Monday, 23 December 2013

When two very different cultures collide

Date: Sunday 22nd December 2013

MP3 track of the day: Santa Clause is coming to town - The Whispers

Weather: Just right. A little overcast at times but mostly dry and the temperature was perfect. T-shirt and shorts weather without getting sweaty.

Reluctantly I work up early from my sleep and got ready as fast as possible. The night in the capsule hotel turned out to be rather mundane and apart from one man, who woke me with his excessive snoring, I had a great night. My capsule experience was much like my hostel experiences except for the fact that there is a little more privacy, and that you don't really know who will show up (with hostels, nine times out of ten it'll be a backpacker. Capsule hotels house people who have had a 'change of accommodation plan' right at the last minute; be it a businessman who has missed his last train home or someone who went to a party and decided to drink).

After removing all my stuff from said capsule I put it all within my locker and went to the male shower rooms which turned out to be 'open plan'. Being 6:30 on a Sunday morning I that I'd have the room to myself, however there is always someone else around in those tricky situations of uncertainty. After a quick shower I brushed my teeth and found the tap to be slightly bizarre. The tap poured water onto a circular glass plate (positioned at an angle) so that the water poured into the bowl from one direction. Why this plate was needed I will never know, but it has added three lines to this blog entry.

Time was passing on and at around 7:30am I was almost ready to leave. I made a brief stop at a local convenience store (to purchase breakfast) before retrieving my bags from my locker, dropping my key off at reception and walking out into the world.

The morning breeze was strong and, due to this, it was a little colder than I thought it would be. Still I was wearing 'three-quarter length trousers' and I wasn't regretting the decision. As I had arrived within Naha in the pitch black I could now, for the first time, view my surroundings. The stores I passed were the typical stores you see everywhere within Japan, but the architecture was slightly odd. I liked the architecture but I wouldn't say it was Japanese; I'd say it had a Spanish or southern or central American feel to it. The architecture was certainly designed for Okinawa's hot climate and a lot of light colours were used.

Once at the monorail station I ate my breakfast before boarding the train. Once at the airport I found out, rather annoyingly, that my 'car rental' supplier hadn't got a information desk. In fact no car rental company did; I was told, by the airport's information center, that I had to wait at 'bay 11' for a minibus to whisk me to their office. This annoyed me for a couple of reasons. One; I had seen a 'Hertz' shop at the monorail station before I got to the airport; if this is the one I would be transported to then I could have just got off the monorail a stop early and saved me both time and hassle. Secondly; I wanted to get going. Still I had no choice and I soon found myself waiting at 'bay 11' looking longingly down the long road which lay before me, eager to see a minibus with a 'Hertz' sign. Fortunately I wasn't waiting alone; five minutes after I arrived a group of 'other people' hovered around 'bay 11' looking longingly in the same direction as I. What really annoyed me was that this 'other group's' car rental dealers arrived before mine and as I was once again alone; I looked at my watch and I had been waiting for over half an hour. Eager to get going I called the office and within another five minutes a bus came for me and took me to the 'Hertz' office I'd seen over an hour ago. Once inside I realised that 'Hertz' has subcontracted it's work here in Okinawa to Toyota. On the plus side, a shiny new Toyota 'Viz' was waiting for me however, back at 'bay 11', I had waved two 'Toyota minibuses' by, thinking that I had to wait for a 'Hertz' minibus.

I've never hired a car before and I was surprised just how easy the paper work was. One thing that worried me – and has worried my for the whole day – is that if I damage the car I have to pay £160.00 regardless of the damage or who's fault it is (If the car is undriveable it's £400.00). A lady in the office and I went around the car and checked for scratches. Once done she handed me the key's and with a big smile wished me a pleasant time. I thanked her and got to the task of altering the driving position to suit my needs. I also put my stuff in the car, noticed that the satnav was in English (so too the radio) and checked where I was going whilst also checking out a nice Japanese lady washing down the rental car in front of me. Now; my Japanese car's 'hand brake' is operated by a foot pedal. As I pushed my left foot down onto nothing (I continued to do this throughout the day) I looked around the car for a switch of some kind and this must have alerted 'washer woman'. The next moment she was at my window; I rolled down the window (in a very cool way) and explained my predicament. She then smiled and pointed to the big black 'hand brake leaver' which 90% of cars have within the world. I released the hand brake and drove of thinking that after that 'chump' move there was never going to be an 'us'.

On the streets of Okinawa I drove like I had a bubble attached to my car which went out three meters, from my car, in every direction. I was so worried about damaging the car I didn't really enjoy the experience. Unlike my car in Iwate, this one had a proper engine and breaks to boot. It was very nippy with excellent stopping capability and really light steering. The sat nav was very useful; I never set it, I just used it as a map. My first port of call were the Japanese former Naval Underground Headquarters which, looking at my map, were quite a way out of town however, after 15 minutes of driving I had arrived. I gingerly parked my car 4 miles from the museum (but at least 2 miles from any other thing which could possibly damage it) and walked up to the entrance. The time was 9:30am.

For centuries, Tomigusuku-jo has stood on the low hills looking north over Naha. During the Pacific War the spot was chosen for the headquarters of the Japanese navy, but, instead of using the old fortifications they tunneled 20m down into soft limestone. The complex, consisting of Rear Admiral Ota's command room and various operation rooms, is now preserved as the Underground Naval Headquarters.

As well as the headquarters there was a small museum and a small park. I first of all tackled the park which, in all honesty, wasn't worth the time. Next I went into the museum itself. Due to the war rooms being underground, you entered the museum from the top floor. Here there were shocking pictures showing the suffering of the ordinary Okinawan population. There was also a video and, though all of the commentary was in Japanese with no English subtitles, I watched it and could guess at the point it was making. After the film had finished I paid the 420 Yen asking price and went down into the tunnels. Gladly all information-boards had English translations which weren't too big. As I walked through the Operations Room, the Staff room, Code room etc and the main tunnels, thoughts of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam came to mind. These were a lot better built with plastered walls and electrical lighting. They were also high enough for me to stand up in and the width wasn't too bad either.

Once through the caves I went to the small, but adequately filled museum. The thing I love about Japanese museums is that, unlike their communist Asian neighbors, they are honest. During the battle for Okinawa the Japanese military conscripted the population of Okinawa to perform tasks which lead to their deaths. This museum did not try to reflect that criticism and in fact seemed to highlight the wrong doings of Japans previous military leaders. They explained that, in some ways, the US occupying forces gave some relief in the early days as they provided the civilians with more food, water, medical supplies and protection than their own countrymen. One thing to note is that before Rear Admiral Ota and his officers committed suicide, via hand grenade, he sent a last message to Tokyo pleading for the Japanese government to pay respect and to provide protection to the people of Okinawa who, in his words, had put up with so much without a murmur of complaint.

After I had looked around the museum I got back in my car and gingerly drove to the next war museum; the Himeyuri Peace Park. As this was right on the southern coast I felt that, this time, it would take a little while to reach my destination; but no. After about thirty minutes I had parked up and was walking toward the entrance of this museum:

Himeyuri-no-to is a deeply moving war memorial dedicated to more than 200 schoolgirls and their teachers who committed suicide here in a shallow grave. The nearby museum describes how the high-school students, like many others on Okinawa, were conscripted as trainee nurses by the Japanese Army in January 1945. As the fighting became more desperate the girls were sent to a field hospital, gradually retreating south from cave to cave, and were then abandoned altogether as the Japanese army disintegrated. Terrified that they would be raped and tortured by the Americans, the women and girls killed themselves rather than be captured.

Now, I'd say that this museum's creator had an almost pathological hatred for Japan's military government. The museum started with the school before the war; it went into what lessons were learned, uniforms and the students hopes and desires. It moved onto the destructive influence the military government had on the Okinawan education system, by replacing textbooks with ones filled with propaganda, and eventually classes were halted altogether as the students prepared Okinawa for invasion. The saddest fact of all was that these students didn't seem to complain when they were digging defenses; neither did they complain when they were sent to the front lines helping to treat the wounded under constant enemy bombardment and yet, the Japanese army, once they knew they could hold out no longer, did not even try to provide protection for these brave 16 – 18 year old girls. The girls then had to try and escape from the US troops using their own initiative; most died. What hit me on a personal level were the pre-war school uniforms and the mug shots; the school uniforms are not that dissimilar to the ones worn by the students I teach today. Thinking about my students, being in a situation like that, brought me closer to tears than any other thought for a long time.

After this museum I drove to my final WW2 site of the day; the piece park. Again this was quite close but before arriving I stopped for a quick bite, even though I wasn't that hungry.

The final battle for Okinawa took place on Mabuni Hill on the islands southeast coast. The site is now occupied by a cemetry and grassy park containing monuments to the more than 200,000 troops – both American and Japanese – and civilians who died on the islands during the war. A distinctive white tower crowns the Piece Memorial Hall. There is also the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial museum.

I have been to many war cemeteries however, I feel, that this is the best. The site was a huge park split into three sections. The most southern part was where I started; here there were loads of individual shrines, each one an artistic master piece. Next the central area had beautiful laws with well-kept grass and beautiful flower gardens. It is here that a tower forms the central 'view point' with the prefectures museum to the right. In front of the museum lay a semi-circle of back marble walls with the names of the fallen. It was easy to note that 4/5 of the walls were covered in Japanese names and only 1/5 American. These walls lay within a garden of trees. To the north were playing fields and a play ground for children and it was this that I liked the most because, after all, this whole place was about peace. What can symbolise peace more than children playing freely under the watchful eyes of their loving parents? As I looked out to sea the calmness and beauty of the coastline brought it's own sense of peace. As I walked around I thought about the war and tried to justify the huge sacrifice of all nations involved by finding benefits. WW2 ended colonisation and brought independence to a lot of nations. For Japan, it removed a regime bent around the military and opened this deeply enclosed culture. When War Two started, I don't think the allies and Japan could have been more culturally apart and when two very different cultures collide things happen. It's funny but good can come from evil; even though conflict is still occurring today I'd like to think that unjustified actions in the past have had some benefits for today's war-torn societies (banning of certain weapons, not trying to target civilian areas etc). I'm not trying to Justify the action of war, just trying to see if there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Once I'd finished my thoughts I went into the museum. As I'd read all the information from two previous museums I only stopped when something caught my eye. The museum was excellently put together and I wished that I had more time however, it was 3:30pm and I had to drive north to my overnight stop. I left the peace park glad that I'd seen the three sites in the order I had seen them; after two 'reading intensive' sites it was lovely just to have had a stroll around a beautiful park.

On my way north I decided to take the '329' along Okinawa's eastern cost. This led me along the coastline and through many towns and cities. Okinawa is a lot more developed than I thought it would be, and this meant that my 70km drive took about three hours to complete. I did however stop for tea and to visit two sightseeing spots (a coastline and an old house – which I didn't actually find) but still, the constant traffic lights and ridiculous speed limits hampered my progress. During this time I forgot about the 20,000 Yen fine for damage and really got to know my rental car. I found it very 'nippy' indeed with good acceleration and excellent handling. When I could, I had a great time throwing the car into bends and accelerating out. Also, during this time, I turned into the only English speaking radio station on the island. Though this was the American Armies civilian radio station – therefore I can usually only stand listening to 'colonials' for about 20 minutes – it was very interesting. Between the 'top 20 American country count-down' were adverts aimed at American personnel. Things like obey foreign laws, medical advice, mental health advice, people to see to help with family relocation etc etc. It was then I started to ponder about the sheer size, and cost, of the civilian support the American G.I.'s would need. Also, on the radio, were short facts about American history (they were short because America's history isn't that long) which too were interesting. Finally they also gave information in regards to the latest American sports news, which was less interesting. All-in-all, as I pulled into my hotel's car park, I found the journey pleasant and thought provoking.

The hotel was a lot posher than I though it would be and at £32.00 for the night, it was a steal as it included breakfast. I got in my room around 8pm and started work on this blog before getting a well earned nights sleep. Tomorrow is another early start with a trip to an Aquarium (supposed to be the best in Japan), after which I'll drive to the very north of the island before heading back to Naha to return my car (with no damage I hope). Finally I shall try to find my hostel.

Busy but fun times!

Toodle Pip!

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