The Night Okinawa Burned

In 1970, Koza epitomized an American cold war basetown. Located in the center of Japan’s southernmost prefecture, the Okinawan community was a cauldron of bars and sex, rock and roll, fear and racial violence, militarism and Americana kitsch. Walking down the street on any given night you might hear the rocker Shoukichi Kina, a Koza native, his tinny three-stringed sanshin (Okinawa’s iconic instrument) cutting through a windowless bar entrance. You would see U.S. servicemen and their Okinawan girlfriends walking through the subtropical night air, passing beneath the brightly lit signs of the clubs named to entice the homesick: Manhattan, the Castle, Club Naples. Bars and hourly hotels fought for cramped real estate on these streets. 

The town’s main intersection faced Gate 2 of the sprawling Kadena Air Base, still America’s largest in Asia. Okinawa’s “strategic location” in the East China Sea led to its use as a major military staging ground for America’s wars in Korea and Southeast Asia. Many of the bombs that landed on Vietnam were delivered from bases in Okinawa, where the constant roar of B-52’s was the soundtrack for much of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Even today, the military dominates Okinawan land, sea, air with the 32 installations remaining on the islands. 

Koza was much more than simply a playground for itinerant U.S. servicemen. Its history was the history of American rule of the islands. It was a community where Okinawan children went to school while their parents operated shops or provided the labor that was central to the military’s network of bases. Many of the adults and older locals had survived the Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest in the war. The American occupation that began in 1945 initially brought material relief from the wartime attrition, but quickly evolved into a campaign of  “bulldozers and bayonets” that saw many villages and farms razed to make way for military runways. A condition of the peace treaty that officially ended the American occupation of Japan meant that Okinawans lost their rights as Japanese nationals and became “local nationals” of a U.S. military colony. 

Fifty years ago, just after 1:00 AM on December 20. 1970, an intoxicated thirty year-old American service member drove into an also apparently intoxicated Okinawan pedestrian. It was a relatively minor accident and the pedestrian was only slightly injured. Nonetheless a crowd formed, intent on preventing the car and even the victim from being removed from the scene out of fear that the incident would never be properly investigated. 

Like any uprising among an occupied people, the seemingly spontaneous violence of that night did not begin in a vacuum. There had been countless similar traffic accidents throughout the 1960s. Months before, in the town of Itoman, an Okinawan woman was killed when she was hit by a car driven by a drunk U.S. serviceman, whose eventual acquittal compounded local resentment of the occupation. Add to this military’s plans to soon transport truckloads of poisonous gas, including sarin and VX, through Okinawan towns and villages, and one can understand the grievances of a people desperate to regain their sovereignty.. The Japanese and U.S. governments had already agreed that Okinawa would return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, but it was becoming clear that the empire of bases would continue as before. It was the persistent weight of a decades-long occupation that fueled the Koza Uprising. 

As the crowd around the accident grew, the protestors (or “the mob,” from the military’s own records) were strategic, mostly targeting vehicles with foreigner license plates, which they overturned and set ablaze. When military police arrived on the scene, their cars were seized and burned as protestors shouted “Yankee, go home!” Okinawan women who worked in the bars and diners came into the street holding cola bottles filled with gasoline. White soldiers and their vehicles were especially targeted because they epitomized the military’s hierarchical, unfair, and racist rule of the islands. Black soldiers, on the other hand, were spared the violence of the protestors, who saw shared proximity in the island’s American-brand racial order. In places like Koza, military police enforced racial segregation to ensure that Black and white soldiers patronized designated establishments. 

Throughout the night and into the morning, what began as a minor traffic incident ended with over 5000 protestors in the streets. Okinawan police and U.S. military police were mobilized from throughout the island, but their presence only fueled the anger. Protestors eventually marched to the main entrance of Kadena Air Base and attacked the guardbox and the nearby American elementary school. Surprisingly, nobody died that night, and there was little damage to local storefronts. The uprising made national and global headlines the following day. 

After Okinawa regained its sovereignty, local officials changed Koza’s name to “Okinawa City” in an effort to rebrand, but the weight of the past is hard to shake. The community has a vibrant music scene and a smattering of bars and tattoo parlors that still cater to U.S. service-members, though they don’t have the purchasing power they once did. I last visited Okinawa City in 2019 while conducting research with student-members of the Okinawa Memories initiative, a transpacific public history project. On a particularly bright and hot day, it seemed that every other storefront was shuttered. A solitary airman walked down the street while drinking a beer. Unable to find a garbage bin, he dropped the can onto the sidewalk and watched it loudly roll into the street. 

Koza 2019. Acrylic. Dustin Wright

Today, Okinawa is as central to American military posture in Asia as it was during the height of the Cold War. It remains an appealing post for many service members and their families, who mostly experience the inviting and safe streets and towns of Okinawa that make it a popular tourist spot for people from around the world. 

After nearly eight decades of American occupation, the history of the U.S. is deeply intertwined with that of Okinawa. But any guest should remember that hospitality has its limits. The Americans’ continued insistence on expanding one base, Camp Schwab, into the pristine coral bay of Henoko, continues to frustrate Okinawans. 72% voted in opposition of the plan, yet the trucks and concrete continue to arrive. As the late governor of Okinawa, Ota Masahide, told me in 2010, “at some point things will get violent.” 

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