Where America's Wars Have Been Good For Business

Okinawa is imbued with American culture from the '50s to the '90s

Gate 2 Street must be one of the few places on the planet where people longingly remember the good old days of the Vietnam War. This long, tree-lined thoroughfare, several blocks long, is informally but indelibly named for a nearby entrance to the US Air Force's Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.

The other day Homei Tomu, like many Gate 2 Street merchants, was bearing up through another lull. He sat in one of the chairs in his barbershop, dressed in a V-neck T-shirt and gray slacks, watching TV to pass the time. A small man with a gentle, fine-featured face, it took him a few minutes to calculate that he's been in business here since 1955.

"And since the Vietnam War, business has been declining," he shrugged, recalling an era when his Columbia Barber Shop was not the only one on the street - there was the White Lily, the Seven Stars, the Paris.

As the names suggests, the Americans who swarmed over Gate 2 Street and a neighboring avenue in their heyday imparted parts of their culture.

Okinawa is a group of islands with an odd mix of influences, particularly in the shopping areas and "bar alleys" near the US bases and training areas that take up 20 percent of the main island.

The cultural sources include Japan, which turned the once-independent Ryukyu kingdom into Okinawa Prefecture during the 19th century, and America, from the 1950s to the 1990s. There is also a Ryukyuan strain of openness and affability. All this comes together on a subtropical island in the midst of an azure sea.

The Americans have been here since the Battle of Okinawa, which led to 27 years of US military occupation.

During the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the importance of the US bases such as Kadena expanded, and the US did not give Okinawa back to Japan until May 1972. A quarter century later, the cultural occupation continues.

On Gate 2 Street, you can get a shave amid the faded Norman Rockwell ambience of Tomu's shop, pick up the sort of touristy kimono that Hawkeye Pierce wore on "M*A*S*H," acquire an etched-brass belt buckle that begs to be worn with bell-bottom jeans, and top off the look with an oversize T-shirt with Dennis Rodman on it. All of these things can be purchased with US dollars.

It's possible to escape the presence of the US military in Okinawa, but not for long: Sooner or later a military aircraft will fly overhead or you'll find yourself passing a barbed-wire-topped fence, or a group of extremely large American men with extremely short haircuts will walk by.

Many Okinawans are now complaining, more loudly than ever before, that the United States bases are too much of a burden, but for some of the merchants who have profited from the military, the story is different.

"Everyone is saying, 'We don't want the bases,' " Tomu says, sounding unconvinced. "Okinawa's economy exists thanks to America."

But America has not been able to offer as much as it once did.

"This place used to be a gold mine and now it's a desert," says one long-time proprietor, a man who runs three clothing stores near US bases, but doesn't want his name in the paper.

The bar trade isn't what it used to be, either, but Gate 2 Street gets lively enough that the area is off limits to American military personnel between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. US officers say the restriction was caused by fights between US personnel belonging to different services.

The major reason for the economic decline is that the US currency is not what it used to be.

During the Vietnam War, when many of the merchants now struggling to stay in business first opened their doors, a dollar bought 360 yen. This week it traded at about 114 yen.

Mr. "KB - everyone calls me KB" - runs Fifth Avenue Tailors, just off Gate 2 Street, and is one of many Indians who came to Okinawa in the 1960s and 1970s to cater to the military trade. He speculates that most US service personnel don't leave their bases with more than $20 or $30 in their pockets. If you're selling something for more than $40, $50 at the outside, he says, forget it.

At a souvenir shop around the corner, most of the items fall into the $30 to $50 range: replicas of Japanese swords, pool cues, martial-arts weapons.

The most popular items, says saleswoman Yoko Kinjo, are embroidered baseball-style caps that say things like "Okinawa - Marine Resort Island" and go for around $4.50.

In the 1980s, she recalls, belt buckles were big.

During the Vietnam War, says Mr. KB, Americans "could buy what they want." Now the clothing trade has gotten so slow that he has expanded into a new line - he rents X-rated videos. "Some people like clothes, and some people like entertainment," he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Where America's Wars Have Been Good For Business
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today