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Beggars’ Belief

The first American invasion of Iejima occurred on April 16th, 1945. U.S. Army accounts chronicle in meticulous detail the vicious battle for this small island, situated three miles west of Okinawa Hontou. One thousand troops aboard eighty landing craft stormed Iejima’s eastern beaches, meeting heavy resistance from dug-in Japanese defenders. In the following five days of bloodshed, two thousand Imperial Army soldiers were killed, together with one and a half thousand civilians. Three hundred Americans lost their lives, including Ernie Pyle – the combat correspondent famous for putting a human face to World War Two.

The second U.S. invasion came a decade later. It is barely documented by American historians, but to those who were living on the island, it wrought almost as much distress. On March 11th, 1955, with Okinawa under United States administration, landing craft came ashore once again on the beaches of Iejima. Their mission: to expropriate two-thirds of the island in readiness for the construction of an air-to-surface bombing range. This time, the Army only brought three hundred soldiers, but they assumed these would be sufficient – their new enemies were the island’s unarmed peanut and tobacco farmers, and the only shelters they had were the houses they’d constructed in the years since the end of the war.

The Americans made quick progress across the south of the island. They dragged families from their houses, burned down the buildings and bulldozed the smoldering ruins. Those who protested were assaulted and arrested, then sent to the regional capital for prosecution. When one family pled for their home to be spared because their six-year old daughter was seriously-ill in bed, soldiers carried the terrified child from the house and dumped her outside the doors of the island clinic. A herd of goats that impeded the Americans’ advance was let loose from its enclosure and slaughtered by rifle fire. After the entire village had been leveled, Army officers veneered the invasion with a thin layer of legitimacy – at gun-point, they forced fistfuls of military script into the hands of the farmers, then twisted their faces towards a camera and took pictures to send to Headquarters as proof of the islanders’ acquiescence.

“The Americans weren’t the only ones taking photographs that day,” explains Shoko Jahana, “The farmers realized that if they wanted the world to understand what they were going through, they needed their proof, too.” Jahana is a white-haired woman in her late sixties with a smile that instantly wipes twenty years from her full-moon face. She works as the caretaker of the Nuchidou Takara no Ie ( “Treasure House of Life Itself” ) – the Iejima museum dedicated to the farmers’ ongoing struggle to retrieve their land from the American military. The museum consists of a pair of ramshackle buildings, located very close to the shoreline where the Americans landed in 1955. Now the beach is home to a Japanese holiday resort, and as we speak, our conversation is punctuated by the shouts of Tokyo holidaymakers, the slap and drone of jet skis.

Jahana shows me the farmers’ photographs of the destruction from March 1955 – empty monochrome scenes of charred land and blackened bricks of coral. Some of the pictures are blurred as though the camera is trying to focus on where the houses used to be. “Shoko Ahagon was one of the farmers whose home was destroyed that day. He went on to organize the islanders in their struggle against the bombing range. People call him the Gandhi of Okinawa.”

Jahana points to a large colour photograph on the wall. A sun-wrinkled man smiles serenely from beneath the brim of a straw hat. Think a slimmer Cesar Chavez with thickly-hooded eyes that glimmer with intelligent compassion. Jahana tells me he gave lectures on the movement to visiting parties of schoolchildren right up until his death in 2002. He was 101 years old.

As she speaks, there’s a gentle knock on the door and an elderly woman enters, carrying a small convenience store bag. When she sees that Jahana is busy talking to me, she bows and sets the bag carefully on the side of her desk. It’s full of earthy cylinders pushing against the white plastic and I remember, earlier at the port, seeing the island’s famous peanuts for sale, alongside dusty bricks of black sugar and tangles of bright pink dragon fruit.

“Ahagon-sensei established the Treasure House in 1984,” Jahana continues, “He wanted to create a permanent exhibit of what went on here after the Americans came ashore in 1955. I’ll ask my assistant to show you around the main museum.” A younger woman in her forties comes in. Jahana lifts the plastic bag from the desk, but when she passes it to her assistant, its sides split open. A dozen rusty bullets clatter to the floor. I jump but neither woman bats an eyelid as they bend and scoop them back up.

The assistant walks me from the reception to the exhibition hall at the rear of the property. When she slides open the doors, I’m struck by a hot blast of air, the smell of second-hand clothes mixed with used book stores. Inside, the museum is a mélange of memorabilia from the past fifty years. American parachutes hang next to musty protest banners. Old newspaper articles line the walls alongside dozens of photographs taken by the farmers to record their struggle. Just in front of the doorway, there’s a massive mound of rusting metal – shell casings and missile fins, grenades and rockets. The assistant kneels down and adds the bullets to the heap. Her action wakes a small white gecko and it scuttles across the deadly pile, finding shelter in a half-blown mortar round.

“Within days of leveling the farmers’ houses, the Americans had completed construction of their bombing range. They marked huge bull’s eye targets with white sand trucked in from the beaches. The explosions went on day and night. Those shells are just a selection of the things they fired. Farmers still come across them now and bring them here for our collection.”

When I ask her what happened to the displaced villagers, she points to a photo of a row of tents. “The Americans had promised them building materials and they were good to their word.” She gives me a sad smile. “The cement they gave had already hardened to concrete in its bags. The boards were rotten and the nails long corroded spikes that couldn’t be used for anything.” One picture shows a family of fifteen packed into a small, open-sided tent. “The villagers quickly fell sick with dehydration, sunstroke and skin diseases.”

Along with the poor-quality building supplies, the American Army offered the farmers financial compensation. Realizing that any acceptance of the money would be interpreted as their assent to the seizure of their land, they refused. With no other means to support themselves, Ahagon and the villagers decided to throw themselves on the mercy of their fellow Okinawans. She shows me a letter they wrote to explain their actions. “There is no way for [us] to live except to beg. Begging is shameful, to be sure, but taking land by military force and causing us to beg is especially shameful.”

On July 21st 1955, the villagers boarded a ferry to Okinawa Hontou. Calling themselves the “March of Beggars”, over the next seven months, they made their way from Kunigami in the north to Itoman almost seventy miles to the south. In every town they passed, the villagers met with the local people and told them of their struggle. Throughout their walk, they were greeted with warm welcomes and sympathy. Even the poorest villages gave them food and shelter for the night. The assistant shows me the photos the farmers exchanged as thanks to the people who supported them. The men stare proudly at the camera – their trousers are patched and threadbare, but their shirts are starched clean white. The women try to hold their smiles while stopping the children from squirming from their knees.

The reception of the authorities stood in stark contrast to the hospitality encountered from ordinary people. Both Okinawan politicians and academics alike ignored Iejima’s farmers’ pleas for assistance. Many of these officials only retained their jobs with the mercurial support of the American administration and they feared dismissal. When the islanders confronted the U.S. High Commission, General James Moore played the Red card and claimed the farmers were uneducated dupes who were being manipulated by communist agitators. An Air Force spokesman called the problem “a petty dispute” – inconsequential in light of the practice bombings which were ensuring security “both for the Free World and for [Okinawan] people.”

After seven months on the road, the March of Beggars finally returned home to Iejima in February, 1956. They found their situation no better than when they had left; the leaking tents still stood and they continued to be denied access to the fields upon which they’d depended for their livelihoods. Bombings and jet plane strafings went on day and night, wearing down already tattered nerves and making rest impossible.

“When the farmers attempted to send word of their predicament to the main Japanese islands, their letters were intercepted by the American military,” explains the assistant. “They didn’t want the world to know what they were doing here.” Some letters, however, did make it through the cordon of censors, and when the Japanese media reported news of the farmers’ struggle, the people of the main islands rallied to their help. School students, homemakers, businessmen – even imprisoned war criminals – started sending care packages to Iejima. They flooded the islanders with powdered milk and sugar, rice and canned fish, notebooks, textbooks and pens. The boxes are on display at the museum. Many of them are addressed simply “To the brave farmers of Iejima.”

No matter how small the parcel, each one was rewarded with a handwritten banner of appreciation and a photograph from the islanders. Upon receiving a massive package from far-off Hokkaido, the entire village gathered to witness the opening of the thirty-one crates. Even the sick and elderly got out of bed to see the gifts from the snowbound northern island. The sign the villagers penned still hangs in the museum today – “To the coal miners of Kushiro, We who live in this southern country thank you very warmly.”

These packages, though substantial, were not enough to sustain the villagers forever. As the 1950s progressed, with no financial aid from the government or the military, many of the islanders were forced to support themselves in an increasingly desperate manner. Where once they harvested tobacco and sweet potatoes, now they scavenged the fringes of the bombing range for scraps of military metal. They collected chunks of shrapnel and bullet casings, and sold them to traders for a few yen a kilogram. From time to time, they’d come across a whole bomb that had failed to explode. The farmers would drag it away and defuse it themselves with a plumber’s wrench and a length of steel pipe. In this manner, they taught themselves to become bomb disposal technicians as expert as any found in modern armies. But for these men – like their professional counterparts – sometimes their luck ran out. Between 1956 and 1963, a dozen islanders were killed or wounded while collecting or dismantling American ordinance. Photos on the walls show farmers with their arms torn off and their faces sheered away – combat pictures from an island purportedly at peace.

“In the early 1960s,” says the assistant walking me down the room, “one of the farmers stumbled across a piece of scrap far too precious to sell.” She gestures towards a long white tube with four tell-tale fins. “He found it sticking out of his field one day. He hid it in his shed while the Americans searched high and low.”

I can well understand the military’s eagerness to retrieve this particular missile. I recognize it almost immediately from another story I’ve been covering about Okinawa. In December 1965, some hundred and fifty miles north of Iejima, the USS Ticonderoga ran into rough seas. A Sky Hawk jet that was on the ship’s deck slipped its cables and tumbled into the ocean. The accident would not have been particularly newsworthy if it hadn’t been for the payload it was carrying: a one megaton hydrogen bomb. The Japanese constitution prohibits nuclear weapons in its waters, and it was only when the device started to leak in 1989, that a nervous Pentagon confessed to Tokyo about the missing bomb.

The assistant must have noticed the panic on my face. “Don’t worry, it’s just a dummy one they used for practice runs.” It looks so real that this does little to allay my fears. Nearby a cicada ticks Geiger-like. “You can touch it if you want,” she offers. I take two steps back and she laughs.

Back in the reception, Jahana tells me of the successes achieved by Ahagon and the islanders. Thanks to their demonstrations throughout the 1960s and a concerted publicity campaign (including three books and a documentary), the bombings stopped and the range was closed down. Many of the farmers were able to recover the fields that were stolen in 1955.

Jahana takes a map of Iejima from her desk drawer. The western portion is marked off by a red dotted line. “Today, the American military controls a third of the island. The Marines have a training area where they still conduct parachute drops. A few years ago, some of their jumpers went astray and landed in a tobacco field. They wondered why the farmer was so angry. They’d only crushed a few tobacco plants – perhaps a carton of cigarettes’ worth. They don’t know what these people have had to put up with over the past fifty years. They have no idea of the sufferings they’ve been through.”

Before I head back to the port, I ask Jahana if she’s hopeful the Americans will change their policy and return the rest of the land. She smiles wryly. “Ahagon-sensei had a saying he often quoted. ‘Even the most evil beasts and devils are not beyond redemption. They might become human one day. All they need to be shown is the error of their ways.’ Ahagon-sensei believed this very strongly. That’s why he built this museum and that’s why it will be here until the day the farmers get back their land.”

JON MITCHELL is a Welsh-born writer, currently working at Tokyo Institute of Technology. He can be reached at: jon.w.mitchell@gmail.com

 

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