Walking in Futenma Town

I remember walking in Futenma Town back in 1985.  I was 21, and something like 11,000 miles from home.  I spent 365 days on Okinawa, aside from the days that I was being flown around various countries in the Far East.  Futenma Air Station was my home base.  I don’t know how many mental images I have from that year, probably many.  Maybe your memory works like this too.  You may not be able to remember all of 7th grade, but you remember what the room looked like when you competed in a spelling bee…or whatever.  One night in Futenma Town has this still image in my memory.

The image on that night was something like the following.  I’ll try and recreate it for you.  I’m six feet tall, and at that time I was about 180 pounds.  I feel roughly average in America, if not slightly taller than average, but not noticeably so.  On Okinawa, I was a conspicuous giant.  Most Americans were.  Okinawa s are not ethically Japanese.  They are closer to Chinese, although that is also a bit too simplistic.  It is an ancient civilization, and the body types, and culture are quite distinct from even Japan.  The Okinawans are shorter, and stockier.  At that time I was still getting used to how Okinawans differed from the Japanese that I had seen in films and on television.  The color of their skin varied widely, but many were quite dark.  What I never expected to see were Asians with very dark skin.  So, that was new.  I also did not expect to see over-weight, or poor, or generally unhealthy Asians.  I did not know that I didn’t expect it.  I just realized that I didn’t expect it when I was surprised at seeing it.  

11,000 miles seemed like a great distance before I made the trip.  I expected things to be different.  The moment I landed, and walked out of the airplane that took me there, I realized it was a greater distance than I expected.  I was expecting a different country.  When I experienced was more like a different planet.  The moment I left the aircraft, the air felt and smelled different.  It was warm, humid, and smelled like an aquarium.  Each step on the stairs from the aircraft was familiar.  Once I reached the ground, everything was different and it stayed that way for the next 365 days.  

The sidewalks are smaller, narrower, and they slant more aggressively toward the street.  Most people walk on the back of their shoes so that they can kick them off in their homes, and various public buildings, which is entirely uncommon in America.  The shoes make a different sound, and one walks at a different angle in order to keep them on your feet.  Given that I did not do that, I had a different gait, and made different sounds as I moved.  That, of course, in addition to the fact that I was 20 to 25 percent larger than almost any adult male I would see, and even more so relative to women.  Asians tend to walk with their hips forward, and Occidentals walk with their foreheads forward.  Philosophically, we see those areas that we project forward as the center of our selves.  This is what was explained to me, and I do not have expertise in this concept, but it is worth further investigation if it interests you.  I can say that it can be observed.

Japan, and all of its territories, of which Okinawa is one, drive on the opposite side of the street from us here in America, so on that walk in Okinawa, that was just one sensory input that was engaging my conscious in a way that walking down a familiar street would not.  It set me off balance.  Subconsciously I did not know what to expect because familiar patterns had been reversed, or were missing.  Most of the buildings were made of poured cement.  There were bars on the windows, and windows slid open and closed.  Most of the buildings looked like small bunkers…unless they were large buildings.  In that case they looked like large bunkers.  They were built to survive some sort of onslaught.  On a volcanic tropical island, that onslaught is weather.  They were built, most especially, to survive typhoons.  

So, on that walk, on that Okinawa night, I took turns down narrow roads, built for tiny cars, which had big convex mirrors at intersection so that drivers could see other cars approaching from the other direction.  Walking down those narrow, shadowy streets, past widows that slid open and closed horizontally rather than vertically, my mind tormented me with absurd notions of blowguns poking thru windows which might deliver a poisonous dart.  My eyes shifted left to right, and my head even turned a little a few times before I could convince myself that that absurd idea came from bad, exploitative films about martial arts.  I never even liked those films, but UHF television had plenty of them in the 70s.  While I never watched one beginning to end, I certainly had migrated notions implanted, which my conscious mind had to to battle with as I walked on those slanted sidewalks.  

At one point, as I was walking, with the woosh of the cars driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the street, and the shadows which seemed menacing, I started to notice that I saw little old ladies walking alone, carrying shopping bags.  It stopped me in my tracks.  It was late at night.  I was 21, and felt no physical threats, and was just gorging myself on the exotic differences of where I was, and I saw something that just did not click.  It was the most extreme difference from my expectation so far.  With whatever anxiety I felt about walking down shadowy streets, somewhat anesthetized by my youth and curiosity, these little old ladies seemed to have none of it.  I thought, don’t they feel danger?  Wont someone likely harass or rob them as they might in a big city in America?  Why aren’t they asleep?  Don’t old people go to bed early?  (These may seem like dumb questions, but these were my actual thoughts in the moment). 

If you are curious about people, places, and culture, this is how it all begins.  I remember air temperature and smell.  Then the surface I was walking on.  The cars I was being passed by and the buildings I passed.  Then I began to notice how the people were doing so many things differently.  I’m sure I stood still just to take that in for a minute.  Once that clicks, you begin to look for it elsewhere.  It is either fascinating or it isn’t.  For me, it was.  Why was it so common to see a little old woman carrying bags late at night on city streets, so unlike how it would happen in my country.  There are a lot of reasons.  Probably the main reason is that their law enforcement and their legal system is quite severe from our perspective.  Law enforcement officers, “the J.P.”, didn’t carry guns usually, but they did carry telescopic batons, and where all martial arts experts.  They were not big men, but they would ruin your evening if you tangled with them.  They could whip your ass before you knew what happened.  “J.P.” stands for Japanese Police, and they were all Japanese.  Okinawans were not Japanese, and they were not shy about telling you so.  So, these police force had some aspects of a colonizing military force.  I have watched middle aged J.P. whip a crowd full of asses in a few minutes.  They are not to be fooled with.  Also, in Japan, once you are arrested, you’re guilty.  You go to court to get out of jail…or prison.  Also, not something to be fooled with.  I would not trade that for what we have here.  

But, that image of little old people feeling free to move about safely, day or night, appealed to me greatly.  The freedom to move in a public space is very important to me in my concept of freedom.  That is a freedom we lack in our country.  We trade that off for a concept of freedom that I value, but is not quite as practical.  This is not an argument for authoritarianism.  No, no!  Far from it.  Here in America, we have barely enough intellectual habit and capacity to manage our version of freedom.  Stupid, ignorant, bigoted notions blind us from how this society is made to work, and who is doing the work.  We have been lucky to have what we have had, but our ignorance is catching up with us.  

About 5 years after that walk on that night in Okinawa, I was entering into the LAPD academy.  The process of background investigation, and the myriad interviews took a year to complete, and being at the top of my class, (yeah I said it.  I graduated there too.), I got in about as fast as possible.  So, for 4 years, a value of using my assembled abilities to make streets in my country as safe as those I saw in another country appeared to me.  I was, and I remain, ashamed that my country is a violent mess.   

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