Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Sometimes, without really trying, you find yourself doing something that has never been done before. It's a rewarding realization. You feel a little giddy, the edges of the moment sharpen to a cleaner focus and yet another little germ of chaos is added to the world.

This is why I was smiling last Monday night at 10 pm as I stood in the light rain of an early Hokkaido autumn next to the gas station at the corner of Rt. 12 and the mountain road home to Utashinai, pack on my back, a dozen hermit crabs scritch-scratching away in the pockets of my jacket and pants, thumb held out high.

From one extreme to another...

The skinny humps of coral, jungle and sand that make up the prefecture of Okinawa are scattered in a loose formation between Taiwan, to the south, and the Japanese mainland, hundreds of kilometers to the north. Originally inhabited by a Polynesian race known as the Ryukyuu islanders who operated an independent kingdom within the Chinese sphere of influence, the islands were overwhelmed during the early stages of Japapanese colonialism in the late 19th century. Today, Okinawa, like Hokkaido, is more accurately Japanese territory than part of Japan.

Or is it even accurate to call the islands Japanese territory? Since winning the Battle of Okinawa during the final days of World War Two, the American military has maintained a formidable presence on the archipelago. Although official sovereignty was returned to the Japanese in 1972, residents of the main island are so accustomed to living on the outskirts of a foreign military base that they barely bat an eye when American fighter jets roar past during exercises pointed over the horizon at Taiwan.

Both Japanese and American officials discourage interaction between soldiers and the local populace. The policy seems somewhat odd considering that the job that I and thousands of other Americans are hired to perform consists of mingling with the locals in the name of internationalization, but in light of the potential for ugly incidents, such as the gang rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by four American enlisted men nine years ago, the military and the civilian administrations have less to lose by keeping the military presence out of sight and out of mind (fighter jets notwithstanding).

As fascinating as Okinawa may be from a sociological and historical standpoint, I decided to go there simply to get my money's worth. The major Japanese airlines offer a really sweet discount birthday fare by which anyone can fly with up to four friends anywhere in the country for only $100 each way within one week of their birthday. It almost seemed like cheating to book a domestic flight from Sapporo to Okinawa (like flying Anchorage to San Juan). If only the generals had decided to keep pushing West instead of bombing Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. I could have flown to Burma.

This is typhoon season in Japan, and the Okinawan islands lie along the center line of the storm-path, but as my lovely travel companion, Rika, was born on September 6th, we would have to rely on luck for blue skies. Nervously following the weather reports for Okinawa all week, it wasn't until the day of departure when we noticed that the clouds over Hokkaido had turned an onimous shade of purple. With the rain slicing down and wind howling, just getting to the airport became a concern.

The omens and oracles intensified. Waiting for Rika in the train station, I took a seat between a puffy faced orange haired girl in an impossibly tiny skirt holding a massive Louis Vuitton bag and a shabby middle aged man who reeked of stale beer. Both took an interest in me.

"Hello," said the girl from my left as the man leaned over to stare, eyes off-focus.

"Hello," I said back. She giggled.

"Sapporo?" she asked, pointing at the train platform. The glitter around her eyes was blinding me.

"Okinawa," I said.

The man to my right was poking my shoulder, trying to get my attention. The girl looked at the man like he was a dog with a mouth full of peanut butter. Then she turned to me, made a little circle with her finger next to her temple, rolled her eyes and walked away laughing without mirth. The man was tugging on my sleeve.

"Typhoon! Typhoon!" He was talking loudly, urgently, lisping between missing teeth.

"Frrssssssshh! Big rain! Big Rain! Wind! It's dangerous! You have to go, go now! Go!"

"Ah, soo desu ka," I said.

The man was clearly frustrated with my calm and grew more agitated, sprinkling bits of English in with his frantic Japanese in a desperate attempt to communicate.

"I came from Hiroshima! Hiroshima! Bomb!"

I nodded my head to show that I was aware of Hiroshima.

"Go Shiretoko! T..tt..tt.tour! But typhoon! Danger! U-turn!"

He demonstrated a sudden U-turn motion with both arms.

"Go back! Go Back!"

"I'm going to Okinawa," I said. He looked as if I had said I was going to the 4th layer of Hell.

"Okinawa!" (Much vigorous head shaking).

"No no no no no. I would never go to Okinawa. They have the habu! The habu! Snake!"

He bit his arm to demonstrate. I was impressed that he knew the English word for snake.

"You die in 5 minutes! The habu!"

The man rummaged around in the pockets of his filthy overcoat and found a can of beer, which he pressed into my hands as if it was the only thing in the world that could protect me from the habu.

"Thanks," I said. "But my train is here."

As I walked away, the station manager was hurrying towards the man from Hiroshima with an expressionless face. I met Rika, boarded the train and plunged south through the rainy night.


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