Protests and riots appear to be rather common today in the United States, but they were rare in Japan until the fever for the reversion of Okinawa took hold in the early 70’s. Although Japan restored its sovereignty after defeat in World War II based on the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Okinawa only reverted to Japanese rule on May 15, 1972, two years after my assignment there. The young nationalistic Japanese were pressing for the return of Okinawa, even though it is some 1,000 miles away from Tokyo and closer to Taipei and Shanghai than Tokyo. It was a point of honor as a relic of a former empire.
The capture of Okinawa in the 82-day battle was one of the bloodiest events in the Pacific WWII campaign. What was envisioned as the final battle leading to the invasion of Japan, began April 1, 1945 and concluded with the surrender of the Japanese forces on June 22, 1945. The Japanese military leadership had brainwashed the troops to fight to the death for the emperor. Accordingly, the loss of life and unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender in Okinawa greatly influenced President Truman’s decision to use atomic warfare to seek an end to the war rather than face the massive casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of the mainland.
Interestingly, National Geographic recently published an article entitled The Last Voices of World War II covering a few of the remaining survivors of major battles. Nobuo Nishizaki, shown below, was a Japanese veteran who left home for the navy in 1942 at age 15. His mother ordered him, “You must survive and come back,” and he did just that despite impossible odds that included a suicide mission at Okinawa. His account of battle says it all, “We were sent to die for the emperor and imperial nation, and everyone acted like we believed in it. But when the soldiers were dying, the young ones called out their mother’s name and older ones called out their children’s names. I never heard anyone calling the emperor and nation.” In the final analysis, the lowest common denominator in near-death situations is those around you at the moment and failing that, your family.
Following WWII, if you happened to live in Okinawa, which I visited frequently, you would have thought it was one big U.S. military base. Although Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s land, it represents 70 percent of total acreage exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan. Moreover, as shown below, land reclamation continues in order to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station to a less populated area.
Otherwise, the U.S. military presence is dominantly visible in densely populated areas as shown below. As one would expect, there is an active bar scene in Okinawa and the young military guys often get confused between bar hostesses and young civilian ladies which has historically been and continues to be a major problem there. In today’s world, an outbreak of Covid-19 cases on the military bases has caused great concern as a further threat to the local population.
From the jungles and mountains of Thailand and Laos, yours truly was moved by Esso to Japan in 1970 to deal with a host of different kind of issues. One of those issues was to plan for the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. It was a question of “when” rather than “if,” as the Japanese government was unable to withstand the constant pressures and protests it faced. Lo and behold, my home base of operations was the Green Fantasia apartments in Tokyo at Omotesando. Omotesando is an avenue in Shibuya and Minato, Tokyo that leads from the Meiji Shrine to Aoyama-dori where the Omotesando underground station is located. It was my home for a period but later it became clear that it was ground zero for other purposes.
As you will note in the image below, there is a “toro” or light tower indicated by the red arrow with another on the other side of the street which leads to the serenity of the Meiji Shrine that was constructed in honor of the Meiji Emperor who died in 1912. For what it is worth, my apartment was located on the fourth floor overlooking the “toro.” The apartment was a popular gathering spot for expatriates to have cocktails as a Japanese lady across the street relished putting on lingerie modeling exhibitions before departing for the evening. Rumor had it she was a veteran from the Okinawa bar scene.
Just a short walk up the street was the Meiji Shrine which is the most popular and busiest shrine in Japan. Nonetheless, it is sufficiently large that it can be serene and peaceful. However, it became a gathering point for “less than peaceful protestors.” Large numbers of protestors could quietly reach the Omotesando station from various locations and gather at the shrine. The chrysanthemum crests on the “tori” gate, shown below, symbolize the Chrysanthemum Throne of the Meiji era which began in 1868 and ended with the death of the Emperor on July 30, 1912. The “rising sun” flag, which became a familiar emblem in the battle for Okinawa, began in this era. The “tori” gate itself represents the entrance to a shrine while the word “tori” literally means bird abode and marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred.
One Saturday morning I was awakened to considerable commotion outside. There were hordes of policemen gathered in full regalia and what appeared to be Japanese protesters with face masks and headbands. I grabbed my Asahi Pentax camera and downstairs I went. The riot policemen, as shown below, looked like something out of a Japanese comic book but were more intimidating than anything I had ever seen. I started taking pictures when all of a sudden one of the policemen wheeled out a small canon and starting lobbing tear gas cannisters at the oncoming protesters. The police then beat their huge metal shields with batons and charged the protesters. I was pre-occupied with the photographic opportunity when I realized I was in the middle of the melee and could not breathe. Sadly, that photographic moment did not survive as the camera was lost to the chaos of the moment.
I escaped back upstairs to the safety of the Green Fantasia barely able to see or breathe. Shortly thereafter, I upgraded the lost Pentax to a Nikon with the illusion that it might be more durable for conflict encounters though I scratched “Okinawa Reversion Protests” from my list of future endeavors.
Not long after that, I had my final engagement with Japanese police when three American couples gathered at The Green Fantasia for the cocktail hour lingerie fashion show across the street. We decided to go for dinner so the six of us hopped in my second-hand Japanese miniature car. We had just passed through Omotesando when a Japanese policeman flagged me down as I drove by the “koban” or police box as illustrated below. First, he asked for our “gaitosho” or alien registration cards which everyone is obliged to carry with them at all times. Everyone handed their cards to me and I handed them one at a time to the officer. He looked at everyone and returned them back to me individually after verifying the picture with the face. Unfortunately, one of the ladies did not have her card but, as I was keeping count, I recycled one of the cards and there was no problem-those foreigners all look alike. However, the policeman motioned me to get out of the car.
I was directed into to the police box and handed a phone where an English-speaking Japanese in police headquarters informed me that more than five people in the vehicle was illegal. I thanked him in English for this information and he said we were free to go but one passenger had to grab a taxi. At that point, nothing had been spoken in any language directly by the policeman at hand other than “gaitosho” or alien registration card. As I returned to the car, the policeman looked at me very pointedly and said “no drinking” in English and I bowed and thanked in my most gracious Japanese. We then each smiled and it was clear both of us knew what the score was with each other-he was aware of the preceding cocktails as why would six full-size foreigners crowd into what could be taken for a “clown car” as well as being a bit light on the number of “gaitoshos.” Nonetheless, I do not think he had any knowledge of the lingerie modeling. What happened there was an interesting experience from which others could learn relative to the relationships in any police association-respect and honor go a long way in what can become a potential conflict situation. It may not work so well in rabid protests, but it works effectively in other situations that require respect on both sides.