The rain couldn’t have been more unwelcome. Okinawa’s five-day Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival was in day three. The skies hadn’t much cooperated for days one and two either, but now on day three the rain was relentless. It was a good day to go to Koza.
Koza is the traditional name for the area known today as Okinawa City. Although the street signs all say Okinawa City most of the natives of Okinawa still call the town in the center of Okinawa island Koza. The bus I took was marked Koza.
It’s a long ride up the traffic choked southern half of the island from Naha to Koza. Mileage wise it’s no more than eighteen miles, but the bus took more than an hour to cover the distance.
Along the way I was treated to some famous and, for some, notorious sights of Okinawa. Still close to Naha I passed the Kariyushi resort, one of the venerable resorts of the island, now a little long in the tooth, or so it appeared from the street. As we crawled up Route 58 in the rain slowed traffic, we passed Camp Kinser, a relatively small U.S. marine base. I was struck by the contrasts on the two sides of Route 58.
On the west side the base sprawled out like an American suburb, with buildings separated by wide lawns and fields of grass, big parking lots and the occasional sports field. On the East side, the town of Urasoe encroached, so tightly packed that it looked to soon spill out onto the road like the reservoir of a dammed river. No lawns on the Japanese side, no fields of grass or large parking lots. Just narrow buildings packed tightly together–seemingly on top of each other–only separated by the occasional narrow street that juts off route 58 like a directionless capillary.
As I watched the camp go by on my left, and the glut of business geared to the stray American serviceman that hugged the rim of the human reservoir to my right, I was struck with a single uncomfortable thought: all that open space on the left side of the road once belonged to those people on the right. I don’t mean to present a case for or against the proliferation of American military bases in Okinawa. I only mean to express my disillusion at how seemingly casually we approach the use of their valuable land. If the United States is to have bases abroad then so be it. That is a decision I leave to the respective governments. But, in Okinawa land is a precious resource that need be conserved. When the people of Okinawa look through the links of fence that have divided them from their native lands, they must feel a sense of frustration and regret that the land is so ill-used by their standards. Those wide lawns and empty parking lots and fields must feel to some as sharp as a slap in the face as they stand in front of businesses with no parking lots and houses without a single plant separating them from the street.
It’s not the American way. In America we don’t have to build on every inch of land available to us. We have an abundance of space in our relatively unpopulated nation. We’re not used to squeezing anything together, least of not our lawns and gardens. But the land our military has selected and divided off is not our land. It is not the land of Japan. It belongs to no government, only to the people who live there. Americans are living there, to be sure. And according to international agreement they have a right to. But they are temporary, passive residents who offer nothing to the land they borrow. On the other side of the fence people have lived here for generation upon generation and now many await the return of the land that has played a giant role throughout those generations.
In America we have the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” We say it so much it’s been shortened to simply “When in Rome” We have the saying but sometime we show little aptitude for understanding its meaning. Perhaps the saying is better suited to us expressed “When in Rome, pretend it is America.”