JPRI Critique Vol. V No. 10 (November 1998)
Comfort Island: Notes On Okinawa
by Murray Sayle

(Review of Beat, a film directed by Amon Miyamoto, with Claude Maki, Yuki Uchida, Dean Stapleton, Naoto Hira. A Pony Canyon/Hakuhodo co-production.)

Okinawa, Japan's poorest and most distant province, has been waiting for a change of luck for centuries. The wait, it seems, must go on. Once, as the independent kingdom of the Ryukyus, the island chain used to profit modestly from trade with China and Japan, but the Portuguese cut them out in the sixteenth century. The Okinawan language is a dialect of Japanese, but the two split some 1,200 years ago, and they are now as mutually unintelligible as English and Dutch. In 1879, Meiji Japan ended Okinawa's happy isolation by forcibly adding the islands to its empire. Okinawa was, and still is, a small, sleepy colony, while Japanese energies went into far bigger and richer colonies in Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan.

Then, in 1945, Okinawa was colonized again, this time by American invaders who fought some of the fiercest battles of World War Two, leaving 12,500 Americans dead and 37,00 wounded. A quarter-million Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians, many of them conscripted schoolchildren, were also killed in the fighting. The capital, Naha, was leveled, and much of the island's meager farm land was seized for U.S. Army and Navy flying fields, maneuver areas and camps, ready for the invasion of Japan proper that never took place.

The American military installations are still there, with the addition of golf courses, homes and schools for married personnel, and bars and brothels for the un- or less married, including a division of mostly 18- to 22-year-old Marines--all the comforts, in short, needed for permanent military occupation, which in effect this is, the only one left from a war that ended 53 years ago. Far away to the north, Soviet forces, only weeks later, captured the four islands of the Kurile chain nearest to Japan, and now, as Russian troops, they are still there, too--and many think the Okinawan occupation is likely to last at least as long as the matching northern annexation does.

Theoretically, sovereignty over all the Ryukyu Islands was returned to Japan in May 1972. The bases remain, however, with no indication of when they might be removed, short of the arrival of "peace and stability in the Far East," which could be a long wait. Meanwhile the U.S. military have become, along with sugarcane, tourists and a few folk crafts, the islands' only source of income. This means the constant buzz of low-flying helicopters, the thump of artillery, roads busy with military traffic--and, inevitably, a steady stream of crimes, most reprehensibly rape, child molestation and other sexual and sex-inspired offenses, with some 200 of them resulting in court-martial charges in Okinawa in the past ten years.

In September 1995, Okinawa briefly attracted angry attention in Japan, and even some in the United States, when a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was abducted and raped by three American servicemen, who were subsequently sent to prison by a Japanese court. Admiral Richard C. Macke, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, lost his job over his comment: "I think that it [the rape] was absolutely stupid. For the price they paid to rent a car, they could have had a girl"--the sort of thing many an American officer, accustomed to the ready availability of comfort women, or "gate girls," during his entire career, might well think, but would be too tactful, or timid, to say.

That the brutalization of a blameless Okinawan schoolgirl made an apt, even an obvious metaphor for what has befallen Okinawa itself must have occurred to many observers in Japan, as well as to the JPRI staff member who noted, in September 1966, ". . . Okinawa is like a rape victim who has been turned out on the streets by a pimp, with the U.S. being the rapist and the Japanese government playing the role of pimp." The very same thought, we discover, occurred to Amon Miyamoto, trendy director and choreographer of stylish plays, operas, musicals and kabuki dramas, who has been inspired to use the islands' plight as a setting for his debut as a film director. Opening in Japan in mid-September, a version of his film, subtitled in English for international release, was previewed at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, by coincidence in the week that also saw the death of the great Akira Kurosawa. I went along, partly as an amateur film critic, partly to see how a mainland Japanese would respond to Okinawa's plight (like Kurosawa, Miyamoto is Tokyo-born, and made his first visit to the islands in April 1996, after the schoolgirl was raped.) Kurosawa, I can report, he is not. But then again, who is?

The film is entitled, for no apparent reason, Beat. The hero, we learn, is an Okinawan named Takeshi, the setting a street of bars and brothels in the Nago district of Okinawa, close to a Marine base, the time around 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. Beat? Takeshi? Huh? What does an apolitical TV comedian have to do with Okinawa? We never find out. From its fashionably abrupt, titleless opening shot, Beat is a fast gallop through what may be intended as either Zen-like non-sequiturs, what-the-hell coincidences, profound parables, or, most likely, all three at once.

Takeshi, played by an ostentatiously sensitive Claude Maki, opens the action by firing a flare from a (presumably stolen) U.S. Army mortar into an island-wide blackout (did the Viet Cong have an air force?) in order, we gather, to irritate the over-zealous commanding general, who doubles as High Commissioner, or U.S. governor-general of the island. Having made his protest (against what is not made clear), Takeshi sneaks back to his job, tending bar in a brothel for American servicemen called (another metaphor here?) Sekai, The World. From the beginning, we can see that Takeshi's situation is (like Japan's?) morally ambiguous, to say the least.

It gets more confusing as we learn that the love of his life, played by the improbably (for her profession) ladylike Yuki Uchida, is a bar girl at the Sekai, whose steadiest customer is Dean Stapleton, a GI bound for Vietnam. To complicate the plot, or build the symbolism, or both, the bar girl has a young daughter, Maria, the result of rape by yet another American serviceman. Stapleton claims both to love, or at least to lust after the mother, to feel paternal toward her daughter, and to be Takeshi's best friend in all the world (Takeshi speaks English with his GI buddy, which requires sub-titles for a Japanese audience, as do the Okinawan characters when they speak among themselves. Beat is one heavily sub-titled film.) The relationships are hard to sort out, but the atmosphere of bars, hookers and short-time hotels is convincing. Okinawa was then a staging-post on the way to and from Vietnam, as was vividly described by Mike Millard in his evocative "Okinawa Then and Now" (JPRI Occasional Paper No 11, February 1998). In Vietnam myself at that time, I at once recognized Okinawa as a branch office of that war, with the same built-in absurdity--an elephantine, insensitive military machine trampling over a fragile peasant society it was supposed to be liberating.

The salvoes of incoming symbols thicken as the story zig-zags along. Black servicemen are seen having athletic sex with Okinawan girls in almost Oval Office detail, maggots crawl from bodies shipped back from 'Nam, a (Chinese) atom bomb explodes, GI Stapleton draws a gun and kidnaps Maria, who dies (or was it a dream sequence?) and comes back to life, all to the twang of 1960s Country and Western.

The Vietnam-era setting has a reason: Miyamoto, who wrote the script as well as directed, was a Beheiren (Peace in Vietnam) activist, and explains "it was difficult to separate my own sentimental feelings of those heady times." Japanese obsession with race, Japanese confusion about which side to support in Vietnam, the 1960s frivolity of the Beheiren's protests, the fascination (shared by most Vietnamese) with American pop culture, the pace of American action movies and music television, in contrast to the demure dragon dance that is offered as a sample of endangered Okinawan culture--all of this speaks of the tremendous, and continuing impact of America on the staid societies of East Asia, which Japan has endured, and enjoyed, longer than any other.

But the war in Vietnam ended almost a quarter-century ago, and the bases are still there. What has America done for, and to, Okinawa lately? Miyamoto's allegory seems to strive for a contemporary meaning, but his film-school photography, garish special effects, non-stop climaxes and contorted story line obscure his message, if he has one. Some of the preview audience, baffled, left before the ending, in which GI Stapleton departs for 'Nam and Takeshi for Tokyo, leaving mother, daughter and Okinawa to an uncertain fate. From Mike Millard's JPRI paper, we know that Okinawa has, at least superficially, changed a lot in 23 years; the dirt roads are paved, the short-time hotels have become overfurnished "soaplands," Naha and the other cities are now modestly high-rise, the U.S. military no longer behave like conquerors--the rapists were tried in Japanese courts, for instance, profuse apologies were offered, and compensation paid. Still, the bases continue to occupy a fifth of Okinawa, most of what had been the best farmland, and three-quarters of all the U.S. military facilities in Japan are squeezed into an island of barely 400 square miles, a third the size of Long Island in New York.

Overcrowding and the need to avoid incidents make Okinawa a poor training-ground, and far better alternatives are available; Australia, for instance, has offered the use of its training facilities in the huge, thinly populated state of Queensland, four times bigger than all Japan. Yet the Japanese government has been unable to find alternative sites for any of the bases in Japan proper, and has used its powers to over-ride local objections to a planned floating heliport to be moored inshore close to Nago, which will inevitably subject the area to the noise and danger of airborne operations. The Japanese government, it is clear, wants U.S. military based in Japan, but not in any traditionally Japanese locale. The analogy drawn by Miyamoto of an indebted farmer selling an unfavorite daughter into a city brothel thus gives relevance to the sexual imagery of the film.

The real reason for the Okinawa bases is, of course, political. They are part of a stable Asian order as envisaged by Americans, a visible sign of American readiness to use force to sustain that order, if necessary, even although no one except starving North Korea now seems to be threatening it. The only other possible challenger is the one that once tried to impose its own order on Asia, an attempt that ended 53 years ago. That Japan would try for a second East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere seems highly unlikely, going on impossible, but the bare idea would be destabilizing, if anyone took it seriously. To move a ready-use division of U.S. Marines to Japan proper might lend a whisper of confirmation to the idea. Leaving them in Okinawa alarms no one--they have been there for 53 years, after all. It is part of Okinawa's appalling run of bad luck to be the pin fastening this tangle together. Miyamoto has no solution, but he has made a brave try at interesting Japanese audiences in the problem. Disjointed, but worth seeing, if you get the chance.

MURRAY SAYLE lives and writes in Aikawa-cho, near Tokyo. He is the author of JPRI Working Paper 32 (April 1997), "The Buddha Bites Back," and JPRI Working Paper 43 (March 1998), "How Rich Japan Misled Poor Asia."

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