electric blue strut past. Bar girls flood out of the Harlem Club. My father watches the girls tug the men inside.

“There’s your American fighting man. There’s your sentinel of liberty.”92

Above the East China Sea

Based on her extensive research in Okinawan history and culture, Bird’s Above the East China Sea juxtaposes the horrifying ordeal of Tamiko, an Okinawan high school girl drafted to serve in 1945 as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa, with the story of Luz, an American military dependent sent with her family some sixty years later to the vast complex of bases in Okinawa. Both teenagers contemplate suicide. Tamiko is told by Japanese forces to leap from high cliffs to her death in the ocean to avoid capture by the Americans. “The soldiers, either Japanese or American, will kill us as soon as the sun rises.”93 Luz is overcome with grief for her sister Codie, the person she is closest to. In a troubled relationship with her mother, Luz feels abandoned when Codie enlists in the air force. On her first deployment, she is killed by mortar fire at an air base in Afghanistan. Luz peers “a hundred feet straight down at the base of the cliffs . . . That’s where I’d land. Death would be instantaneous.”94

The loss of family members in war and Okinawan rituals for communicating with spirits of the dead connect these two narratives that take place in disparate times and cultures, but in the same lush environment of this subtropical island. The drama is enhanced, as in her earlier novel, by the author’s firsthand knowledge of growing up in a military family overseas, and her sharp ear for raw and raunchy teenage dialogue. In telling of Tamiko’s childhood, Bird portrays characters among Okinawans from many walks of life in the 1930s and 1940s with remarkable fullness and credibility. Her dramatizations of Okinawan religious beliefs and ceremonies relating to death and the afterlife are compelling and informative, especially for Western readers who have difficulty understanding them when described in academic discourses.

Further Reading

Bhowmik, Davinder L., and Steve Rabson, eds. Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016.Find this resource:

    Crissey, Etsuko Takushi. Okinawa’s GI Brides: Their Lives in America. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2017.Find this resource:

      Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

        Hawks, Francis L. Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000.Find this resource:

          Hein, Laura, and Mark Selden, eds. Islands of Discontent: Okinawan Responses to Japanese and American Power. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.Find this resource:

            Yamagawa, Hana. From Okinawa to the Americas: Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminiscences of a Century. Edited by Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.Find this resource:

              Johnson, Chalmers, ed. Okinawa: Cold War Island. Oakland, CA: Japan Policy Research Institute, 1999.Find this resource:

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                                          (1.) George Kerr, Okinawa: The History of an Island People (Rutledge, VT: Tuttle, 1958), 297.

                                          (3.) Francis L. Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000).

                                          (4.) Ibid., 152.

                                          (5.) Ibid., 153.

                                          (7.) Kerr, Okinawa, 286.

                                          (8.) Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition, 225.

                                          (9.) Kerr, Okinawa, 310.

                                          (10.) Samuel Eliot Morison, “Old Bruin”: Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (Norwalk, CT: Easton, 1990), 285.

                                          (11.) Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition, 156.

                                          (14.) Ibid., 190.

                                          (15.) Ibid., 191.

                                          (16.) Kerr, Okinawa, 323.

                                          (17.) Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition, 275.

                                          (18.) Perry’s letter from Madeira to the Secretary of the Navy dated December 14, 1852, quoted in Kerr, Okinawa, 305.

                                          (19.) Secretary of the Navy’s letter to Perry dated May 30, 1854, quoted in Kerr, Okinawa, 327–328.

                                          (20.) Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition, 492.

                                          (21.) Ibid., 492–493.

                                          (22.) Ibid., 493–494.

                                          (23.) Hawks, Narrative of the Expedition, 495.

                                          (24.) Kerr, Okinawa, 334–335.

                                          (25.) Ibid., 335–336.

                                          (26.) Ibid., 337–338.

                                          (27.) Masako Shinjo Summers Robbins, “My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa,” Asia-Pacific Journal 13.8.4, February 23, 2015.

                                          (32.) Jo Nobuko Martin, A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (Shimonoseki, Japan: Shin Nippon Kyoiku Tosho, 1984).

                                          (33.) Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 20.

                                          (34.) Martin, Princess Lily of the Ryukyus, 18–19.

                                          (35.) Ibid., 25.

                                          (36.) Ibid., 80–81.

                                          (37.) Ibid., 349–350.

                                          (38.) Ibid., 70–71.

                                          (39.) David Nichols, ed., Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches (New York: Random House, 1986), 414.

                                          (40.) Lee Graham Miller, The Story of Ernie Pyle (New York: Viking, 1950), 410.

                                          (41.) Nichols, Ernie’s War, 203.

                                          (42.) Miller, Story of Ernie Pyle, 413–414.

                                          (43.) Ibid., 408.

                                          (44.) Ibid., 415.

                                          (45.) See Robbins, “My Story,” note 27.

                                          (46.) Miller, Story of Ernie Pyle, 415.

                                          (47.) Nichols, Ernie’s War, 404.

                                          (48.) Miller, Story of Ernie Pyle, 416.

                                          (49.) Miller, Story of Ernie Pyle, 418.

                                          (50.) Ibid., 422.

                                          (51.) Ibid., 425.

                                          (52.) Vern Sneider, The Teahouse of the August Moon (New York: Signet, 1956).

                                          (53.) John Patrick, The Teahouse of the August Moon (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952).

                                          (54.) The Marlon Brando Collection: Julius Caesar; Mutiny on the Bounty 1962; Reflections in a Golden Eye; The Teahouse of the August Moon; The Formula (Warner Home Video, DVD, 2006).

                                          (55.) Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen was a musical based on John Patrick’s play and screenplay. After three previews, the Broadway production opened on December 28, 1970, at the Majestic Theatre, where it ran for only nineteen performances.

                                          (56.) Patrick, Teahouse of the August Moon, 8.

                                          (57.) Ibid., 23.

                                          (58.) Sneider, Teahouse of the August Moon, 25–26.

                                          (59.) Patrick, Teahouse of the August Moon, 174.

                                          (60.) Risa Nakayama, “Perverted Okinawa: De-Okinawanization in the Adaptation of The Teahouse of the August Moon,” Okinawa Kōgyō Kōtō Senmon Gakkō Kiyo (Bulletin of Okinawa National College of Technology) 5 (2011): 33–43.

                                          (63.) James D. Houston, “Dancing among the Ghosts: An Okinawa Journal,” Manoa 8.1 (Summer 1996): 97.

                                          (64.) From Katsunori Yamazato, preface to Frank Stewart and Katsunori Yamazato, eds., Voices from Okinawa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), vii–viii.

                                          (65.) Jon Shirota, Lucky Come Hawaii (New York: Bantam, 1965), 5–6.

                                          (66.) Ibid., 90.

                                          (67.) Ibid., 72.

                                          (68.) Ibid., 73.

                                          (69.) Ibid., 75.

                                          (70.) Ibid., 246–247.

                                          (71.) Stewart and Yamazato, Voices from Okinawa, 52–93.

                                          (72.) Ibid., 63.

                                          (73.) Ibid., 65.

                                          (74.) Ibid., 68.

                                          (75.) Ibid. 68–69.

                                          (76.) Ibid., 94–133.

                                          (77.) Ibid., 94–95.

                                          (79.) Ibid., 79.

                                          (80.) Ibid., 110.

                                          (81.) Hana Yamagawa, From Okinawa to the Americas: Hana Yamagawa and Her Reminiscences of a Century, ed. Akiko Yamagawa Hibbett (University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 93.

                                          (82.) Ibid., 97.

                                          (83.) Ibid., 141.

                                          (84.) Gary Snyder, Left Out in the Rain: New Poems, 1947–1985 (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1986).

                                          (85.) Norma Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End (New York: Vintage, 1993).

                                          (86.) Ibid., 44.

                                          (87.) Ibid., 58–59.

                                          (88.) Ibid., 103.

                                          (89.) Sarah Bird, The Yokota Officers Club (New York: Random House, 2001).

                                          (90.) Ibid., 119.

                                          (91.) Ibid., 120.

                                          (92.) Ibid., 26–27.

                                          (93.) Sarah Bird, Above the East China Sea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 3.

                                          (94.) Ibid., 5.