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Stories from Okinawa

Remembering Okinawa today, the 73rd anniversary of the end of the World War II ground battle that claimed over 200,000 lives. Renewing the seemingly never ending call to reduce U.S. forces there. Captivated by its hauntingly tragic beauty, my time there extended over several years, over different islands, and many encounters with diverse people.

I gathered the stories of some of the people I met. Several of the more beautiful, awe inspiring people are captured in my book, When Half is Whole. Here are some excerpts below:

Bryon Fija is the charismatic, musician turned linguist who entertains with his traditional Okinawan music integrated in teaching Okinawan language. In the chapter titled, "English, I don't know!" Byron's emergence as a strong advocate for the preservation of Okinawan language is told, from his origins as a child who never knew his American father and fought for his dignity in Okinawan society.

"One night at a pub I heard the sound of the sanshin, and it was like being hit in the head with a hammer. The impact was like a bolt of lightning! The song was Juban Kuruchi, and the lyrics tell the story of how in life there are things for each of us is born to do. I realized that I had been trying to erase the reality that I was born and raised here on this island. Suddenly listening to the music my hardened heart melted and I was freed."

The story of Mitzi Uehara Carter, a scholar-activist who wrote of her experiences and studies in her blog, Grits and Sushi, is told in the chapter with the same title. Mitzi's story reveals the complexities of race and class where worlds collide in Okinawa and the rest of Japan, as well as in the U.S.

"When working in Sado Island, a fellow colleague from the United States who had been in Japan for much longer than I was a bit shocked when I told her that I was being asked to cut the persimmons and help serve tea in the mornings. She exclaimed, “I don’t think I know any other gaijin (foreigner) teacher that’s been asked to help out like that, regardless of how demeaning that may be as a woman and a newcomer. It means you’re being pulled into a more uchi (insider) role and that the other teachers trust you.”

I also met Akemi Johnson, the author of Night In The American Village: Women in the Shadows of the U.S. Military Bases on Okinawa, forthcoming from The New Press in 2019. Her story appears in the chapter American Girl in Asia.

"I had run from California. A biracial Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) I had come to Okinawa to spend a year researching issues surrounding the U.S. military bases. But my real motives were more personal, and intertwined with the past, with traumas that had been born many years before."

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