The distance from 98683 - Vancouver, WA, where I got my first driver’s license, to 37128 - Murfreesboro, TN where my last driver’s license was issued is 1,985 miles. When I stopped running away the home where I grew up seemed an incomprehensible distance away.
Zip code 96350 - Yokosuka, Japan - is 6,015 miles from that last place I called home - Tennessee - and is one of a number of far flung USPS zip codes in places like Korea, Germany, Italy, and Spain. While not the point of my story it’s pertinent info.
In 96350 there is a movie theater, a Subway sandwich restaurant, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. There is a Taco Bell, a McDonald’s, another movie theater and a Starbucks, which I am sitting in.
We stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before movies play. A bass drum punctuates an explosion in the desert during one scene, in full Dolby sound. Young Marines grunt things like “oorah” when the music is done. In the evenings, on the first note of “Retreat”, time stands still. Men, women, and children all stop, face the flag, and pay their respect.
The inside of Starbucks is a generic clone of Starbucks in more foreign places like Dubuque, Iowa and Xi’an, China. A mural of Pike’s Place Market adorns one wall, mugs for sale line another, and the room is filled with circular tables that seem to affect the acoustics of Starbucks worldwide. The acoustics carry words like koohi and desu in a way that is both familiar and foreign. The prices are in American dollars, but I ask if I can pay in Japanese yen.
A brief visual survey of the room reveals this: amongst customers it is an even mix of African-American, Caucasian, and Asian patrons. The staff is entirely Japanese, and with a frequency of roughly once every eight minutes someone walks through the door in military khakis. The ratio of men to women is skewed right now because the pinnacle of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, the USS George Washington nuclear carrier, is deployed. It is due to return at the end of the month, which means that statistically speaking this Starbucks will have considerably more crying babies in it nine and a half months from now.
The George Washington is central to my presence in Japan. Actually, my wife is central to my presence in Japan, and her Navy service is what brought us here. My official status is that of dependent.
For the United States Navy the George Washington is the sun, the moon, and the stars. Many ships make up the Seventh Fleet - the largest group of forward deployed Americans in the world - and the George Washington is the centerpiece. The sheer size of the George Washington dictates that it can only moor in deep water ports. It’s size is so great that a special deep water mooring had to be built for it.
In 96350 it rains on average 12 days per month. During the remainder of the month we enjoy a coastal breeze and mild temperatures. Recently, during sunnier days, I noticed that galvanized steel has a luminance about it in the sun. It looks cold and like precious metal. So much of where I live is both cold and precious.
At the tops of the fence posts, lined like seedlings, but driven into the ground deep like old growth, are three strands of barbed wire. The tips of each point have blackened slightly in the ocean air. At a check point the ominous fence becomes white bars. It’s height is maintained but its severity diminished.
For the three foot tall children opposite the fence its severity or placement is hardly an issue. They squeal in little white hats and the highest blue shorts all over the red, white, and blue playground equipment of a Catholic school. The fence line ends at the point of demarcation and zip code 96350 becomes 238- 0008, effectively foreign soil.
The world outside of 96350 is a complex construct built on thousands of years of culture. Nuance in this construct is the norm. Of these constructs there are two you should be aware of: the first is honne, which is a person’s true feelings and desires, and the second is tatemae, or the behavior and opinion one displays in public.
In spite of these constructs of a complex culture I’ve made friends past the point of demarcation. They live in places near and far. Tokyo and Osaka. One lives near my neighborhood and we compare notes on walking. We’ve both covered a great deal of this city on foot, although he has forty years more experience than I do. Most days he walks 20 km, but last time we spoke he had only walked 9km. His name is Hidenobu Nakamura, but he thinks Ashin is easier for non-Japanese to pronounce.
Ashin is well dressed. His look is surprisingly western in a suburban dad way, not in a John Wayne way. I suspect he could pull that off too: his face has the deep lines you’d expect from an American cowboy. The outer spheres of his eyes are blued with age and have the look of worn metal while his pupils are large and match the blackish gray of the submarines docked adjacent to us in the bay. We sit inside of a coffee house with excellent acoustics, and he turns his hearing aid up to compensate.
Conversation is momentarily dwarfed by the movement of warships built in places like Bath, Maine and Pascagoula, Mississippi. A horn blasts loud enough to mute conversations and then life around the bay resumes to normal. When asked if he likes having an American military facility in his backyard he tells me it’s like the air: it has existed before him and will exist after him. He is firm in this belief about the existence of the U.S. forces in Japan but answers slowly and with caution in a manner I’ve come to expect after living here for three years.
Ashin stops for a moment so I can absorb what he’s just said. It was August of 1945 when the base was handed over to the Americans, he tells me. “They came on base and told the Commander in charge of the Japanese Imperial Navy to fire everyone, which they did, including my father. The following day everyone was told to report back and the Americans rehired everyone.”
I ask him if his father had any good stories about his former employers - the Americans - and he goes on to tell me about the meaning of the word Shioiri, the part of town we’re sitting in. He avoids personal questions in the way that people do when they’re both flattered that you are asking and embarrassed to answer. I agree with him that the meaning of the word Shioiri is in fact fascinating and follow up by mentioning how scared his father must have been to be employed by the Americans at first.
“Those were unsure times,” Ashin told me. “The Japanese had just lost the war. We didn’t know what to expect. I have seven siblings in total but only three survived. Although we were at first unsure about the American presence it’s been a good thing.” Ashin pauses and then asks me, “Are we done now?” I respond that we can be if he’d like and he says “great, I want to show you something.”
We make our way to his car and within fifteen minutes we’re in an underused park at the top of a hill looking eye to eye at a bust of Benny Decker. “The people of Yokosuka loved Benny Decker. They wrote to Washington to ensure that he would stay. You see, Admirals before him were here for one or two years, but Decker helped to rebuild the city, he started women’s groups, and helped to get the people what they needed.” His voice at this point is filled with intensity which leads me to ask him if he thinks Japan should have it’s own military some sixty years after our occupation began.
“Well, I think it’s any nation’s right to defend themselves.” We’re at the top of a large hill overlooking the city and the base. Above us is a sculpture in opposition of nuclear proliferation and below us is the base. We continue to talk about Japan’s miracle economy, and industry past and present. Questions linger for both of us I imagine.
I believe Ashin when he tells me these things. We have a friendship that although short, I feel is honest. Still, I can’t help but to wonder whether I am getting the whole story or whether his message on the continued American presence is a well crafted exercise in tatemae.
I spend a lot of my time in a neighborhood known as Honcho, or “The Honch,” specifically on Dobuita Street. Ashin once told me that Dobuita means “board covering ditch” and the street certainly lives up to it’s name.
Once on Dobuita Street someone yelled, “you want to take a photo of some real niggas?” I answered “yes,” like you just asked me if I wanted sprinkles on top of my ice cream, and then immediately felt like an asshole, wanting to explain that my best friend in elementary school was black, and that I didn’t want to take photos of “niggas” because guys like me don’t say that word. “Come on then” he said and gestured to follow him down the street. Crisis averted.
As we walked he asked me about my photography and I avoid the questions in the way you do when you’re flattered someone is asking and simultaneously embarrassed to answer. I asked him about being black in Japan, and then wanted to immediately not have asked the question, but he obliged. “The difference between being black here, and black in the states,” he told me, “is that here, we’re both a novelty.”
Down an alley we approach a bar, and a semi circle of guys - young and enlisted, surrounding a woman - young and pretty. Her earrings are large and shaped like hearts. My guide tells her I’m a photographer and that she should let me take pictures of her. I can’t remember if he had a wedding ring on when I met him, but he doesn’t now.
We’re all in a semi-circle around this woman now, and it feels creepy. She’s not interested in photos, and I don’t think my guide is either. My guide buys me a drink so I chill out. I buy myself three more. He’s gone now and so is she. A year prior to this, two American reservists raped a woman in Okinawa on a layover to some other place.
Inside the bar the thought of those two reservists crosses my mind more than once. I wished I had said, “hey shipmate, that’s not cool” to the men I was just with, but I am no ones shipmate, I am a dependent. I stand by myself and wonder if I’ll read about those guys and that woman in the newspaper tomorrow. I wonder if the curfew imposed after the last rape will extend to cover dependents too since we stand around and don’t say anything.During the course of the night I get saluted a couple of times by drunk Japanese men when I tell them my wife is an officer in the Navy. I exercise tatemae and tell a guy with an American flag tattoo how much I like it. He rewards me by allowing a photo.
I take a few photos of worthless U.S. Currency tacked to the walls. I’d love to free them all from their place on the wall and exchange them at the bank, but people have written “sluts and whores and bitches oh my,” and “that’s what them hoes love” so I’d be embarrassed to show them to anyone.
Out of that alley and back on Dobuita Street is the kind of bar you’d expect to see 6,000 miles from here on Highway 231 before you get to Shelbyville, or just outside the dryness of Moore County, TN. A sign out front features Uncle Sam and asks you to come in. It’s rowdy, smoky, and loud inside.
Photos taped to the bar’s window show men playing pool and holding beers and women. In some photos Japanese women pose with sailors and make peace signs with their fingers. An acquaintance has been looking to get a Japanese wife to take home before his tour is over and I make a note that this might be a good place for him to do so. I’ll bridge the active duty/dependent gap by asking, “have you been to George’s? There are lots of Japanese women in there,” as though they are a commodity.
Inside I find a seat in front of a video poker machine. It takes quarters, but quarters are useless here so I have none. The graphics are 8-bit, and I’m surprised a machine of this age could survive in a bar like this. One of the George’s, either Strait or Jones, is on the radio singing to an audience bathed in dim red neon. Twenty year-olds play pool and drink cups of Asahi beer. I drink a banana flavored cocktail hoping people will think it’s a whiskey sour. The speakers transition from a sad country song to a sad country song, and the 20 year-olds put down their pool cues as though the president had walked in the room. They immediately face the Confederate flag draped on the wall, and sing along with their hands over their hearts to “I am a Good Old Rebel.” I sink low into my seat.
They sing about hating the Yankee nation and the Yankees they’ve killed. They sing for what feels like an eternity, but is in actuality only a couple of minutes. I prayed that the man, whom I told I wanted to photograph “real niggas” and then asked what it was like to be black, wouldn’t walk through the door.
The bartender comes over to ask if I’d like another. She is petite with the nest black hair and cheeks that dimple when she smiles. She looks like a kokeshi doll, the type you buy as a souvenir to take home, but is in fact a person. She possesses all of the attributes I was told a Japanese wife should have and yet somewhere that man is lamenting about the difficulties of finding the right wife to get. I decline the drink and dip into the night. Outside two members of the Confederacy argue about whether it is, or is in fact not cool to “chest bump a woman.” The conversation is loud, but fades as I walk to the train. The consensus amongst drunken 20 year-olds seemed to be that it is in fact not cool to chest bump women, even if she is a “fucking bitch.”
Before the movies play in 96350, during a time reserved for concessions and movie trailers, a Power Point slide is shown on the screen. It features Uncle Sam, the same Uncle Sam from the bar, but instead of enlisting you for a cup of Japanese beer he asks you to be a good representative of the United States.
I think about the kokeshi dolls that are in fact actual people. I think about sixty years of coercion, for photos, and other things. I think about layovers by reservists from other places. I think about being a good ambassador to our host nation and a representative of the United States. I think about all of it, but never say anything.