Okinawa knew what to do with monsters.
If white people were supposed to be in Okinawa, why did we sunburn so easily?
My mother slathered me in high-SPF Coppertone. The corridors of my ears and the notches between my toes were coated in white, and the edges of my nostrils were chalky. Vivid stripes of blue zinc made me look like a Kabuki performer. The sunscreen smelled like the coconuts not native to Okinawa; it ran over my skin, mixed with my sweat, and rinsed off in the pea soup-salty ocean. The sand seared the soles of my feet. Nothing about this island was hospitable to whites, but here we were: stationed on the Marine military base in dingy, high-rise housing surrounded by barbed wire fences, concrete guard towers, and plaster play structures.
A majority of Okinawans are not Japanese: They are Ryūkyūans, a still-unrecognized ethnic majority indigenous to the archipelago that makes up the southern arm of the islands now claimed by Japan. Japanese forces occupied the island in the thirteenth century, forcing Ryūkyūans to assimilate and mostly erasing the native language and culture. During World War II, the United States invaded the island and then ceded it back to Japan; it relinquished control in 1953, but still maintains a strong military presence.
Seventy-four percent of all U.S. military bases in Japan are found on Okinawa, although it only constitutes less than one percent of Japanese territory. The invaders’ architecture is ugly. I remember the buildings rising like brutal, white teeth from the soft green gums of the forest that covers the island. There were shrines everywhere in Okinawa, and walking the deer-paths between the massive, knotted trees, any root or rock could house a holy spirit. I picked my way around them, minding the hand-sized yellow and black spiders who hovered in their webs, always at eye level, watchful as guardians.
The Okinawan people who worked on the base were tiny compared to the whites. They hid their hands in their sleeves. My hair was white then too, and they would touch it, stroking me like a doll. My mother was terrified that I would be stolen by someone who wanted a white, blue-eyed baby, but these fears were unfounded. The Okinawans did not want their own American child. They wanted to be left alone. We were monsters. We did not belong.
A couple of years after we went back to the States, three American servicemen raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl. They were discharged and imprisoned, not truly punished. Sixty-five thousand Okinawan protestors filled Naha, the capital of the Okinawa Prefecture when a US Marine murdered a twenty-year-old Okinawan woman in 2016.
“Why my daughter?” the victim’s father asked.
The Okinawans did not want their own American child. They wanted to be left alone.
A few years before my family was stationed on the island, there was a story about an Okinawan woman who was hired as a nanny by an American family was convicted of murder and hanged. We heard that she had put salt in the baby’s formula and poisoned it slowly, one bottle at a time. My mother said that this woman was angry at the baby’s mother for leaving it, for being a bad mother. But Americans have committed uncountable atrocities on this island; we come, and few leave. Now, I wonder if the Okinawan woman saw the invaders, and decided how she must act.
The banana spiders were poisonous. The sun cooked us, planting cancer seeds in the deep layers of our pale, maladapted skin. When the tsunamis came, my family took shelter under our kitchen table with a chocolate bar and a flashlight. We were defenseless. I remember the thin voice of the siren as the wind pushed against our buildings. They shuddered. They should have. Okinawa knew what to do with monsters.
C. R. Foster is a queer, nonbinary trans writer from Portland, Oregon. Their critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever is available from Interlude Press.