Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, October 31, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day Three

First...a Bit of History
After Emperor Meiji succeeded in removing the shoguns from power and reasserting imperial control toward the end of the 19th century, he set in motion a plan to reconstruct the country along more Western lines. The dialect of Tokyo was made the official language, and systems of administration and education were established based mainly on the British model. Efforts were made to adapt western technology and ways of thinking. One of the more significant of the latter was the concept of nationalism, i.e. loyalty to the nation and its sovereign rather than to a local lord. For perhaps the first time in Japanese history, the whole concept of being "Japanese" became a serious issue...and in some cases a divisive one.

Surprise military successes against China and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century caused the new nationalism to become even stronger and more militant. Ironically, though Japan entered WWI on the Allied side against Germany under newly-crowned Emperor Taisho, his weak rule gave rise to an explosion of democracy and intellectualism...and foreign debt. This changed quickly with the rise of Emperor Showa (Hirohito) at the end of the 1920's; determined not to let Imperial Japan fall under Western colonialism, he set the boots of militarism marching again, and democracy was quickly trampled underfoot. Soon the government was dominated by the military (as it had been under the shoguns). Schools were gradually turned into patriotic brainwashing camps. Harassment of people who spoke anything but the national tongue (i.e. Tokyo dialect) was institutionalized. Intellectuals and dissenters were often brutally intimidated if not accused of treason. The Shinto religion, including the worship of the Emperor as a god, became obligatory. Dissent in the occupied territories was cruelly crushed, which also helped feed the imperial ambitions of the military government.

In 1931, in response to a staged provocation, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. Then it began a series of border wars with the Soviet Union. The West responded by imposing sweeping economic sanctions on Japan coupled with a demand that the Japanese military be vastly downsized. Japan refused to give in, resulting in a decade of economic hardship and growing poverty which only fed the militarist sentiment. Finally, on December 8, 1941 (Japan time), multiple attacks were launched against the Pacific forces of the US and Britain. Thus began the Pacific War.

At first the forces of Imperial Japan were virtually unstoppable, and they claimed victory after victory against the Western colonial powers in the Pacific. However, only half a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto's dire predictions came true; the "sleeping enemy" woke up, and with the somewhat miraculous victory at the Battle of Midway, the US turned the tide of the war for good.

Now America was unstoppable, and as the flag of the Rising Sun fell inexorably closer to home, the Japanese reasoned an invasion on their soil was inevitable. They also reasoned correctly that the Americans would try to take Okinawa first to use as a staging ground. Thus began a major defensive operation that was never meant to succeed. Indeed, Imperial Japan intended to use Okinawa only as a giant land mine, sacrificing it and its people in a hopeless war of attrition meant only to delay the enemy while defensive preparations were carried out on the mainland. Only a relatively small, token Imperial Army force remained in Okinawa. Meanwhile, the Okinawan Defense Force was organized in desperation...and often in violation of Japan's own laws. Guns (mainly obsolete surplus rifles dating from WWI) were given to any male members of the population able to carry them regardless of age or physical condition. Girl students and young women were pressed into service in support roles, often on the front lines. They were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and regarded by their Imperial Army superiors as little more than cannon fodder.

When the American attack force arrived, Japan sent thousands of planes to meet them (most of them kamikaze attack planes), but more than 90% were shot down before they got there. Similarly, the Imperial battleship Yamato, arguably the most powerful of the war, was sent to Okinawa with a one-way supply of fuel but was taken out by US aircraft before even getting close. Effectively unchallenged, the Americans started off with a heavy campaign of bombing and naval bombardment. Then the troops started landing on the beaches near Kadena. The Okinawan Defense Force was outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned, and had little in the way of support, and yet it dragged on through a battle that lasted three months...and became the one of the worst bloodbaths of the entire Second World War. And if the toll on the battlefield was bad...

* * *
The Cave of Life and Death, pt. I
The day I have long dreaded has finally arrived. It has very much to do with the principal theme of this whole trip, and as an American cursed with a conscience, I'm not relishing this. I will say that I have always intended to make this trip; as an American, I consider it an obligation. It doesn't make it any easier. None of my many visits to Hiroshima ever seemed to get easier. In some ways, this one might be even harder.

For the first part of the day's dark itinerary, our classes separate and go to different locations that are more or less the same thing. They all served the same function during the battle. They all saw the same atrocities. They are all "gama".

2011 Gama 1
Not surprisingly, the one we visit is in a really eerie crevasse...

The "gama" are those among the many natural caves on the Okinawan coast which were designated as survival shelters. Their tunnels were expanded and rooms dug out in order to accommodate people during typhoons or other natural disasters. As it turned out, they wound up housing women, children, and the elderly during the battle plus Okinawa Defense Force members charged with caring for well as deserters from the Imperial Army.

2011 Gama 2

It was apparently hoped that, by lying low in the caves, they wouldn't be found by the American soldiers. That turned out to be very mistaken. Whenever the patrolling American soldiers found a cave entrance, they would shout in Japanese, "If anyone is in there, come out! You will not be harmed!" That posed a two-edged sword for the Okinawan women, children, and elderly hiding in there.

2011 Gama 3

If they tried to surrender, the Imperial Army deserters hiding with them would shoot them, and the Americans would respond to the gunfire by immediately filling the cave with flaming napalm. If they didn't surrender, the Americans would flame-thrower them anyway...or pump the cavern full of tear gas which could still be very lethal. Many hundreds of unarmed civilians wound up dying that way.

As we enter the crevasse and approach the cave, I feel very cold. I do not want to be here. The students already know a bit of the story, and so I avoid their gazes and stay at the back of the group as we await our guide.

Gama 4

Our guide is someone who was actually there. He is a survivor. He was one of the Okinawa Defense Force members there to take care of the civilians hiding in the cave. Now old and frail-looking, he nonetheless speaks with resolve, and we can only listen. He leads us into the natural part of the cave, which served as an ancient tomb and thus includes a couple of very old graves, and brings us to a stop in front of the tunneled-out shelter area. There he begins the tale.

There were some 300 people in there when the Americans came, all packed into a tiny space. As they listened to the battle outside...and later the voices of the patrolling American troops..., they huddled in the darkness as their candles, food, and water ran out. The deserted Imperial Army troops with them demanded special privileges, snatched up the food and water, and treated the others like rats. Anyone caught speaking the Okinawan dialect was immediately branded a traitor and killed. Later, a young girl tried to go out in search of more candles, and she was shot dead by one of the Japanese soldiers. When the American troops inevitably came and spoke their demand to surrender, the Japanese soldiers told the Okinawans with them to keep silent or die. The Americans then flamethrowered each of the cave entrances and detonated large tear gas bombs inside the tunnel. Perhaps two-thirds of the people inside were killed.

The guide asks us to switch off our flashlights and observe a moment of silence there in the darkness. Then he leads us into the shelter tunnel, and as he does so, he defuses the tension by joking with the students, which surprises me. I guess this isn't all going to be doom and gloom after all.

After we finish our tour of the cave, we are taken up above to a nearby park, where we gather under a shelter overlooking the intensely blue ocean. Then the guide starts his speech.

"What were our leaders thinking?" he rails. "What business did they even have trying to pick a fight with a country that was clearly so much bigger, so much more powerful than us? And for what? What did it get us? They didn't care; they just kept their fat asses on their sofas drinking sake and ordering us to go and die for their stupidity! We shouldn't blame America for this. But we need to remember what's important. People are important. Life is important." He looks around at the kids. "You're the future! I'm asking you! Remember what's important!"

I have to admit that I'm surprised and more than a little moved. Despite the tragedy and the atrocity, there is none of the "America did it all" slather that I expected. No guilt trips in my direction at all. If anything, the guide shows far more anger and resentment toward the Imperial Army and the Imperial regime than the US forces. The black cloud over my soul dissipates, and I start to breathe a little easier.

But we're still just getting started...

The Cave of Life and Death, pt. II
As with all students in Okinawa at the time, the 222 high school girls of the Himeyuri Girls' Medical Corps were activated and pressed into service in support of the Okinawa Defense Force. They were assigned to an army surgical hospital located inside of a natural cave.

2011 Himeyuri 1
The memorial to the girls of the Himeyuri Girls' Medical Corps at the mouth of the cave.

The girls never had any doubt about what they were doing. They'd been steadily force-fed a diet of propaganda and patriotism throughout their school lives. They firmly believed that there was no greater honor than dying in the service of the Emperor and being enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine (the Shinto shrine honoring war dead). They firmly believed that the red cross flag over the cave would keep them safe. They also firmly believed that Japan would win the battle in a matter of days (so much so that many showed up for service with their school supplies).

2011 Himeyuri 2

As the battle raged on, they worked around the clock inside the cave assisting the doctors. Their surgical hospital was given the most serious cases, and every day they saw hundreds of soldiers brought in with horrific injuries, few of whom would ever recover. The girls' duties included bringing meager portions of food and water to the patients, trying to comfort them, helping dress wounds, carrying supplies, disposing of amputated limbs, and helping the most hopeless cases commit suicide.

2011 Himeyuri 1b
Offerings of paper cranes, a symbol of peace, next to a memorial for those killed in the American bomb attack.

The first girl died when she was sent up for supplies and was strafed by an American fighter plane. About a dozen others were caught in the crossfire as they performed various duties. It turned out that they were the lucky ones.

As the battle entered its final, most desperate days, the Himeyuri girls were suddenly given the deactivation order. Together with their teachers, they were told they were on their own and abandoned. Confused, they remained huddled just inside the cave...and were hit by an American bomb dropped directly inside. Those that survived the attack went crazy. Some went running madly into the battle zone where they were quickly cut down in the crossfire. Others killed themselves either by jumping off the nearby sea cliff or pressing grenades to their chests. A number ran into the caves and remained in hiding, some long after the war ended, some falling prey to disease, madness, or American weapons. Some were found by American troops but refused the orders to come out, resulting in their meeting their fate via grenade or flame thrower. In the end, out of 222 Himeyuri girls, only about a couple dozen survived.

One of them is in the museum at the Himeyuri memorial, and our students talk to her.

The museum, as expected, is gloomy, and yet there is no obvious blame game. It just shows what was, and what happened. I think what moves me the most is the room entitled "Requiem for Himeyuri". It is surrounded by blow-ups of the original class photos of the Himeyuri girls captioned with their names, birthplaces, hobbies, school activities, and how they died. Our students are far more interested in the collection of diary entries written by the girls, and as they pore over them, I walk around and look at each of the photos and read each caption. I glance around at my own students and realize that it could just as easily have been them. The only real difference is the era.

Tragedies have far more impact when they have a human face.

We have lunch after that, traditional Okinawan fare, and I'm surprised I have any appetite.

A Memorial to Peace?
Our next stop is the huge Peace Memorial.

2011 Peace Memorial 1

The peace monument is elegant but its impact seems rather muted...

2011 Peace Memorial 2

The Peace Museum with its Peace Tower pulls most of the focus.

2011 Peace Memorial 3

There is also the monument to those fallen in the Battle of Okinawa: a huge expanse of dark, granite slabs with the names of the dead carved into them, separated by location. Naturally, Okinawans account for the overwhelming majority.

2011 Peace Memorial 4

Over in the comparatively tiny Ibaraki section, I find a name or two that might be members of my wife's extended family. I may have to look into it.

2011 Peace Memorial 6

There are also a few names in the American part that might be related.

2011 Peace Memorial 7

After the obligatory group photos, we get a chance to look out over the sea cliffs where so much death occurred...cliffs that were literally blasted into a completely different shape by American naval guns. It looks so peaceful and beautiful now...

2011 Peace Memorial 9

Next we head up to the imposing museum, designed with traditional Okinawan roofs.

Inside, the museum is an impressive display not only of the Okinawa battle but of the history of Japanese warfare from the Meiji period onward. It also shows quite a bit of life in Okinawa when it was under US administration from 1945 till 1978.

Not surprisingly, it is quite crowded, mainly with students on school trips. It isn't nearly as bad as the aquarium was, but now I'm getting more than my fill of "Look! An American!" (followed by mimed shooting), punks speaking with mock American accents in my vicinity, or grade school kids recoiling from me with wide eyes. Fortunately, I'm not the only gaijin there, though one foreigner, a big guy speaking what sounds like Russian, is clearly railing on and on to his Japanese partner about how evil the Americans were (or are). It is the only real psychological warfare I've had to deal with so far on this trip, but instead of feeling depressed or guilty, now I'm just getting irritated. Still, I understand that it's par for the course and something that, as an American in Okinawa, I just have to deal with.

On the other hand, I also can't help noting with some cynicism that all the big peace monuments, including this one and the ones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are located in countries that lost wars. By comparison, peace monuments in the US seem rather small and half-hearted. I guess people are only really interested in peace if they suffer defeat. What does this say about us as a civilization?

Okinawa World
The last item on the day's itinerary is a visit to the theme park called Okinawa World. It has two main parts.

2011 Okinawa World 1

The first, Gyokusendo Cave, is a half-mile-long natural cavern with some pretty impressive subterranean scenery including some really huge stalactites and stalagmites. (Of course, I'd enjoy it more if I weren't sharing the narrow catwalk with kids who are apathetically plowing their way through in a hurry to get back out.) The next part is a village constructed in old Okinawan style (No pics that I can post available...sorry) including a fruit market/juice bar, glassworks and potters, a traditional tea house/restaurant, traditional dance performances, and lots of street vendors. In other words, it's specially designed to get me to empty my wallet in a hurry. Fortunately, I restrict myself to only a few items of glass and pottery, a couple of small traditional musical instruments, and some juice while spending plenty of time watching the glassworkers and potters do their thing. Then I have to sprint to get to the buses at departure time. The students have a good laugh about that...

The International Street of Commercialism

2011 Kokusai Street

Naturally, our day in Naha is crowned by turning the students loose on Kokusai Dori (literally "International Street") to blow what's left of the money they've brought. I and some other teachers then follow on "patrol" (chuckle) so we can drop some yen, too. I have to hand it to the Okinawans, though; as crassly commercial as Kokusai Dori is, it's nowhere near as obnoxious as similar shopping streets in other parts of the country tend to be. It actually has a certain kind of class...though I can do without the street hawkers trying to get in my face. In the end, I come away with a couple of obligatory gift items, a couple of bottles of Okinawan sake to try, and no new musical instruments (not that the sanshin vendors make it any easier...).

The trip is almost at an end. Tomorrow we say goodbye.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day Two

Japan is a long, narrow country with a vertical alignment. Compared with the Eastern US, the northernmost part of Japan, Hokkaido, is at the same latitude as New England, while Ibaraki Prefecture, where I live and work, is equivalent to North Carolina. Okinawa, which is the southernmost part, is at the same latitude as the southern tip of Florida. Needless to say, the climate, flora, fauna, and customs are very different.

The fact that the Ryukyu Kingdom was originally a separate nation with a unique culture, language, and even ethnicity only serves to heighten the difference.

* * *
Wet and Wild
The Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared," but despite my Eagle title, I seem to be anything but. Today is the day that our students are dividing into two groups for some water fun. One team is doing "marine sports", i.e. snorkling or "banana boating" (i.e. rubber rafting). The other is going canoeing (in sea kayaks, actually) and hiking in a mangrove wetland. I'm assigned to the latter group, and I'm faced with multiple dilemmas. For one thing, I seem to have forgotten to bring any footwear other than my heeled dress shoes. For another, though I brought swimwear, it is the brightly-colored, Bermuda-style suit I got for the Australia trip three years ago...the one I wound up having to miss..., and everyone else is wearing ordinary athletic shorts. Unfortunately, since our wonderful hotel is located out in the middle of nowhere, there is absolutely no chance of my going to buy suitable gear. I'm stuck with what I've got, i.e. a potential disaster.

I manage to borrow a pair of beach sandals from the hotel just before our buses roll out, but they are way too snug. I have a feeling I'm going to regret this.

Our bus pulls off the main road and onto a smaller one that passes between a couple of lagoons. There we stop to rendezvous with our guides...who fortunately have a supply of loaner Crocs, so I'm able to get something that won't give me blisters (probably the first pair of Crocs I've ever had on my feet in my life). Then the guides lead the bus further down and onto an impossibly narrow road to a local community center, which is where we leave our luggage (including my camera, unfortunately, so no pics). (The original plan was for everyone to change there, so I squeamishly hoped to put on my gaudy swimwear, but the plans kept mutating randomly. Everyone else showed up this morning already in their athletic shorts, so they decided to go with that, i.e. no time to change. I just have to go with the [fortunately inexpensive] slacks I have on.) Then we walk over to the lagoon, where our kayaks and life jackets are ready. After a quick lesson in use of the double paddle and proper boarding techniques, we separate into kayak teams and hit the water. Together with a Japanese language/lit. teacher from my grade staff, I paddle off in a bright red and orange kayak and soon became the Pirate of the Karibian, or something like that. (Cue cliche but fun swashbuckling music in 12/8 time.)

I have an absolute blast. I also get very wet...especially in my posterior region (i.e. my arse).

After an hour or so of that, we bring in the kayaks and head back to the bus. My slacks are "easy care" types that dry really quickly, so the damp spots on my pantlegs quickly fade. My aft end, however, is another story; it still looks like I wet myself and will probably remain that way for a lonnnnng time. Luckily, I have a plastic raincoat to sit on in the bus so I don't sog the seat.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 1

Soon the bus is heading off through the scarcely-inhabited North Okinawa countryside. There isn't a rice paddy in sight. (In fact, we're told that rice paddies are extremely rare in Okinawa...mainly because the US Occupation banned all local rice production in order to keep the Okinawans dependent...and help the Californian rice industry. Okinawa was reverted to Japanese administration in 1978, but local rice cultivation has yet to recover to its former levels.)

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 3

The overwhelming majority of the fields we see are for sugar cane or fruit trees.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 5

Every once in a while you can find a pineapple patch, too.

Soon we get off the bus, separate into groups (mine being all girls), and hike along dirt farming roads toward the lagoon. We pass a small group of farmers along the way, and they're amused when we greet them with the native Okinawan, "Haisai!" (They also have a good chuckle at the sight of my soggy backside.)

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 8

It isn't long before we arrive at the mangrove bog. It really is like another world in there...a wet and slimy one, true, but fascinating.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 9

At high tide this area is under a meter of water. Now, at low tide, the ground is a tangle of weirdly protruding tree roots that look like a troop of sprites or some kind of fantasy festival. The air inside is strangely cool and comfortable. The ground is soft and is criss-crossed with multiple currents of sea and spring water less than a centimeter deep.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 10

Eventually we head out of the canopy of mangroves and into the vast tidal flat. There everything changes radically. For one thing, it's a whole lot hotter under the intense subtropical sun. For another, the ground becomes a pure expanse of boggy sand that is far better suited to bare feet than footwear (and is said to be good for the skin, so going barefoot offers fringe benefits).

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 11

First we skirt the edge of the mangroves, and the guide explains the various curiosities of the local ecosystem.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 13

The kids also get a hands-on look at some of the local wildlife, such as this BLUE, pincerless crab.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 14

The guide shows that, by stomping your feet up and down, you can sink into the bog. The girls immediately get in on the act, some of them going down to their knees...and then seeing how far back they can lean before popping loose. (Naturally, more than one girl winds up with a goopy butt.)

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 15

The last thing we check out before leaving is a little pond formed by a small creek. It and the surrounding bog are filled with mudskippers, small fish, shrimp, crabs, hermit crabs, and water beetles in abundance. It's all we can do to pry the girls away. As you can see in the picture, we have left the area pretty much a mess, but all trace of it is certain to be erased when the tide comes back in.

* * *
Glass Tanks Full of People

Thankfully, my butt is almost completely dried out by the time we get back to the bus. Then the kids change into their uniforms, we rendezvous with the other groups, and we board our regular buses for the trip to the next big attraction, Okinawa's famous Churaumi Aquarium.

2011 Okinawa Mangrove 16

Once again the sky turns ugly as we go.

We arrive at the aquarium parking lot to find it a solid mass of tour buses. It seems that half the high schools in the country have the same idea as us.

Unfortunately, as impressive as the aquarium is, and as much as I usually like aquariums, it is impossible for me to enjoy it. Inside is a solid mass of teenagers. Those that aren't just apathetically plowing their way through (making it hard to stop and look at anything) are being extremely obnoxious with their cameras and cell phones, either whipping them out in people's faces (for example mine) or suddenly blocking the lanes and monopolizing them for posed shots of their friends. There's also the fact that I'm the only foreigner in sight, and I get a fair amount of punks thinking they're being clever by talking with mock American accents in my vicinity. The main indoor attraction, the giant tank featured on their website, is jammed solid, and as I try to dig my way through the crowd to the other side, I also have to put up with self-centered pricks elbowing me aside from behind while yelling, "Sumimasen! Sumimasen!" ("Excuse me! Excuse me!") as if they are privileged or something. I have to admit I'm more than a little tempted to haul off and deck someone.

It isn't long before I get totally fed up with the whole thing and make a beeline for the first exit I see. At least the manatee and sea turtle enclosures outside aren't crowded. I also have time to get something to drink and chill for a bit before we go.

2011 Okinawa Aquarium
The aquarium complex is still under construction, so it's going to get even bigger.

As I head up to the buses, it starts to rain. Luckily, it stops well before evening, when we are able to have our planned beach barbecue without any trouble. I manage to eat wayyyyy too much...and not even give a damn.

I fully intend to enjoy myself tonight. Tomorrow is going to be the most difficult day of all.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The 2011 Okinawa Trip, Day One

"No! Ryukyu is peaceful! We have no weapons! You couldn't possibly..."
"You have a better target? A military target? Then name the island!"

* * *

For hundreds of years, despite its status as an important and wealthy trade hub, the Ryukyu Kingdom was indeed peaceful and weaponless. Even when the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded during the latter's Sengoku (Warring States) Period from the 15th to 17th centuries, the Ryukyu offered no resistance and were thus allowed to go on living as they had before as long as they paid the Satsuma daimyo tribute. (History tells that when Emperor Napoleon of France heard about the Ryukyu Kingdom, he was so flustered by the idea of a peaceful, weaponless nation that he threw a tantrum!) All this changed when the Emperor of Japan finally reclaimed full control of his country from the shoguns at the end of the 19th century, ushering in the Meiji Period. Emperor Meiji forced all of Japan's various provinces and autonomous domains to submit to his Western-influenced political system. The king of the Ryukyus was forced to abdicate and relocate to the new Imperial capital in Tokyo, where he served as both a minister and a hostage. The Emperor also took away the name of the Ryukyu Kingdom and replaced it with one of his own choosing:
* * *
(Note: I'm under orders from the Principal of Ye Olde Academy not to post any pictures on this blog which show faces of students and/or the name of the school clearly enough to be recognized. That limits my picture selection, but that's the way it is.)

I admit that I was as much worried as excited about the coming of the school trip to Okinawa. I'd been on several such school trips in the past, but they'd always been to Hiroshima and Kyoto. I'd always enjoyed those, but, American as I am (and neither apathetic nor mindlessly patriotic enough to be immune), going to Hiroshima was never easy. I had a feeling that Okinawa was going to be even worse.

I leave home just as the sun is starting to rise on the morning of October 25th. It's a bit chilly in my light shirt and school windbreaker, but I know Okinawa is going to be quite a bit hotter, so I'm compromising. I get about a quarter mile down the road when I realize that I've gone off without my camera, so I whip a U-turn on the empty street and head back. I manage to get to Ye Olde Academy just in time, which means that the rest of our trip staff has already been there for at least ten minutes (which will later turn out to be one of the themes of the entire trip). There is a short ceremony and a briefing, after which we head down to the lower parking lot where the buses are waiting. Some students are already there waiting, too, though the main mass of Grade 9 (quirky fanfare) is only just starting to arrive. There is a lot of tension and anticipation in the air; a lot of the kids have never been on a long-distance trip before (or even a short-distance one, in some cases). Departure time finally arrives, and the Principal gives us a formal sending off before each class goes to its bus. Soon our caravan is heading off under mottled skies bound for Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Any school trip is an exercise in "hurry up and wait", but this time it is particularly bad. The airport is packed with school groups going on similar trips, and at least two others are sharing our plane. Moving is difficult and requires deft maneuvering. All the restrooms have lines going out into the hall. I have yet another bad feeling about this. In fact, I have several.

The flight to Naha Airport takes about two hours, most of which I mercifully sleep through. Landing is extremely rough. As soon as we leave the plane, we're immediately hit with proof that we are now a lot closer to the tropics than Ibaraki, and layers of clothing are quickly peeled off. Each class is put on its bus and introduced to the guide who will be a companion for the next four days.

Our guide is a very intriguing woman, youngish but of uncertain age, who I quickly note reminds me a lot of my longtime internet friend Selba. Not only is she good at keeping up an interesting monologue punctuated with bits of Okinawan language and folklore, but she has a fantastic singing voice. She keeps us all very much entertained as we make our way to our first stop...and the first hammer blow on my conscience:

Kadena Air Force Base, USAF
The bus goes past a swath of barbed-wire-topped walls and fences that seem to go on and on forever. All of the buildings on the other side of the wall are the same cream color and have numbers on them. I also see a number of people there who are clearly Westerners. The guide explains that that is the famous Kadena Air Force Base, and that it is technically US territory complete with a California zip code. After a while, the bus arrives at a "rest stop" that has a four-story observation tower placed so as to offer an excellent view of the base.

There, an unbelievably (or perhaps deceptively) short distance away, are at least three runways. Behind them are rows and rows of low, blast-shielded hangars. Further away can be seen the various command, control, and radar installations that keep it all going as well as what are probably storage facilities. The complex is huge...and it's right in the middle of the town. In fact, as we're soon told, the base and its various attached facilities and reservations now account for around 80% of the total area of the town of Kadena.

As we watch, a group of USAF F-15C fighters performs practice maneuvers, coming in only about a dozen meters over the runway before suddenly pulling up hard into a chandelle. There are several planes involved, and as each one does the hard, climbing turn, it points its twin turbofans right at us...and right at the residential area behind us...blasting us with that ear-splitting roar. Meanwhile, another trio of F-15s is circling around overhead. Apparently such maneuvers go on almost all day almost every day. They also sometimes get supplemented with the odd P-3, C-130, or C-5 coming in or out. Reportedly F-22s come in from time to time, too, among just about anything else the USAF uses other than strategic bombers.

You have to understand that I'm normally an aviation buff. I could sit and watch maneuvers like that all day. I fully understand the importance of the Kadena base, too, along with the USMC Futenma Air Station situated right in the middle of another town not too far away. It's still depressing. The fact that Okinawa, formerly a nation of peace, got stuck with that burden is sad. The fact that local governments and people in mainland Japan staunchly refuse to allow any percentage of those bases to be relocated to their areas is sadder. But then again, perhaps the saddest thing of all is that those bases were not originally established by the US military, but by that of Imperial Japan during World War II. The US simply took over the existing facilities when Okinawa fell. In that respect, one could say that even though Okinawa is part of Japan, it has been made a victim of Japan.

I didn't take any pictures. I just wasn't in the mood.

Ryukyu Village
After driving further north into the less-developed hokubu (northern part) of the island, we arrive at Ryukyu Village, a theme park based on the original Ryukyu culture.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 1

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 2

Some of the buildings there are modern but modeled after the ancient style, such is this small exhibition hall showing a gigantic rope made to get a Guinness World Record.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 3

However, many if not most of the structures there are authentic, old ones that were located and transplanted.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 4

Take, for example, this house that was built in the late 19th century. There are some there that are even older.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 6

Between the thick jungle and sometimes weird rock formations, there were some pretty eerie places.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 7

There was also a display and small research center there devoted to the habu, an aggressive and very dangerous species of pit viper native to Okinawa. Since ancient times, they've been notorious for crawling into homes and storerooms, especially at night. They're prone to attack, are able to strike out to a range almost equal to the full length of their body, and have very powerful venom. Apparently mongooses were brought over from India in the early 20th century to help eradicate them. Now modern medicine means that the habu's bite is rarely fatal, and the mongoose is starting to cause environmental problems.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 9

Many of the facilities in the park are craft studios. The pottery studio makes, among other things, pots crowned by the traditional Okinawan "shi-sa", or demon dog. This one has its head stuck in the pot! Normally a sucker for handmade items, I still managed to come out of there without buying much.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 12

Then there are the traditional arts, such is this ancient-style sugar cane press, powered by a water buffalo.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 13

The inner circle of the park. Different types of roof representing different periods of time can be seen.

Still feeling a bit bummed, I get some fresh coconut/mango juice at a stall, but it only perks me up a little, so I decide to leave the park ten minutes before the buses are due to depart.

2011 Okinawa Ryukyu Village 14

The sky is already turning nasty.

Manzamo Point

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 1

We then drive a bit further north to Manzamo Point, a famous sightseeing spot. Its cliffs are full of bizarre rock formations such as this elephant-like natural arch.

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 3

Looking the other direction, you can see one of the smaller satellite islands. Okinawa's seas are famous for being colorful, but it doesn't help when the sky is gray...

2011 Okinawa Manzamo Point 6

Going around the point and looking into the cove to the north, you can see these stones. There are many like them, i.e. worn down at surf level so they look like they're sitting on top of the water. However, these two have a sacred rope between them, meaning they're believed to be an abode of spirits.

After scouting the nearby gift tents (and not buying anything), I get on my bus with the rest of my class, and we head out to our hotel for the next couple of days.

2011 Okinawa Nago 1

This is the view from my hotel balcony...and I have the room all to myself. Of course, the teenage punks I have for neighbors really need to go boom, but whatever. They're having a good time.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Power of Prayer...or at Least the Prayer People

"Excuse me," said the man. "Can you spare me a few minutes?"

The year was 1992, and I had just walked out of Tsuchiura Station when he'd approached me. Considering some of the experiences I've had in Tsuchiura, especially in the mob-infested area near the station, I'd normally consider bolting at such a request, but for some reason I didn't. Maybe it was just the vibes the guy was giving off.

"I'm not selling anything," he went on. "I'm not asking you for anything. If you don't mind, I just have one request." When I asked him what it was, he replied, "Please let me pray for you."

Ex-pats here in Japan tend to call them the "prayer people". They're generally members of the various sects of Nichiren Buddhism. They believe that they're helping the future of the country if not the world by purifying the public one at a time through prayer. They tend to go to crowded places such as train stations in order to find people to pray for. I'd already been approached a couple of times before but had declined the offer, using my being in a hurry as an excuse. This time, however, I wasn't in a hurry, and I guess I was just in that kind of mood.

"Alright," I said.

And so the guy prayed for me. He put his hands on my head, intoned his prayer, and then asked me to chant a short mantra. The whole thing lasted maybe two minutes, and it was utterly painless. However, something very freaky happened that has nagged me to this day:

As I said, the man put his hands on my head while he was praying. Both of his hands. I felt both of those hands on my head the whole time. However, during the course of the prayer, and especially while I was chanting the mantra, I swear to you on a stack of whatever holy books you may choose that I felt a second pair of hands on my shoulders.

Anyway, the prayer ended, the four hands were withdrawn from my person, and the man took his leave with a polite urging for me to pursue prayer and meditation for my own well being.

*** Cut to today ***

The woman who called my home phone last Sunday said that she was a former student of Ye Olde Academy. She gave her name and asked if I remembered her. When I said I wasn't sure (with some suspicion since she called me by a different name from the one my students have always used), she said she had something important to discuss and asked if I could come and meet her somewhere up in Mito immediately. I said that I couldn't (especially since Mito is a bit far), and her tone became more urgent as she asked if we could get together some time during the week. I suggested a possible time and place, and the plan was set. She called again two days later to reconfirm sounding even more urgent but still not really telling me what it was all about.

Our scheduled meeting was for this evening. I headed for the appointed place over in the city of Hokota feeling strangely calm though I really had no idea what I was getting into. I guess I figured that, as had been the case with similar meetings in the past, she either wanted me to translate something, give her information about traveling in the US, look at some pictures she'd taken in Oregon, let her practice her English a bit, or do some kind of job (which I would decline). When I arrived and found myself face to face with the person, however, I suddenly felt on my guard. I also started feeling very tongue-tied and strangely unable to meet her gaze.

Her face seemed only vaguely familiar at best, and she admitted that she'd never been in any of my classes (meaning either she'd graduated prior to 1999 or had entered the school from another junior high school. Everyone else from Ye Olde Academy has been in my class at least once). She spoke of several teachers that I know, however, and her personal favorite was one former English teacher who used to be one of my closest friends in the faculty. We went on to talk about both the past and the present at the Academy, finally getting to the Day of the Great Earthquake last March. It was then that the conversation took an abrupt that finally revealed the whole point of the meeting.

She told me that the Great Earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear accident were only the beginning, and that Japan was heading into an era of disaster that had been foretold centuries ago. Illustrating her points with a newspaper she took from her bag, she went on to explain that Japan had entered the period of doom because it had become too spiritually corrupt. The only way to avoid the catastrophe would be to purify the people and get them back on the true path. All of this had been prophesied by the famous Buddhist monk Nichiren long ago.

Basically, I was being shown the Buddhist equivalent of the Watchtower by the Buddhist equivalent of a Jehovah's Witness. As I've always done with such people, I listened patiently to what she had to say, letting her do what she felt was good and right at no cost to myself other than that of having something new to think about. Meanwhile, I kept my feelings guarded.

Then a second person arrived. The woman I'd been talking to said that she'd been a classmate (and she did look oddly familiar), but I was never told her name. (For those of you who understand what I mean, my first impression when I saw the newcomer was, 'Wow...she could pass for a Hergoth! She even has the pendant of a Kai-Tempu'era lay priestess!') The newcomer jumped right into the conversation and wasted no time getting into the religious theme, raising some very compelling points. She also had a curious habit of punctuating everything she said with a sort of hum.

It was then that my whole state of mind began to go out of control. A strange feeling of both warmth and dread washed through me, as if half of me longed to listen while the other half wanted to flee but couldn't. It was only with great force of will that I could make eye contact as we talked. And when I was finally asked the inevitable question about letting them show me how to be saved, I tried to decline, even politely tell them off as I'd done many times before, but first my mouth wouldn't open, and when it finally did, my voice wouldn't engage. Now starting to worry, I focused my full attention on the dish in front of me, isolated my thoughts, and with effort managed, "Thanks for giving me something important to think about, but I've been walking my own path seeking the truth on my own for many years and wish to continue doing so. I don't want any ties to any group." They seemed to understand, but the newcomer was ready for that. "All you need is for us to show you this once," she said. "Then the rest is entirely up to you. You have only to practice it yourself as you like. There will be no tie. You'll be doing a service not only to yourself, but to everybody, even your precious family. And it will change your life."

Man, did I feel tempted...even above and beyond my own better judgment! I may very well have agreed then and there if she hadn't added that final, decisive statement:

"There will be a cost, of course, but it's not much. Just 520 yen (about $6) for the first session."

That sank the ship. Again having to focus my mind in order to get my voice to obey, though with less effort this time, I replied, "You've given me something important to think about. But for now at least, that will be all."

Their disappointment was as tangible as if I'd felt it myself, but they gave me some literature to read and immediately excused themselves. Just before we parted, they used the Japanese greeting, "Mata," which literally means, "Again (i.e. "Till we meet again")." I had a feeling the story wouldn't be ending so easily. And tonight, at least, it didn't.

I was still in the grip of bizarre feelings as I made my way through Hokota toward home. The words they'd said, especially those of the newcomer, kept ringing through my mind, and I kept having a nagging feeling that maybe I'd done the wrong thing. I had an overwhelming temptation to turn around, go back, and tell them that I wanted to go through with it after all. But then, as if I'd crossed some invisible borderline or reached the range limit of someone's power, the feelings suddenly and abruptly vanished. It was literally as if someone had snapped his fingers and brought my mental state back under my own control. Then I felt confused, maybe even a little frightened, as I drove the last ten minutes home. I also couldn't help thinking about the hands I'd felt on my shoulders when that Nichiren "prayer person" had prayed over me almost twenty years before.

How can I explain this? Anyone who has read this blog for any real length of time will know that I've had some strange experiences in the past, ones that could possibly be called paranormal (though rational explanations are also possible, if a bit shaky). Is there really some hidden power behind the "prayer people"? Or am I to blame? Is it evidence of what those Wiccans and occult enthusiasts kept trying to tell me in my college days: that I'm attuned to, and therefore particularly sensitive to, that sort of thing? If so, then I really need to be careful. After all, they did say, "Again."

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Calling the Hatchlings Home to Sing

Today (Saturday, October 8th) is the first-ever regular concert of the Vent Bleu Philharmonie aka the Alumni Orchestra. It's the new pet project of Mssr. Maestro Ogawa, an orchestra made up of graduated former members of our very own Ye Olde Academy orchestra. It has been a monstrous undertaking tracking down all those alumni, sparking their interest, convincing them to dust off their old instruments or find ones to borrow, and getting them all together to rehearse. Also, since they're all either college students or adult members of society now, there is also the usual issue of actually getting them to participate with any degree of diligence rather than just showing up at the last minute. It has been frustrating, and yet it has clearly been a labor of love.

Since I've been co-director of the Ye Olde Academy music program since 1998, it's only natural that I should be here helping out, too. My job? Standing across the street from the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall (the performance venue) at the entrance to the Homac Home Center parking lot holding a sign telling concert goers to park in the Culture Hall parking lots instead. It's a thankless and largely-ignored job, but someone's gotta do it.

Alumni Concert 3
A cell phone shot of the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall taken from my position at the Homac parking lot entrance.

Alumni Concert 2
The entrance to the main Culture Hall parking lot, which my sign directed concert goers to use.

Alumni Concert 1
The Homac Home Center parking lot directly behind me, which I tried to discourage concert goers from using, but many did anyway.

As soon as I finish my work for the day at Ye Olde Academy, I hustle to the Culture Hall, collect the sign, take my position at the parking lot entrance, and assume my best farmer-with-a-pitchfork pose (only with a sign instead of a pitchfork). I then remain that way for what will be a 90-minute stint, doing my best to ignore the stares from passersby, the occasional near traffic accidents caused by gawkers, the wonderful cocktail of exhaust fumes, and, as it turns out, the more annoying concert goers.

For the first half hour not many people concert goers arrive, and those that do are decent enough to park in the Culture Hall parking lot like they're supposed to. Suddenly, one grumpy-looking, old redneck in a Toyota Mark II (a favorite of asshole blue-collar types) glares at me before turning hard into the Homac parking lot without signaling, passing as close to me as he can possibly get without hitting the rail I'm purposefully standing behind, parks, and then walks across the street to the Culture Hall, scowling at me as he goes. I dunno; maybe he did that just to spite the gaijin, but what the hell. At least it meant one more person in the audience.

Finally it gets to be the time the hall doors open, and the number of arriving guests increases exponentially. Most of them go into the Culture Hall parking lots, using the grassy #2 lot when the main one fills up. However, an increasing number ignore me completely and park in Homac's lot, which is admittedly more convenient. As they walk across the street to the Hall, most of them try to keep their distance from me and not acknowledge my existence. One woman, however, approaches me very deliberately...

"Are you [the Moody Minstrel]?"

"Yes, that's right. Good evening!" I admit I'm sorely tempted to put my sign directly in front of her face, but I decline.

"Did you quit the Kashima Concert Band?"

"Yes, I did." [I only quit the goddamned thing back in f***ing 1999...] "I'm participating in the Kashima Philharmonic Orchestra, however."

"Yes, I've seen every concert! The last one was wonderful!"

A devoted fan! "Thank you very much!" I'm STILL tempted to jam my sign in her face and ask her if she can read the f***ing thing. Hello? Homac parking lot...BAD!!! Culture Hall parking lot...GOOD!!! SAVVY??!? But I decline the temptation, and the woman cheerfully excuses herself and crosses the street.

The sun quickly fades, as do the arriving guests, and then it is time for the concert to start. I steadfastly maintain my position, visualizing nightmare scenes of traveling down a sewer pipe in a paper boat, being swallowed by a fish, or thrown into a stove to melt into a heart-shaped lump. Then one of the kinder band mothers comes marching across the street to my position and urges me to wrap it up and come inside. It is already several minutes into the performance, but I point out that some people are still arriving (and one does while I speak, ignoring my sign and parking at Homac). I then continue my lonely vigil for another half hour, when I finally decide to call it a night.

Going into the lobby of the Hall, I'm suddenly treated like a celebrity and invited to sit and have some tea. I can just hear the performance from inside the hall, which I can't yet enter; the guest clarinet soloist is just finishing his concerto, and it's brilliant, as is his encore. Then it's intermission time.

I go in to watch the second half of the program, which is Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade". It's a really cool piece, but what is perhaps even more entertaining for me is looking at all those old faces that have passed through our music machine and into the world, now having come back to give yet another gift of music to this little, coastal city. There are a few faces I don't recognize (because they're paid extras), but I remember the others very well. I even remember a good portion of the names. Even more amazing is that some faces are those of kids who are still in our music program, there to support their seniors by filling some of the gaps. Most extraordinary of all is that two of the most impressive performers are currently 9th graders, one on cello and one on harp. I'm happy knowing that we'll still have them for at least a couple more years. Overall, the performance is far from perfect (since getting all those alumni to dust off their instruments was hard enough, let alone getting them to practice), but it's still a good evening's entertainment and well worth it. (Besides, I didn't have to buy a ticket.)

I leave immediately when the concert ends. It's clear that they expect me to stay and greet people, but I'd rather not. In my experience, alumni tend to be rather cold and unfriendly to me, especially those that were students of mine more than five years ago. Back in 2000 a newly graduated student put it to me very bluntly by saying, "Now that I'm graduated, the teachers are no longer teachers to me, but fellow human beings, so the sense that you're a gaijin is stronger than before. So is the feeling that trying to talk to you would be too uncomfortable." Those words still haunt me, so as a general rule I tend to avoid alumni like the plague, just as many if not most would prefer to avoid me. C'est la vie. The music was the important thing, anyway, and I got my dose of that. I also got my fill of being a human sign post for at least the next few years.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Life in the Wake of the Great Quake pt. X: Hayabusa

Just over half a year has passed since the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11th (aka the Day Everything Changed). Here at Ye Olde Academy, we've just had a presentation by one of the experts associated with the Hayabusa program. Naturally, the two events have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and yet...I can't help feeling a strange sense of oneness, a spiritual connection between the two, as if one were a sort of metaphor for the other.

(Image from the NASA website)

In case you have no idea what Hayabusa was, it was a space probe that was a wholly Japanese project. It was launched in 2003 on an ambitious mission to study an asteroid at point blank range, make surface contact, and then return to earth with samples. Other probes sent by the ESA and NASA had made close surveys of asteroids before, but this was the first that was intended to bring back actual asteroid material for study. It was quite an undertaking, especially considering the probe was a wholly Japanese design using locally-developed technology.

As it turned out, it could have been called a comedy of errors. The fact was that it was originally intended to study a totally different asteroid, but problems with development of the rocket booster intended to launch it delayed it too long. Another potentially crippling launch delay happened when it was discovered that the company that had made the rocket booster had (by accident or design) used the wrong materials for at least some of the O-ring sealants, which then had to be replaced. When the probe finally got into space, its solar power system was badly damaged by a solar flare, crippling it and reducing the efficiency of its ion engines. Hayabusa arrived at the asteroid (later named Itokawa) as planned, though way behind schedule, and established a position following it in orbit around the sun. However, while conducting the initial mapping runs, the probe's gyroscopic maneuvering system failed, meaning the thrusters had to be used for all navigation. Fuel limitations meant that a lot of plans then had to be scrubbed. A conflict between the commands from Earth and the probe's automated systems resulted in the Minerva mini-lander missing the asteroid and spinning off into space. When the probe itself attempted its planned point-blank pass to scoop up a sample of material, its sampling arm failed to deploy. Instead, the probe was landed directly on the asteroid surface and its ion jets fired in a desperate attempt to kick up some dust and catch it in its sample container. Without knowing whether the move was successful or not, the crew ordered Hayabusa to return home. It finally came limping back to Earth in 2010 (a couple of years late) with only one of its four ion drives still functioning at reduced power and its electronics all but dead. Nevertheless, it released the re-entry pod with the sample container as planned shortly before burning up in the atmosphere. The pod survived the plunge and made a landing in Australia, where it was recovered. When the pod was brought back to Japan and opened, it appeared empty, but just when it seemed all hope was lost, closer scrutiny revealed tiny particles of dust inside that were clearly not terrestrial in origin. Despite it all, Hayabusa was a success.

A lesser crew may very well have given up hope and scrubbed the mission at any one of several failure points. Instead, they stubbornly kept on going, using the resources at hand to turn defeat into victory. Indeed, you can't help admiring the Japanese staff of the Hayabusa project both for their stoic ingenuity and for their tenacity.

And as the March earthquake disaster showed so plainly, that tenacity is present in the population as a whole. Despite the unbelievable scale of the tragedy and the impact it has had on all our lives here in the Land of the Rising Sun, it's really just one more setback to work around. In the end, Japan will forge ahead.