Live and Let Die: The Yaru and Tabira in Okinawa


“Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars.” ~Tama Janowitz

No.  No, there is no "cute" roach.  EVER.

No. No, there is no “cute” roach. EVER.

Live and let live. One of the many messages the holiday should convey. Both which always remind me of a most welcomed houseguest we hosted back on Okinawa in 1999.

She ended up staying for the next 20 months. She didn’t take up a lot of room, was seldom if ever seen, and didn’t cost us a dime to keep around. I’m not even sure “it” was a female; I respected her privacy too much to really check, and my guess is based only on “her” reclusive Goth-like teenager behavior….

Who we welcomed into our home back then was the more beneficial of two perennial icons and adversaries of Okinawa. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about the mongoose-snake pairing famous in the Ryukyus. What I’m talking about is the yaru. And she became our home’s guardian from the rather disgusting creature in the pairing, the tabira. Unfortunately she couldn’t protect me from the Land of Misfit Toys I found myself shipwrecked upon….

I bet Ace feels the same way about roaches.  I mean with their fangs and all….

rodanus1tAG_46603The tabira is a much nicer-sounding name for something most of us detest – the large almost indestructible cockroach that seems so ubiquitous at tropical and sub-tropical latitudes all across the globe. I grew up sharing South Florida with these creatures, some approaching the size of Rodan, and who can fly every bit as well. Hell, Godzilla would even have issues warring with these underworld sleuths. Urban legend within my own family states that one can never, ever make eye-contact with a roach: they sense fear and will leverage that advantage by flying directly into your face! Personally, as a hardened veteran of decades of war with these invaders, I conclude that there is not much that can be done to defeat and declare victory over such a robust warrior. Only a pyrrhic win is in the realm of possibility.

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Far more agreeable of this classic pairing is the yaru, Japanese for what we in the west are familiar with as the gecko (“wall lizard”). Like most Japanese characters, it’s an idea more than just a simple word, which best translates as “protector” or “guardian of the home.” This moniker is easily sourced to this particular lizard’s inherent ability to do what we humans can’t: organically control and even defeat roach infestations at every turn.

Our 5 bedroom, two story home back in 1999.  A veritable roach-ryokan if you will....

Our 5 bedroom, two-story home back in 1999. A veritable roach-ryokan if you will….

Our immediate neighborhood.

Our immediate neighborhood.

Back in 1999 we lived in a very large house, which actually had a yard complete with brushes and shrubs. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with sugarcane fields, they themselves riddled with roaches. Which, sooner or later, found their way into our home. Contractual pest control is not something the Okinawans do, and as Americans we are largely left to defend ourselves out on the local economy. While our cat Tora did kill and finally eat a roach or two, it was only when she found one, and then only after about 68 minutes of torturous play. That is if the insect didn’t escape during a lapse in the cat’s attention…. For an interesting tale of how we named our Okinawan-adopted cat, see Tora Tora Tora!

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Okinawa is hot, humid, and often wet, and still in many places covered with dense foliage that you might expect from a subtropical island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still being quite rural in places and without extensive use of pesticides or other more formalized pest control measures, there is a high probably of personal interaction with all sorts of creatures, great and small. The gecko foremost among them.

Moving into our office/computer room.  Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room's AC....

Moving into our office/computer room. Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room’s AC….

So one night came the call from the direction and vicinity of our computer room office. That distinctive chirp that announces a gecko’s presence. At first we didn’t know what it was, and unless one is used to sharing their abode with a reptile or two, it can be quite disconcerting. I tracked our guest’s presence down to one corner of the office, but since her call was so random and short-lived, nailing down the location of her home became an entertaining game of sorts. The kids and I would run to the office door and screech to a stop, me motioning for them to stay quiet and enter the room with stealth in order not to spook our little friend. And then we would tip-toe into the room, looking here and there, motioning to each other in precise coordination using military-like signals.

Which would you rather have:  the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

Which would you rather have: the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

This four-legged friend is unique in appearance with almost transparent skin, and usually announces its presence not visually, but using its very distinctive call, a song usually heard in the evenings, intermittently throughout the night. And what many Americans might consider an uninvited guest, the Japanese welcome into their homes. Okinawans – a very superstitious people – believe that Gecko brings good fortune when found in their homes, so geckos here are not killed or removed from the home, but are left in residence, both as living good luck charms and the guards against insects which they are. From a pragmatic standpoint, this creature – cute to some – really does protect the home from a whole plethora of undesirables, devouring life forms like mosquitos, flies and cockroaches.

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this....

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this….

Unfortunately, like most other aspects of life, there is no free lunch. Well, there is for the gecko, but of course there is a price to pay. All living things excrete, and the yaru is no exception. Thus, small amounts of processed bug may be found around the home, looking like those chocolate sprinkles so popular on cupcakes. These we found often, mostly located below the room’s AC unit, on window sills, and in corners of other rooms in our home. I made this too a detective game to play with the kids, using these finds to track our vigilante’s movements through the home.

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Our gecko’s home was never officially located, or at least I made sure “we” never found her. While I knew exactly where she was living – atop and/or in our room’s air conditioner unit, I wanted the mystery to remain for the kids. I had no intention of ruining our good thing; since the gecko’s arrival, our roach problem had…ceased to exist. But this also highlights a related source of well-known trouble in Okinawa regarding the yaru: air conditioners. In fact, one of the leading causes of AC trouble here is this little innocuous lizard. Air conditioners are nice and warm inside, and offer an inviting place for the lady yarus to nest and start a family (lay eggs). Problem is that often times this results in an electrical short, resulting in not just costly repairs, but the untimely demise of a valued protector. To counter, it’s very easy to find a special attachment for ACs called “Gecko guards” in the home-improvement stores here on Okinawa. In an ironic twist sometimes we have to guard against the guard.

qjuo

Revell%20H450%20GekkoThe nocturnal hunter-killer aspects of the gecko are often confused with a similarly named Japanese aircraft from WWII: The Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (or Gekkou). Developed to meet the Japanese navy’s requirements for a long-range escort fighter, the J1N1 instead entered service as a reconnaissance platform instead. The need to counter the largely unopposed American night bombing raids of 1943 in the Southwest Pacific led to its conversion into a night fighter, a role served so well by the carbon-based version. Starting In May 1943, the J1N1-S meet with success by downing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was quickly nicknamed the “Gekko” (or “Gekkou“), meaning “moonlight” or “moonbeam.” Like most other elements of Japanese aviation in 1945, Gekkos were further modified as kamikaze suicide platforms, something its reptile namesake would never consider.

Live and let live after all.

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I mean, except for those terrible tabira….

Poison or Placenta? What’s YOUR Choice….


“Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” ~Paracelsus

rat-poison

Luckily, my rat poison was in pill form.

Reading the fine print on some meds I had been prescribed, I come across a term that I find…interesting. “Hey Jody, what is “Porcine Intestinal Mucosa?”

“Pig gut,” comes Jody’s flat reply. Right. That’s where I know that word from. Swine.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

Japan offers pill form of their unappetizing meds as well.

I think I owe Japan an apology. I recently wrote a blog (see Placenta: Prescription or Placebo) that might have dissed, however slight, the role that placenta-based supplements play here in the Far East. Placenta, as in that gross stuff that comes out as the after-birth in us (female) mammals. But seriously, is making a drug out of that organic matter any worse than using, say, beef lung, pig intestines, or RAT POISON?

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison.  No difference!!

Coumadin, Warfarin, Rat Poison. No difference!!

Rat poison. I finally get to stop taking the rat poison…more gently referred to as Coumadin…that I’ve been taking for that last 6 months and 10 days. I’m deemed healthy enough to stop my anticoagulation treatment! (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose for some background on my serious illness suffered this summer)

I really hate needles....

Lovenox must be injection. Man I really hate needles….

But that’s only the start. The previous blood thinner — an often used-misnomer for drugs that actually stop your blood from clotting — I, or more honestly mostly my caretaker-extraordinaire beautiful-nurse-wife Jody was shooting into my belly – Lovenox – was made from, no less, the intestines of pigs.

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And the IV drip anticoagulant I was given during my hospital stay in June, heparin, is derived from mucosal tissues of slaughtered meat animals, such as porcine (pig) intestines or bovine (cattle) lungs. Nice how the manufacturers decide to use uncommon nomenclature for such unsavory source ingredients. Coincidence? I think not.

It's surprisingly affordable.  Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

It’s surprisingly affordable. Why do the Rx versions cost so dang much???

Coumadin (a name brand of Warfarin), is an anticoagulant normally used in the prevention of thrombosis, the formation of blood clots in blood vessels. But get this: it was initially introduced in 1948 as a rodent pesticide, and can still be found used for this purpose. Urban legend says that the human medicinal benefit wasn’t recognized until some poor Army sap tried to commit suicide by overdosing on the staff, but whose condition was completely reversed by mere injections of vitamin K. And the only reason I knew to even look this up was a nurse-friend of my wife’s, when she found out I was on the drug, said with a large knowing smile, “Oh, the rat poison!”

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches.  Wait, about that drinking....

No taking aspirin to help with those raging headaches. Wait, about that drinking….

Warfarin is both odorless and tasteless, and is effective when mixed with food bait because rodents will return to the bait and continue to feed over a period of days until a lethal dose is accumulated. In order for us humans to stay alive while we feed on a handful of pills, we just have to go for weekly blood tests to make sure a “lethal dose is NOT accumulated.”

bear facepalm

So, life comes down to relevance. One animal gives a life so that drugs can be made to save people. One culture develops a fetish for placenta-based products sold, not as the fountain of thick mucuousy-looking-goo which they feature in their commercials, but more as a fountain of youth of sorts. Other medical communities develop life-saving medical drugs, but based on other no-less appetizing parts of other sacrificed animals.

The dichotomy, though, is that relevance is not absolute and is often just two sides of the very same coin. Flipped on one side, a drug kills rodents. But tossing it upside-down and suddenly the same drug, using the exact same biological action, can save humans. Having the coin flipped the right way in my case, I sure am glad to be returned to better health.

May or may not be about Placenta (I'm rusty on reading Japanese), but it's the same idea.  I think.

May or may not be about Placenta (I’m rusty on reading Japanese), but it’s the same idea. I think.

And I’m glad to give Japan a respectful break about their placenta fetish. There actually might really be something to it….

Heroes of the Great Wall of China


“If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men.” ~Mao Zedong and his quote which inspires millions of tourists visiting the Great Wall each year

Heroes of the Great Wall - China's label for us, not our own!

Heroes of the Great Wall – China’s label for us, not our own!

 

Finding our Chinese tour guide Allen upon coming down off the Wall, I corner him with a dose of ornery attitude and personal-space invading sassy body language.

“Allen, you can’t see Tower 13 from here, can you,” I emphatically inquire, hoping that my accusatory tone was coming through loud and clear.

“No-no-no, of course not,” came his dismissive reply slathered in an overly coy smile. “It is much higher and much deeper into the pass than that up there,” he continued, pointing to the highest tower visible from our base camp of sorts.

We were almost the last down the wall well past the given meeting time for our tour group. Having been filled with wall-scaling propaganda on the hour-long journey, filled with Mao quotes and talk of the herculean efforts in becoming a hero of the Great Wall, we were thoroughly indoctrinated upon our arrival and were fixated on summiting the pass “Tower 13” at all costs. We did. But boy-oh-boy what a climb!

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Known in Mandarin as chang cheng, literally “long fortress,” the Great Wall of China dates back as far as the 5th century BCE. Several sections of the Great Wall are located within close proximity to Beijing, so trekking small portions of the long fortress is not difficult, logistically speaking at least.

China 2014, Great Wall, signage along the way WM

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west arc that very roughly delineates the southern edge of Mongolia, equating to the historical northern borders of China. It was envisioned as protection against nomadic intrusions and full-scale military incursions by various warlike peoples from the north. Several permanent walls were being built as early as the 7th century BCE, but most were later joined and strengthened by the 14th century resulting in what we see today. Most of the existing wall dates from the Ming Dynasty in China (14th-17th centuries).

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-top wall at a mountain pass

Upon our arrival at the Great Wall, where we were one of the early buses for the day, we had to, of course, walk through a wholly atypical capitalistic Chinese “ancient village” where every vestige of originality has been removed and replaced with perfect, cartoonish copies Disney-style, and where any and all structures house souvenir shops. The weather, well, was not what we wanted: cold temperatures and a forlorn hazy overcast which we were repeatedly told was fog. “Fog” in China is more than synonymous with “smog;” it’s actually PC-speak for downright pollution! Unfortunately the weather was to shed all of our views that day, and result in the somewhat bleak set of pictures found here.

"Allen."  Not his real name.

“Allen.” Not his real name.

Allen, our tour guide, casually briefed us at a map of the Wall. Pointing out our goal – “Tower 13” – he casually waved his hand at the top of the ridgeline above where we could see a tower. “That’s not too bad,” I optimistically thought to myself. I remember thinking it didn’t seem to be that much of a climb. But then again we were only given about two hours to make our trek.

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13....

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13….

My first clue of what lay ahead? “Tower 13.” Ah, of course, it’s has to be unlucky 13. Only in Italy does it seem that the number 13 is considered anything but wickedly sinister.

juyongguan_mapChina 2014, Great Wall, find Jody along the wall! WMDue out limited time, our tour took us to Juyongguan Pass. Also written as Juyong Pass (居庸关 or 居庸關), this 11 mile long valley through a ridge of mountains lies just 31 miles outside of central Beijing. Here a large portion of The Great Wall of China passes through and has been fully restored. Juyongguan historically is one of the three greatest mountain passes of the Great Wall of China. It includes two sub-passes, one at the valley’s south (“Nan”) and the other at the north (“Badaling”). Although fortifications here date much earlier, the pass we see today is the site that was built in the 14th century under the supervision of Xu Da, a general of Zhu Yuanzhang, the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It served as the northwestern gate of ancient Beijing City, and most certainly an important defensive ring for empire’s capital. However, like any good massive public undertaking, there were other uses for the wall as well. The tax man loved the barrier it proved, using it to place duties on goods traveling the historic Silk Road. Oh, and it was an effective barrier to both illegal immigration, and at times undesirable emigration. Makes one think it might be a good idea to have a “Great Wall of American.” And it wouldn’t be along our Canadian border….

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There is debate about the actual linear measure of the wall, since it includes many branches, trenches, and other natural barriers, but the measure lies somewhere between 8,850 km (5,500 mi) and 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Even at the low-end of the measures, it’s still over twice as far as the Miami to Seattle drive I’ve done…four times…which takes a minimum of 4 “reasonable” days averaging 60 mph for 12 hours per!

I couldn't resist....

I couldn’t resist….

great-wall-construction-smallgreat-wall-battle-illustrationThe cliché goes that “many hands make light work.” Although it’s tempting to take the original length of the Great Wall (say 3,100 miles), assume that it was built over 10 years by over 1,000,000 unlucky souls, and run the math to figure that each worker was “only” responsible for about 1.65 feet of wall per year. of MASSIVE wall running across IMPOSSIBLE terrain. Which includes everything needed to complete that 1.65 feet: quarrying, transporting, cutting, lifting, fitting, tamping, and finishing. No, any way you slice this construction project, it was hell to be in its employ. In actuality, if we take that 1.65 linear feet and multiply that by the average height of the Ming wall of 33 feet, and then multiply that by the average width of about 15 feet, converting to cubic yards we find that each poor soul was actually responsible for almost 30 cubic yards of construction. To put this in better perspective, realize that a full-sized cement truck carries only 8 cubic yards of mix; standard dump trucks carry between 5 and 10 cubic yards of earth. Oh, and the Empire paid you only in food…. In actuality, the network of smaller projects was built well over the course of 2,000 years, or 100 generations, and most likely involved many millions of people.

China 2014, Great Wall, private pausing on the way up

China 2014, Great Wall, Kevin happily on the way down!Yes, we dressed appropriately for the weather, forecast to only be in the 40s that day. And luckily we were forewarned to dress in layers. It may seem chilly at first on the Wall (and it is when that dry wind blows right through you), but I guarantee you’ll be breaking a sweat once you reach the second beacon tower along your journey. What we lacked, and could have used, was some water! It’s not like climbing Mount Fuji, but it’s much more of a climb than you think.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody just starting the climb WM

rsz_screen_shot_2014-04-08_at_45452_pmAnd although it’s also been referred to as the “longest cemetery on earth,” confirmations of mass graves or deaths on the wall are hard to come by online. I have, although, seen estimates that put the death toll of construction at over 300,000, but I cannot find one credible instance online that states people were actually buried in the wall. Our tour guide claimed that during restoration of the pass we enjoyed over 5,000 sets of human remains were found in the vicinity.

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Progress on the climb is measured by Watch or Beacon Towers: each is numbered. Although without a portable map, and thinking that the visible tower on top of the ridge was our goal, I didn’t pay much attention to the tower numbering when we first set out. I believe we started at Tower 6…. The visible one I mistook for 13 was actually only tower…EIGHT!!

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody thinks it's lonely near the top

smoke-great-wall-watchtowers-smallgreat_wall_of_china_12The Ming watchtowers were critical components of the Great Wall. Used primarily for observation, they are also called “Beacon Towers,” where their elevated roofs served as platforms for signaling. In fact, it seems that each beacon tower had a ready bunker of firewood, hay and sulphur for making quick, bright and smoky fires. Built no more than twice an arrow’s flight (about 100 yards) apart, the towers provided full defensive coverage; the more elaborate towers stood over 40 feet tall and offered unobstructed views and fields of fire. Observation posts were located on the top floor of the tower; lower floors were used to store supplies and equipment and house soldiers.

China 2014, Great Wall, crowded lower reaches of the wall WM

Note the "Watchful" Cameras

Note the “Watchful” Cameras

Of course there are the ubiquitous cameras on each of the “watch” towers; c’mon, what else would you expect to be going on there! Security cameras are literally everywhere in modern China, and lends credence to the premise of the show Person of Interest. If a machine is tracking your every move, you are most certainly in China. Are you being watched? Yes. In streets, classrooms, stores, mass transit and tourist destinations. Everywhere. If you want to visit China, get used to it.

China 2014, Great Wall, vespa treatment for the mountainous wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, walking the lonely mountain wall WMChina 2014, Great Wall, the long climb up to Tower 13 WMWe press on with our climb. And make no mistake: trekking this section of the Great Wall is a climb. Like setting the stair-stepper at the gym on the hardest setting and then going for a full 60 minute workout! For the love of god, watch your step! When wet, the stone pathways and stairs are super slick; even when dry and on restored stairs, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row (modern building code is a wonderful thing), and some are so steep and high that it becomes more like scaling a ladder than even climbing steep stairs. Steps higher than their width are not uncommon. It’s not until you turn around and look back at the rising, snaking path that you really appreciate the steepness of those steps. It’s hard to find firm information on the vertical ascent to tower 13. At the low-end it seems to be about 630 meters, or about 2,100 feet. At the high-end, the round number 3,000 feet is often quote. My own estimates on the wall, using my trained skydiver and pilot’s eye, was about (but not quite) 3 grand.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody on the climb into the heavens

China 2014, Great Wall, misty wall in a mountain pass WMBattlements are obvious all along the wall. Naturally, the crenellations (and holes for firing) faced the enemy, but drainage is all to the Empire’s side, helping to prevent vegetation which could provide concealment to an enemy. At one point I mentioned to Jody about how low the Wall was in one section. I didn’t realize I was looking onto the “friendly” side; Jody motioned me to the opposite wall where the wall connected to the crest of the ridge, which dropped precipitously a few hundred feet.

There are not many facilities along the way....

There are not many facilities along the way….

The Wall worked, but only marginally, and only for a short period of time. Manchu tribes from the northeast finally surmounted the Wall in 1644 and promptly took over Beijing, then all of China, and established their Qing dynasty, ending the Ming era. Can’t you just see about a million soldiers, slaves, and peasants turning over in the graves sighing, “All that work for nothing!!!”

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-line wall trace (low key)

Once we realized the tower numbering system, we knew a bit more what we were in for. There was no turning back; climbing ahead of us was an older Marine Colonel Nancy who moved out like this was something she did everyday back on Okinawa. Climbing with us was a Marine Major, who you expect to be in good shape, but who was hauling up his 4-year-old daughter on his back, back-pack style! And behind them was a pregnant woman. We all made it up, but only after reaching a point where the pathway actually descended for a couple of hundred yards, before a steep final push to Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, locks of love explanation placard WM

China 2014, Great Wall, kisses atop Towe 13!! WMChina 2014, Great Wall, locking our love together on the Great Wall of China WMAlong the way we noticed locks attacked to various points along the wall. Jody and I had seen this idea of “Love Locks” in our other worldly travels. Sad that we most likely missed our opportunity to pick one up at the base of the wall, we both longingly looked at this missed opportunity. Thankfully, up at Tower 10 or so, the locks were being sold! Writing down our names and date, the Chinese gent immediately engraved our Lock of Love, and off we went in search of “the spot” to leave our romantic impact on China. We found it in the vicinity of Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody happy about our locked love on top of the Great Wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, we were there placard on Beacon Tower 13 WMChina 2014, Great Wall, Jody and tea after our arduous climbFinally, retracing our steps back down – there is not cable car or slide down at this spot on the wall – we decided to have a nice hot tea while waiting for our “Heroes of the Great Wall” certificate to be finished. We all were led to believe, again, by propaganda – or maybe just a really bad assumption – that we needed some type of stamp or document from Tower 13 to be a “hero.” This is not the case! Even so, for our own proof, we took a photo of the placard at the top tower in the pass.

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Jody and I reached the Great Wall, and affirmed the true and heroic nature of not just this wonder of the world, but of the true and heroic nature of mankind in the world. Come to the Great Wall and set your own goal. No matter where you trek or how high you ascend, the Wall will leave on your soul the indelible mark of greatness.

China 2014, Great Wall, curving ridgeline mountainous wall WM

Just remember, like mounting Tower 13 of the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, most worthy goals involve an unexpected and challenging journey, one not visible at the outset. Persevere, and you too can become a Hero in your own right.

 

China 2014, Great Wall, Heroes of the Great wall and their bamboo medal

For more photos of our Far Eastern Flings among the Great Wall of China, see my Flickr Album The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass.

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As an aside, there is often confusion surrounding Mao’s quote about the Wall and the nature of being a man, true or heroic. The quote is taken from the poem “Mount Liupan,” written in late 1935 after the Red Army almost finished the famous Long March. Mount Liupan is a mountain in northwestern China. For context, the poem is included here:

The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

We watch the wild geese vanish southward.

If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men

We who have already measured twenty thousand li

High on the crest of Mount Liupan

Red banners wave freely in the west wind.

Today we hold the long cord in our hands,

When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?

Traces of War: Yomitan Okinawa WWII Aircraft Shelter


Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, bunker's arch and marker WM

The Yomitan Japanese Aircraft Bunker from World War II

Aircraft maintenance was in full swing at Yontan Airfield on Okinawa during the night of 24/25 May, 1945. Parked in this shelter most likely was an American fighter, perhaps a radar-equipped night variant of the classic fighter F-4UN Corsair, a few of which were airborne and flying Combat Air Patrol in the vicinity. The mechanics were hard at work and secure in their location as the raging battle on Okinawa, although still quite audible, had moved far to the south during the previous 7+ weeks.

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But then the anti-aircraft fire started, growing in crescendo to a cacophony of an impossible number of overlapping staccato reports. The sky became illuminated with crisscrossing tracer fire, making night seem like day. But then came the concussions of bombs detonating in close proximity, unpredictably interrupting both the light and sounds shows now playing.

The Commandos' Ride

The Commandos’ Ride

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

Just then, an unknown aircraft made a crash-landing, sliding down one of Yontan’s compacted-coral runway in a shower of sparks and fire, going dark as it screeched to a halt. Unknown to the mechs working mids that night in this shelter, the plane was Japanese, and pouring out of it were specially trained and equipped commandos who immediately began to pitch their explosives in a savage attack covered by the blackness of night….

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

The aircraft bunker pictured above and still standing on Okinawa was most likely built in 1944, around the same time that Kita Airfield (as it was then known to the Japanese) was being constructed by the Imperial Japanese Army, just before the battle of Okinawa, which was officially invaded on 1 April 1945. During the Battle, United States Marine Corps and United States Army forces swept ashore and quickly seized this recently bombarded and then deserted, mostly destroyed airfield on the first day of the landing with almost no resistance. The airfield was littered with wrecked planes and structures, but was quickly repaired and became the first operational airfield on Okinawa used by American forces. Later, it was developed into a major American base for Army, Marine, and Navy aircraft. The Boeing B-29 “Bockscar” landed for scheduled refueling at Yomitan after dropping the atomic bombing on Nagasaki in the summer of 1945.

The "Baka-Bomb," many of which were found on Okinawa.

The “Baka-Bomb,” many of which were found on Okinawa.

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Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

It was at Yontan that the American forces first found the Yokosuka MXY-7 “Ohka” (Cheery Blossom) rocket-propelled kamikaze aircraft. It was a manned flying bomb that was carried beneath a twin-engine mother plane to within range of its target – usually an American ship. At release, the pilot would first glide toward the target, but when close enough he would ignite the Ohka’s rocket engine and provide terminal guidance for the 2,600 pound warhead hidden in the nose. The final approach of this manned-missile was almost unstoppable as its tremendous speed provided a good measure of protection. Even so, only seven allied ships were damaged or sunk by Ohkas throughout the war due to the effective layered defenses of the allied fleet. American sailors gave the aircraft the nickname Baka, Japanese for “fool” or “idiot,” and was most often used as “Baka-bomb.”

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Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

Yontan/Kita airfield was also the site of a famous Japanese Airborne Special Forces unit “Giretsu Kuteitai” suicide attack called “Operation Gi-Gou” described in the opening. Roughly 50 Japanese Navy and Army aircraft bombed the Yomitan and Kadena areas as a diversionary raid. Twelve twin-engine aircraft of the 3rd Dokuritsu Chutai (“Independent Company”), commanded by Captain Chuichi Suwabe and flying from Kumamoto Army Airfield among the main islands of Japan. Each of these aircraft carried eight to twelve commandos, destined to attack Yontan and Kadena airfields. Only about half-dozen Japanese planes approached the targeted airbases, but alert antiaircraft gunners and night-fighters flamed five [note: there is conflicting information on the actual numbers of aircraft and commandos, along with the damage inflicted]. The surviving plane(s) made a wheels-up belly landing on the airstrip and discharged troops. Roughly a dozen commandos survived the crash-landing(s), and using explosives destroyed 9 aircraft and damaged 29 more, set fire to 70,000 gallons of fuel, and created confused havoc throughout the night before being effectively neutralized about twelve hours later. The Americans suffered 3 dead and 18 wounded, while Japan’s losses amounted to 69 pilots and commandos, and of course all their aircraft. This Giretsu raid by the Combined Special Forces Unit is revered in Japan, with a special shrine erected in Peace Prayer Park on Okinawa which marks their heroic but futile efforts.

Missing Historic Marker

Missing Historic Marker

In earlier times...

In earlier times…

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, wooden marker WMThe lone structure of the Kita airfield that exists from 1945 is the subject of this blog. The structure is designed to be hardened by concrete, but to be reinforced and hidden by earth and vegetation. The Japanese called these earth-bermed facilities entaigou ( 掩体壕 ). Originally completely covered with soil and most likely some vegetation (at least grasses), heavy rains, typhoons, and general exposure to the elements have completely eroded such earthen cover. At the time, almost all of these type hangars were constructed by forming dirt to a desired shape, and then applying concrete to the desired thickness, while a more conventional cinder-block shed/office area was constructed at the rear of the facility. As far as I can tell, there is no rebar reinforcement. Once cured, the sand/dirt was removed and used to cover the facility. Finally, vegetation was planted in order to attempt to camouflage from the prying eyes of American reconnaissance planes. By that time in the war, though, using side-looking cameras and vertical stereoscopic imagery easily defeated these attempts. Even so, it’s amazing that such a structure did survive the war, seeing that Kita airfield was the focus of intense shelling, bombing and rocket attacks, including everything from light single-engine fighters strafing the field with machine gun and rockets, to the mighty 16 inch guns of multiple battleships firing 2,000 pound explosive shells. As unlikely as its survival during the war, it is equally unlikely that it continues to survive in the middle of Yomitan’s urban sprawl.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, arched shelter WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, hangar's approach (color) WMOkinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, wooden marker and concrete alter WMSuch structures were no doubt utilized by the airfield’s new tenants after capture. After the war, the airfield was maintained and expanded by the US military as an Auxiliary Army Airfield (AAF), but became primarily utilized for parachute training. Over time, it lost its strategic value to the growing presence of the much larger Kadena Airbase just to the south, and slowly the Americans returned land – and this shelter – back to the local Yomitan residents. Thus, the farmers moved in, and found the shelter once again useful as a garage and storeroom, places to keep their carts and equipment protected from the weather, and their bodies cool and dry away from the sun and downpours common to the area.

Blockhouse in the rear.

Blockhouse in the rear.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, roughed and reinforced interior WMOkinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, inside looking out WMUnfortunately, the historical marker was missing during my visit, although I understand it was only very recently erected. In any case, it appears that someone or some group is serious about preservation of this structure. There is a robust internal skeleton reinforcing the concrete arch, and although entry is completely blocked by chain-link fencing, it is fully accessible otherwise. However, with a few more decades exposure to Okinawa’s harsh climate, I anticipate that the concrete will degrade and unfortunately start to crumble unless there is even more remediation.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, bunker's profile WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, historic bunker and modern alter

Crude Construction

Crude Construction

Although there are still a few of these once-hidden Japanese-built bunkers preserved on Kadena Air Force base, only the American military community has easy access and can visit there. Those shelters, however, are small and made for the Ohkas as described above, mostly filled-in (with sand/dirt), and almost completely inaccessible. I believe that this shelter in Yomitan is the only full-size aircraft shelter left on the island of Okinawa from World War II.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, roughed and reinforced internal structure 2 WM

Just think about all the stories it could tell….

 

For a good location of this rather hard-to-find monument, see my dropped pin.  It is located in the vicinity of 2944 Zakimi, Yomitan-son, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa-ken.

Hero of War: The Railway Man


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~ Takashi Nagase, Imperial Japanese Army Officer during WWII, reflecting on his and Japan’s role in the brutality, torture and death suffered on the Burma-Thai “Death Railway”

“He said, ‘Son, have you seen the world? Well, what would you say if I said that you could? Just carry this gun and you’ll even get paid.’ I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

I found myself frozen and sobbing uncontrollably. Sitting there at our living-room sited computer processing photos in Photoshop, listening to iTunes on headphones while Jody milled about the kitchen, a song – Hero of War (Rise Against) – started to play, a song I hadn’t heard in a very long time. Jody, realizing I was unexpectedly in some type of serious distress and came to comfort me as best she could. But unknowing and unexperienced with my own personal brush with PTSD, all that she could do was to hold me.  And that was all I really needed.

“A hero of war, yeah that’s what I’ll be

And when I come home they’ll be damn proud of me

I’ll carry this flag to the grave if I must

Because it’s a flag that I love and a flag that I trust”

For me, this is thankfully a very infrequent occurrence now; the realistic flashbacks, the empty hopelessness, and the crushing sadness all but extinct. I’m not even sure I’ve suffered a service-related nightmare since getting remarried in 2011. But this episode unfortunately shows that parts of my past still coldly lurks, ready to attack, without providing any quarter.

“I kicked in the door, I yelled my commands, the children, they cried, but I got my man. We took him away, A bag over his face, from his family and his friends

They took off his clothes, they pissed in his hands; I told them to stop, but then I joined in. We beat him with guns and batons not just once but again and again”

But it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that brought about this offense to my otherwise happy and settled state of mind. Jody and I recently watched The Railway Man, one of the many movies I have in my Netflix queue that are war-related. This one, however, deals not only with coming to sensible terms with a horrific past, but focuses on the legacy of the atrocities – on all sides – committed by the Japanese during WWII in the Far East.  It was the thoughts of my own remorse weaving through my subconscious resulting from our theatrical viewing that finally erupted to the surface, catalyzed by the powerful song.

Trailer for “The Railway Man”

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction.  Most of them locals.

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction. Most of them locals.

The Railway Man concerns a small corner of the horrific war in the Pacific, just another of the many hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking footnotes to World War II which all cry for telling as well as this movie does. This particular TRUE story will humble the hardest, and touch even the untouchable. Based on the best-selling memoir of Eric Lomax, the story opens in Singapore as the War in the Pacific spreads like an inoperable cancer. Lomax was then a young and idealistic British soldier serving overseas, but was captured by the Japanese in 1942 as Singapore fell to brutal Imperial expansionism. Subsequently, he becomes a slave laborer and prisoner of war compelled to help in the construction of the notorious “Death Railway,” so named because of the thousands who died and were buried along the rails traversing between Thailand to Burma. Some of you may more readily recognize the railway as the backdrop for the fictional movie award-winning movie, Bridge over the River Kwai.

“She walked through bullets and haze

I asked her to stop, I begged her to stay, but she pressed on

So I lifted my gun and I fired away

The shells jumped through the smoke and into the sand that the blood now had soaked

She collapsed with a flag in her hand, a flag white as snow”

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Somehow Lomax miraculously survives the War, and after almost succumbing to his metaphysical injuries, he finds himself…40 years later…precipitously able to confront one of his torturers who had unjustly escaped prosecution as a war criminal. After tracking down ex-Japanese officer/translator Takashi Nagase, who was then running a peace museum at the site of their old POW camp, Lomax returns to Asian in an attempt to let go of a lifetime of bitterness and hate.

Lomax’s trials and tribulations with “shell shock” as it was called back then are painfully portrayed in the film. And it serves to highlight the nuances of injury that veterans may suffer from the impossible situations many find themselves unprepared to confront. National Public Radio recently did a story focused on what is being described as “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This new labeling – a modern recharacterization of PTSD – centers on the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with one’s own core values, like brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing non-combatants.

There is a new push to recognize such injury as a distinct condition within the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder spectrum and treat it more appropriately with customized interventions. For instance, the pain and suffering with which a soldier may be afflicted after he and fellow soldiers kill an entire Iraqi family of five after their car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint requires a treatment that be may quite differently than, say, the care required for more typical post-combat miseries…like killing combatants…that afflict most military personnel who have been exposed first-hand to combat.

But, like I wrote recently in Sober and Sobering, a sharp but narrow focus “here” on our own [insert issue de jour here] doesn’t necessarily capture all the pressure points over “there.” In The Railway Man, the suffering of all sides is highlighted, even though for some extending compassion to a former enemy seems quite inconceivable. The self-absorption that most Americans feel about our veteran’s state of suffering as an inevitable result of the last decade (plus) of sustained combat overseas, and comes silhouetted against a gaping backdrop of the absence of care centered on the horrendous damage suffered by “others” in the very same conflicts.

Take, for example, a drone strike gone bad. The operator of that drone, sitting in a flight simulator station in a secure, air-conditioned building on some Air Base, USA, acts on intelligence, good or “bad.” Targeting what he believes to be a terrorist cell meeting, what ultimately is centered in the weapon’s crosshairs is a wedding party in Afghanistan…destroyed by a Hellfire missile that kills…say…fifty celebrants. Only later does this operator learn that the KIA had no military “value.” Hopefully this person has a conscience and feels some sense of remorse. Maybe he’s stricken to a level that interferes with his daily life. He deserves, no doubt, compassion, intervention and remedy.

But so do the direct and indirect victims of the strike: all the dead, all the mangled injured, their families and friends caught up in the surges of sorrow over such horrific tragedy at what should have been a joyful celebration of the highest order.

The point is that it’s easy to lack empathy for the pain and suffering caused by war when the people hurting aren’t “yours.” Everyone suffers in war; it’s a common mistake to assume that your enemy is not. The maladies of the battlefield haunt all sides and all classes of peoples indiscriminately.

Wars and killing will continue. Wars sometimes involve murder, whether intentional or not. And the longer our current “engagement” overseas continues, the more it becomes lost in all the other noise of everyday life. The realities of war and killing go largely unnoticed by most. Only when we are forced to face the full range of destruction and heartbreak we have wrought does one truly know what it is like to stare into the abyss. For those of us who have shared such a vision, many are on a constant quest, seeking absolution for our own culpability, and remedies for our own lingering moral injury.

“A hero of war, is that what they see

Just medals and scars, so damn proud of me

And I brought home that flag, now it gathers dust

But it’s a flag that I love, it’s the only flag I trust”

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.

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Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Lomax was successful in his pursuit. He both found and provided absolution; his remedy, the only one with the efficacy to comprehensively heal, was to become friends with his former captor. The Japanese record throughout Asian is undeniable; I’ve written about their wholesale atrocities before in From Vengeance to Forgiveness, but realize that war and it’s companions Nationalism and Propaganda warp our very natures as human beings. Gaining a more appropriate perspective by re-humanizing his ex-enemy, Lomax wax able to grow and heal as he continued to correspond with Nagase until their deaths in the last decade. Nagase, after the true nature of the war was revealed, became burdened with remorse, inspiring him to help search for POW graves before devoting his later life to reconciliation and peace. Lomax died at age 93 in 2012 while The Railway Man was in editing; sadly, he never saw the finished product. What Lomax achieved in his later years is noble, poignant and of lasting value to us all, which is why his astonishing story remains so compelling…as hard as it is to believe. In the end, Lomax’s inspiring tale provides proof that heroism, humanity and the redeeming power of love are all real, and most times not at all what we expect. Lomax is a Hero of War.  He, along with Nagase, are both Heroes of Life.

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

War always comes at a steep, unaffordable price. I continue on in my own personal journey, and hopefully, like Lomax, one day I will make permanent peace with the violence in my own past. I believe I’m well on my way.

“He said, “Son, have you seen the world?

Well what would you say, if I said that you could….”

 

See more about The Railway Man’s amazing story here: http://www.therealrailwayman.com/railwayman-the-story.html, and here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2215357/Eric-Lomax-A-tortured-war-hero-Japanese-tormentor-redeeming-power-forgiveness.html

Daiko: Chariot of the Gods…almost.


“Of all vices, drinking is the most incompatible with greatness.” ~Walter Scott

Daiko can help you avoid trouble with the law, but it won’t help urinary incontinence.

We left the Butler O’Club looking quite dapper in our formal attire, our spirits buoyed by both the company of the night and the copious drink we enjoyed. Remember, the drinking “rules” the military places on us here in Okinawa, the ones I find so hard to swallow? Well, most of ’em don’t apply on base, where apparently it’s still acceptable to be a drunkard. Mixing drink with driving can make for a dangerous cocktail, no matter where you are. But a typical taxi can’t get your car home…. The obvious solution? Have someone else drive your car home while you enjoy the convenience and comfort of a Japanese taxi.

Pre-Rickshaw Taxi Days

Pre-Rickshaw Taxi Days

Leave it to the Japanese to work out the perfect solution. Just outside the main entrance of the Club is not just a taxi queue, but a service unique to Japan, one tailored to avoid DUI/DWI: Daiko. Daiko is a Japanese word that translates to “surrogate,” and implies a meaning of “to do something for someone.”

Daiko service is a substitute driving service. When you drink, you must not drive. So we drive your car and we take you and your car to home, safety,” reads one Okinawan website. Having just vented my frustrations with the military’s fetish with drinking and driving on Okinawa in Sober and Sobering, I realized that Japan actually is just about the easiest place to imbibe…and never have to worry about driving!

Taxi-2

For people who are unfamiliar with Daiko service, which to my knowledge probably includes the whole of the United States, literally two life savers are dispatched to wherever you happen to be and take you along with your car (separately) to your next destination. Whether you want to go home or to another bar, doesn’t matter; Daiko will gladly take you where you want to be, and they’ll do it on the cheap. Because the service is to popular and affordable, there can be a wait on the weekends.

A Daiko Day-in-the-Life

A request for the service results in two licensed drivers showing up, one to transport you the patron via taxi, and the other to drive your car. As you’re being whisked away via private chauffer, your car follows closely behind. No matter how plastered you may be, in the morning’s hangover haze you’ll find your car securely at home.

An actual game.  Lucky for you the Japanese drive...gentle.

An actual game. Lucky for you the Japanese drive…gentle.

But of course you never get some’in for nothin’. “But what’s the cost,” I hear you pleading. The fee is generally 1.4-1.6 times the price of a single taxi ride, cheaper than roundtrip via cab. So in our case, the normally 2,000 yen taxi ride home (~$17.25 at the current exchange rate) came to 2,800 yen total. At just over $24, it’s a small price to pay! I’m not sure how the Japanese work a profit margin into this cost; it’s got to be one of the best deals around.

These Girls got a thang for Mr. Taxi. With Daiko, so do I….

So, there’s really no excuse to avoid a good holiday shin-dig if you want to drink, with the brilliant and convenient Daiko service. All you need is the phone number to Daiko: 645-8888 (on-base) or 098-970-8888 if you find yourself off-base. Do yourself a favor: put the number in your cell phone. Right now. The service may, one day, literally save your life.

But make sure you watch out if this guy shows up....

But make sure you watch out if this guy shows up….