Thursday, April 14, 2011


Before you start reading, please turn up your speakers and play the song below.

What you are listening to is an Okinawan three-stringed instrument called Sanshin, something very similar to the Japanese Shamisen, except that it is covered with snake skin and not cat skin. The singer is an Okinawan artist who calls herself Cojaco, who I met in one of the many "Live Music Bars" (Raibu Myuujikku Baa) of  Naha, Okinawa's capital. The song is called Umui Uta, which is a mix of Okinawan and Japanese meaning "A Song Filled With Thoughts". 

During our first night in Naha, me, Irene, and Sakura, a new friend of ours, decided that since we were in Okinawa, we should listen to some live Sanshin music. The same night we visited a live music bar which advertised a free beer upon entry (of course after we paid an entry fee which cost the same as two beers). As it turned out, entering that bar was one of the best decisions of our Okinawan trip.

As we entered, we indeed received our three free beers, and a little later the music performance started. A tall Okinawan woman in her early thirties and a man of a similar age with curly long hair, very unusual for a Japanese man, appeared on the stage. As we later found out, the woman's name was Cojaco, and the man's name Kaworu. They played a variety of Okinawan songs, mostly of their own production, for about thirty minutes. During this whole time, people were singing along, and the overall atmosphere was just amazing. A slightly drunk man in his early sixties was supporting the couple with a very loud voice, obviously enjoying their music more than everyone else. For this whole time, the three of us were clapping and trying to sing along, even though we did not know the lyrics.

During the whole performance, I was waiting for the two to start singing the song which was the real reason why I entered the bar. The song I wanted to hear was Shima Uta, a 1993 piece by the Japanese group BOOM, and perhaps my most favorite Japanese song of all times. When the performance was over and they still did not sing it, I shouted out in Japanese: Please sing Shima Uta! Maybe because they were surprised by a foreigner who could not only ask for a song but who also knew what he wanted to hear, the two pleased me with an encore in the form of Shima Uta. When the musicians finally left the stage after my standing ovations, the bar emptied quickly. In a few minutes, there was no one left except for the three of us, the older man, his wife, and a few other people. Suddenly, the couple emerged from the backstage area and started selling their CD, called Umui Uta.

As they got closer, the older man, obviously a large fan of theirs, shouted out to the waitress: "Beer for the musicians, please!" Before long, Cojaco and Kaworu were sitting with the man and his wife, drinking the beer which the man paid for. I took up my courage, and asked if I could join them. "Of course," they said. As usual, I was asked how a white man like myself speaks such good Japanese, then asked how many years I have been living in Japan, and where I am from. When I said that I was Czech, I received the usual reaction: "You are the first Czech person that I have met," or something like that. I ordered another beer (my fourth, because the girls each gave me their free one), and the conversation went on.

As it turned out, the older man was a graduate of Doshisha University in Kyoto, the school which me and Irene go to. He and his wife met in Kyoto, going on dates to the many of the  beautiful city's temples, and are always happy to come back there. It is a Japanese custom that older classmates, Senpai, pay for the drinks of their younger classmates, Kouhai. It is almost a necessity required by the society. Thus he said that we are free to order whatever we wanted, and he would pay. His wife, to my surprise, was supporting her husband in his spending. "He has to do it," she said, and ordered another beer for me, despite my glass being almost full.

The conversation continued, and I got to talk to Kaworu, who let me try to play his Sanshin, without me even asking for it. He and Cojaco showed me how to hold it, and I was enjoying this precious moment to its fullest. We also took a group picture, with me holding Kaworu's Sanshin, and I bought Cojaco's signed CD. They also taught me some phrases in the Okinawan language, which made me realize ever so more that there was a time when Okinawa was not a part of Japan. We drank and talked until the man's wife decided that her husband has had enough, and said that he has to go home. They paid the bill, and we parted ways.

Top row from the left: Our new friend Sakura, Cojaco, generous older man's wife, generous older man, Kaworu.
Bottom row from the left: Me with the Sanshin (notice the snake skin), Irene.

There are a few things which you should learn by reading the above anecdote and listening to the song. First, Okinawan music very often involves the Sanshin. Second, Okinawan people are very open-hearted. Third, there is a Japanese custom to pay for younger subordinates in bars and restaurants, and to require them to drink quite heavily.

So what else is there to Okinawa? Okinawa, also known as the Ryukyu Archipelago, is a set of islands to the south-west of mainland Japan. Okinawa used to be a country of its own, called the Ryukyu Kingdom, until Japan annexed it in 1879. Even now there is an independence movement in Okinawa. Okinawans have their own language, which is however fading quickly, and its today's version resembles Japanese with an accent and a few different words. Okinawa has a very sad history, as it was the only place in Japan where fighting took place during the WW2. Over two hundred thousand people died there during the final months of the battle, including women and children. Many chose to commit suicide rather than be taken by the Americans. After the War, the Americans occupied the Ryukyu Islands until 1972. Okinawa was officially an American territory, the US dollar was used, and cars drove on the right. Even though the Americans returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972, one fifth of the main island still remains under US control in the form of military bases. The bases remained in Okinawa for two main reasons. First, the US is obliged to protect Japan in case of War. Second, Okinawa is very close to major East Asian cities, like Shanghai, Taipei, Tokyo, Manila, Hong Kong, Beijing, and others, giving the US a strategic advantage in case of armed conflict.

It suffices to say that US soldiers stationed in Okinawa do not always behave like gentlemen. There have been cases of rape and murder, and since 1950, over one thousand Okinawans died because of American presence. Many Okinawans despise the US military presence on their island, though at the same time they realize that it helps to keep peace in East Asia. The bases are thus a very controversial topic, and some will likely disappear in the near future.

The reason why I went to Okinawa was, other than to enjoy the vista of blooming Deigo trees and sunny beaches, to learn about Okinawa's history and see what kind of presence the US military has in Okinawa. To do so, I first went on a bus tour of the southern part of Okinawa which was focused on former military sites or other WW2-related topics. I had the chance to enter some of the tunnels where Japanese and Okinawan soldiers were hiding and where many died or committed suicide. I also visited the Himeyuri peace memorial, dedicated to 240 medical school female students who were forced to treat injured and dying soldiers in horrendous conditions and of whom over three quarters were killed on the run after their unit was dismantled. I also visited the Okinawa peace memorial where the names of all soldiers fallen in Okinawa during the war are written, independently of their nationality. Seeing all of the above, it became obvious to me that Okinawans do not want the terrible history to repeat itself.

Some of the tunnels where Japanese and Okinawan soldiers were hiding before the end of WW2 and where many found their deaths.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial.

Despite the past occupation and the current military presence, or maybe exactly because of it, Okinawans love American food and other products. Many American goods can be bought in Okinawa, American steakhouses are probably the most popular of all restaurants, and many American chains which do not appear in mainland Japan (for example A&W) have a large presence in Okinawa. At the same time, however, the customers of the above establishments seem to be largely Japanese or Okinawans. I found it very surprising that there are actually very few American soldiers present in the city of Naha and its surroundings. The soldiers generally live near their bases so that they do not have to commute too far every day.

A store in Naha selling imported American goods. I bought myself a can of A&W Root Beer.

A poster in front of a Live Music Bar in Naha. The woman on the left is holding a pig head.

Jasmine tea, or Sanpin Cha, is an Okinawan specialty which can be bought in any of Okinawa's omnipresent vending machines. Notice the lion-like creature on the label. It's called the Shisa and is Okinawa's symbol.

Finally, me and Irene also went to the castle in Naha, which was also destroyed by American bombing during WW2 and rebuilt in the 1970s. We also cooled our feet in the almost pleasantly warm Pacific ocean, and tried some Habu sake. Habu sake features the Habu, an Okinawan poisonous snake, which is submerged into the alcohol (either straight alive or dead and gutted), supposedly giving the drink medicinal properties. Habu sake is sold in bottles which have the snake in them, and you can eat it if you wish. We also went whale watching, checked out some amazing caves with beautiful rock formations, and generally enjoyed the blooming paradise which Okinawa is.

Bottles of Habu Sake.

The main building in the Okinawan castle. We did not want to pay the ridiculous 800 Yen ($10) for entrance, and so I climbed up on a castle wall and took a picture of it for free.

Caves in Okinawa.

A beach in Okinawa.

Okinawan Soba, the island's traditional noodle dish.

Detail on an Okinawan roof. They are traditionally made of red brick and create an amazing atmosphere. This one is the roof of a Buddhist temple wall in Naha. Please note that the reversed Swastika is a Buddhist symbol, and Japan is full of them.

A sunset in Okinawa.


  1. Martin, your blog showed up on my facebook news feed. Okinawa looks amazing and it sounds like you are having a lot of fun! I wish I could travel around the world like you instead of walking around Waterville. Keep up the great work-- your posts are really fun to read.