A couple of weeks before our GSSR group’s arrival to Okinawa, Japan’s Prime Minister announced his resignation. The reason: During his campaign he had promised to move a marine base off the island of Okinawa, but had been unable to deliver on that promise. The Americans said “no” to that idea.
Note: This section of the blog gives a quick overview of Okinawa, its role in WWII, and the presence of US military in Okinawa today. As you read it, I’d ask that you keep in mind that I am a software developer and ship’s captain, not a historian, so if there are errors, I apologize. At the bottom of my blog post, on the website, is a comments section. Please correct me there.
Okinawa is a small, skinny, 60 mile long island, that is home to nearly two thirds of the US troops in Japan. Counting their families, roughly 50,000 American military are based in Okinawa. This is small, as compared to Okinawa’s overall population of 1.6 million. However, the Americans are very visible on Okinawa.
In fact, Okinawa was once an American territory. At the end of WWII (1946) the US took possession of Okinawa from Japan, and didn’t return it until 1972. They even drove on the ‘right’ side of the road, something the Japanese quickly corrected once Okinawa was returned.
Okinawa had been part of Japan for hundreds of years. However, until modern times, Japan maintained a very hands-off relationship with Okinawa. In the 1600s, 1700s and half of the 1800s, Japan had cut itself off from the outside world, allowing foreign contact only at Nagasaki,and Okinawa. Mariners, who were forced to Japan by weather, found that they were not allowed to leave. Japan wanted no contact with foreigners, and wanted their secrets kept.
Okinawa, which had a long history of good relations with China, was allowed to maintain most of its independence, so as not to damage the valuable China trade connections.
After Commodore Perry opened trade with Japan to the West, in 1853, Japan made the decision to integrate Okinawa with Japan, taking steps to introduce the Japanese language and culture to the Okinawans. The transition from Okinawa, as essentially being an independent nation, to being part of Japan, was a painful process with tense relations at times between the island and Japan.
Okinawa had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during WWII. Its proximity to mainland Japan made it a perfect location from which the Americans could attack Japan’s mainland. Japan understood this, and started preparations for an expected attack on Okinawa long before the Americans arrived there in April of 1945.
The Battle of Okinawa (codenamed Operation Iceberg) lasted for 82 days…
The Americans brought overwhelming force to bear, but I don’t believe there was ever much doubt about the final result. The Americans surrounded Okinawa with the largest Naval armada ever assembled, over 1,300 ships. I forget the number of bombs dropped on Okinawa, but my recollection is that it was well over a million, or more than 2 bombs for each inhabitant on the island.
The statistics from those 82 days are staggering. More people died than at Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined:
- 107,000 dead Japanese and Okinawan soldiers
- 150,000 dead Okinawan civilians (1/4 of the total population)
- 12,000 dead American soldiers, and 38,000 wounded
The Japanese soldiers on Okinawa fought to the death, literally. They had been taught that capture by the Americans meant certain torture and death. Thus, rather than be captured, there were mass suicides. Mainland Japan needed to stop the Americans, or at the very least delay them from taking Okinawa, and surrender was not part of their thinking. One theory as to why the Americans dropped the atomic bombs just a few weeks after the completion of the battle at Okinawa is that the U.S. felt it had no choice, and that Japan either needed shocked into surrender, or a very long, very bloody, battle would ensue with many, many casualties. There are those who would argue that the dropping of the A-bombs in actuality saved many lives.
During our time in mainland Japan the Okinawa situation (the controversy over the American military bases there) was much in the headlines. I remember reading one article that horrified me. It said that one of the reasons that Okinawa wanted rid of the Americans was that they were tired of the crimes and rapes committed by the American soldiers. The article included several quotes from Okinawa residents that mentioned rapes by American soldiers, and had pictures of a massive demonstration against the U.S. military.
This depressing theme of Americans as rapists appears often in the articles and press I read about America’s role in Okinawa. This story from Japan’s very first contact with America, on Okinawa, bothered me immensely:
| || “…Ironically enough, Perry’s initial contact with Okinawa was not only the first moment of contact between the United States and Okinawa, but also the first time that U.S. military forces committed crimes against the Okinawan people. Shortly after docking, an American sailor broke into the house of an Okinawan woman and raped her. Upon hearing the woman’s screams, several villagers gave pursuit, and Board either fell into the port or was drowned. Following this incident the villagers involved in this incident were punished for their role in the sailor’s death, and Perry presented the woman who was raped with a few yards of cloth as compensation for the assault. This incident of violence against Okinawan women represented a theme that would return again later when Okinawa was placed under United States occupation….” (source: http://www.uchinanchu.org/uchinanchu/history_early.htm) |
Once on Okinawa I did further research, and discovered that this issue has been blown out of proportion, and the real statistics are much different than what one reads in the paper. There have been incidents over the years, including a much publicized case in 2008, but recent research has shown that the American soldiers have been extremely well-behaved, and that, depending on which article you read, are half as likely, or even a 10th as likely, to commit a crime, as compared to a local Okinawan resident.
For those who are curious, here are a few links to articles on the subject (the Japan Times article is well worth reading):
I particularly recommend this article from the Japan Times on the subject:
The word does seem to be spreading that the Americans are not the crime risk the headlines would have you believe. However, there are other issues causing the Okinawans to want the Americans off the island. The American military bases occupy a significant chunk of the useable land on Okinawa. Plus, there is a real safety issue. There was an accident in 1959, where a military jet, on a training mission, crashed into an elementary school killing 17, and wounding 279, mostly children. Other highly visible fatal accidents have occurred. Surveys indicate that essentially all Japanese and Okinawans do understand that the US presence is important to the security of Japan, but then the surveys also indicate, just as strongly, that they want the bases out of Okinawa. This is not an issue with easy answers.
And with all that said…
Okinawa today is unlike any other part of Japan. I’ve often heard it described as Japan’s version of Hawaii, and this is somewhat true.
Here’s a few random observations about our time in Okinawa:
- It is very touristy. Most of the tourists are Japanese or Taiwanese, although because there are so many Americans living on Okinawa, it feels more western and casual than the rest of Japan. We had no problem taking taxis, or even finding western food. Our first night was spent at a Mexican restaurant sipping margaritas. It almost felt like home!
- There are no subways or trains. There is one short monorail line, but that’s it. Imagining Japan without mass transit is like imagining a boat without a rudder. It felt unnatural, and made it very annoying to move around. Traffic is horrendous, and even short cab rides can take 30 minutes to an hour.
- Despite what one reads in the press, we observed absolutely no tension between the Okinawans and Americans. If anything I’d say that relations between the Okinawans and the Americans seemed superior than relations between the Okinawans and the Japanese. We had a terrific time, and were treated like friends everywhere we went.
- Gambling is one of the big draws on Okinawa, and there are huge casinos along the waterfront. I didn’t go into one, so perhaps they are nothing more than large pachinko parlors. I’m not sure. I did see the word ‘slots’, but I also saw articles saying that there is an effort to legalize gambling (which I assume means more kinds of games) in Okinawa, as a way of increasing tourist revenues, and to offset lost income if the American bases ever do move (unlikely any time in the foreseeable future)
- Tipping was interesting. In mainland Japan there is no tipping. I tried on many occasions to give cab drivers a little extra, and was always rebuffed. Okinawan tourists are primarily Japanese, who I’m sure do not tip. It’s not in their culture. So, as a test I tried tipping everywhere I went. The tips were warmly received. In one case I called a cab, and then realized we didn’t need it. When the driver appeared, I gave him $8 (the estimated cab fare) and waved him away. In Japan I absolutely guarantee the driver would not have accepted the money. In Okinawa he took it happily. I can’t say if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I note it only out of cultural interest. My theory on tipping is that it is a reward for good service. However, mainland Japan has no tipping, and has the best service I’ve experienced. When you summon a waiter in mainland Japan they tend to run, literally, to your table.
- I noticed a lot of tattoo parlors. This is not unusual for a tourist town, however it is VERY unusual for Japan, especially when the locals partake. I noted many Okinawan girls with tattoos. Contrast this with an ad I saw for a bathhouse in mainland Japan which said very forcefully, “No one admitted with any tattoos or body jewelry.”
- McDonalds is open 24 hours, and has Egg McMuffins. Yes. This is a silly thing to have noticed, but is noteworthy. Generally McDonalds in mainland Japan doesn’t serve breakfast. Egg sandwiches for breakfast are a western thing. This is just one of many indications of Okinawa’s western influence.
- Economically, Okinawa appears to be a step down from mainland Japan. I didn’t see any poverty, but clearly (or, at least in my opinion), there is a gap between Okinawa and Japan economically speaking.
- The ladies loved Okinawa, because it was the first place in Japan where they found a hair stylist who seemed to ‘get it’ with respect to the maintenance requirements of western hair.
- I spoke with the wife of an American soldier who mentioned she had just had a child. I asked whether or not the child would receive a Japanese passport, and she said yes. Her daughter would be dual passported, as American and Japanese. With 50,000 military personnel serving in Japan, that’s a fair number of new citizens each year.
Anyway, I’ve said far more than I should have about Okinawa so, with all that said, it’s time to go back to talking about boating…
Those who have been reading my blog for years know that I was excited about this cruising season because I knew we would be cruising amongst hundreds of little islands. My blog entries early this year glowed with the prospects of warm water and anchoring off pristine white sand beaches, tendering in to visit small Japanese villages which would be as they were hundreds of years ago.
I don’t think I could have been more naïve.
The Japan of my dreams is not the Japan we cruised. Japan is many wonderful things, but they are different things than what I had thought or hoped for. My error. We’re days from leaving Japan, and only this week did we find that perfect anchoring experience I had been seeking. In fact, I started to title this blog entry ‘DAY ONE’ because we were finally dropping anchor in an idyllic setting. Roberta convinced me this would be tacky, and disrespectful to all the great experiences we’ve had thus far, and the amazing people we’ve met. My apologies for having ever considered the idea, and Roberta is right. But.. I can’t deny that there is a side of me that feels that way.
Twenty-three miles from Okinawa is a small set of islands, called collectively the Kerama Islands (also with a role in WWII, but I have already said enough on that topic). Our goal after Okinawa was to drop anchor at Zamami Island, one of the Kerama islandss. Zamami offers some of the clearest water and best diving in the world.
Our group was a little tentative about venturing out to Zamami though, because of all the coral. The same coral that makes diving so pretty can make anchoring a nightmare. We all had visions of wrapping our anchor chain around a coral head, and losing our anchors. Also, the winds were fairly high (20 knots from the south) which limited the number of locations where we could drop anchor and be protected from the winds and swell.
Ultimately, we identified a large bay, Agnoura-Ko, which was described as a typhoon hole, and had a coral bottom, but offered large mooring buoys we could tie to. There would be no need to drop the anchors at all!
We had never seen the mooring buoys, and didn’t know what to expect, and were a little uncertain as to whether they would be available when we arrived, or how we’d tie to them, but, we headed to Zamami anyhow, with high hopes that we’d figure something out.
On arriving at the bay, we were quickly able to verify that the mooring buoys were large, empty and could hold us. However, we were surprised at how much swell and current there was in the bay. As a typhoon hole, one would think that we’d be seeing dead calm. However, we were seeing that even if we successfully tied to the mooring buoys, we’d be spending the night bouncing around with the swell.
Grey Pearl has a couple of friends on board, so they approached a mooring buoy first, and put one of their guests (Wayne) onto it. Wayne was able to run a line back to Grey Pearl, who then tied up, and dropped their tender while the rest of us waited. The plan was that Grey Pearl would help our boat and Seabird to get a line to the buoy. However, as I was standing on the bow waiting to drop a line to Grey Pearl’s tender, Roberta was at our helm running the boat. She was being pushed around by the current, swell and wind, and didn’t like it. She signaled me back inside the pilothouse and said, “This isn’t good. We’re getting out of here.”
Grey Pearl was already tied up, Seabird was tying up, and now Roberta wanted to leave, and we had no idea where to go. I agreed with her though. The bay was open to the south, and there was no way we were going to get a calm anchoring experience. So, we decided to break ranks with the group, and venture into the unknown. I jumped on the radio to say, “GSSR. This is Sans Souci. We’re going in search of a place protected from the south where we can drop anchor.” We didn’t wait to see what the others thought, but just took off. Looking at the charts we identified a place that had a very narrow strip of bottom that was 50 foot deep and had protection from the south winds.
Our thought was that the water was so clear we would be able to see the coral, and drop our anchor somewhere where our odds were the best at retrieving it later. In the worst case, unwrapping a chain from some coral would be a good excuse for some diving. On arrival at our narrow strip of land, we discovered that the chart was wrong and the deep water came closer to shore than we liked. We kept advancing towards shore, well beyond where the chart was saying the depth should be 50 feet, but my depth gauge was claiming 95 foot depth. Finally, the water shallowed sharply, but my depth gauge showed the water as only 12 feet deep just a couple hundred feet in front of my boat. I was unsure where the tide was at, but with the wind projection 100% from the south in all forecasts, I decided this was a manageable risk.
Looking down from the bow, in 50 feet of water, I could clearly see the bottom. It looked like sand to me. I could see coral nearby, but thought I’d be fine.
It was then I did something very out of character for Sans Souci….
Roberta and I are very disciplined in our anchoring. We have a procedure we stick to. But, Steven, on Seabird, and I, had talked a few days before about different anchoring techniques. Roberta and I normally work hard to stretch out a nice, neat, straight line of chain on the bottom, extending from the anchor to the boat. However, Steven mentioned a friend whose theory is that it is better to dump one big pile of chain, and avoid having the chain draped across coral that might tangle it. With hundreds of feet of heavy chain, in light winds, the boat isn’t going anywhere.
With a forecast showing 15-20 knot winds from the south, solid protection to the south, and sitting in dead calm water, I said, “What the heck, I’ll try something new.” So, I dropped a large pile of 300’ of chain. The boat wasn’t going anywhere. And, if the wind changed direction, I’d have plenty of time to do something different.
On the radio, I spoke with the other two boats, who were wondering what had happened to us. I relayed that Roberta and I had found a patch of white sand, in crystal water, and dead calm. Meanwhile, the others were being bounced around by the swell on the mooring bouys. I expressed my sympathies, and Roberta and I immediately jumped in the water to swim and enjoy life.
After our swim, as we were climbing onto the swim platform, I looked across the bay, and Seabird was heading our way, with Grey Pearl not far behind! It took a bit of exploration to fit both boats on the narrow bit of sand, but within an hour, we were all happy and smiling ear to ear.
Sans Souci at Anchor. The line dropped down is there for us to hang on while cleaning the waterline A look at one of Sans Souci’s stabilizers, beneath the water, just to show how clear the water is A quick look at how calm the water is
Seabird at anchor off Zamami
The weather report looked unchanged for the next three days, so we all settled in for what we believed would be three days in paradise. Barbecues were fired up, tenders dropped, water put in the hot tub, dive gear put on deck, and corks popped.
The next morning, at 6am when I looked out the window, I noticed a large Coast Guard boat across the bay. My immediate reaction was, “%$%#@. They’re here to chase us away!” When they hadn’t moved a half-hour later I got on the radio to the other GSSR boats. Braun (Grey Pearl) said they had come in at 5am, and hadn’t moved. I speculated that they were just waiting for us to wake up.
For the next few hours, none of us ventured outdoors. Finally, about 10am, I got on the radio to say, “Sans Souci has decided to take the bullet. I’m going on deck to dig out the dive gear.” Which, I did. And, nothing happened. Either the coast guard had no interest in us, or was waiting for the right time. We never found out as they left the next morning.
One way or the other, I was going diving. I had noticed that my chain had straightened itself out. Sans Souci was now sitting in 95 feet of water, with the anchor (hopefully) where I originally dropped it, in 50 feet of water. I didn’t quite understand how the chain was able to be stretched with virtually no wind, so I asked Steven if he wanted to tag along as I dived the anchor.
My hookah system has around 300 feet of hose, and can handle up to four adult divers. So, I put out all the hookah hose, and Steven and I hit the water. After a bit of a struggle untangling all the hose, we started working our way towards the anchor. The water was so clear we could always see the chain on the bottom. We followed it to the anchor, and as the water rapidly shallowed, just before reaching the anchor, we saw it. It was laying on its side, not at all dug in, with perhaps 10 feet of chain still circled around it. We were hovering about 30 feet away from the anchor and I signaled that we should swim to it. Almost immediately, we reached the limits of the hookah hose. It was a very frustrating moment. We did everything we could think of but there was no way to reach the anchor. The hookah hose was too short. Oops. We had to swim back to the boat. I did have scuba tanks, and could easily have ‘real-dived’ the anchor, but there was really no need. I had seen the anchor, and knew its status.
I thought about re-dropping the anchor, but it wasn’t needed. The wind was blowing off shore, and there wasn’t much wind. We weren’t going anywhere, and if we did, I was 99% certain the anchor would immediately set itself.
Our second day at anchor was as great as it gets. Roberta and I decided to dive in the water and clean all the scum off the waterline. That doesn’t sound much fun, but it is. In the clear warm water (82 degrees) these sorts of projects become a delight. We then cruised around the bay on the tender, discovering a long sand bar, which we goofed around seeing if we could cross (we didn’t).
Back on the boat, I checked the weather…
Ouch!!!! The weather had changed. A storm was coming, and it was going to make our next run impossible. We had planned going to Ishigaki, which would be our last stop in Japan. This would require a 30 hour non-stop run. However, the weather report was suddenly claiming that we would be making this run in 20-25 knots winds, directly in our face, with the swell coming straight at us, on 5 second intervals, and waves of 8 to 10 feet. This is not my idea of a good time. I quickly sent a note to our weather router, hoping he would tell me I was reading the situation wrong.
I then alerted the other two boats. My interpretation of the weather data was that a storm was going to hit within the next 18 to 24 hours, and pin us down for at least three or four days. Zamami was a nice spot, but we needed to get moving. Friends were meeting us in Ishigaki and we had to get there. That said, there is no such thing as a schedule on a boat. Ultimately, the weather decides when we move, not us.
There is an island, about 155 miles (a 20 hour run) from Zamami, en route to Ishigaki, called Miyako. At one time we had thought about going there, but had made no plans. Perhaps there was enough time to make Miyako before the storm hit? I contacted our agent, who reminded me that Miyako is a closed port, and he would need to work on getting us Coast Guard approval, as well as contact the port and arrange moorage. Closed ports normally require seven-day advance notice to receive approval, but when the seas are rough, approvals can be granted quickly.
As I was having these discussions, Roberta was in the galley starting on dinner. I spun her up to speed, and said, “We may be leaving in the next 30 minutes.” This came as a bit of a shock on all of the boats, but as we collectively studied the weather reports, reality set in. We had to move immediately. I sent a firm email to our agent saying, “Alert the coast guard and Miyako that we are coming, because we are pulling anchor in the next 30 minutes.”
And, we did…
We departed Zamami just before dusk, and cruised all night to Miyako. Our agent worked miracles again, and cleared all obstacles to our arrival in Miyako. We had a very smooth run, and the moon even decided to honor us with its presence.
Sans Souci, Seabird and Grey Pearl, at the Ikema Fishing Port, Miyako Island
We arrived at Miyako within an hour of the storm hitting, and are now stuck here for at least three days while the storm passes.
There is a culture to Japan that I have been terrible at capturing. I’m not as good at mingling with the locals as are many others, and it comes through in my blogs. On the other hand, Don and Sharry Stabbert, on Starr, are producing the kind of blog I wish I was capable of writing. I would encourage everyone with an interest in Japan to read their last few blog entries. Their blog can be found at: http://starr.talkspotblogs.com. Their story of eating semi-live squid is incredible, and the type of thing you’ll NEVER read on my blog. Enjoy!
That’s it for today!
Until next time…
Sans Souci, Nordhavn 68
And, if you are interested in my books, check out : http://www.lulu.com/kenw