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Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

News photo
A U.S. military police car overturned by rioters in Koza in December 1970. TAMOTSU TAKEMOTO PHOTO

Koza remembered

With debate on re-siting or removing U.S. military bases in Okinawa now a hot issue between Tokyo and Washington, Jon Mitchell returns to the scene of the island's biggest anti-American riot

It's October 2009, and I'm sitting in the parking lot of a convenience store in Koza city, taking photographs of the sidewalk. I've been here for close to an hour — surrounded by a dozen old photographs, four maps and reams of photocopies all weighed down with chunks of brick to stop them blowing away in the brisk autumn wind.

News photo
Pause for thought: "What was the Koza Riot?" asks a sign outside Okinawa City's Histreet Museum. JON MITCHELL PHOTO

It's the store's teenage clerk who finally plucks up the courage to walk over and ask me what I'm doing. I tell him that it was here — right on this very spot — that the largest riot in Okinawan history began.

"Here?" the clerk asks me.

"This is where it all started. Three thousand rioters dragged American soldiers from their cars and beat them up in the street. Then they set alight to their vehicles and stormed the nearby air force base."

"That happened here?" repeats the clerk, glancing around incredulously.

I nod and reach for the black-and-white photographs to show him. But I'm too late — he's already hurrying back to the sanctuary of the shop, no doubt berating himself beneath his breath along the lines of, "I knew I should have watched the television news this morning."

In 1970, Koza city, together with the rest of Okinawa, was U.S. territory. Cars throughout the islands drove on the right, people shopped in dollars; now they drive on the left and shop in yen. Okinawans wanting to visit Tokyo or the rest of Japan required a passport to do so; now, of course, they don't. Even on an island dominated by American culture, Koza always felt more American than anywhere else in Okinawa due to its proximity to Kadena U.S. Air Force Base.

The largest American military installation in the Pacific, and the hub of U.S. air power in the region, Kadena, straddling the cities of Kadena, Chatan and Koza and home to more than 30,000 U.S. military personnel, was a massive, self-contained chunk of Nixonian Americana — bowling alleys, tended lawns and fast-food diners — cut up and pasted on top of this subtropical island.

While the base undoubtedly provided employment opportunities to some Koza residents, it also brought trouble.

From the early-1960s, a series of military accidents in the area scared and angered the local population. In 1965, an aircraft dropped a trailer on an 11-year-old schoolgirl, crushing her to death. The next year, an Okinawan man was killed when a jet fighter crashed on Kadena. This was followed in 1968 by the explosion of a B-52 bomber in which a further four residents were injured. Rumors that the Americans were storing chemical weapons on the base were confirmed by a 1969 leak of VX nerve gas that hospitalized 22 soldiers.

Incidents such as these made the residents of Koza feel as though they were living in a war zone — an impression heightened by the sight and sound of dozens of those gigantic B-52 bombers taking off daily on carpet-bombing missions over Southeast Asia.

But American aggression was not confined to the jungles of Vietnam and Laos. Okinawa was an R&R disembarkation point for thousands of combat troops who, less than 24 hours previously, had been fighting for their lives.

Many of these battle-traumatized GIs and U.S. Marines found it impossible to adjust overnight to a peacetime frame of mind, and it was all too often the civilians of Koza who bore the brunt of their pent-up aggressions — soldiers raped and murdered bar girls, they assaulted taxi drivers and robbed store owners.

The perpetrators of these crimes were rarely punished and, as U.S. military police refused to cooperate with the gathering of evidence, American judges into whose courts such matters might occasionally stray almost always dismissed the cases.

Indeed, even when the severity of a crime drew so much media attention that the military was forced to take action, those accused were regularly found not guilty — as in a 1970 case where an American driver struck and killed a housewife in Itoman.

Taken together, these factors combined to create a feeling of outrage among the people living near the Kadena base — and a lack of faith in American justice.

It was a seemingly inconsequential event that ignited the clashes of Dec. 20, 1970. At 1:05 a.m., an American driver clipped an Okinawan man as he was crossing Highway 24. The American was driving over the speed limit; both men had been drinking. When the local police arrived on the scene, they found the victim bleeding from his left knee and hip, but his injuries were not life-threatening.

A couple of hundred onlookers gathered from the nearby Nakanomachi drinking district to see what had happened. As the police took away the American and the injured man, the crowd harangued them with hisses and jeers.

With the departure of the police, the bystanders remained in the street discussing the accident. A few moments later, another American driver came speeding down the road. He swerved to avoid the crowd and rammed into the rear of a local's car. This second crash in the space of less than an hour infuriated the onlookers. Chanting "Don't let this be a repeat of Itoman!" (a reference to the recent acquittal in the hit-and-run killing of the housewife), they surrounded the American's vehicle and smashed its windows.

Military police rushed to the scene to protect the frightened driver. They fired warning shots into the air, buying just enough time for them to escape with the car's owner beneath a hail of bricks and bottles.

At the sound of the gunfire, the crowd rapidly swelled to around 3,000 people. They blocked the road and began to pull over American-owned cars (easily identifiable by their yellow number plates).

Daniel Keenan, at the time a 22-year-old Air Force mechanic, was one of those stopped. "The Okinawan taxi drivers tried to signal to me to turn around and flee, but I was already surrounded by the crowd. They threw a concrete block through my back window. I either got out of the car or was dragged out. I tried to run but I was stopped. I fell down and 10 or 12 young men kept hitting and kicking me. I think I passed out. I came to 10 minutes later in a small police station."


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