IN NOVEMBER of last year, I travelled with 10 others as delegates to the 2011 Japan Peace Conference in Okinawa. This conference is held annually in any prefecture in Japan that hosts U.S. military bases, and is attended by thousands from every corner of Japan who discuss issues of peace, demilitarization and nuclear abolition. As delegates from Guam, we spoke about the military buildup, the Pågat lawsuit, and our ideas for peace in the region.
It is not hyperbolic to say that my trip to Okinawa was a dream come true. After reading so much about Okinawa since the military buildup was first announced, it was very enriching to finally visit the place and see things for myself. The fates of our islands have recently been tied together by the strategic and political interests of the U.S. and Japan, but this entwining is very cursory, ti tahdong. In the week prior to my trip, I spent time reading up on Okinawan history, wondering if there were any deeper or more interesting connections.
In my cursory research, I found references to Okinawans coming to Guam in the 1800s as farmers, and to people of Okinawan ancestry coming to Guam after World War II. Okinawa and Guam have both had long experiences of colonialism under Japan and the United States.
As the U.S. discriminated against Chamorros and sought to prohibit their language and denigrate their culture, such was also the case with the Japanese against Okinawans. Both have felt the pressures of being strategically important and shouldering a heavy military presence because of it.
This connection is further tied to their history as both are sites of battles between Japan and the U.S. in World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was far more bloody and brutal, but they are nonetheless linked in history as places where U.S. soldiers fought and died.
While reading the article "Rising Up from a Sea of Discontent: The 1970 Koza Uprising in U.S. Occupied Okinawa" by Wesley Iwao Ueuten from the anthology Militarized Currents (edited by Keith Camacho and Setsy Shigematsu), I came across another interesting and unexpected connection. This one dealt with hardships and the consumption of the fruit of the fadang, or as it is known in English: the cycad or the Federico Palm.
I thought I’d share the gist of it below, since I think it’s important that we on Guam don’t define ourselves solely or primarily by the ways in which the United States attaches us to places (such as Okinawa). It is important to look deeper and sometimes find our own connections, even if they are tragic.
For those of you familiar with World War II history on Guam, you will remember the role that the fadang played in sustaining Chamorros in a time of terrible crisis. Food was scarce during the war, as imports trickled to nothing and Chamorros were forced to farm to feed the Japanese. In order to survive, Chamorros increasingly turned to the fadang in order to make tatiyas to eat. The fruit of the fadang is poisonous and has to be boiled properly before it can be made into a starch. Chamorros have been using the fadang as a staple for thousands of years, but it became less frequently used when corn and other crops were introduced by the Spanish. At that time, fadang was abundant and largely untouched in Guam’s jungles. This made it ideal for those foraging in order to feed their family.
In the article "Rising Up from a Sea of Discontent," there is a section where the author recounts a short history of Okinawan suffering under the Japanese. He makes a reference to the fadang and how it also came into play in Okinawan history in a time when they were undergoing a crisis of their own. This particular crisis isn't from World War II, but from the years after Okinawa was annexed into Japan in the late 1800s. The Japanese began to exploit Okinawa economically, leading to periods of starvation forcing the Okinawan people to turn to the fadang in order to survive.
Here is a passage from the article:
Okinawa's sudden inclusion into Japan's capitalistic system created conditions for widespread poverty and suffering. Since sugarcane became a cash crop, much land was appropriated for its cultivation, while less land was used to grow food. Consequently, the Okinawans were forced into an increasingly dependent situation where they grew sugarcane for cash to buy food from Japan. When world sugarcane prices dropped after World War I, Okinawans experienced what they call sotetsu jigoku, literally translated as "cycad hell," where many people were forced to eat the sotetsu, or cycad, to survive. Since sotetsu is poisonous if not prepared correctly, many people died from eating it.