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A man who lived a life of struggles identifies with Okinawan history

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NAHA – Kiyoshi Uezu and his parents lived through the Battle of Okinawa, but he feels they never really “survived” the war.

Okinawa and the Uezu family have a long history of suffering and despair, even after World War II ended in 1945.

Uezu’s own struggles with hardship took him around the world for years.

But on May 15, the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s handover to Japan from US military control, Uezu was in Okinawa’s prefectural capital, Naha.

After reviewing the situation in Okinawa Prefecture, Uezu said he didn’t feel like celebrating the anniversary.

Instead, he expressed what he thought was on the minds of many people in the prefecture: “It wasn’t supposed to be like that.”

WANT TO SEE OKINAWA AGAIN

Fifty years ago, on May 15, 1972, Uezu was mowing lawns in Los Angeles for a living.

In the early afternoon, a colleague born in Okinawa Prefecture rushed to Uezu and shouted, in Okinawan dialect, that the prefecture had returned to Japanese administration.

They jumped into a car and headed towards a Japanese community in town. In the car, they listened to a radio report about the news taking place 10,000 kilometers away.

The car radio also played an Okinawan folk song called “Bashofu” (basho fiber cloth).

The song made Uezu want to see Okinawa again. Tears welled up in his eyes as he remembered the blue skies and water of his hometown.

FAMILY VIOLENCE

Uezu, now 83, was born in the South Sea Islands before the Pacific War broke out. During the war, his family returned to Gushikawa (now Uruma) in the central part of the main island of Okinawa.

During the Battle of Okinawa, the sound of shelling by American forces destroyed her mother’s hearing.

After the war, her father, annoyed at not being able to communicate with his wife, subjected her to his frustrations through violence.

The father also suffered injuries when his car was rammed by a US military truck, and he developed depression.

When the US military occupied Okinawa, citizens of the prefecture were encouraged to emigrate to South America.

The Uezu family lived in poverty in Okinawa, so they traveled to Brazil in 1958 for a fresh start.

But after their attempts to grow rice failed, the family found they had settled on infertile land. Relations in the family deteriorated.

Uezu went alone to Argentina in 1966 before being smuggled to the United States in 1970.

He says he couldn’t help feeling his family had been broken up after being “tormented” by war and military bases.

Deep in his heart, Uezu hoped to see Okinawa in peace one day. And he felt some optimism because Okinawa’s reversion placed the prefecture under Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Uezu worked hard to save money and returned to Okinawa in 1974, two years after returning to Japan.

He was surprised by all the changes. Many buildings now stood along National Route 58, a major thoroughfare formerly known as Military Route 1.

However, he also saw fences separating residential areas from US bases across the prefecture.

Uezu decided to leave Okinawa again. He returned to Brazil a few years later.

The South American country is home to the largest immigrant community in Okinawa, and many people have taken an interest in prefectural affairs there.

Uezu heard some people say that Okinawa should gain independence from Japan. Others said the island prefecture would grow even more if it became a US state like Hawaii.

Uezu says he often wonders: what is Okinawa?

Given its historical ties, it is part of Japan. But why does it have to bear too heavy a burden in terms of US military installations in the country? Why does Okinawa alone have to make sacrifices?

And besides, what is Japan?

These questions stayed with Uezu as he moved around the world. He worked in a farm, a laundromat, a Japanese restaurant and many other businesses in the various countries he visited.

In 2002, when he was over 60 years old, Uezu went to mainland Japan for the first time.

He jumped from job to job, working in Gunma, Chiba, Nara, Wakayama and Shiga prefectures. He even lived on the streets.

Facing bleak job prospects and hitting a language barrier with his Okinawan dialect, Uezu learned how difficult it was to live in Japan.

FUTENMA BASIC SHOW

Uezu also found himself receiving requests to speak about Okinawa from schools and chambers of commerce who had heard of his experiences.

A question often raised during his interviews was the planned relocation of the United States Marine Corps Futenma Air Base from Ginowan in Okinawa Prefecture to Henoko District in Nago, also in the prefecture.

Uezu always asked those present if they would accept a military base in their community. They almost always lowered their eyes.

He said he knew those on the Japanese mainland were interested in Okinawa, but were hesitant to focus their attention on the issue of the military base.

He said he thinks that’s what Japan is.

ALWAYS AN UCHINANCHU

Living in Okinawa for eight years now, Uezu is no longer surprised by the development of the prefecture. US military aircraft, including Osprey transport planes, fly daily.

Although he laments that peace has not truly returned to Okinawa, he is proud that he and his home prefecture have come this far after enduring so much.

He identifies with Okinawa and feels he has always been an Uchinanchu (Okinawa) wherever he is.

When ruled as a tributary state of Imperial China, the Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal state of Satsuma Domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture).
Okinawa was later annexed to modern Japan.

After becoming one of the bloodiest battle sites of the Pacific War, the southernmost island prefecture fell under US military rule for 27 years.

Half a century after returning from Okinawa to Japan in 1972, Uezu looked up at the sky as he stood on the busy National Route 58.

“In 50 years, I hope a lot of people will say that (Okinawa) has become what they dreamed of,” he said.

Caption: Kiyoshi Uezu looks at buildings along National Highway 58 in Naha in April. (Yoshichika Yamanaka)