“Above the East China Sea,” a Book Review


“Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako

The beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,

And the red soil made from crushed bodies

That lay down their genealogy of bones.

The Spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.”

~from The Ocean of the Dead, by Yonaha Mikio

Princess Lilly Girls

Princess Lilly Girls

Above the East China Sea is one of the few books – in English – that takes place on Okinawa and doesn’t directly involve the “Typhoon of Steel” which struck that island paradise in 1945. Yes, war flows throughout the book, and at first glance it could be branded as yet another attempt at telling the dramatically sad tale of the Princess Lilly Corps and other such sufferings of the Okinawan people. Alternatively, the work could also over-simplistically be viewed as a “coming of age story” as its central characters are both teenaged girls.

But it is so much more…than either. Intertwining dual storylines of two troubled teenaged girls, one modern American and the other an Okinawan teenager of 1945, the book cleverly makes a spiritual connection between these lives which, at first, seem rather incongruous, both in focus and in time.

A Princess Lilly

A Princess Lilly

The real star of this book, however, is the Okinawan culture, and how it bonds lives across seventy years and offers healing to those which have suffered profound loss through its enduring strength of ancient tradition combined with the redeeming power of family love.

Describing the main characters or the horrors of war that serve as the backdrop for half the story is really not necessary here. Read the book! Needless to say, I have visited and blogged, first-hand, about exactly the things the author, Sarah Bird, does so well in describing through her written words. See my blogs about the Typhoon of Steel, Haebaru Tunnel Hospital and the Princess Lilly Corps for photo essays that may help illuminate some of the harsher aspects of Above the East China Sea which may be hard for a reader to wrap their minds around.

Today's Peace Prayer Park, with the "suicide cliffs" in the background

Today’s Peace Prayer Park, with the “suicide cliffs” in the background

Having spent now three tours with the US Military on Okinawa, and well into my 7th year living on this island that my kids and I call our “second home,” I feel that I’m pretty well-versed on Okinawan culture because I chose to be by taking a very active role in trying to experience and understand it. The vast number of Americans that pass through Okinawa though, have not. It’s all too easy for ego-centric Americans to assume it’s just another part of Japan, and that somehow we have the right to do what we will since America did, after all, win a war “they” started.

But Sarah offers some great insights to Okinawa and its wonderful cultural heritage. Okinawans are not Japanese, no more than Hawaiians are descended from North America; they offered no violence and took part in no aggression outside of their historical kingdom’s boundaries until invaded and subdued by the Japanese. And they remain caught in the middle between American and Japan, just like they were back in WWII.

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Sure, the characters may be a bit overdone and over-the-top in personality and deed. Yes, there are some incongruities with time and place. Some elements of the culture are somewhat artificially combined. And certainly there is little comment on the ultra-slow moving traffic! But all these minor transgressions are rather easily forgotten. Besides, one really has to know the geography of the island and the scheduling of festivals to truly appreciate these small nuances.

bird1Above the East China Sea is a remarkable tale of not just how war, loss and suffering shapes lives, but its central themes of family, friendship, and love all transcend time. When placed within the rich tapestry of the Okinawa culture and heritage, Sarah does a rather clever melding of stories from East and West concurrently and rather obliquely from both spiritual and human planes. And even though I have a solid working knowledge of the cultural aspects of the book’s storyline from my knowledge and experience with the Okinawans, Sarah’s chronicle remained suspenseful until the very end of the novel. My only issue? Perhaps the story came together, finally, just a little too cleanly and too easily…. But most importantly, Sarah shows great deference to what I believe she feels as an obligation to be respectful to Okinawans. She is hugely successful in portraying their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as possibly. And therein lies the genius of this book!


Sarah is the author of eight novels. The ninth, Above the East China Sea, was published in 2014. Sarah has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.

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She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.

Offshore Okinawa: A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose


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“Water is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.”  ~ Zoolander as The Merman

“Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)….”  ~ from big-hair metal band Cinderella’s most successful power ballad single

“He who would search for pearls must dive below.”  ~ John Dryden

One of my favorite pearls of the underwater world:  Praying Mantis Shrimp

One of my favorite pearls of the underwater world: Praying Mantis Shrimp

“No scuba diving,” the Doctor said as he leaned in with some measure of compassion.  “At least not for six months…maybe longer.”  It seems I mysteriously had come down with Portal Vein Thrombosis (PVT), a pretty rare condition in healthy, active guys like me, which negated, for the time, much of my normal day-to-day life.

This is how I felt.  Except I was dry.  And not a girl.  And drawn more in the style of manga....

This is how I felt. Except I was dry. And not a girl. And drawn more in the style of manga….

office_spaceOkinawa Oct 2013, IDC OW Dives, Elvis in the waterThe ironic thing, though, is that I’ve been meaning to blog on scuba diving in Okinawa for quite some time.  I have a whole slew of specific blogs to write on specific dive sites out here that I’ve come to know like the back of my hand.  Okinawa is the locale and setting where I came to embrace diving with an emotionally deep-seated affection.  It is where as a Divemaster I helped to teach both my children to dive, and it is where I have entered the enticing depths of the open water over 400 times, each in search and anticipation of yet another of nature’s pearls.

Earning my PADI instructor ticket with my Course Director Ken

Earning my PADI instructor ticket with my Course Director Ken

Diving is also my livelihood, and Okinawa is the spot where I finally became a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (instructor).  Between January and early May I was able to complete over 70 certifications!

Jody on the High Seas, the East China one

Jody on the High Seas, the East China one

Okinawa Oct 2013, Scuba Diving Dung Steps, Jody geared up in her new 5mm wetsuit and ready to go!Scuba Diving Mar 2014, AOW Maeda Point, orange cup coralScuba was perhaps the predominant reasoning for convincing Jody to take an overseas Asian tour with the Navy instead of retiring. Well, that and living and traveling throughout Asia.  To be honest, though, Jody before she met me admitted she had little interest in Asia.  I hope that I’ve changed her mind!  I’m sure the 20-odd dives we’ve done together here have helped.  Read more about how I feel about Okinawan scuba diving!

Flying Gurnard in the Kerama Islands

Flying Gurnard in the Kerama Islands

Scuba Diving Okinawa Mar 2014, Toilet Bowl, beautiful nudibranchScuba Diving Okinawa Apr 2014, Deep Specialty, spotted eel at HorseshoeThere is, not just in my opinion mind you, world-class scuba diving around the entire Okinawa Prefecture.  When I often compare the diving here to other more recognizable renowned diving destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef, Bonaire or Palau, people often balk.  And that’s okay:  it helps keep Okinawa a safely hidden divers’ paradise, found literally at our condo’s front door.

Low tide from our condo balcony

Low tide from our condo balcony

Okinawa Nov 2013, Scuba Diving Horseshoe, fire sea urchinScuba Diving Okinawa Nov 2013, Maeda Point, fish and anemone wavePart of the southern Ryukyu chain of Japanese islands, Okinawan waters are fed by the warm, northward flowing Kuroshio Current, which helps sustain an enormous variety of marine life.  Okinawa, in general terms, shares the same latitude and sub-tropical climate as Miami.  Although the Gulfstream there brings warmer waters and stronger flows, South Florida lacks the barrier reefs that are present around the majority of Okinawa, which make the Ryukyu island chain one of the largest coral habitants in the world.  We are heading to one of the remote islands, Ishigaki, for the long July 4th weekend, originally to dive with the summer migration of huge manta rays.  While my wife dives, I may only be snorkeling from the boat.

Porcelain Crab

Porcelain Crab

Diving in the spring here, one hears the distant but enticing songs of the transiting and breeding humpback whales.  Octopus, cuttlefish and decorator crabs all abound, and night diving here is even better than experiencing the underwater world in the heated sun of the day.

Another of my favs:  Cuttlefish!

Another of my favs: Cuttlefish!

Scuba Diving Okinawa Mar 2014, Toilet Bowl, cat-like eel

Anime scuba divers, of course.

Anime scuba divers, of course.

Although this island chain is made up of over 160 islands, only 48 are inhabited, and then only a few significantly so.  It is a remote area which marks the break between the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea, stretching for over 600 miles.  The reefs thriving around the Kerama islands, just a few miles and a relaxed boat ride from Okinawa, are most renowned for their splendor:  “The most beautiful and diverse coral reefs that I have ever seen anywhere in the world were in Kerama,” once said French marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, author of “The Silent World”.  Now who’s gonna argue with THAT guy??

jacques-yves-cousteau-quote

More mysteriously, near Yonaguni Island lays an underwater ruins site that has been only recently discovered, the Yonaguni Monument.  Famous now for both its implications in archeology and as a dive destination for sharks and pelagics, it has been featured in National Geographic and on the Discovery Channel.  While high on my dives “to do” list, unfortunately I haven’t yet made it out to this location.

Jody at Maeda Point, perhaps Okinawa's most famed dive site

Jody at Maeda Point, perhaps Okinawa’s most famed dive site

The World War II destroyer USS Emmons, rediscovered only recently in 2001, is found not far offshore from Okinawa, resting as a war relic and underwater grave after being pummeled by five kamikazes in 1945.  It too is a dive I have not had the pleasure to experience…YET.

Jody greets a friendly sea turtle

Jody greets a friendly sea turtle

Like Zoolander, I may have to find a new line of work.

Like Zoolander, I may have to find a new line of work.

Frappuccinos don't help.  And could result in disaster.

Frappuccinos don’t help. And could result in disaster.

Cinderella was not entirely right about not knowing what you got until it’s gone.  I believe that I did, and it makes this temporary injunction from inner space much harder to accept.  I’m not one to quote big-hair bands from the 1980s, but honestly, that song almost instantaneously came to mind with the delivery of the bad news.  I’ve been moving through the grieving process, and while to some this may seem overly dramatic, for someone who used to dive up to 10-12 times a week, who likes to ride motorcycles, and who still has more skydives than scuba dives in his logbooks, anticoagulants and blood clots are just not congruent with life.

Taking my meds makes me feel like I'm taking CRAZY PILLS!

Taking my meds makes me feel like I’m taking CRAZY PILLS!

At least not for now.  I have yet to reach fully the “Testing” or “Acceptance” phase of the process, the good news is that at least I’ve given up on bargaining for a way to balance diving with my condition.

5-stages-of-grief-kubler-ross-22

okoptimism-funny-demotivational-postersThat just leaves me with Depression to move through, and that’s why I finally have gotten around to this blog on diving in our Far East Fling.  My life remains full of pearls; I just have to refocus on the ones found in more terrestrial settings!

Okinawa Oct 2013, IDC OW Dives, Kadena North entry