To Futenma


“Because I’m in my eighties, that’s why,” Grandma said. “It survived the war, and it’s the only proof that’s left now. This is for the benefit of you and Sadamichi. Ever since they turned the land into an American air base, those planes have been nothing but a wretched curse. It’s the only wish I ask you to grant me in my old age.”

I’m 25 and I work as the executive assistant to the president of a newspaper in Naha. Years had passed, but I still remembered what Grandma had told me, and now I wanted to fulfill my grandmother’s wish.

When I brought it up with my mother, her only reply was: “Don’t you think this request of Grandma’s is unrealistic, not to mention the fact that you have no idea how you’re going to pull it off?”

My mother had opened a studio for kumi odori—the art of Ryūkyūan musical theater—where she was the head instructor and I was a pupil. Before Grandma’s unrealistic request was on the table, things had already been decided as far as I was concerned. I said I wanted to do well in the upcoming competition, and I was fully determined to follow through. It seemed inevitable, since the newspaper was a sponsor of the event, and I’d won the best newcomer award as a high school freshman. Even so, I’d never received the highest honors. My mother said it would probably be within reach when I was in college, but some of the judges had more critical words to offer. This year, I was hunkering down and giving those words serious reflection. Even as I was preoccupied with that, the question of how I could possibly grant Grandma her wish—however unrealistic it was—weighed on my mind.

Aragusuku was a district of Ginowan with a long history. After the war, it was more or less subsumed by virtue of being in the vicinity of the base, while the town residents of neighboring Futenma were pushed out. Before the war, the area had been farmland. Now a long airstrip running north-south was situated at the northern end. The airspace was at such a low altitude that military aircraft flew narrowly over the roofs, wreaking havoc below with their rumbling. This happened a few dozen times a day, so the noise was a part of daily life. It engulfed us during our training, and it was relentless—which is to say, I learned to keep my chin up. The studio was located near the U.S. base that was apparently at the center of the scheme Grandma had asked me to help with. I knew how she felt, but there was still the question of how I could best be of help. I wondered what the gods of Futenma Shrine, the gongen, thought of all this.

In Futenma, a cluster of food stalls had been set up at the junction where the roads that ran east-west and south intersected. Dating back to the prewar days, it was a spot that drew bustling crowds. The road south passed through Shuri, the capital during the age of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. During the early modern period, the road extended from Futenma to Ginowan, which was then one of the administrative districts known as magiri. At the southern end was Azaganeko, which was once the home of mystical pine groves, a sight that my generation has never known. During the war, the trees were cut down in order to build air-raid shelters. The section that remained standing after the war was later devoured by insects. Not long after that, the area was taken over by the American base. If by chance any trees had somehow managed to survive, the base construction took care of that. It was hard to believe how the U.S. forces were given free rein to set up camp, wiping out the pine groves in the process. I wondered if, in light of that, the gongen would be willing to aid the mission that was Grandma’s wish.

At the city government offices, you could fill out an application for permission to enter the premises. It required specifying the reason for requesting entry, such as funerary rites or cleaning. The options included “visit to grave” or “family ancestral home,” so as to reflect distinct aspects of Okinawan culture. The application procedures required you to provide an explanation to the administrative offices of the U.S. military—which meant going to a lot of trouble. The provision was set by the U.S. forces as a circumstance of the occupation of their base.

In any case, Grandma’s intended purpose didn’t correspond to any of the above, so they had to call in an arbitrator to the city government offices to further investigate her case. They had never heard such an explanation before, and what was written didn’t conform to the standard reasons, which covered social customs like “visit to grave,” according to the employee at the service counter.

The requested entry was neither for funerary rites, cleaning a family ancestral home, nor for any of the other acceptable reasons, which also included preserving the Aragusuku Cave.

Nowadays, the natural onsen found within that vast cave system were subsumed by the military base. Known for their limpid beauty since the olden days, the onsen had supplied the water used to make tofu. Along the side of the caves was an entrance. Only during the war did most people enter for the very first time. Measurements were taken at the war’s end, as part of preparations to construct graves: 112 meters east of the onsen plus 280 meters to the west, for a total distance of 392 meters. The U.S. forces landed on the Kerama Islands, off the west coast of Okinawa’s main island, on March 26th, 1945, and in Chatan on April 1st. The ward chief had demonstrated brilliant foresight; beginning around March 20th, each and every family was evacuated. As military planes descended upon Aragusuku, everyone in the town had already taken shelter inside the cave. They had taken the side entrance and advanced some 100 meters westward. It was mind-boggling that they had been able to gather such a huge crowd within that space. Who knows how they managed? A hole had been made in the ceiling of the cave for ventilation.

Two of the people inside the cave had spoken English, as immigrants too had taken part in the mass evacuation. Back then, there were about 80 houses in the town. Most of them had thatched roofs, while about 20 had clay roof tiles. Those houses belonged to all the immigrants who were well-off. Inside the cave, the English speakers had been gracious. One of them was a woman who had just graduated from a high school in Hawaii.

Those two people had alerted everyone that the Americans were coming and had joined the resistance. A plan went around among the evacuees to brandish bamboo spears. The U.S. forces, who landed near Kadena on April 1st, had been told that the resistance was being quelled. The two English speakers had a surprise in store for them. On April 4th, the group collectively summoned every last bit of its resources, and the show of opposition to the mass suicides of Okinawans in Kerama was realized. To this day, that incident remains a source of pride. Now, ironically, while we were being terrorized by an uproar 10 times a day, that episode in Aragusuku’s history was happily brought up at every opportunity.

So if my cleaning request didn’t involve graves or family ancestral homes and rejoicing in today’s peace, what kind of cleaning did I want to do, then?

The cleaning I had in mind was a Lunar New Year’s tradition. I thought it’d be nice if I managed to observe it and achieve my own goals at the very same time. Plus the city government offices would know what was going on.

“Don’t wait until the month of the Lunar New Year. If I die before then, you’ll regret it,” Grandma said with a glint in her eye.

Because she was hard of hearing, those words—which were barked loudly—came out sounding like orders. Employees in other parts of the city government offices had taken notice and were gaping at her.

I saw the expression on Grandma’s face and the fire in her eyes. I swallowed my breath. In order to accompany her to the city government offices, I had taken time off work. That was something that I wasn’t supposed to do at my job. But it had been worth it, just to see that look in her eyes. It was settled. Grandma had stated her wishes loud and clear.

My family had descended from what you might call a well-regarded lineage in the prewar days of Aragusuku.

Five generations before my own—even before the Meiji Restoration—the head of our family lived in Shuri, on the estate of the lord of Ginowan magiri, to whom he served a year of duty. What rank he held, Grandma hadn’t been told, but she was sure that it must have involved housekeeping, tending livestock, gardening, or some other form of menial labor. When he was discharged from his post, the lord gave him a tortoiseshell comb as a gift.

Grandma didn’t hear the story during the war because she hadn’t married into the family yet, nor did she hear it from her mother-in-law after the war, after she’d married into the family. During the evacuation to the Aragusuku Cave, her mother-in-law worried that the tortoiseshell comb might best be kept out of sight, and after giving the matter careful consideration, hid it near the house, on the sacred ground of Tunnuyama, before retreating to the well. Her mother-in-law had often spoken of how she wanted to go back and retrieve it, bringing up the idea time and again. But it never happened. Her mother-in-law and her father-in-law both passed away. Grandma wanted so desperately to recover the comb, and it had become the wish that she had asked to be granted. I had asked for permission to enter the premises in order to do just that. Because my family’s honor was at stake, I wanted to carry out the wish with honesty and integrity, but that wasn’t going to happen through the city government offices.

So it seemed I’d have to wait for the time being.

“I’m really doing this for you…” my grandmother told my father. “For the head of this family, I want to excavate the tortoiseshell comb that is a symbol of our prestigious ancestry.”

My father flat-out rejected the idea. The comb was hidden deep within the former lord’s estate, within the hillside thicket of Tunnuyama, and on the premises of the air base, and to this day, its exact location remained unknown. This was not even to speak of what had become of the comb itself, for there was no guarantee that it hadn’t been damaged or destroyed.

“Rather old-fashioned, don’t you think?”

My father was born after the war. When he was five years old, his father fell ill and died, and because he was singlehandedly raised by his mother, he didn’t get to go to college. He came of age during the era of Okinawa’s reversion movement. Living through those times meant hearing the roar of American planes in your right ear and hearing the chants of the reversion movement in your left ear. The reversion of Okinawa to Japan would free the right ear—or so it was hoped. The roar did not fade so easily in the brain deeper inside, which clung to its doubts.

After my father graduated from Futenma High School, he worked at the city government offices and became the most fervent protester in the whole reversion movement. He led the movement to the areas where the movement to reclaim land occupied by military bases was most active.

Perhaps the right side of his brain had contemplated Grandma’s wish, even while the left side of his brain had negated it. Now the left brain was resigned to distrust of the Japanese government.

“The reversion movement and the movement to return the bases both tried desperately, and these wishes were denied,” said Grandma, looking stumped.

“So, if anything, this will turn out just like all the times before.”

According to my father, the reversion movement and the movement to reclaim land occupied by military bases were minor phenomena that failed to have any impact on the big picture. If the U.S. troops had understood the significance of the tortoiseshell comb, they would have helped to find it and dig it out. Besides, the kind of people who would so generously perform this small, concrete gesture for someone else were a thing of the past. It’d be nice if the U.S. troops were so considerate, but ultimately, they weren’t on the same side, my father insisted. As far as Grandma’s wish was concerned, to my father it was a distant dream that would never come to pass.

My mother’s younger brothers, who had no such connections over at the city government offices, suggested the idea of talking to my grandmother about the matter. My mother was appalled and refused to have any part.

My mother and father each explained that they had their reasons, when in reality, it was because Grandma’s wish was rather old-fashioned, and they weren’t on the same side.

“It’s not necessarily strange and old-fashioned,” someone else pointed out.

That someone was Tadashi Henna. He was a reporter, and I’d known him for about a year. He had been two years my senior at Okinawa International University.

“The tortoiseshell comb is just wistful longing for the past. It’s not necessarily about having old-fashioned values. There’s strict security at U.S. bases. If you trespass, it’s hard to say—you might encounter some high-level defenses.”

That reminded me of what my mother had once told me. The time I had failed to clinch third place in the kumi odori competition, I’d said that the roar of the planes had been a distraction, to which my mother replied: “So it was impossible, then? Everywhere you go, surely everyone has their troubles.”

How was I supposed to submit to the conditions that I’d been presented with and give up, just like that? Or, for that matter, how was I supposed to prevail over them?

The studio was scarcely twenty doors down from the base. I was already beginning to understand what it meant to prevail over those conditions.

Then there was what my father, of all people, told me. “Ah, indeed. There’s a difference between triumph and defeat, and it’s a mighty fine line,” he said, chuckling.

That was precisely where things stood, and I felt as if I were smack in the middle. I racked my brain trying to think of what proper response I could possibly even have. I just couldn’t come up with a good comeback.

When I told Tadashi Henna what my father had said, he laughed, too. “You can say that again…”

Then he continued thoughtfully, “This is the way things have been since 1949, with us being forced to put up with the base being here, and it’s going to take a lot of power to overcome it.”

1949 was the year that the Cultural Revolution began and the name the People’s Republic of China was heard around the world. What our generation was taught about history was that from that year on, there was a big rush to construct U.S. military bases in Okinawa, and roadways were extended to reach far and wide. The land comprising five farming villages had been confiscated in wartime for the purposes of building Air Station Futenma and expanding the postwar U.S. military presence. From 1949 on, that presence had only spread.

Today, Okinawa International University was adjacent to the southern end of Air Station Futenma. The school was founded in 1972, the year when administrative rights were returned to Okinawa in what was known as the reversion. Strangely enough, there hadn’t been any roaring noises before the reversion. And there was even more suffering following it. Funny how that was.

“Sixteen planes and thirty-six tiltrotors,” Tadashi Henna murmured. He shrugged his shoulders.

Futenma No. 2 Elementary School, on the south side of Aragusuku, now sat at another border of the base. In the summertime, during the hour of 10 a.m., there were days when a massive transport plane performed a touch-and-go there every four minutes and thirty seconds. The plane would approach from the south, then descend. It would briefly touch down before taking off again, heading northward as an explosive roar fell over the elementary school. Then it would turn around and approach once more from the south, and the next instant, it would touch down and take off again. As for the tiltrotor aircraft, they conducted drills overhead nine times a day. This being routine, the resulting noise pollution was a serious problem.

The north was where the gongen of Futenma Shrine made their home. Regardless of whether it angered the gods, the teachers would joke it off. Their jokes were a way of detaching from their surroundings and killing time while the noise enveloped us. When disruption to the lesson was over, they would act normal again. With class being disrupted every four or five minutes, it was impossible.

That was the environment I grew up in.

Once, my father went up to the rooftop of my elementary school. That day, he came home and didn’t utter a word. After that, whenever my father hid his feelings, I would recall the look on his face on that day.

I talked about it with Tadashi Henna until I couldn’t talk about it anymore.

The size and noise levels of the U.S. Marines tiltrotor aircraft base—along with how to put up with it—were the most talked-about topics in the prefecture. Both my father and Tadashi Henna would talk about it, then stop talking about it. It was all because no one could think of anything that they could actually do about it.


Tatsuhiro Ōshiro

Born in Okinawa in 1925, Tatsuhiro Ōshiro is a Japanese author whose politically charged fiction addresses history and geopolitics in East Asia. The Cocktail Party, his trenchant depiction of an awkward social gathering on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, won the Akutagawa Prize in 1967 and has been adapted for the stage and screen. In Japan, he has received a Medal of Honor and the Order of the Rising Sun, and been named a Person of Cultural Merit. He was awarded the Yasunari Kawabata Literary Prize in 2015.

Bonnie Huie

Bonnie Huie is a New York-based literary translator of Chinese and Japanese whose work has appeared in Words without Borders, PEN America, Kyoto Journal, and Afterimage. She was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, and her rendition of Motojirō Kajii’s “Under the Cherry Blossoms” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her translation of Notes of a Crocodile by the late Taiwanese countercultural icon Qiu Miaojin will be published by NYRB Classics in May 2017.

Futenma yo. Copyright (c) Tatsuhiro Oshiro, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Bonnie Huie, 2016.