The Teahouse of The August Moon, the film adaptation of the novel by Vern Sneider, was released in 1956. The teahouse was modeled after “Matsu no Shita (Under the Pine Tree),” a teahouse built after WWII in Tsuji, a red-light district in Naha, Okinawa. The female character Lotus Blossom too, is thought to be based on a real person who worked as a prostitute at the teahouse.
Towards the end of the film, Lotus Blossom asks Captain Fisby to take her to America but the captain declines. He says to her poignantly:
And on the other side of the world in the autumn of my life
When an August moon rises in the east
I’ll remember what was beautiful
and what I was wise enough to leave beautiful
—Daniel Mann, The Teahouse of the August Moon (MGM, 1956)
The line is translated and delivered to her through Sakini, an Okinawan interpreter. He is there the whole time for them to communicate, yet he, probably intentionally, doesn’t translate Fisby’s line word to word; he instead tells her simply “I will never forget you.” After Lotus Blossom leaves, Sakini says to the captain, “Take me instead.” Fisby smiles, and gently shake his head no.
Although misinterpreted, the sincerity of the words of the American captain in the American movie struck me as a surprise. It made me wonder what was going on in 1956 in Okinawa. Were the Americans, back then, thinking that they would leave the island while things were still beautiful?
I continually write my own biography by my actions, mixing involvement with knowledge, accountable to those moments when both drop away to reveal the act of mixing-something a priori recognizable. This process does not differ measurably from the way I come to understand others, my time, or past times. Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all other future moments of corresponding circumstance.
Richard Powers, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance” (HarperPerennial, 1992)
Lili Marlene, the song about a soldier in love, reminded me of Maurice Béjart’s dance piece, The Soldier in Love. I searched for its video on YouTube and found one performed by Jorge Don, in which one of the surrounding performers declared before the dance, “this is the last dance of a dying man!” A soldier in love is always beautiful, but the beauty comes in part from the premonition of his tragic death. The more joyfully Don dances, the more sorrowful he seems. The soldier will die, just like the soldier in Lili Marlene, a song about the first (and last) love of a young soldier during WWI. It could be dangerous to idolize a soldier in love, who is symbolic of an inevitably approaching death. I feel the crowd around the soldier is being irresponsible in cheering for the dying man. Yet Don, bursting with joy like a child as he dances, is beautiful.
One evening when we were 16, Y got out of the clubroom after the basketball club’s daily practice session, and went into the garden. He then took off his sweaty shirt and started a funny dance to the pop music song that was playing on a friend’s CD player. Other boys gathered around him. The coach smiled at the scene and went back to the teachers’ room and the girls didn’t seem to care. I heard crickets chirping. Boys were jeering at him, and I, having missed the moment to join them, admired the dancer from afar. Soon the boys started to join the dance. At our small school, there were only two clubs—basketball and baseball—and all the students were required to attend one of them. I chose basketball although I hated all forms of sport. Everyday after the practice, I felt a great sense of relief. As the sweat dried off, my tired body felt a bit lighter, and I enjoyed the momentary freedom. We were graduating and soon I wouldn’t have had to practice basketball anymore. There would be less time to see Y. He found me by the clubroom door and approached me. Then, taking my hands, he said, “dance.” Surprised by the touch I withdrew my hands, smiled awkwardly and shook my head. “Don’t be shy,” he said but didn’t insist. He went back to the center of the dancers’ circle. Lalalalalalala… They sang and danced. The song would end soon. The night fell on them like a curtain.
Several soldiers came to us one after another and said “Tokyo, burnt; Osaka, burnt; Yokohama, burnt.” I figured that they were trying to tell us that the big cities in Japan had all burnt down. They also asked repeatedly if we knew that the battleship Yamato was sunk and that therefore Japan had no battleships or fighter jets left to fight. When the day’s work was over, they made us sit on chairs and turned on the radio. “The flower of Shiokide island / scatters without being seen / if I am destined to be the same / cry for me, Makomo moon . . .” The female singer’s voice I used to listen to lightened me up. The American soldiers asked us if we knew Tokyo Rose, but we had no idea who they were referring to.
Norio Watanabe, Nigeru Hei [Fleeing Soldiers] (Bungeisha, 2000)
On the beach near my home in Kume Island, Okinawa, the American army built a concentration camp after the war. There, Japanese captives listened to the radio with the Americans. I never knew about it.
Tokyo Rose was a mysterious female radio broadcaster on Japanese propaganda radio programs in English targeted at the Allied forces during the WWII. The purpose of the program was to disrupt the morale of the enemies, but somehow she became popular among the soldiers, for her character and the sad music she often played. What did she play? Reading her biography, she reminded me of Hanna Schygulla in R. W. Fassbinder’s Lili Marlene. In the film, Schygulla sang Lili Marlene with the Hakenkreuz behind her. It was the only scene I still remembered from the movie, which was my least favorite of his works. In reality, the song Lili Marlene was popular among soldiers of both sides during WWII. Marlene Dietrich recorded the song in German for the American Office of Strategic Services, alongside other German songs. The OSS aired the song for the German audience on purpose aiming to lower their morale, just like Tokyo Rose did. Had this song ever been played on Japanese radio during the war? I wondered.
Underneath the lantern
By the barrack gate
Darling I remember
The way you used to wait
‘Twas there that you whispered tenderly
That you loved me
You’d always be
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene
Orders came for sailing
Somewhere over there
All confined to barracks
‘Twas more than I could bear
I knew you were waiting in the street
I heard your feet
But could not meet
My Lili of the lamplight
My own Lili Marlene
Hans Leip (English translation by Tommie Connor), “Lili Marlene”
This song about a soldier in love reminded me of Nishinjo Bushi, an old Okinawan folk song, or the American pop song Road to Naminoue that became a hit among the Americans in postwar Okinawa. What all the songs have in common is the presence of a gate that separates the lovers. The lovers are forever separated in the eternity of music. That’s a bit cruel, I thought.
I recently discovered that the island where I grew up suffered sporadic air raids during WWII. There were even incidents in which the locals were killed by the stationing Japanese soldiers. When I was a child, the adults told me that the island never suffered damage of the war. Perhaps they were concealing the horrific past to heal the wounds caused by it. The story of the men who drifted ashore on the island, which I thought was a fiction my friend made up, turned out to be true. The men, deserters, left the war-devastated mainland Okinawa on a small boat at night, survived the night storm and were washed up on the island.
I was becoming delirious. The glowing sea sparkles increased as the waves got harsher. Soon they turned into the swelling crowd of skulls surrounding our boat. The skulls cursed at us, ”don’t you escape, don’t you leave us behind.”
—Norio Watanabe, Nigeru Hei [Fleeing Soldiers] (Bungeisha, 2000)
It happened a little before the Battle of Okinawa ended in June 1945. At the time, a small number of Japanese soldiers were stationed on the island. They had long lost contact with the headquarters and had no idea of what was happening on mainland Okinawa. The presence of the deserters, who knew Japan’s defeat was near, disturbed the soldiers who still believed in their victory. When the battle ended on the mainland, the Americans sent their armies to the island to build a temporary military camp. Some of the deserters managed to surrender immediately. The Japanese soldiers became paranoiac: they engaged in sporadic gunfights with the Americans, and went as far as killing the remaining deserters and the locals, labeling them as spies. All the while, it was said that the leader of the Japanese soldiers kept a mistress, a local girl, who got pregnant.
Even now that my grandparents have passed away, I am still not sure if I can ask my parents about the island’s past; it somehow feels ethically wrong. With a few clues I get from books, I am beginning to have a clearer view of the history of the island. I discovered that the deserters were washed up to the beach by Y’s house.
It was where we ate Blue Seal ice cream together when we were 16. And it was where we had a bonfire with our former classmates when we were 20. We gathered at the beach at night after the coming of age ceremony with beer cans in our hands. I was living in America at the time and was back in the island for the ceremony. It had been quite a while since we all last met. The beach was incredibly dark at night and the sound of waves was surprisingly loud. Someone started a bonfire, but nobody seemed to care; some were looking up at the stars, some were lying on the beach, others were walking into the woods. I distanced myself from the sad bonfire and walked towards the water. The wet sand on the water’s edge felt soft in my hands. As I dag into it, I found some glowing things. On my hand, they emitted a pale, blue glow. It was too dark to see what they were but their organic glow suggested that they were alive. “Sea sparkles,” I said to someone standing beside me. It was Y. Indifferently sipping his beer, he said it might just be the phosphorescent parts of a night fishing float. His profile was delineated by the soft orange of the bonfire. He seemed a bit weary, but he was still beautiful. Someone started to play an old sad song on portable speakers. “Very sentimental,” Y laughed. “It’s Marlene Dietrich,” someone answered. I put my hands in the water, releasing the glowing something into the cold ocean.
In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Zooey calls up Franny, his depressed sister who returned home after running away from her college life, from another room in their apartment pretending to be their older brother Buddy. Soon Franny finds out it is Zooey who is on the other side of the line, but strangely, the presence of Buddy lingers in Zooey’s voice.
I read this novel when I was in my early twenties. I was still living in America. As I read the novel, I imagined the young Zooey on the telephone. I couldn’t picture the room he was in, so I borrowed the interiors of my parents’ room, which was the only place in the house with a telephone installed besides the hallway. He seemed to fit well in that room. I thought if I had someone like Zooey when I was living at home, who would call me and tease me, then my immature, sullen feelings might have been soothed.
My parents’ room was my favorite place in the house when I was teenager. It was brownish and dusty, and it was always cooler than the other rooms. Now, grown up, I returned home and sat on my parents’ bed with Franny and Zooey in my hands. The room was cool and dusty as I remembered. I followed Zooey’s lines, reading them out loud. In my parent’s room, on a small island in Okinawa, I was reading the narrative of America, the narrative of an American family who struggled through the social changes and a series of wars that affected their lives. My room had long been turned into a storage room. I was reading Franny and Zooey in my parents’ room to a boy who had once spend his days dreaming and feeling suffocated in what was now a storage room; the boy was always in need of someone to talk to. Reading the novel, I remembered that I loved what Zooey called “consecrated chicken soup” when I was a kid.
Y and I went to the same school and belonged to the same circle of friends, but we were never close. I was the quiet type, and he was the star basketball player.
At the end of the summer many years ago, we had a barbecue party at Y’s place, which was right by the beach. We were graduating from middle school that year and I was going to leave the island to go to a high school in mainland Okinawa, while Y was going to attend the high school on the island. After the barbecue, Y and I walked to the beach together. It felt strange for us to be together alone, but Y seemed not to care much. Everyone else was already at the beach playing baseball—at least that was what I thought it was, although there were only three players on both sides. Y and I sat on the beach and watched them play while eating Blue Seal ice cream. Our conversation lasted long enough that I wished we had become friends sooner. The sky was turning purple. He said that the sun set on the other side of the island. I looked back but the trees were blocking the view. Maybe, I thought, from his room on the second floor we could see the sunset better.
When the night came and my friends got bored of playing baseball, we sat together to share scary stories we knew. My dad once told me about a yellow rope swinging near the shoreline at night and if you touch it, it will strangle you and pull you into the water; I heard that the screwpine trees on the beach weep quietly at night; You know that there were seven men who drifted ashore on the island during the war, who disappeared mysteriously when the war ended? I asked my friend what happened to the soldiers. He didn’t know. “That’s not even scary,” someone said. I realized then that I never asked my grandparents about what they were doing during the war. They never talked about it so I thought I was not entitled to ask. The tragedies of the Battle of Okinawa we learnt at school seemed somewhat distant to me, even though the teachers made the stories sad and horrific. We were far from the mainland and the other islands where the battles took place. “By the way, I’m scared,” Y said. “I have to go to bed with the lights on.” We all laughed.
About two years ago, I saw on TV that Tatsuya Ichihashi, who was on the run for two and a half years after killing a British woman, was hiding in one of the Okinawan islands, next to Kume island—my home. I suddenly got curious about how he spent the days there, so I read his diary, Taiho sareru made [Before I was arrested].
Oha Island, a tiny island that Ichihashi chose as his hideout, is located next to Ou Island, which is connected to Kume Island by bridge. There is no bridge that connects Ou and Oha but they are only 200 meters apart, separated by a calm strait. From the quiet beach of Ou, I could see the white beach and deep forest of Oha island. There used to be a village on the island decades ago, and back in the days children went to the school in Kume, walking across the shallow strait on bamboo stilts. But when I was a child, adults told me that there were only a few families remaining there. I always wanted to go to the island but never could. My curiosity aside, there was simply no reason to go there. The currents of the strait were stronger than they seemed and even when the tide was low I didn’t think I could swim to the other side with my poor swimming skills. The beach of Ou Island has been a favorite place of mine. The sand was white, the water was clear, and there was no one around. I was not good at swimming and hated to be in the water—be it a hot spring, a pool, or an ocean. However, I enjoyed being on the beach of Ou, I even swam there once in a while, alone. I always visited the beach whenever I returned home. After the earthquake, I got a bit scared to be near the water, but the place remained special to me. Whenever I was there, I took pictures of the photogenic island on the other side of the strait, wondering what is hidden in the forest.
That was a boundary that I couldn’t cross. Yet, it is an outsider who always defies the boundary. What did Ichihashi see on the island?
After he committed the crime and lost his everyday routine, he seemed to be trying desperately to regain the routine of life. Temporal day jobs in Osaka, then hiding on the Okinawan island for a while, then back to Osaka for more work. He obsessively repeated the simple cycle. In the diary he even mentioned that he decided to die on the island . . . a routine towards death. Ichihashi read Salinger when he was on the island, which seemed as out of place as me reading On the Road on the beach of Kume Island. During his brief stay on Kume, he befriended an old man who told him about the situation of the island during the WWII era.
Unlike mainland Okinawa, where Naha is, the island didn’t experience a field battle. At the time, there was no car on the island. It was after the Americans landed on the island that he saw a car and later a movie, brought by the Americans, for the first time in his life. The islanders were scared of Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains, but the Americans seemed friendly. The old man told me.
Tatsuya Ichihashi, Taiho Sarerumade [Before I was Arrested] (Gentosha, 2011)
This part made me realize that I had rarely heard of the situation of the island during the war. I vaguely remembered hearing that there was some incident—a massacre—which was not executed by the Americans. What happened on the island during and after the war? I began to wonder. It never occurred to me to ask my grandparents about those times. Now that they were gone, there was no way of finding out.