Different perspective


POSTED: Friday, November 06, 2009

When opportunity knocks, the wise open the door. The genesis of Jon Shirota's play “;Voices from Okinawa”; proves that point.

“;I had a grant from the Japan American Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts to spend six months co-lecturing in Okinawa in 2005, and I thought, 'There's gotta be a play here someplace,'”; Shirota said from his California home last Friday.

The assignment was a welcome one for the veteran playwright. Shirota's father come to Hawaii from Okinawa in 1907, riding a donkey from the village of Ginoza before boarding a ship to Hawaii at Naha.

Shirota anticipated the physical changes that have occurred since his father's departure—the journey from Ginoza to Naha now takes an hour instead of a day—but speaking with college students gave him “;a different perspective on Okinawa today among the young people”; as well. The stories they shared inspired him to write about the recent experiences of Okinawans with American military personnel stationed there.

He eliminated the issue of language by setting the story in a classroom where everyone is required to speak English from the moment they walk in the door.

Six of the students are willing to talk; they include a barber and married couple who work as entertainers. The “;voices”; also include a 96-year-old woman who lost her home when the Americans needed more land.

A young woman is finally persuaded to speak and reveals she was raped by Americans.





        Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 6 (no performance Nov. 26)


Cost: $16 (discounts available)


Info: 536-4441 or www.kumukahua.com




COINCIDENTALLY, Shirota said, when the play opened in California last year, there was a high-profile rape case in Okinawa at the time, involving an American serviceman and an Okinawan teenager.

Shirota had developed the character of the young woman with an earlier incident in mind. In 1995 three servicemen kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old. He put out feelers while there, but the entire family moved away from the village after the incident.

“;When we talk about Okinawa, we talk about the war and all that, but this is what's happening (today),”; Shirota explained. “;This is the second or third generation after the war, so the play is about what's happening to them (now), what their attitude is to the American GIs—some are friendly, some are not.”;

That American bases occupy almost 20 percent of Okinawa is the result of history. Okinawa was occupied and annexed by Japan in 1872; it was accorded prefecture status several years later. Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians died in the fighting between Japanese and American forces in 1945. The Americans built bases to support the expected invasion of Japan and have been there ever since.

Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule in 1972, but for several reasons the Americans have remained. As a result, the bases pump millions of dollars into the Okinawan economy, but American personnel are usually exempt from prosecution in Japanese civilian courts.

Okinawans and Japanese have protested several high-profile rape cases—and the continued presence of the bases in general—but looking at it objectively, Shirota thinks Americans are there to stay.

“;Okinawa is so strategically located for the things that are going on with North Korea and (other countries) in the Far East, I don't think we can afford to leave. Negotiations (with the Japanese government) are going on right now where they want some of the Marines to leave and (also) build another base for the Marines.”;

Ginoza is prosperous now in large part because of the Marine units that train nearby. Other areas also benefit from military spending—either by the Americans directly or by the Japanese government under the terms of the treaty. Some of the Okinawans Shirota met told him they'd take a little less prosperity if that was the cost of the Americans leaving.

On the other hand, he noted, others study English because they want to get a job on one of the American bases.