I had the pleasure of reviewing two excellent books over the last few months. Both reviews are now available. As you’ll see, I thoroughly enjoyed both books, not only for the new lenses on modern Japanese history, but also because they offer fun material for the undergraduate/graduate classroom. Highly recommend.
I’m excited to be giving a lunchtime address on January 16th to the World Affairs Council of the Monterey Bay Area. I’ll be speaking on Japan’s shifting defense policies, as well as my current book project on the history of anti-base protest. Registration information is available here.
I’m excited to join this conversation on Saturday, hosted by the Okinawa Prefecture DC Office. Lex McClellan-Ufugusuku (PhD student in History at UC Santa Cruz) and I will briefly introduce the Okinawa Memories Initiative. Feel free to share the flyer!
I’m very excited to be rounding out the Lytton Center‘s spring speakers’ series with my talk, “Protest Nation: Anti-U.S. Base Struggle in Post-War Japan.”
My talk focuses on the upwelling of local protest against American military bases in Japan during the Cold War. Discussions about military bases often tend to focus on defense strategy and larger national geopolitical machinations (i.e. the history of “great men”). Using archives and interviews conducted throughout Japan, I instead offer a cultural history of anti-base protest that focuses on the lives and experiences of local Japanese communities in so-called “base towns.” In doing so, I argue that anti-base protest has had a profound and often forgotten impact on Japan’s modern history.
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.
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.”
December 2019 feels so distant that it might as well be a fever dream than an actual, lived, moment in time. The abrupt changes to our everyday lives in the last weeks, brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic, ensure that 2020 will be a year that serves as a signpost in our lives.
I yearn to be around other people, strangers preferred. I yearn to be amongst the food, amongst the stores. I even want to experience the things that, not too long ago, used to annoy my fragile senses. Boorish finance guy holding a conference call from the table opposite me in the coffee shop? Today, I’d buy him a latte and tell him to carry on, enthralled in his affectless declaration that his personal trainer is going to kick his ass this weekend.
Perhaps also like other people, I’ve been reflecting on recent travel and the life before the Age of Pandemic. Financial Times travel writer Sophy Roberts recently reflected on travel she’d done years ago, at a time when she, like so many of us, took easy global mobility for granted (“Wish I were Here: Edmund Hillary’s ‘Happy House’,” April 9, 2020).
Her article has me thinking about the trip I took to Israel in December to attend a conference organized by the Israeli Association for Japanese Studies and held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The conference schedule coincided with the end of the fall semester, which is admittedly a difficult time to add extra work outside of the classroom. But it also seemed too good to pass up, this great opportunity to meet other Japan scholars with whom I might not normally get to see at the typical Asian studies conferences I attend in North America and Japan.
Prior to the trip, I’d only seen Israel from afar. In 2012 and I participated in a critical theory seminar organized by the University of California and held at the American University of Beirut. The theme of the ten-day seminar was “spaces of protest,” an appropriate topic given the ongoing Arab Spring uprisings and the civil war in neighboring Syria, then only in its first year. I was presenting on protests against American bases in Japan and learning a great deal from many scholars of the Middle East and beyond who participated and organized. On one of our excursions we took a bus to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, the UN Blue Zone. I chatted with a jovial Indonesian UN peacekeeper who was nearing the end of his tour and had only the nicest things to say about his current posting. On the other side of the Blue Line, the occupied Golan Heights, IDF hummers on patrol barreled down dirt roads. We could see Israeli settlements in the distance, along with recently planted olive groves that dotted the landscape.
The opportunity to see Israel more closely was a welcomed one. I booked a room at the New Imperial Hotel, within the walls of the Old City and a stone’s throw from Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David. The Hebrew University, I decided, was close enough to walk to from the hotel (30-40 mins), which would also allow me walk through the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz twice a day.
Organized under the theme of “Seven Decades of Japanese Democracy: Challenges and Strengths,” the conference was, as expected, a wonderful gathering of scholars from Israel, Europe, and beyond. I presented on anti-base protest in Tokyo’s 1950s and 1960s, part of my current book project on the history of anti-base protest throughout postwar Japan.
Outside of the conference, I spent most of the first day at Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum, which was a powerful experience. One of the highlights of my trip was a “dual narrative”walking tour through the Old City with a local company, Medji Tours. Simultaneously guided by Palestinian and Israeli guides, the tour highlights of many of the sites central to the intersecting faiths in Jerusalem: Al Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cathedral of St. James. We explored the layered and contested historical narratives, from pre-Roman eras through the present. Other members of the tour group included the Swiss techie, who was also traveling solo and had only a couple of days to visit, and the Canadian businessman who teased said Swiss techie on his French. A significant number of our small group included American Jews who lived in Israel part time and kept apartments in Tel Aviv. Others were themselves non-Arab tour guides in Israel who wanted to deepen their own understanding of the ways in which Arabs understand the Old City.
Outside of some delightful meals with fellow conference participants, I spent most evenings on my own, savoring the funky bars and restaurants in Jerusalem and chatting with young Israelis, who turned me on to the music of Daniela Spector and uniformly loathed Benjamin Netanyahu. If I go back, I’ll definitely spend more time at the bustling Mahane Yehuda Market and get another bite and beer at the Dwiny Pita Bar. Cheers to new conference friends Yiftach Hargil (Heidelberg University) and Beata Bochorodycz (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) for the fun.
I didn’t have a lot of expectations of Israel or Jerusalem prior to the visit. As part of my prior trip to Lebanon I had also visited the longstanding Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut’s suburbs and was able to experience, in a small way, the impact of Zionism in Palestine. I knew that there were deep links between many Americans and the country, though I didn’t recognize them so clearly (for some reason I was surprised I could take daily direct flights from SFO to Tel Aviv). Once I visited, as someone from the settler-colonial and deeply militarized US, the settler-colonial and deeply militarized Israel felt familiar.
The next trip to Israel will, I hope, let me engage with scholars at predominantly Palestinian universities and other centers of historical inquiry. Any recommendations for folks I should contact would be greatly appreciated!
NHK News is reporting that Shuri Castle has apparently been nearly completely destroyed by a fire in the early morning hours of October 31. The cause is still unknown. A Japanese National Treasure and a UN World Heritage Site, the castle was a Ryukyuan royal palace that dates back 500 years. Sadly, the castle was also laid waste in the last century during the Battle of Okinawa.
Below, a few photos from a trip I took to the castle with the Okinawa Memories Initiative during the summer of 2018. The site is a spread across beautiful grounds that offer expansive views of Naha and beyond, making it a popular spot for tourists.
When Notre Dame Cathedral was partially destroyed by fire earlier this year, it was reported that $1 billion had been donated for repair. Let’s hope that this tragedy might inspire similar generosity for Shuri Castle.
The fashionable Minatogawa Stateside Town sits just outside of Camp Kinser. Previously military housing for off-base contractors, the neighborhood has been slowly winnowed by private development and today hosts a small collection of boutique restaurants and shops ($300 handmade jeans, anyone?). As with other parts of Okinawa, many of the tourists you see at Stateside Town are from mainland Japan and other parts of Asia.