Our Gang Age, 1970
Uehara Noboru (1947-) is a member of the generation of postwar Okinawans who grew up throwing stones at, and taking hits in return from, American children in the housing area for foreigners near the U.S. military bases. “Our Gang Age, 1970” (1970-nen gyangu eiji) first appeared in the November 10, 1982 issue of the Ryūkyū shinpō (Ryūkyū News) and was awarded the magazine’s short story prize.
The year 1970 is remembered in Okinawa for the Koza riot. Koza was the name of the city established by the U.S. military government in the area formerly called Goeku. Present-day Okinawa City (founded in 1974) combines Koza and the neighboring village of Misato. It had been known since late 1969 that Okinawa would revert to Japan in 1972, but tensions rose as it became clear that the U.S. military was to remain in Okinawa leaving the bases intact. Clashes between American servicemen and Okinawan civilians increased, and crimes, such as rape, homicide, child sexual abuse, and robbery, were committed by soldiers returning from Vietnam. In 1970 alone, 960 criminal cases and more than 1,000 traffic accidents were reported.1 The U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement protected American servicemen from prosecution by the Ryukyuan police.
On July 8, 1969, fatally poisonous gas leaked from a secret American military powder factory in Misato. On December 7, American servicemen who killed an Okinawan woman from Itoman in a September 1970 traffic accident were acquitted. Okinawan citizens’ resentment about the above events and others boiled over in the December 20 Koza riot. Triggered by a traffic accident just after one o’clock in the morning in which an American soldier hit an Okinawan civilian employee, rioting continued past dawn; over seventy-five American cars were burned, and more than 120 people were injured.
The Okinawan children in Uehara’s story only fight with American children their age; they are friendly toward American adults. There is, moreover, a tacit understanding [End Page 147] on both sides that their fights are their own business, never to be reported to teachers or parents. The story nonetheless reflects the tensions in Okinawa two years before the conclusion of the official occupation and the reversion of administrative rights to Japan, leaving the U.S. military base intact. The story also reveals the narrator’s ambivalence toward the American children, including a certain bonding with the rival gang leader with whom he and his friends shared the “gang age,” at least in retrospect.
Hey, Johnny. I wonder how you’re doing now, having suddenly left that time for god-knows-where. We had been revving up our anger so we could beat you to a pulp someday. But after you disappeared, we felt as if we had lost an important friend.
At first, we said to one another, “He’s shutting himself up in his house like a beaten dog with his tail between his legs,” and “After all, the Americans are too scared to fight one-on-one.” But after a week, when we learned that nobody had seen you, we actually started to worry. We taunted Charlie, McGammon, and the others, mimicking their English, “Hey! Come on, come on baby!” We were trying to lure you, their boss, out. “Hey, come on, where’s Johnny?”
They turned red with rage at our taunts, but all they did was kick the dust to intimidate us. They didn’t go inside to their boss. Because you were our sole target, we let them go without beating them bloody when we saw no sign of you. At that, Charlie, McGammon, and the others hung their heads in shame and ran away.
Really, their sudden change bewildered us. We didn’t even want to fight Charlie, “Slick Charlie,” as we called him, the wily guy who terrified us with his cruelty, and McGammon, “Giant Mac,” as we nicknamed him because he resorted to reckless brutality despite being so massive and weighing almost 170 pounds. We knew then: Johnny, you no longer lived in the Housing Area.
Johnny, now that we’re past age twenty, don’t tell me that I’m just being sentimental, reminiscing about our dealings with your gang from more than ten years ago. It’s not that I think about you all the time. In fact, you could say that I’ve almost forgotten about you.
When I see American youths my age at hamburger or fried chicken joints, I admire their crew cuts, but that’s all. They never remind me of you. Besides, the American soldiers teasing young tourists on Gate Street are completely different from your gang.2 You and your pals were smart with a streak of solitude around you.
The Yanks swaggering through town in civilian clothes never catch my eye, and I don’t have the slightest fear when a crowd of black soldiers comes my way. So, I have never associated you with the many Americans I’ve seen. But, naturally, there are times when, without warning, images of you from those days pop into my head.
I’ll give you an example: Broad daylight. I’m driving along the state highway. The asphalt surface, melting in the heat, gives off the smell of coal tar. I slow down because the traffic light has turned red. Just then, a military truck darts out from the left lane, [End Page 148] passing me. Inside the dimly lit camouflage cover, I can see American soldiers leaning on their automatic rifles. They are all silent, their eyes filled with exhaustion, irritation, and inexplicable hate. They direct their gaze toward my car, just behind them. At that moment, with a definite sense of fear, I might think: Hey, Johnny, could you be seated among them?
Now it’s not because a fold in my memory was touched like this that I am trying to recall my dealings with you and the others. Listen Johnny, what brought you to mind was a story a fifth grader told me.
Right, we were in the fifth grade then. Until recently, I had been going to a boy’s house three times a week to tutor him in his schoolwork. He lives in one of the communities adjacent to the foreigners’ Housing Area, with its characteristic concrete flat houses and spacious yards.
Most residents of what used to be known as the foreigners’ Housing Area are locals and businessmen from the mainland, who came over after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. American families are now the minority. The boy’s neighborhood still overlooks sugarcane fields and flowering tree orchards. Each time I go down the slope of the Housing Area and see those farms, I have the sensation that I have come to the wrong place.
This is probably because, although I’m past twenty, I still have the preconceived notion that only pale-faced city children study with home tutors.
When I visited the boy, I didn’t begin teaching right away but instead chatted with him to get him in the mood for studying. He told me everything without holding back.
So, although I didn’t want to know, I ended up learning all about his parents’ tiniest habits, his grandparents’ neuralgia, the degrees of his teachers’ popularity, and even the power distribution among his friends. Because this information was of little use to me, I had no reason to remember every detail. But the few topics that interested me left an impression. The story I am about to tell is one of them.
When I arrived one day in March, the boy was so deep in thought that he didn’t even greet me. This had happened a number of times before, so I tried indirectly to find out what was troubling him. But he didn’t respond to my hints.
From time to time, he sighed, saying, “I don’t know what to do,” looking as if on the verge of tears. His older brother, who was there because he wanted to join our study session, started grinning. Sensing from his smile that the situation was not that grave, I asked what was the matter. “He’s worried that he might not be able to become the school president,” his brother answered for him. “He’s also scared the police will arrest him. He’s serious. Ha-ha.” He laughed and added, “He only caused a bump on someone’s head.” My tutee glared angrily at his brother. Then, he began to explain the situation in his own words. Here’s his story.
The day before, while walking home from school with a friend, he saw a girl playing near a foreigner’s house. She went to foreign school, but they knew each other well because they were neighbors. To startle her, each boy picked up a stone and threw [End Page 149] it. The girl was not surprised by their first attempt. To make matters worse, recognizing the boys, she picked up a stone and threw it at them. As it nearly hit my tutee’s friend, the boys thought “damn,” and once again took turns throwing stones. After two or three tries separately, the boys decided to throw their stones at the same time. One of the stones unexpectedly hit the girl, and she went home crying. “Uh-oh,” the boys thought, and they considered going over to apologize. But they were too scared of what they had done.
When they went to school the following morning, the boys were called to the principal’s office and roundly scolded for throwing stones. Their homeroom teacher slapped them each twice on the cheek and forced them to sit upright on the floor as punishment. He made them apologize to the girl and her mother. He threatened them saying, “You’re lucky that we didn’t call the police.”
“Well, it’s over now, and there’s nothing to worry about because they said they’re sorry,” my tutee’s brother added. “But he’s worried that the teachers may not let him run for school president and the other students won’t vote for him if they find out. Ha-ha.”
Say, Johnny, isn’t this a big joke? While listening to the story I tried hard not to laugh. This wasn’t because I was embarrassed to hear a child talk about the kind of things we used to do. But how should I put it—it was just so peaceful. Throwing stones to startle a girl, and her mother going to complain about it—this story could only seem heartwarming to those of us who reached the “gang age” in 1970.
Suppose this incident had involved American kids bruising the sons of mainland company employees living in the Housing Area. The result would have been the same: Without a moment’s hesitation, their mothers would have complained to the school authorities or the board of education, hysterically screeching that “the local society can’t ensure children’s safety” and so on.
Hey, Johnny, doesn’t this story make you long for those days? As I listened, our “struggle” with you guys vividly came back to life. After a while, I began to want to reflect on our lives then and reaffirm that what I remember is true.
The reason is, as I came to understand as an adult, that there was something unique about our lives back then, something different from other generations and from people who grew up elsewhere. So what was it, you ask? But knowing this is enough, isn’t it?
I have no idea when elementary school students regularly started walking to school in groups. But I think children in Koza, where we lived, began earlier than in urban areas like Naha. I also believe that children from our area did so before it became the norm for the entire school.
We probably started the practice not because adults had suggested it as a way to protect children from traffic accidents but as our own way to avoid the brutes from the foreigners’ Housing Area. You know, Johnny, this meant you, your pals, and your older brothers. [End Page 150]
Just 300 meters into our three-kilometer walk to school, we came to your Housing Area. If we took the “mountain trail” short cut instead of walking along the main street, we had no choice but to use the dusty path known as the “mountain road” that divided the Housing Area in half. This is where our older brothers had been repeatedly humiliated. Wanting to avoid their fate, we came up with the idea of walking to school as a group, with the older children from the higher grades in the lead.
It was a half-hour walk by short cut but at least forty minutes along the main road. So we couldn’t afford to be afraid of the American brutes and didn’t want to arrive at school exhausted just in the nick of time. Yet there were still victims.
Anyone who was late for the group departure, whether because of his newspaper or milk delivery routes or from oversleeping, had to walk to the mountain trail alone. On the way, he was subject to surprise attacks. A school bag flew into a drain. A leg was the target of a slingshot, and, in the worst case, he could be tackled by four or five children and forced to take off his shorts.
This brutality didn’t just happen on the way to school. Children who walked this trail on holidays or while going home were attacked nearly without fail. I know, Johnny, we must have been the perfect playthings for you on your return from American school. But wait—by writing this, I make it seem that you were always the victimizers and we the victims. But that wasn’t the case. We didn’t just put up with your attacks but made blood offerings out of a number of you, and we, too, liked to play nasty tricks.
The truth is that, while fighting, we lost track of who attacked first. We were friendly with the American grown-ups. We turned on our charm for them by saying “peace, peace” and making V-signs with our fingers, and we played catch with them. But we had the fiercest hatred toward American kids our age.
Thus, we opposed you and your pals living in the Housing Area along the mountain trail, and, while secretly fearing you, we tightened our solidarity in order to be curious, courageous, and childishly cruel.
We waited until the last minute in front of the community center, but Katsunobu didn’t show. We didn’t know if something had happened to him on his newspaper delivery route or if he had overslept. I thought of waiting longer, if only by myself, but I realized that, if I stayed, the others would, too, because I was their leader. I decided that we had no choice but to leave without him.
Teachers punished the students of our community for often being late to school and for speaking local dialect. Because our grades were bad on the whole and we bullied the girls living in the shopping district, our classmates ignored us. If we were late that day, we would be made to stand in front of everyone at the school-wide morning assembly, exposed to the glares of fifteen hundred students. This was on my mind as I decided to start ahead.
Katsunobu was nowhere to be seen after the assembly finished. It seems I wasn’t [End Page 151] the only one worried. Members of other classes, like Momohara Susumu, Shimabuku Kiyoshi, and Kinjō Shigeru, came to see if Katsunobu had come. But he wasn’t there.
Just as first period was about to end, Katsunobu bounded into the classroom, panting, wearing his gym clothes. We were all excited and gasped as we saw his face. Katsunobu’s lips were swollen dark red, like those of a black soldier. Our teacher was shocked and speechless. Katsunobu walked briskly to his seat and sat down.
I was agitated, seeing that my fears had been proven right. Regrets welled up—I should have waited for him a little longer. “Sorry. So it’s them again”—hinting at apologies and confirmation, I looked at Katsunobu.
Licking his lips, double their usual size, Katsunobu nodded back, his eyes burning with humiliation and hate. Our teacher, now calm after his initial shock, just barely suppressed his fury. He plied Katsunobu with questions. “What on earth happened to you? What went wrong? What time do you think it is now?”
“Class is finished.” He continued, “But as long as Katsunobu doesn’t explain to everyone the reason for his tardiness, we will stay as we are into the next period.” A heavy silence fell over the classroom. Katsunobu remained mute, hanging his head.
Whenever the teacher pressured us to confess, we never told the truth if the matter had to do with the Americans. Our group knew that this was our own problem, not something to be solved with the interference of other children or grown-ups. We didn’t lay this down as our rule, but we had an implicit understanding.
I guess we all knew in our childlike hearts that we needed to resolve things ourselves. We couldn’t be like girls and go whimpering to our parents, right?
You know, Johnny, while being given hell by our parents and teachers and pursued, we patiently stockpiled our unvented energy as a power source for later revenge.
The teacher was unable to conceal his irritation. “Katsunobu, don’t you care about causing trouble for the whole class? Because of you, there is no recess. Can’t you see how annoyed your classmates are? Just tell us why you were late. Out with it! Do you think you’ll be excused if you say nothing?”
Katsunobu continued to look down, silent as a clam.
“Katsunobu, step forward. Do you hear me? I told you to come here!”
Our teacher then dragged Katsunobu to the front of the classroom. He stood imposingly, arms crossed, before Katsunobu, who remained looking down.
“Now speak. Why were you late?”
“I’m … I’m sorry.” Katsunobu finally mumbled.
“Nobody told you to apologize. I’m asking you why you were late.” Our teacher seemed to think that Katsunobu’s apology was an excuse.
“I won’t forgive you if you merely apologize. I told you to give me the reason.”
Katsunobu looked up and glowered at him. “Hmph. That’s enough,” he grumbled.
Just as he finished uttering these words, our teacher slapped Katsunobu’s cheek. As Katsunobu staggered a few steps, a streak of blood spilled from his swollen lips. [End Page 152] This new blow had landed before the old wound had congealed. He casually wiped the blood. Our teacher winced at the sight but pressed even harder, as if to hide his agitation.
“Is that any way to talk to a teacher? Just try saying it again!”
Katsunobu said nothing. He may have been fed up, for he started making up a reason while dabbing the blood with the back of his hand. “On the way, I saw a mongoose crossing the mountain trail. I wanted to get a better look and went to the mountain where he had run away. There was a hollow. I fell and hurt my mouth. Because my school uniform got all dirty, I went back home, and ….”
After the teacher finally got the story, all he did was make Katsunobu pledge that he would never do such a thing again and ordered him to sit straight as a punishment. He then began the next class. Maybe he felt guilty about having slapped the boy.
Don’t you think, Johnny, that Katsunobu’s lie was perfect? Suppose a student doesn’t answer an interrogation until the very end and then lies, hanging his head, as the teacher’s annoyance reaches a breaking point. Then the teacher has no choice but to accept his answer, even if he doubts that it is true.
In those days, we often used this trick to cut through our teacher’s preaching and cross-examination. But why didn’t we tell our teachers and parents about the fights with your gang, and what was the meaning of our group’s “tacit understanding”? I want to explain some of this, although I think you already know….
Now that you’re an adult, I am sure you are aware that 1970 was two years before Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. The reason you suddenly disappeared from the Housing Area was probably because the airbase, which increasingly issued reassignments and transfers, relocated your father to your home country or someplace like Guam. If so, then you must remember that time.
You American children probably remember, even if only in bits and pieces, the social situation in Okinawa at that time. No, you won’t remember. But maybe one incident sticks in your mind. To you it was humiliating, but it emboldened us Okinawan youths.
Listen, Johnny, it isn’t that I recall things from those days very well. But at least one thing remains clear in my memory. It’s that in Okinawa then, where the Constitution of Japan was not enforced, Okinawans had no right to jurisdiction, even for crimes committed by American soldiers against civilians.
Our teachers encouraged us, saying that we would live under the Constitution after reversion to Japan. But our experiences were imprinted on our minds. In other words, we realized that Okinawans had no right to judge an American’s offense.
What did that mean, Johnny? It meant that no matter how badly you treated us, we had no one dependable to whom we could complain about the unfairness. Let’s say a child nevertheless protested your conduct. What would happen? His teachers would be annoyed, and the board of education would smile wryly. His parents would accuse him, their faces tense. We embraced in our innocence the psychology of not wishing to see teachers and parents flustered. [End Page 153]
At a more personal level, we were jealous of your affluent lives of spacious yards, neatly painted houses, and monkey bicycles.3 We secretly envied, albeit in our warped way, your culture of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Carnival, which seemed the stuff of children’s dreams. That’s why we never reported you to our teachers.
On the way home from school, Katsunobu told us the details. Bits of information had been circulating since recess and school lunch, but, you see, Johnny, we needed to repeatedly hear—and talk about—how Katsunobu had been treated to firmly grasp the nature of your attack and to fuel the desire for revenge, if nothing else.
“After passing the electric substation, I came to an American house with a swing set. There I heard two firecrackers go off right behind me. I was so surprised that I ran.”
“Why weren’t you running in the first place?” asked Arakaki Jun’ichi. “You were all by yourself!”
“I didn’t run because it was late, and I thought they had already gone to school,” Katsunobu replied. “But I wasn’t sure, so I walked slowly to scope out the situation.”
“But since you were late for school, you should have run,” advised Jun’ichi.
“Hey, keep quiet. Let Katsunobu tell his story,” Momohara Susumu interrupted. “Or do you want us to make you go home?”
“No. Sorry. I’m sorry. Please let me stay.” Jun’ichi begged. Jun’ichi, whose family ran a bar in Nakano-machi,4 was not from our area but he always wanted to hang around with us.
“So, what happened?” asked Kinjō Shigeru.
“I ran about twenty meters. Then Johnny, McGammon, and Gulliver darted out on their monkey bicycles from behind a cinderblock wall. They stopped right in front of me, blocking my way. I turned around and saw George, Slick Charlie, and Willie slowly walking toward me. This is serious, I thought. I tried to come up with a plan, but I was all by myself. I knew I would be beaten to death, but I didn’t know how to stop it. So I just gave up.”
“You gave up so soon? You didn’t think of a way to escape until the very end!” exclaimed Jun’ichi, too excited to keep quiet.
“You. Go home!” ordered Susumu. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It was serious. George and Slick Charlie shot fire crackers from rubber tubes at my feet. Sparks hit my legs, and it hurt so much I hopped. This cracked the Americans up. I was so angry that I almost cried.”
“Ha-ha, wa-ha-ha-ha,” Jun’ichi burst out laughing. At that, Susumu punched Jun’ichi hard in his side. “Go home!” Susumu grabbed Jun’ichi by the shoulder, pulled him from our huddle, and side kicked him in the thigh. Jun’ichi stepped back with a groan. Still, he didn’t leave but listened to the rest of the story from outside the circle.
“They came closer step by step and surrounded me. They were grinning like idiots, nodding to one another. I decided not to fight. Then Johnny stopped laughing [End Page 154] and signaled something with his eyes. Gulliver, who was behind me, took my baseball cap. Shouting something in English, he put it on his head and said ‘kitanai’ (dirty) in Japanese. He gave it to another member of the gang. The Americans pinched their noses and yelled ‘kitanai’ as they passed my cap around. They chanted ‘kitanai kitanai,’ laughing. I stared at Johnny the whole time because he’s their boss.”
“Staring at him was a good idea,” I commented and said to everyone, “When that kind of thing happens, don’t ever go after them to get your cap back.”
“Giant Mac was the last one to take my cap. He threw it into the sewer beneath the wall. You bet I wanted to tackle him. Next they took my school bag. While saying something in English, they passed it around, and the last one, Willie, threw it as far as he could. I had no choice but to walk over slowly to pick it up. Just then, Slick Charlie kneed me. When I doubled over, he elbowed me. I couldn’t breathe or see anything. I fell down on my knees, while they all started kicking me….”
“They’ll be sorry!” Jun’ichi suddenly shouted from outside the circle. “We’ll have revenge. We’ll get them back for Katsunobu.” Jun’ichi’s voice snapped me to attention.
“But why is your mouth so swollen?” I asked Katsunobu. “Did you cut it when they kicked you?”
“No. When they were kicking me, an American grown-up came out of a house and said something to Johnny and others. Then, all of a sudden, they ran away in different directions, so I was saved. I stood up, holding my stomach, and picked up my bag and cap. Fighting the pain, I started off to school. But after fifty meters or so, I saw Johnny and Giant Mac on their monkey bikes behind the corner of an American house. I dodged Johnny’s bike, but the handlebars of Giant Mac’s hit my mouth. Boy did it hurt. I’ll get back at them no matter what!”
With this, Katsunobu ended his story. We nodded at his final words.
Jun’ichi alone shouted, “We’ll get back at them. We’ll take revenge!”
We finished listening to Katsunobu’s story in the schoolyard under a large banyan tree facing the playground. Yeah, we nodded at his final words, but we had no idea how to take revenge.
The biggest problem, as you know, Johnny, was how to lure your gang outside the Housing Area. You only played within its confines, and, when you went outside, your parents were always with you. On rare occasions, we saw you all walking along Gate Street or around the Plaza House, but we couldn’t plan our revenge on the basis of that kind of coincidence.
Now that I think of it, Johnny, you and your pals were no more than “caged birds.” Even if you had neatly kept, large yards and cool monkey bikes, you were only allowed to putter around inside the Housing Area, just like circus monkeys. It’s even possible that you didn’t know the places just behind your houses like the garbage-burning area, Peach Mountain, or the river where guppies swam. I think that was probably the case. Had you ever come to the places that were on our turf, we certainly would have attacked you. [End Page 155]
So, Johnny, you, the sons of those people who lorded it over the “colony,” led restricted lives. Yet your confinement seemed, in the eyes of us children from the outside, to be a solid citadel.
We decided to plot revenge on our way home from school. Jun’ichi came with us. “Don’t you have to go home?” I asked.
“I’m fine. My family runs a bar, so Mom and Dad are never home in the evening.”
“Oh yeah? Then it’s okay, but don’t blame it on us.”
“Don’t worry. Hey, Hiroshi,” he giggled. “I’ve got a good idea. Want to hear it?”
“No,” answered Susumu. “Don’t butt in. Your ideas are always useless, anyhow.” Jun’ichi hunched his shoulders in disappointment.
“Hey, Susumu, let’s first hear what he has to say,” I said. “Nobody else has come up with a good idea.”
“Right. You won’t know unless you listen to me first,” Jun’ichi replied, warming up. “Listen, hee-hee, there’re lots of dirty books at my place….”
“So what? That’s no good. If we follow his idea, we’ll fail again,” Susumu interrupted, irritated by Jun’ichi’s careless laughter.
“Hold on a second. Let’s hear him out, Susumu,” I said. “Then if you’re against the idea, you can say so.”
“I’ll bring one of those dirty books, and we’ll show it to the Americans to lure them out. Americans are all perverts, so if we say we can show them more, they’ll follow us. Of course, let’s try it when there’s only one of them. And it would be better if he’s on his bicycle. Then he’ll go anywhere, even if it’s a little far. My idea is to lure him somewhere near the boys’ reformatory, about 200 meters from their houses. There are places on the way where we can hide.”
Everyone leaned forward to hear Jun’ichi’s plan. We saw that it might work and took personal interest in his strategy of using a dirty book as bait.
“But how are we going to explain to an American that we’re showing him a dirty book?” I asked. “We don’t speak English.”
“Show it to him. Shake hands, and invite him to see more.”
“But who’s going to do the luring?” Shimabuku Kiyoshi asked to nobody in particular and added, “That’s the hard part. If he fails, then the rest of their gang will catch him and beat him almost to death.”
We looked at one another. Nobody volunteered. Then, Jun’ichi spoke up as if he had been waiting for the chance: “I’ll do it because it’s my idea. Hiroshi will have to lead everyone to the hiding place. So let me handle it.”
“You. …” We responded but said nothing else.
“If you succeed, you can join our group. You’ll be a member from now on,” I promised. Susumu didn’t object.
“Really? You really mean it?” Jun’ichi’s cheeks flushed with excitement. [End Page 156]
Hey, Johnny, I wonder if that stocky Giant Mac, or rather MacGammon, is still doing well. If he hasn’t changed a bit except that he’s now grown, I want to thump his big belly and greet him, “Hi. How have you been?”
Jun’ichi’s plan was a great success; the one who got trapped was MacGammon. Jun’ichi rode alone into the Housing Area on a monkey bike he had found at the incinerator, a dirty book in one hand. He gestured to MacGammon, who happened to be riding around on his bicycle.
We hid in the hedge between the Housing Area and the reformatory. When Jun’ichi succeeded in bringing MacGammon to the edge of the bushes, we jumped him from all directions, beat him, pushed him down, and tied him with a rope to a leadtree.
Be that as it may, he fiercely resisted. Eight of us were there to hold him down, but, had we been seven, he would have escaped. He kicked and punched us as we struggled to tie him to the tree. When we finished, Katsunobu took the first turn giving back what he had gotten the other day.
Katsunobu kicked MacGammon’s big belly. When he doubled over in pain, Katsunobu delivered an uppercut to his mouth and nose. Thick but soft, his flesh bled right away. The giant started crying.
We then took our time toying with him. “You are big! Very, very big-big! Dirty-dirty big-big!” We jeered in English in unison. We pinched his flabby body all over, slapped the parts of his belly that stuck out between the rope, and took little pokes at his testicles with the tip of a stick.
In the end, we rubbed sap of the tree called hajimagā in our language on him, while humming “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The sap caused an itchy rash to break out all over his body.
And so we got our revenge. In those days, that was a big success, a great military victory.
The following Sunday, we went on an adventure with our new member Jun’ichi and trespassed on the ranch within the base. We planned to celebrate Jun’ichi’s admission to our group. The ranch was on the other side of the wire fence of the base located along the present-day National Athletic Meet Road.5 The area has since been turned into the Okinawa City Sports Park and new residential districts, but, in those days, there wasn’t even a single house. With wild water buffaloes and newts, it was the perfect place for us children to explore.
Few people knew there was a ranch with thoroughbreds on the other side of the wire fence at the far end of the bog. Our older brothers gave us directions and information on where the fence was damaged, and we started out with high anticipation. We waded knee deep into the mud in a swamp along the way. We caught red-bellied newts and slipped them down the backs of each other’s shirts and then tore off the tips of their tails and enjoyed watching their attempts to swim as they turned and twisted in the water. [End Page 157]
When we heard a bullfrog, someone suggested that we catch and eat it. But the goal that day was to ride wild horses. We could hardly contain our excitement as we tripped and fell in the swamp.
We cut through thickets, waving at the herd of water buffaloes standing still and facing us at the far end of the swamp, and finally reached the wire fence. Just as our brothers had said, there was a hole large enough for an adult. As we were about to pass through, it struck us that there might be a guard with a rifle strapped across his shoulder on the other side, but if so, that too would be part of the adventure. Thinking he wouldn’t shoot children, we went in.
But the horses were nowhere to be seen. As we walked further inside the ranch, we saw hoof prints here and there. We climbed down through a thicket and came to a clearing—dozens of wild horses were herding together.
We were thrilled. We didn’t utter a word. Slapping one another on the shoulder and holding our breath, we watched the horses’ manes wave against the blue winter sky. They were beautiful. Without realizing it, each of us sighed. We drew near them, crawling, as it were, on the grass. Brrrr, we heard them exhale.
The horses turned their muzzles toward us. Several stared at us with their hazel eyes. But they didn’t run away. We could pet the nearest horses. We stroked their rumps and manes. We didn’t dare go so far as to touch their muzzles.
After a while, someone suggested that we try riding. After all, that was our purpose that day; we had forgotten in our excitement. “All right, I’ll try!” Jun’ichi said. He chose a pony and, gently placing his hand on its back, he jumped up in one motion. Just when we thought he had successfully mounted, the pony started galloping, and Jun’ichi tumbled backward. The other horses started running after the pony, and, in an instant, they all disappeared to the far end of the field. Even so, we were satisfied. It was as if we were playing in the world of dreams.
Hey Johnny, we didn’t even imagine that, as we were feeling elated about our adventure, your gang was launching its next attack. Yeah, I still can’t forgive you. You and your pals trifled with a girl—a third grader who will never forget the humiliation you caused her.
To avenge MacGammon, your gang caught Shinzato Taeko, stripped her, and painted a skull in black on the top of her thigh. I’m sure you remember. No matter how many women you may have slept with later, you couldn’t have felt as excited as you did then. Shame on you.
We learned about Taeko right after we got home. Our joy instantly dissolved, and we were driven by rage. Jun’ichi explained, “That’s a game popular among American soldiers returning from Vietnam. I know it because I’ve seen the same skull on young hostesses at our bar….” Then and there, I made up my mind, Johnny, to fight you one-on-one.
I challenged you to a fight. You accepted without hesitation. But three days later, [End Page 158] you suddenly disappeared before we could settle the matter. Johnny, I don’t think you ran away. Your eyes were serious when you accepted my challenge.
Hey, Johnny, I wonder where you are now.
When I watch American soldiers having fun with tourists on the summer seashore, for, no reason, I sense that you are gazing at the distant horizon on a nearby beach through dark sunglasses.
Alisa Freedman is Associate Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon. Her books include Tokyo in Transit: Japanese Culture on the Rails and Road (Stanford University Press, 2010), an annotated translation of Kawabata Yasunari’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (University of California Press, 2005), and co-edited volumes on Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan (Stanford University Press, 2013) and Introducing Japanese Popular Culture (forthcoming from Routledge). She has authored articles and edited collections on Japanese modernism, popular culture, urban studies, youth culture, gender discourses, television history, and intersections of literature and digital media, along with publishing translations of Japanese novels and short stories. firstname.lastname@example.org
This translation of “1970 nen no gyangu eiji” (1982), which originally appeared in vol. XXIII (December 2011) of the Review of Japanese Culture and Society, is based on the version included in the twenty-volume Complete Works of Okinawan Literature (Okinawa bungaku zenshū), vol. 8 (Tokyo: Tosho Kankōkai, 1990). At the author’s request, the version of the translation that appears here has been updated to include sections that were omitted and changed in the Okinawa bungaku zenshū.
1. Okinawa hyakka jiten gekan (Encyclopedia of Okinawa, Volume 2) (Naha: Okinawa Taimususha, 1983), 409.
2. One of the two broad streets in Koza, the gateway to the Kadena Air Base; also called Airport Road.
3. Monkey bicycles were low-powered motorcycles sold by Honda starting in 1961.
4. An area known for strip clubs and other adult entertainments.
5. A popular name for the Okinawa Chatan Line/Prefectural Road 23, which was constructed for the 1973 National Athletic Meet. Because the area, including the Koza Sports Park that became the site of the athletic meet, was part of the U.S. base before reversion, the road construction required a special agreement. [End Page 159]