Thursday, May 17, 2012

Occupied Okinawa #6: Coming Home

Every time I would travel to Japan I would be asked several things as to where I came from.

#1: People would ask me if I was Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan who the government and most people pretended to be non-existent for quite a while.

#2: I was from Hokkaido. I have no idea what people from Hokkaido look like, but if I was to imagine myself as some sort of Japanese person, it would be from Hokkaido.

#3: People regularly asked if I was from Okinawa.

I had no idea for years as to why people thought I might be from Okinawa. Even when I was living in the states I would sometimes meet Okinwans who thought I might be Okinawa. I would never begrudge people their mistakes. Being Okinawa sounds pretty cool, and besides when I travel places, it doesn't matter where, I constantly think that anyone around me could be Chamorro.

I've asked some people in Okinawa so far, why people might mistake me as one of them? They have laughed and said I do look Okinawa, and the only satisfactory answer that I've come up with is that I have lots of hair on my arms, and Okinawans tend to have more body hair than mainland Japanese.

It is because I have read about Okinawa for years now and sometimes been mistaken for being from there, that I joked today during a presentation at Okinwa Christian University, that I feel like coming to Okinawa is like coming home. Obviously Guam is my home, but there is such a familiarity to Okinawa, it feels like the place I call home. There is an academic component to this. There is familiarity with regards to colonialism and war. But the connection goes beyond this, it actually becomes very intimate and very quiet.

Yesterday I was taken to see part of the fence surrounding Futenma Marine Corps Air Base. In order to drive there you have to wind through narrow, twisting rounds. The houses are packed together very tightly. You come to a street that leads straight to a towering military fence. The contrast is so stark, you might laugh uncomfortably when if you see it for yourself. Through the fence, the grass is green and looks perfectly cut. There is so much open land, if you look back quickly you might feel as if the city is growing rapidly behind you, shoving you into the chain mesh of the fence.

At a moment like that you can see how the fence might create two drastically different interpretations for people. For some they may see the base, what lies beyond the fence as a breath of fresh air, as a chance to escape, to get out away from the twisted urban labyrinth that they came from. But for others the fences will appear as a mocking tribute to selfishness, to disconnection and displacement. They will be reminders of loss and of oppression and how it doesn't only continue up until today, but that it has been actively built up and buried.

At the site where we visited the fence-line there was several visible crypts and tombs on the other side. They looked like they were maintained and the families are allowed to visit and pay respects there once a year. While someone may make excuses and say that the military is taking good care of the tombs, far better than if the people were responsible for them, others reflect on the meaning of fences as if they are a character from an Okinawa Robert Frost poem. They see the graves and remains of ancestors and the fence doesn't make sense. In order to pay respect you have to walk all the way around the fence, find a gate, and also navigate the calendar of the year and wait for the right date in order to be able to visit them.

While I was there, so many Guam connections came to mind. Places like Fena or Haputo where you find artifacts or hold memorials. But my mind went further than this historical connections and it was in that moment that I began to feel at "home" here.

As I stood outside that fence in Okinawa I realized that I could have been standing outside a fence on Guam. The grass beneath my shoes was the exact same kind I found find in Guam. The trees nearby are found on Guam. The sky looks like the sky above Anderson or Tiyan. Even the fence itself looked the same. It appeared to be the same type you find on the miles of military fence-line in Guam. It looked a little bit taller, but the same construction nonetheless.

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