Traces of War: Former Japanese Naval Underground HQ on Okinawa

“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing….”  ~ War, by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, map of the underground headquarters

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the OkinawansOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, timeline of war displayOne can’t help but imagine how devastated the landscape of Okinawa looked during the “Typhoon of Steel” suffered there in 1945. Having read, twice, both With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge and The Battle of Okinawa by Colonel Yahara (both authors actually present at the Battle of Okinawa), it is indeed a morbid privilege to be able to track the traces of war which still exist on Okinawa today.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, map display of US armed forces landing operations on Okinawa during WWII

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, Flag Officer's room chiseled into the rockOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the Okinawans 2The Battle of Okinawa makes for fertile fields harvested by the Grim Reaper. WWII deaths here total upwards of 225,000, the majority Okinawan civilians.  Fully 1/3 of the Okinawan population perished in the spring and summer of 1945 when over 2.7 million artillery shells of all types and calibers were fired against the entrenched Japanese, working out to an average of 4.7 shells for every man, woman, child alive on Okinawa at the start of the battle.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, military operations in and around Oroku, Okinawa, June 1945

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, larger room in the complexOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, signal communications room undergroundA heartbreaking trace of the war here includes the well-preserved and restored Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. The Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers, Yamane Division, dug this tunnel complex by hand using pickaxes and hoes in 1944 to serve as the Japanese Navy Imperial Headquarters on Okinawa.  The semi-circular tunnels and rooms, designed to sustain upwards of 4,000 people, were hardened into bunkers by post and concrete, designed and built to endure the American bombardment and the expected long drawn-out fight.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, lonely wet passageways underground

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, narrow chiseled stairwayNow located in a suburb of Naha, it was here deep in this hillside that Admiral Minoru Ota and over 4,000 of his men were killed in combat with the US 6th Marine Division. Many Japanese sailors, estimated at about 175 men including Ota himself, committed suicide in the tunnels, showing the ultimate dedication to their belief that death is preferred over the dishonor of capture.  Some used hand grenades; shrapnel marks are still dramatically visible in the plaster of one of the complex’s many rooms.  Ota shot himself with his service pistol.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall damaged by gernade explosions used in suicides of Japanese Naval Underground staff

Minoru_OtatomishironavyHQ08Minoru Ōta (大田 実 Ōta Minoru, 7 April 1891 – 13 June 1945) was the final commander of the Japanese naval forces defending the Oroku Peninsula of Okinawa during WWII.  Here Ōta commanded a force of 10,000 men, half of which were Okinawan civilian laborers conscripted into service, with the remainder sailors with almost no experience fighting on land.  Having been ordered to withdraw his men from the Oroku Peninsula to support the broader Japanese army retreating further south, Ōta began preparations for the move by ordering most of the heavy equipment, stocks of ammunition and heavy weapons destroyed since they could not be carried.  While in mid-march to the south, Ōta was ordered back…and thus the island’s naval combat elements returned with no heavy weapons and only half the force armed with even rifles.  The Americans subsequently isolated the peninsula by a seaborne landing behind the Navy’s positions, sealing the sailors’ shared fate.  Fighting a lost cause and having most of their equipment destroyed and out of food, water and supplies, many of the Japanese attacked the US Marines using makeshift weapons in a desperate last charge on June 13, 1945, and were decimated.  The remains of approximately 2,400 Japanese and Okinawans were found in and around the tunnels located here.


Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, alter left from WWII days of 1945After the war, the complex remained untouched for many years. Restored in the 1970s, the complex has been reopened to the public.  But only around 300 meters of the original 450 meter-long tunnels are open.  However, in these passages and rooms chiseled into the hillside’s rock, visitors can view the headquarters’ Operations Room, Staff Office, Code (Signals) Room, Medical, Petty Officer’s Quarters, and the Commanding Officer’s Room.  In order to make the facility safe for the public, additional cement and some other reinforcements were added, but very little else was altered so as to maintain authenticity and give visitors the gut feel for what the Japanese endured here.  A few plaques and drawings are found along the passages which help to illuminate the use of various areas of the bunker.

The HQ's Medical Facility

The HQ’s Medical Facility

Homemade Bayonet

Homemade Bayonet

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, Japanese Naval Officer's WWII uniform recovered from the tunnelsAt the entrance to the underground tunnels is a small museum dedicated to the events of the Battle of Okinawa, which contains a few interesting artifacts recovered from the complex. Most interestingly, prominently displayed is a translation of Admiral Ota’s final message to his superiors in Tokyo, which highlights the horrors of the mêlée, along with the suffering of the proud and loyal Okinawan people.  Equally as moving is Ota’s Death Poem, still visible on the wall of his room, which translates “How could we rejoice over our birth but to die an honorable death under the Emperor’s flag?”  Note that this poem’s tone and underlying message is much different from an earlier death poem telegraphed to his superiors:  “Even if my body perishes in Okinawa, the noble Japanese spirit within my soul shall defend Japan forever.”

Ota's Death Poem is at the far end of the room.

Ota’s Death Poem is at the far end of the room.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, anchor memorial monument flag staffOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, recovered WWII artifacts from the tunnelsThe memorial on the hilltop consists of a tall central monument with Japanese inscriptions, three shorter monuments with dedications, and a ship mast (or flagstaff) and anchor in honor of the sacrifice of the Japanese Navy in WWII. All of the inscriptions and dedications on the monuments are in Japanese except for one.  In English, it states, “This monument is dedicated to the memory of Vice Admiral Minoru Ota, Commanding Officer of the Japanese Navy and his 4,000 men who committed suicide in this underground headquarters on June 13, 1945 after having shared in a hard-fought battle during World War II.  A poem carved in a wall of this trench by Admiral Ota as his farewell word is still legible.  Commanding Officer‘s room, center of operations, and the staff room remain in this underground headquarters which are reminiscent of the bygone days.”  Small tokens left by visitors are scattered at the monuments’ base and throughout the tunnels:  flowers, money left with a Buddha, and paper cranes representing grief and prayers for peace.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground,  anchor memorial monument


Life finds a way....

Life finds a way….

Long shadow of the past....

Long shadow of the past….

Like most memorials on Okinawa, the focus here is on peace highlighted through the tragedy, calamity, and pointlessness of war. The only named person is Ota; the “rest” are simply a (large) number.  The monuments, reaching skyward, are set majestically on a hilltop overlooking the sea, surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful flowers, quite tranquil and apart from the urban sprawl found at the base of the hill.

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

At 1600 on June 12, 1945, after being encircled by the U.S. 6th Marine Division, Ōta sent a farewell telegram to the Imperial Japanese Army’s 32nd Army Headquarters. In it he amply highlights the fallacy of the battle, the mistreatment of the Okinawan people, and his deep concern over their future as a people and culture.  That telegram reads:

Please convey the following telegram to the Vice-Admiral.

While the Governor should be the person to relay this report on the present condition of the Okinawa prefectural inhabitants, he has no available means of communication and the 32nd Division Headquarters appears to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondences. However, due to the critical situations we are in, I feel compelled to make this urgent report though it is without the Governor’s consent.

Since the enemy attack began, our Army and Navy has been fighting defensive battles and have not been able to tend to the people of the Prefecture. Consequently, due to our negligence, these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to partake in the defense, while women, children and elders are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters which are not tactically important or are exposed to shelling, air raids or the harsh elements of nature. Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers and have gone as far as to volunteer in carrying ammunition, or join in attacking the enemy.

This leaves the village people vulnerable to enemy attacks where they will surely be killed. In desperation, some parents have asked the military to protect their daughters against rape by the enemy, prepared that they may never see them again.

Nurses, with wounded soldiers, wander aimlessly because the medical team had moved and left them behind. The military has changed its operation, ordering people to move to far residential areas, however, those without means of transportation trudge along on foot in the dark and rain, all the while looking for food to stay alive.

Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the Prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor, while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant life is gone.

Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that you give the Okinawan people special consideration, this day forward.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the agony of the Okinawan People


Price: 440 yen for adults and 220 yen for elementary and junior high students entrance fee.  Younger children are free.  Yen only is accepted.

Hours: Year-round, 0830 – 1730 (Jul – Sept), 0830 – 1700 (Oct – Jun)

Address: 236 Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku, Okinawa Japan

Phone: 098/850-4055

Japan, You’re Doing it Wrong! (Sometimes)


Japan, you're doing this wrong!

Japan, you’re doing this wrong!

It’s not a shock to anyone following Far East Fling that Jody and I are huge fans of the Japanese and Okinawans, their culture, and their country.  I recently did a blog on our “Top 10 Things Done Right” in Japan, but of course, being in Asia, every yin has its yang, or vice versa.  In other words, there are things done wrong in the Far East, sometimes dreadfully so!  Thus, what follows is our (short) listing of the “Top 10 Vexes” that irks us here to no end.  While you may not agree, and it may counter to flirting with the Far East, I hope that at least you find the humor in the views of a couple of misplaced gaijin Westerners.

Colonel, you're doing it wrong in Japan.

Colonel, they’re doing it wrong in Japan.

10. KFC. That’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The KFCs in Okinawa are certainly not in Kansas anymore, and neither can one find a hint of Kentucky in Okinawa.  The chickens are smallish Asian birds, and the original recipe is served quite slimy (all personal opinion, of course).  The sodas are quite size-challenged, looking more like a kiddie drink in the states, and this strong American male needs more than a shot (or two) of Coke, diet or not.  But the worst offense, by far, one which the Colonel standing outside every KFC in Japan cannot overcome with his food aficionado’s charm, is the biscuit served here.  They are at once dense, lacking both butter- and buttermilk flavors, and presented with a hole in the center.  People, it’s more like a donut that a buttermilk biscuit!  And it should be considered a culinary crime.

I believe this is wrong.  On many levels.

I believe this is wrong. On many levels.

9. Christmas. Now that Halloween is about to come and go, Japan is already switching to Christmas.  Shop-fronts are being decorated with most-things Santa, trees are popping up in hotel lobbies, and you’ll find a plastic Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa outfit outside many branches of KFC throughout Okinawa (still can’t make up for the dang biscuit tragedy).  But, like most places, the hype can’t hold up to actually delivering the Christmas spirit.  It’s no secret that Japan isn’t based on Christianity, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that Christmas Day is just another working day for the Japanese.  In fact, Christmas in Japan is really for lovers (see my blog Christmas is for Lovers).  And, given that paradigm shift, December 24th in Japan is perhaps considered the biggest day for romance of the year.  But very shortly afterwards, the Japanese swiftly move on to more fitting and appropriate Asian-inspired holidays, like celebrating the Chinese lunar new year….  Of course there is the fixation in Japan on “Christmas Dinner,” which in the last 40 years has become completely synonymous with KFC (do you sense a common denominator so far??).  So instead of the biggest, baddest, bestest roast beast of the year, the Japanese turn to a family-sized bucket of the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken to season the season.  And they are dead serious about it here; orders usually are placed sometime in November, and KFCs publish a pickup schedule as timely and precise as they are known for the running of their mass transit trains.


8. Red Lights and No Left (our right) Turns. There is no left on red here, the equivalent of no right turn on red in America.  Now sure, there are places where this may hold true at home in the states, but by-in-large, we endeavor to keep traffic moving along by allowing such turns…albeit after a full stop and checking for others who may have right-of-way.  In Japan, pedestrians hold sanctity over timeliness (which is itself next to godliness, or so we’re all told); here, people on foot or bike actually matter more than how late you may be to grabbing your overpriced Starbucks caramel mocha frappuccino.  Likewise, many neighborhood intersections stop traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross (read more in my blog Red Lights Running).  These two facets of Japanese traffic de-engineering – no turns on red and stopping all traffic – are bad enough alone or together, but when you realize that none of the lights are timed with any others, and every red light here works on a simple timer vice being traffic-triggered, grid lock assumes a new and potentially frustrating definition.  If the Japanese drivers and people weren’t so dang polite, it would surely lead to road rage…but her there is NONE.  Another amazing benefit:  it allows small children in Japan, like 5 or 6 years old, to walk to school alone, where they simply raise their hand when approaching an intersection as a signal that they intend to cross the road and you best stop and yield (which most do).


7. Renting and Moving. Moving is expensive, relatively speaking, no matter where one resides.  With plots the size of most American backyards costing obscene amounts of money in Japan, it’s really no wonder that rents here are so high.  But renting an apartment involves far more expenditure than the same action generally requires back home in the States.  It takes handfuls of cash here to get handed a key!  When renting a domicile in Japan, generally speaking, you need a purse bloated enough to cover:  1) First month’s rent up-front, which seems to be an international standard of sorts.  2) “Shikikin,” or the Far East version of a security deposit, where like most places, it is mostly refundable but equal to one or two month’s rent.  3) “Reikin,” or a gratuity, where the capitalistic-lite money-trail in Japan takes its first dramatic and uncapitalistic twist.  Written in kanji as 礼 “thanks” and 金 “money”, reikin of up to two month’s rent is paid to some greedy landlords in order to secure an apartment.  4) Housing agency fees, which accounts for yet another month’s rent.  And finally, 5) Price Gouging.  This last one I’m perfectly okay with, being married to an Active Duty member of the US armed forces.  The Okinawans know all too well what the maximum housing allowances are for the American military, based on rank and dependent status, and often times will price a unit targeted at Americans at the very upper allowance limit, which is often times 33-50% more than would be charged for a local.  Since military members don’t get more than they actually pay in rent, no one loses.  In fact, I’m all for the local economy benefiting from having such a large and strong American presence on their tiny island.  For me and Jody, renting our Quirky Condo (see the blog Our Home, Kwuirky with a K!), priced at ~$2750/month, cost us out-of-pocket something on the order of $7,000 in cash.  And this is low considering that most property owners and housing agencies on Okinawa have come to realize (after probably being forced by the US government) that compulsory gratuities are incredibly old-fashioned and illegal in the American framework, and thus they ask only for partially refundable security deposits.  Add in the expensing, in cash, of buying, registering, and insuring two vehicles, and that total jumps to $15,000!  Yikes.

Japan isn't the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

Japan isn’t the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

6. Bureaucracy. Some rather silly traditions and rules past their primes result in a rigid bureaucracy in Japan, which they get incredibly “right.”  It makes this “wrong” listing since some elements of the Japanese society can be frustratingly backwards.  The Japanese positively excel at making inane processes even more laborious and painful; rules in Japan were and are never made or intended to be broken.  Ever.  Case in point:  we went to board an airport terminal bus, and were the only two getting on.  However, we were motioned off the bus and down along the curb about 40’, where, after the bus pulled forward, we were then allowed to board….  All Jody and I could do was smile at each other.  Japanese bureaucracy, however, is also largely responsible for many of the reasons why Jody and I enjoy living in a country where everything runs so smoothly, from on-time, every time mass transit, to first-class customer service wherever you go, to on-time almost-to-the-minute service calls and deliveries, all with zero fuss and all smiles.  These things are only possible through a comprehensive web of rules and standards.  In fact, I’ve been told that either in government service or civilian working life, the Japanese are often wary of those who try to effect change and bend rules as they run counter to the whims and greater good of everyone else.  A favorite line I like to quote:  “While the West invented bureaucracy, the Japanese perfected it!”

Wow.  You get the point.

Wow. You get the point.

5. Packaging. We’re not talking about handsome traditional Japanese packaging or beautiful Asian gift-wrapping here, both of which are unassumingly stunning and widely utilized.  What I’m talking about here is Japan’s craze with sealing most anything and perhaps almost everything in plastic.  Japan as a country is way ahead of America in terms of recycling and consumer participation in the direct management of waste streams, but from every appearance, there is a use of plastic more massive than anything in the West that I’m familiar with.  Now, who doesn’t like crisp, fresh and delicious crackers?  But not each individual one needs to be hermetically sealed.  Seriously, Japan, you are killing us and your small corner of the planet with plastic.  Give it a rest!

Television done so very wrong.

Television done so very wrong.

4. Television. Japan offers a wide array of quality anime and raw manga, and of course there are the cheesy dramas that the Japanese love with a passion, but much of the programming here (especially in Okinawa) is just crudely bad.  Silly low-budget chat shows, slapstick comedies, and the craziest game shows on the planet all make the menu of mediocre.  Now if variety shows tickle your fancy – ones with large panels of the same B-list celebrities week after week, each with carefully crafted lines and jokes and female audience members exclaiming “EEEEE-eee!” in amazement and disbelief, all presented in a format that looks like it was produced by a bunch of high-school vocational broadcasting students – then you’re in for a real treat in Japan.  Jody and I, however, switch on our televisions to Japanese programming only when we’ve run out of cute cat videos to watch online.

photo (1)

3. Money and ATMs. Producing some of the world’s best technological gadgets, one would think that the Japanese would be paying for their commercialism by embedded RF chips in their forearms or via retinal scanning, let alone swiping a piece of plastic like most of the rest of the First World does.  While businesses are getting better and better about accepting credit cards, Okinawa (and wider Japan to a lesser extent) is still very much a cash-based society that necessitates have at least ten or twenty thousand yen in your wallet at any given time.  Especially on the weekends.  “Why,” I hear you asking?  Because the majority of ATMs (and their hosting banks) close completely – literally via an automated metal shutter – in the evening and on weekends.  Or if they remain open, extra fees for cash withdraws when most people want cash the most are charged.  Many local bars and Mom & Pop businesses remain strictly cash only, debit cards use remains rare.  Hey Japan, if you want your well-paid citizenry to roil up the economy, you’ve got to allow access to money!  Lucky for Jody and I, the ATMs on base are all run by the 24/7 American banking industry, and Bank of America ATMs discharge both dollars and Yen without any surcharges.  We still carry around gobs of cash, both in dollars and yen.

But people don't take garbage with them....

But people don’t take garbage with them….

2. Public Trash Cans. One of the most annoying facets of living in Okinawa is the island’s apparent abhorrence with public trash cans.  I can just imagine the bureaucratic logic:  “Hey Mayumi, if we put out public trash cans, not only do we have to buy them first, we have to pay for pickup!”  “Osamu, you’re absolutely right:  no public trash cans is the absolute and only solution!”  So, we live along an absolutely beautiful and popular seawall fronting the East China Sea, only to have it marred by constant litter everywhere.  No, the public doesn’t take their refuse away, nor does the community chip in to help.  Litter is ubiquitous, exactly because there is nowhere to put it.  If only Japan had their version of a proud, shirtless Indian crying along the seashore, things would be different.  Shame on you Japan, for being both obtuse litterbugs AND not providing a means for public refuse collection.

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

1. Heating, Cooling & (the lack of) Insulation. Like the Geiko commercials go, everyone knows that…houses in Japan are thin and poorly insulated because they’re designed to be as light as possible in order to better withstand earthquakes.  But that doesn’t have to mean they are either insanely hot during an Okinawan summer, or miserably cold in the northern reaches of Honshu in winter.  A lack of central air conditioning means each room has its own power-hungry wall-mounted air conditioner, a rather inefficient way to cool or heat a dwelling.  Add in what seems to be almost a national allergy to any material or design with even a hint of insulating properties, what results is an Island populace that is, in effect, cooling (or heating) the surrounding environment in their expensive efforts to make the indoors inhabitable!  Read Timeless Townhouse for more on historical Japanese home design.  In fact, What happens is that the external environment actually finds it way inside; see Tropical Troubles for one unfortunate result.  One day Japan will come to the collective realization that science has, indeed, already produced ultra-light, super-insulating and affordable materials that can be effectively integrated into Japan’s domestic domiciles.


In the grand scheme of life in our Far East Fling, these pet peeves matter little. Life is Good in and throughout Japan!  But like anywhere else in the world, life in this island-nation of Asia has its pros and cons.  What do YOU who have traveled or lived here find most annoying about being a stranger in this strange land?

Okinawa Eats: Kajinho, Pizza in the Sky


12425307123_d8a0d3f94d_bAmbiance: Local establishment situated high on a hillside in the Motobu peninsula.  With beautiful views and open-air seating on nicer days, the place is hugely popular and thus often very crowded.

Service: Although very crowded, the service during our visits has been impeccable.

Food Quality: Average-to-above-average, except for presentation.

Features: Minimal outdoor seating around the restaurant’s perimeter, with rustic bench-type seating inside.  Overflow seating in a type of circus-tent, an area that I would recommend diners attempt to avoid.

Cuisine: Pizza, one kind, house salad, and a wide array of tropical drinks and desserts.

Price/Value: Average.


Getting to this restaurant is not easy, even with instructions, printed maps, and pins on your iPhone (make sure it is right!). Luckily for us, being a car-load of gaijin climbing the surrounding hillside roads, the locals knew where we all wanted to go, and a woman actually approached and assured us of the way…think goodness!  Finally, just over the rise of the hill and down a narrow road into a gravel parking lot stood “Pizza in the Sky,” in all its rumored glory gleaming proudly in the bright afternoon sun.


Pizza in the Sky, like many other of the quaint style of eateries on Okinawa, appears to be operated within a traditional Japanese home. There is the expected indoor seating, but a really charming patio around the perimeter of the main building.  Watch out though:  as stated above, there is one seating area that I recommend diners avoid, a covered area set off to the side utilizing picnic table-like seating.


There are some really fine touches at Pizza in the sky. Their simple and short menu is printed on beautiful Asian fans.  What you will find is exactly what you’ve heard:  two sizes of pizza (and only one kind), salad, and various drinks.  Note that there is no choice in the pizza, rather, everyone gets the pizza of the day at Kajinho!


12357997233_839c53d102_b12425295503_b4daa3aee2_bThe pizza is not bad, and the salad was quite nice. The pizza crust is thicker than what I prefer, and takes a bit of chew to get through easily.  The cheese is not exactly what I would call “Italian,” but the chefs are not shy with it!  The salad is served in a large bowl easily enough for two, and is topped with a Japanese-inspired tangy vinaigrette.  The fresh juices, while delicious, are quite expensive.  It seems that their menu draws mixed reviews from the American public.  The real star, edibly speaking, was the tea that most of us at our large table ordered. Kajinho serves theirs with a bouquet of flowers and in rustically Okinawan pottery.  Regardless of what you think about the food, the fantastic views of the East China Sea are always satisfying.


Although the food is not to die for, in my opinion neither is the ambiance. Contrary to the urban legend of mythical proportions that has arisen around Pizza in the Sky, the mass of crowds that can share this hilltop location with you are enough to cancel out any romantic or rustic notion of dining here.  Crowds seem to crush at lunch, combining trips to the Aquarium or Butterfly Garden with a stop for a bite to eat.  I have heard that the dinner wait is much, much shorter, but watch the clock:  they close early with last order at 1830.


Beware there are a lot of bugs here, especially at night or near sunset. The staff does provide some bug-repellent coils to burn at your outdoor tables, but just be prepared for mosquitos and no-see-ums.  And come prepared:  Yen only!!


Hours: Open 12:00 – 19:00 (Last Order 18:30), closed Tuesday & Wednesday

Address:  1153-2 Yamazato, Motobu-cho

Phone: 098-047-5537

Wheeled Headdress: Motorcycle Helmets in Japan

He has a helmet.  On his sissy bar.  And that's where it probably stays....

He has a helmet. On his sissy bar. And that’s where it probably stays….

“What do you call a motorcyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet: an organ donor.”  ~David Perry

“If you think you don’t need a helmet, you probably don’t….” ~Unknown


The Japanese have an incomprehensible habit involving their motorcycle helmets: they fail to fasten them to their heads.

So I’m driving home from the Marina where I teach scuba diving, a short drive, perhaps no more than about a mile and a half. However, the road traveled on this particular journey is the main north-south thoroughfare on Okinawa (“Hwy 58”), and the specific stretch of pavement reaching to my home neighborhood lacks red lights, stop signs, and allows some of the faster driving on Okinawa…at a blistering 60 kph, roughly 40 mph!

So on my drive there’s a guy who is bending down at the shoulder. As I close at the speed limit (this stretch of road is well-known for speed traps), I realize he’s retrieving a helmet, and when his “beanie” half-head motorcycle headdress is squarely in his hands, he starts to run up the sidewalk with the flow of traffic.


My eyes curiously project to his likely destination, and notice a woman, a tiny Japanese girl, who is barely holding up what is considered here a true motorcycle, but at home would be more akin to a large dirt-bike. I pass her, seeing the strain of keeping all 300 pounds of that bike upright and off the ground, and watching in the rear-view mirror, I see the bike’s operator finally reach his certainly-soon-to-be-dropped mechanical steed.

And just as this spectacle is disappearing from the limits of my sight, the dude jumps back on the bike and places his helmet squarely on his head. Backwards and unbuckled.  And takes off down the road, his passenger giddy with delight…the helmet just waiting for the right gust of wind to be castaway, again.

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use.  Notice the bike is NOT moving....

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use. Notice the bike is NOT moving….

In 2013 there were 4,373 road fatalities in Japan (compared to our 33,000-odd annual road deaths), a total that the Japanese consider “excessively high,” even though it’s their 12th year of steady decline.  The Japanese government has responded by taking measures to reduce the number of annual road fatalities to fewer than 3,000 by 2015, in line with its goal of making Japan’s roads the safest in the world.  They are already pretty ding-dang safe.  At least in a car.

What's wrong with this picture:  no dog helmet!

What’s wrong with this picture: no dog helmet!

Thus, one of the “Priority Issues” that is being addressed in Japan’s 2014 Spring Road Safety Campaign include the proper wearing of helmets: of the 760 persons who died in Japan in 2013 while riding a motorcycle, just under half suffered head injuries even though 94.9% of the riders were “wearing” their helmets. A solid 33% of these unfortunate souls lost their helmets at impact. Primarily because they were either improperly fastened (think backwards or way up high on their heads) or not fastened at all (think straps dangling down swinging freely in the wind).

Okay, the cops wear helmets.  But apparently don't know how to use kickstands....

Okay, the cops wear helmets. But apparently don’t know how to use kickstands….

Now let’s be perfectly clear: there is a mandatory helmet law in Japan, for both driver and passenger.  And there is even a bicycle helmet law for kids under 13.  What I can’t find is the actual text of the law.  I have been told, in classic urban legend fashion, that the law only requires motorcycle riders to have a helmet, not actually wear it or fasten it….  Seems too ludicrous to be true, but it’s also oddly Japanese-enough to be totally believable.  Whatever the case, the police here in Okinawa seem to either be oblivious about helmet use (or the law), or simply look the other way.  Or perhaps helmets really don’t need to be buckled and/or fastened….

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet.  Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet. Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

As an aside, there is another facet of Japanese automobile operation that would make most Americans’ skin crawl. Although front seat seatbelt use in Japan is well over 90%, it is not uncommon to see children on the seats of both driver and front-seat passengers, even sitting on car’s dash!  Jody and I both cringe every time we see such a tragedy waiting to happen.

What's wrong with this picture?  No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards.  No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

What’s wrong with this picture? No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards. No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear all the hardcore bikers screaming about their “right” to NOT wear a helmet. Something about freedom and such….  I am a biker and I wear a helmet.  Arguing against such laws is as silly as claiming that the Civil War was really a war of northern aggression and a violation of states’ rights….  I don’t really care what other bikers choose to do.  As long as I don’t have to pay their medical bills or disability (and therein lays the rub).  However, what is clear is that helmets do reduce injury and potentially help avoid fatalities.


Whatever the case, I really wanted just a few seconds with the helmet-challenged guy who stars in the opening of this blog to explain this: fastening your helmet, besides providing some measure of safety (however little), would at least avoid having it fly off your head, thereby leaving your bike in the care of your 90-pound Japanese girlfriend, who will, sooner or later, certainly drop your ride since her feet can barely touch the ground….  Maybe that would make a little more sense about wearing motorcycle helmets…in Japan!

What's wrong with this picture?  Riding in a skirt, while sexy, can be quite dangerous!

What’s wrong with this picture? Riding in a skirt, while sexy, has to be dangerous to her naughty bits!

Okinawa Traces of War: Haebaru Army Field Hospital

The Okinawa Army Hospital Unit 18803 was organized within the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army forces in Kumamoto in 1944.  Although medical activities started in Naha in June of that year, allied aircraft carrier attacks of 10/10 (as they are known to history) destroyed the hospital facilities, which forced a move of the hospital to the Haebaru National Elementary School building.  Soon thereafter, under guidance of the 32nd Army’s Engineering Unit, approximately 30 cave tunnels were dug into Aza Kyan and Aza Kanegusuku.

Buried Meds:  many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

Buried Meds: many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

In late March 1945, allied naval bombardment forced the abandonment of all the regular facilities, and the entire operation was moved into the cave system. The hospital was staffed by approximately 350 surgeons, nurses and hospitalmen, who were augmented by 222 female high school students from the First Prefectural Girl’s High School (Himeyuri Gakuto), who trained and served as nursing aids under the guidance of 18 of their teachers.  The director of the hospital was Hiroike Bunkichi.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Although initially organized into three departments of Infectious Diseases, Surgery, and Internal Medicine, after allied forces landed on the first of April, 1945, the hospital reorganized all the wards into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Surgical Departments due to the sharp increase in battle-related injuries requiring emergency intervention.

Charred Support Beams:  Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

Charred Support Beams: Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

By the end of May, allied forces had pushed the Japanese far to the south of Okinawa, and the decision was made for all Japanese forces to retreat to the Mabuni area to make a last, protracted stand.  The order was sent to the hospital to disband and move all ambulatory patients by foot.  Those that could not travel were given potassium cyanide in their milk, and, as the museum’s brochure in English states, “…and compulsion of self-determination was carried out on this occasion.”  The Japanese killed all their seriously ill patients, and I’m not sure if this was out of compassion to end their suffering, or simply an act of murder so that they would not fall into US hands where they could provide military intelligence.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

A visit to this sit starts in the Haebaru Town Museum, just west and across a ridge from the tunnel’s entrance. This museum houses a terrific reproduction of the hospital bunker complex, and is designed to give visitors a feel of the conditions at the time.  It features replicas of bunk beds (which you can try out), and an operating table as well as artifacts from the original tunnel.  Realistic replicas of an Imperial Portrait Shrine and a War Dead Memorial bring visitors to the time of Japanese militarization, begun decades prior to the Battle of Okinawa.

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, medicines and medical implements

I visited the tunnel during what turned out to be a tropical storm, and I’m happy I did. I think it provided a more realistic experience.  To get to the tunnel, you walk along the trace of the old footpath that leads to and from the kitchen area and well which supplied the entire tunnel complex.  It has been improved with a modern set of stairs, and thankfully so; moving up and over a substantial ridge would have been otherwise a challenge in the driving wind, rain, and slippery mud-soaked surfaces.

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, food portage for the tunnels

Tunnel #20, the only one reinforced enough to be open to the public, is a man-made tunnel completely dug by hand, measuring roughly 70 meters in length (230 feet) and about 1.8 meters in height and width (a smidgen under 5’11”). It was the main tunnel used by the 2nd Surgical Department, where the eastern half of the tunnel accommodated patients; the central “T” intersection with another tunnel was where most surgeries were performed; and where the western half quartered the staff which worked there.

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, Tunnel #20 recreation

My guide open the doors to the tunnel, and a river of water greeted us as it was freed to seek itself further down the hill. The cave tunnel was much smaller than I expected and that reproduced in the museum, and I found myself having to at least nod my head downwards, otherwise my hardhat would be riding along the tunnel’s ceiling.  Lighting was originally provided by candles spaced quite far apart, today the only light comes from the small flashlights provided with your admission fee, and the passage is at once impedingly dank and dark.  The tunnel was leaking everywhere, and water pooled in various depressions along the earthen floor.  While some areas have been reinforced with modern construction techniques and materials, much of the tunnel remains bare rock.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Most artifacts have been moved down into the town museum, but there are still some left in place, which are pointed out by the guide. All the remains have been removed and reburied.  The one thing missing from the actual tunnel is the missing bunk beds which billeted patients.  These “beds” were bare wood planking, just over 35 inches in width.  Keep in mind our standard twin size bed is 39 inches…and even kids’ narrow beds are generally 36 inches wide!  Each patient got a canteen for water, a small dish for food (which consisted only of rice balls, the size of Ping-Pong balls by the end of the war), and a pot in which to relieve themselves.  No light, no padding, no sheets, and probably not a lot of hope.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

And after leaving the site, that was the overwhelming emotion with which I was left: hopelessness.  While Japan did bring the war on themselves, and there is absolutely no doubt that many Japanese regulars were violent and vicious actors playing their parts in a morally-bankrupt Imperial Japan, I stand by my claim that I wish no one’s son (or daughter) die in conditions or place like this.  Do me a favor:  if you visit, divorce yourself from whatever prejudice you may hold from your own conditioning, education, and exposure to World War II.  Remember, at our cores, there is not much that separates us in our shared human condition.  Death is death, and loss is loss, no matter.  War is tragedy, and immoral by most any definition.

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, deep dank dark small rainy cave by flashlight only

The town of Haebaru opened the 1st Surgery Tunnel #20 in 2007 as an important cultural asset that serves to educate the public about the misery and tragedy of war, and to protect this history for future generations to learn from.  The Hospital Tunnel is open from 0900-1700 by reservation only, and is closed on Wednesdays, and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 200 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru-cho, Okinawa 901-1113.

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

The Haebaru Town Museum is open from 0900-1800, and is closed on Wednesdays and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3). Admission is 300 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru Town, Okinawa; Email


Read more about this topic here:  Okinawa’s Sobering Sick-Wards

A Yennie for Your Thoughts?


Penny-wise or 2.4 cents foolish?? The Japanese Yen, their smallest denomination coin almost directly akin and valued as the American penny, may suffer a shared fate.  And rightfully so!


The American debate over the fate of our penny continues to rage, not so much with the average American, who rather strongly supports pulling pennies from circulation, but within the United States government over whether the American one-cent coin should be eliminated as a unit of currency. In fact, two bills have been introduced in Congress that would cease production of pennies, but neither bill has been approved.  In early 2013, even President Obama stated his willingness to discard the penny.


But why consider revamping a long-lived and somewhat loved currency system? Depending on the source you use, each zinc and copper penny in the states costs from 1.6 (to produce), or up to 2.4 cents (to produce and distribute).  Economically speaking, it’s officially SILLY to mint coins which cost more than they are worth!  Pennies also drain our money in circulation as they are squirreled away in drawers and jars, on the order of $60.2 million in fiscal year 2011.  In their defense, though, the penny is not the only American coin that costs more than it’s worth.  Nickels cost 11.18 cents to produce and distribute, and over $56.5 million in nickels disappeared from circulation in 2011.


But what about the “yennie” in Japan? Japan remains in love with their 1-yen coin.  Sure, the rest of the developed world (sans the US of A) continues its divorce from their respective smallest denomination coins for convenience sake and economic pragmatism (i.e., their drastic decline in purchasing power over the last 30 years).  But for many Japanese, the fake-looking and cheaper-feeling aluminum of the one-yen coin serves as the philosophical base of Japan’s economy, making it emotionally hard for them to let go.  In fact, the one-yen coin is the most pure of the Japanese coins, being “one,” made of 100% aluminum, and weighing (by law) exactly 1 gram.  The Japanese are known to calibrate weight scales using saved yennies!


The rational solution is easy to implement and to understand, and has been proven as a widely accepted method of ridding a country of the production and management overheads and the burden on the economy – not to mention the teeth-clenching hair-pulling frustration that it gives consumers, businesses and banks alike: do away with these dinosaurs of a different era.


Canada has had a one-cent coin of similar size and color as its American counterpart. Nearly identical in composition, look, and feel, they even circulate at par value in small quantities in the United States (and vice-versa).  In a bold move in a country where the government actually seems to function at times, in 2012 the Canadian government announced that it will eliminate the penny from the Canadian coinage system.  The final Canadian penny was minted on 4 May 2012, followed in 2013 by the end of distribution.  Businesses in our northern neighbor simply round cash transactions to the nearest five-cent increment, but checks and transactions using electronic payments remain executed at full penny-based value.

Money on her Mind

Money on her Mind

There are many other precedents. In the last 35 years, a number of countries, including Australia, Hungary, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand, Brazil, Finland, the Netherlands, Mexico, Britain, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain, have already dropped their lowest-denominated coins, without dire consequences.


But the 1 yen coin in Japan seems to have a somewhat sacred presence. Alongside the emotional attachment to the coin, there are other potentially stronger factors that could yet lead to its demise, more quickly than people may realize.  In 1997, when Japan raised consumption tax to an easier and more rounded number (5%), the actual demand for 1 yen coins decreased overnight.  With the rise to 10%, and the further proliferation of denshi-money (eMoney/cashless transactions), demand is expected to drop to all-time lows.  In fact, in 2011, for the first time in 43 years since the first minting of the current design, the Mint of Japan didn’t even produce a single 1 yen coin for general circulation.  And, for all the same reasons as everywhere else in the world, the 1 yen coin costs about 1.6-.18 yen to produce.  Sound familiar?!

1-Sen Coin 1944

1-Sen Coin 1944

But there’s even a precedent in Japan as well: the sen.  A single sen is 1/100th of a yen, and used to be minted in Japan as currency until 1953 when inflation made it, well, valueless.  It was rightfully discarded.


America has tried. In 1990, a bill entitled the Price Rounding Act of 1989 (HR 3761) was introduced that would eliminate the penny in cash transactions, requiring rounding to the nearest nickel.  In 2001, another bill called the Legal Tender Modernization Act of 2001 (HR 2528) failed, and in 2006 yet another bill, the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act (HR 5818) likewise failed to pass into law.  The bills received overwhelming popular support from the public, but in truly American fashion, our “Representatives” chose to back party-politics and self-preservation concerns over actually conducting the business of the Nation by the people, for the people.  The only thing Congress has directed our National mint to do is to “study” ways to produce and distribute the penny in less expensive ways….

Congress may or may have not considered the "Money-Bra."  But the Japanese certainly have!

Congress may or may have not considered the “Money-Bra.” But the Japanese certainly have!

Now we don’t have to outright ban pennies. We just need to stop producing them, distributing them as an official part of our currency, and give the consumer choice at the register to pay electrically to the nearest cent…or pay cash for a price rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Some people are very attached to pennies, and currency has always served as a primary means of establishing and showing off sovereignty.  And besides, as (our grandparents) say, “…a penny saved is a penny earned.”  Likewise, electronic transactions would continue to include cents, exactly because there’s no physical exchange of little metal round thingies.


People and businesses in both American and Japan are taking matters into their own hands. The ever popular discount retail store, Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ) has for the last decade or so have provided a sizeable box of one-yen coins at each of their cash registers, and encourage customers to use up to 4 of them with every transaction, effectively eliminating the need for single yen change.  Interesting enough, this aspect of their business model is based on decreasing transaction time at checkout, while circumventing the aggravating (and time-consuming) fumble for yennies in purses, pockets, and wallets.  It’s a brilliant and successful idea, and I’m not sure why more businesses haven’t adopted such a convention.


Now, you can argue (and many have), that inflation results whenever small coins are phased out. While some prices will be rounded down, companies can (and probably would) adjust prices so that most roundings would be to their benefit.  In other words, instead of selling a cup of joe for $5.02, a crime in and of itself, coffee shops would bump the price to $5.03 or $5.04, which then would result in a price of $5.05 in cash transactions, a net gain of three cents per cup!  This could, in essence, cause a small, one-time inflation burst, but it would be really quite painless, especially when we stop and consider the drastic spikes in quality of life that would result:  women won’t be digging through their change purses quite so long, and men’s pants pockets’ metallic burdens will be significantly lightened, to the point (maybe) where men would actually use change in case transactions.  And you thought the Y chromosome came with a penny allergy….  The fact is, over time, there would be no real NET EFFECT on prices.


At U.S. Military bases overseas, the US military’s affiliated stores and commissaries all round transactions up or down to the nearest 5 cent denomination. It works exceedingly well, and I have yet to hear a complaint over unfairness or inflation.  So, when, if ever, is the United States and Japan going to bring their dollars and sense squarely into this Century??

Japanese piggy-banks are much more enjoyable.

Japanese piggy-banks are much more enjoyable.

Or, think about it another way in terms of real life. “Pennies take up too much space on our dressers at home,” Jim Flaherty, the Canadian finance minister, said in characterizing Canada’s decision to eliminate the penny.  A government-sanctioned informative brochure put it this way: “We often store them in jars, throw them away in water fountains, or refuse them as change.”  True enough.


Do we really need pennies? And by extension, does Japan really still need the “yennie”?

A penny…or yennie…for your thoughts?


Read more about this topic here: