Okinawa’s problems included an internal caste system and vigorous snobbery. As most Japanese looked down at most Okinawans, rich Okinawans, especially from the cities, tended to look down at farming villagers, who did the same to inhabitants of the smaller Ryukyu islands. More painfully, there was overcrowding. The island’s southern third, where by far the hardest fighting would take place, was over four times more densely populated than Rhode Island. This would contribute to the coming battle’s extraordinary toll in civilian deaths, as it had contributed to centuries of poverty. “When you come to Okinawa,” a folk song advised, “please wear straw shoes” – for the coral was as hard on bare feet as it was to cultivation. The majority of the population eked out their existence on thin, harsh soil. Nature took away almost as much as it gave. The chronicle of natural disasters, especially crop-ruining, house-flattening typhoons, reads like the drum rolls of a dirge to a little people also regularly decimated by drought, plague and famine. “The whole fragile, minuscule structure survived throughout the centuries at bare subsistence level,” a Western historian summarized. No threat to anyone, the patch of meager land would never be a prize, except for its strategic position in other nations’ plans.
Poverty remained widespread in 1944. It was rooted in subtropical lassitude, agricultural backwardness and the typhoons that regularly ravaged housing and crops. The 1940 population, about 475,000 before the battle in 1945, owned 250 motor vehicles, one to every two thousand persons. A quarter were busses. In “poor” Japan, which felt compelled to seize other people’s land, the average farmer farmed five tan, about one and a quarter acres. It was two tan on Okinawa, and per capita income was about half the mainland average.
Farmers usually went without shoes. They planted their tiny fields chiefly with sugar cane, most of the crop now going to the mainland’s war-economy alcohol, and with sweet potatoes. The blessed sweet potato, which had arrived on a seventeenth-century ship returning from delivering tribute to the Chinese court, remained the mainstay of the “poor man’s” diet. A naval research unit that would analyze soil samples after the American landing first discovered that “Okinawa’s earth was made of sweet potatoes – everywhere we dug.” Next, it found the fields were “generously fertilized with nightsoil – a rich source … of typhoid and paratyphoid bacilli, which a month later [in May 1945, when the fighting was most severe] produced a mild outbreak among our troops.”
Despite great hunger for farmland, much of the island remained untilled. The mountain soil was too thin, large tracts wre covered with sand and thousands of coral escarpments had no covering at all – thus an even more intense cultivation of the arable land. Although private ownership had replaced an ancient system of common ownership, a long history of village responsibility for the common welfare bound the little hamlets, also tightly linked by family ties, in a deep sense of cooperation and community obligation.
Bean soup, a few garden vegetables and very occasional pork and fish provided relief from the sweet potatoes. Rice was a luxury for many farmers. They considered rain good weather, since water was scarce despite heavy annual rainfall, most of which ran off the coral. But there was much laughter and song. There was an easygoing attitude toward one’s time on earth, far easier than in intense, driven mainland Japan.
Perhaps the most salient contrast with the Japanese was in the attitude toward life and death. Okinawans revered their ancestors but not as warriors. The most noticeable man-made feature of the landscape was the great number of tombs. The earliest had been in caves that honeycombed the island. Later, when aboveground structures were constructed, most families spent as much money and effort as possible on the dwelling place for all eternal spirits. One of the two most prominent designs was shaped like a little house, often built into a hill unsuited for cultivation. The other, probably imported later from China, looked like a turtle’s back, the turtle being a symbol of long life – or, as many had it, a vagina opening into a womb, the idea being that all return to their source after their earthly passage. The Okinawan versions had a oddly gentle beauty. A visiting artist was surprised by the “extraordinary fine shape” of even the poor farmers’ efforts.
The family tomb was the site for picnics and holidays. Three years after death, the bones of the decomposed body were washed, then placed in a beautifully colorful ceramic urn inside the tomb for thirty-three years, when a memorial service was held and the now floating spirits were venerated – but with no glorification of death, let alone hunger to serve or sacrifice for a nationalist cause….
Stunning Japanese victories from 1931 to 1941 did convince many Okinawans that Japan, not Okinawa, was indeed divine and destined to rule the world. Until then, then had long been skeptical of nationalist ambitions and military methods, and had felt much good will toward the United States in particular. Many of the sixty thousand Ryukyuans who emigrated by 1930 were in Argentina, the Japanese mainland and Brazil … But many went to Hawaii and California. The savings sent back from their chiefly laboring wages there represented riches to their families.