Sister cities of Naha, Okinawa and Fuzhou, China celebrate their bond with a walled Chinese garden

A pavilion, waterfall and Soaring Rainbow Bridge overlooking Ou Ye Pond are at the heart of the Colors of Autumn and Winter section of Fukushuen Garden in Naha, Okinawa. The stacked stones upon which the pavilion sits are meant to evoke Mount Ye, in Fuzhou, China, sister city of Naha.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the eighth in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s eluding capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths of hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at cooking class in Naha; and June 16 about Peace Memorial Park, a former WWII battlefield and now a sprawling complex that commemorates the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

In the northwestern part of Naha, near one of the larger parks in the city, is an oasis of calm and beauty featuring many of the characteristics one would expect to see in a classical walled garden in China.

Towering pagodas, a tumbling waterfall, turtle- and koi-stocked pond, keyhole gates, pavilions, covered walkways, gentle bridges, stone figures, unusual rock formations and a variety of floras can all be found at Fukushuen Garden, completed in 1992 to mark the 10th anniversary of Naha’s sister-city relationship with Fuzhou, China, and the 70th anniversary of modern Naha City (2018 population about 320,000).

The White Pagoda, in the Colors of Summer section, is made from granite. The Bird Pagoda is similar in size and shape, though the space between levels seems smaller.

Much of the stone and wood used in construction was brought from Fuzhou, capital of coastal Fujian province, in the southeastern part of China. Italian traveler extraordinaire Marco Polo was said to have stopped briefly in Fuzhou in the late 13th century. 

The province, known historically as a smelting center, is far closer to the island of Taiwan to the east and Hong Kong than it is to Beijing, China’s capital. Later, it became an import city for the exportation of tea.

The carved dragon pillars are at the entrance to Dong Ye Hall, also in the Colors of Summer section. In Chinese lore, dragons offer protection and good luck.

In Naha, about 600 years ago, this section of the city was known as Kumé, a bustling center of Chinese trade and culture influenced by immigrants from Fujian province, and so it was logical to locate the garden here. 

Centuries before Okinawa became part of Japan, it was the seat of the independent kingdom of Ryukyu, which traded with China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries in southeast Asia.

The round shape of the Pavilion of Spring signifies harmony. The hanging red lanterns are another symbol of luck. The pavilion overlooks Peach Blossom Stream, representing the Min River in Fuzhou. From the Lingbo Corridor and viewing platform (right), visitors can feed the carp and turtles.

The garden celebrates the four seasons, with landscaping reflecting the different times of the year. Artisans from Fuzhou came to work alongside Okinawan gardeners to ensure the finished site, which covers about 8,500 square meters (about 2 acres), was faithful to a Chinese garden, in particular, one in Fuzhou, today a city of about 8 million people. 

Xi Jingping, China’s president, was governor of Fujian province when it was emerging as a center for new technology.

It was a sunny, pleasant Sunday afternoon when I visited, having first stopped at Naminoue Shrine and the Tsushima Maru museum (see earlier posts) before I walked several blocks to the garden. 

On the shady stone path, heading for a keyhole gate.

The grounds were nearly deserted, odd for such a lovely day. Later in my stroll, I came across four women dressed in colorful, rented kimonos, taking pictures, but one always acting as the photographer.  

I motioned that I would be happy to take a photo of the quartet together. (Making this sort of offer is always a good way to strike up a conversation.) As it turned out, all were from Shanghai, and visiting Okinawa for just a few days. 

They were in their late 20s and early 30s. One was a dance teacher and spoke good English, so we chatted for about 15 minutes. Then, more picture-taking, and we went our separate ways.

Li Bao (701-762) was a famed Tang Dynasty poet, still revered today.

Admiring the loveliness of Fukushuen Garden for about an hour or so will not only insulate you from the contemporary city outside its encompassing wall, but will transport you effortlessly to an era long ago and far away. 

Quick reference: Fukushuen Garden, 2-29-19 Kumé, Naha, Okinawa. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Closed Wednesdays. Admission: Adults, 200 yen (about $1.82), children middle school or younger, 100 yen (about $.91). Small machines sell food to feed the fish and turtles. The closest monorail stop is Prefectural Office station. Walk northwest from the station, for about 10 minutes.


At Okinawa’s Peace Memorial Park: Once a World War II battlefield, now a somber place for remembrance

Every person known to have died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 has his or her name inscribed at the Cornerstone of Peace at Peace Memorial Park. The names are in the deceased’s native language. A total of 118 black granite stones list about 250,000 names.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the seventh in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s eluding capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; and May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at cooking class in Naha.

On the southern tip of the island of Okinawa, formidable jagged cliffs rise several hundred feet, picturesque and imposing in equal measure. 

Nearby, pine tree branches reach up and outward forming living sculptures, and scrub sprouts from cracks in the rocks, once again providing cover for wildlife.

Endlessly, the tide breaks toward the shore and recedes, revealing a swath of deserted beach. A few small boats bob in the distance as fisherman throw their nets, anticipating the day’s catch. Birds ride the currents, soaring and swooping as they look for their next meal.

The peace and quiet that pervade the landscape adjacent to this scene today belies what happened here, as the Japanese military, its back literally against the Pacific Ocean, played out the dwindling days of its last major stand of World War II.  

The former battlefield is now a somber memorial, sprawling over more than 116 acres. The exquisitely manicured terrain includes the Cornerstone of Peace, comprised of folding-screen-like columns of black granite arranged in semicircle rows that list every name of every person (in their native language), military and civilian, foreign and domestic, totaling about 250,000, believed to have died on Okinawa. 

The 118 “waves” of the Cornerstone of Peace were unveiled in the summer of 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 82-day battle. 

Two information kiosks nearby aid visitors intent on locating specific names, which are arranged by Okinawa prefecture (largest section), other Japanese prefectures and foreign countries (smallest section). 

The Flame of Peace at Peace Plaza, marking Okinawa’s location, overlooks the Pacific Ocean. On a rainy Friday, I couldn’t see the flame itself at all.

The rows’ southern end borders Peace Plaza, overlooking the sea, at the center of which is the Flame of Peace, a pointed cone surrounded by a flat black and light blue stone disk. Three flames meld here, brought from Aka Island, west of Okinawa, the first place that American forces landed in the Kerama island chain, and one each from the atomic-bomb devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I spent the better part of a warm rainy Friday at Peace Memorial Park, walking slowly along the stone paths between Japanese prefectural monuments constructed in myriad shapes and sizes and from a variety of materials, and visiting the concise exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. 

The tower in the distance at left is Okinawa Peace Hall, containing a seated Buddha-like figure made from 3.5 tons of Chinese lacquer. The red-roofed building on the right is Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. In front of the museum are the folding-screen-like walls of the Cornerstone of Peace.

I saw few other visitors, leaving me alone with my thoughts to contemplate what had happened here and on Okinawa in general. 

My uncle, my father’s twin brother, fought on Okinawa, with C Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division (part of the greater 10th Army). Though I asked him many times, he never, ever related to me his experience here, or at Leyte in the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star.

When the Japanese staged a strategic retreat from the Shuri Line in late May 1945, they had only one direction they could to go: south. 

The Allies controlled everything north of the Shuri Line, about two thirds of 60-mile-long Okinawa, which the Allies invaded on April 1 after a week of offshore bombardment from a fearsome U.S. Navy armada, the size of which — more than 1,450 vessels — dwarfed every other Pacific campaign. 

With the fall of Naha, the prefecture capital, and Shurijo Castle itself — headquarters of the Japanese 32nd Army — the Axis power regrouped in another series of caves and underground tunnels around an agricultural village known as Mabuni. 

The tunnels and caves were not as well-fortified, -provisioned or -equipped as those around Shurijo Castle, the preparation of which had taken almost a year. 

Shortages of food, armaments and ammunition were increasingly severe, and every inch of space was crammed with filthy bodies, giving rise to the spread of disease.

What the Japanese soldiers found most intolerable was the lack of fresh water. And the vaunted Japanese morale was sinking fast, too. 

Snipers were still picking off Allied soldiers, but the Japanese, confronted by superior manpower and firepower, very soon had a decision to make: Surrender — anathema to their military code — or suicide.

Below and behind this cliff is the gated entrance to the cave that served as the final headquarters for the Japanese 32nd Army and its commander, General Mitsuru Ushijima. The cave is not open to the public.

When the Battle of Okinawa was finally over on June 22, more than 100,000 Japanese troops were dead, including General Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the 32nd Army. (There is some controversy as to whether he committed seppuku — ritual suicide — or died from gunshots to the head. “Eyewitness” testimony attesting to the former turned out to be unreliable, but a bullet to the temple would have been against Ushijima’s samurai-like code). A sign points to his headquarters but the cave entrance is gated and not open to the public.

About 11,000 Japanese did, in fact, surrender. 

The Allies lost about 12,000 men, with 36,000 wounded and more than 26,000 other casualties, including battle fatigue. Among the dead were General Simon Bolivar Buckner, commander of the 10th Army, killed on June 18 by flying pieces of exploding rock and metal caused by an artillery shell. 

However, it was the beleaguered, starving civilians, many hiding in caves, who paid the highest price. Estimates put their dead at 100,000 to 150,000. No definitive number can ever be determined because nearly all village records were destroyed as a byproduct of the fighting. Some were killed by Japanese soldiers, even those conscripts who had fought alongside Imperial forces.

The National War Dead Peace Mausoleum contains ashes from about 180,000 people. It is among the most frequently visited of all the memorials.

In addition, the landscape was in ruins on an island whose beauty had often been compared to Hawaii and other pacific spots: unspoiled beaches, an abundance of tropical fruit and flowers and a friendly population.

Compounding the problems, Japanese propaganda spread the falsehood that American soldiers would rape and kill Okinawan women. Many threw themselves off 200-foot-high cliffs, some holding their infants and children, believing this drastic action was their only option.

In the museum’s Room of War Testimony, visitors can read transcripts or watch video about how Okinawan civilians tried to survive. Some tell of the brutality inflicted by Japanese forces, who occupied the island in early 1944. The military took their food stores, killed indiscriminately and gave orders to many islanders to commit suicide.

Another section re-creates a dimly lighted cave where civilians huddled, sharing the few provisions they had, often guarded by a Japanese soldier. Nearby are examples of tattered clothing and implements such as a ceramic canteen, illustrations of their meager  supplies.

One of 32 memorials on Mabuni Hill sponsored by a Japanese prefecture, in tribute to its war dead.

Also of interest is the post-war Keystone of the Pacific exhibit. The reconstruction frenzy under way in Tokyo, which had been extensively bombed with conventional weapons, did not extend to the same degree in Okinawa. 

American occupation forces turned their attention to Cold War defenses — and later the Vietnam War — more interested in strengthening military bases than helping the Okinawan people, who were struggling to rebuild and get their lives back on track. 

Understandably over the decades, the Okinawans’ increasing desire for American troops to leave and the island to be returned to Japanese sovereignty served only to heighten tensions. Demonstrations and political pressure finally paid off in 1972 eliminating U.S. control, but about 28,000 American military remain on the island today.

A closer look at the seven-sided Okinawa Peace Hall, opened in 1978. At the top of the stairs to the left is a bronze sculpture “Boy,” added in 1982 to remember the children who died. The smaller white tower at right is the Bell of Peace, rung on special occasions.

Also on the park’s grounds is Okinawa Peace Hall, known for its seated Buddha-like figure made from 3.5 tons of Chinese lacquer, a tree sap widely used in Asian arts and crafts. It took artist Shinzan Yamada, who lost two sons in the the Battle of Okinawa, 18 years to complete the nearly 40-foot-tall praying statue. Also inside the building are books with the names of everyone listed on the Cornerstone of Peace.

Two recreation fields, a picnic area and a playground are on the northern edge of the property, particularly popular on holidays and special occasions.

Another of the Japanese prefectural memorials on Mabuni Hill.

It’s highly likely that the Okinawan families and others who come for a relaxing outing also at some point visit the Cornerstone of Peace to pay tribute to the memory of their loved ones, lost in the waning days of World War II.

Getting to Peace Memorial Park by bus

Naha, my base for six days in Okinawa, is less than 15 miles from Mabuni, reachable by car in about 30 minutes. My preference is to take public transportation — always an adventure — so my travel time was considerably longer.

My first task in Naha was to find where to wait for bus number 89. Construction was ongoing on a new modern terminal — the whole structure was covered by scaffolding and tarps — so much of the “normal”  operation was literally being run from street level. 

There was a lot of signage, and I luckily picked the right side of the street on which to wait. I had expected to pay the driver when I got boarded — the brochure I had indicated the fare — but I quickly found out the correct procedure: Take a slip of paper showing the zone number where you got on, and watch the overhead monitors on the lefthand side by the front window to learn the destination price. (A machine gives change, but try not to have too large a yen bill to pay.)

Bus 89 is a local and leaves three times an hour for Itoman City. It wends its way through Naha making frequent stops, so the leg to Itoman City took about 45 minutes and cost 580 yen (about $5.25). No matter; I got a look at a part of the city I hadn’t seen.

The “terminal” in Itoman City was a nondescript one-story building with absolutely nothing to indicate this is where buses arrive and depart from.

Inside, two men sat at desks piled high with stacks of papers. Hmmm. Where was I supposed to wait for the hourly bus number 82? Pointing at my destination’s brochure, they understood my pantomimed question.

Outside, they pointed to the opposite side of the building. Two shaky wooden benches with flaking blue paint backed up to an exterior wall also in need of maintenance. Fortunately, the “waiting room” had a roof because it was raining harder than it had been while I was on the bus. Not surprisingly, several vending machines were nearby, because, well, wherever you are in Japan, you’re never very far from a vending machine.

The second bus cost 470 yen ($4.25) and took about 40 minutes, and dropped me on the outskirts of Peace Memorial Park.

And yes, I did the trip in reverse to get back to Naha. 

Quick reference: There is no charge to tour the grounds, Cornerstone of Peace and the monuments of Peace Memorial Park. For Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed December 29-January 3. Admission: Adults, 300 yen (about $2.71); children, 150 yen (about $1.36). Audio guide is included. No photographs are allowed inside the museum. Okinawa Peace Hall: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Adults, 450 yen (about $4.07); junior and high school students, 350 yen (about $3.16); elementary school and under, free. 614-1 Mabuni, Itoman City, Okinawa.


Pulling back the curtain on life in late 20th-century North Korea as revealed by six individuals who fled to the south

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text. All rights reserved.

“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009, $26)

With the meeting of representatives from North Korea and United States tentatively scheduled in Singapore on June 12, I thought I’d revisit an excellent book I reviewed in January 2010 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It was written before Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. While there have been increasing overtures to the West, much remains the same: A repressive regime, made all the more dangerous by its flouting of an active nuclear program.

Western media access to the Hermit Kingdom has for decades been severely limited, so it’s long been difficult to get a true picture of what life is like throughout the Communist country.

When journalists do get visas, ever-present government minders generally force them to stick to rigid itineraries and visitors often don’t get beyond the showcase sights of the capital, Pyongyang.

NK book coverSo one approach to finding out exactly what life is like in the north is to talk to defectors, which is the avenue that Barbara Demick took in her richly detailed “Nothing to Envy.”

Over a period of seven years, Demick, then a Los Angeles Times reported based in Seoul, South Korea, talked to about 100 people who had fled for their lives.

For her book, she concentrated on a half-dozen, all of whom hailed from or had ties to Chongjin, a port city on the Sea of Japan known for its iron-producing factories, in the far northeastern part of the country. Chongjin is the third-largest city in North Korea, then with a population of about 500,000. It’s much closer to Vladivostok, Russia, than it is to Pyongyang, about 250 miles away.

Through hours of interviews, Demick skillfully draws out the heartbreak and loss of six individuals (she’s changed some names to protect family still in North Korea): Mrs. Song, a factory worker, mother of four and a true believer in “dear father Kim Il Sung”; her oldest daughter, Oak-hee, a rebel and nonconformist; Dr. Kim, a bright, perfectionist daughter of a construction worker; Jun-sang, a university student in Pyongyang and son of Japanese-born Koreans who carries the burden of his family’s hopes; Mi-ran, Jun-sang’s first love, who despite her “tainted blood” (her family’s roots are in the south) becomes a teacher; and orphaned Kim Hyuck, a prison and labor camp survivor who lives by his wits.

The title comes from a song — which deifies the late leader Kim Il Sung — that all schoolchildren learn:

“Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world,

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid,

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.” 

Not quite.

By the 1990s, the country was almost totally isolated, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost not only its ideological big brother but also a monetary lifeline. The economic collapse that was lurking before Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 exerted an intractable grip thereafter.

Chongjin’s factories closed, rations were slashed and famine became widespread. By some estimates, between 600,000 and 2 million died in North Korea during the decade — possibly as much as 10 percent of the population.

As the government failed to feed the people, an entrepreneurial spirit boomed in the form of farmers’ markets and fledgling businesses, which were, by the way, all illegal.

Mrs. Song, who dutifully dusted the pictures in her home of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, showed particular resilience, especially her cookie-baking enterprise.

For some, the desperate situation and disillusionment served as motivation to escape. Plus, word was beginning to filter into North Korea about the positive impact of economic changes in China.

Chongjin residents began to realize that a vastly different world existed not too far from their doorsteps. When they learned of exit routes, Mi-ran and several family members were among the first to leave by making their way northwest across the country, finally negotiating the Tumen River and into China. Making their way into South Korea was equally fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Once free of the mind-numbing propaganda and the personality cult of the Kims, it wasn’t all happily ever after for Demick’s six. Largely unprepared for the modern world and the plethora of daily choices and decisions presented by a free society — culture shock writ large — all were faced with anxiety-inducing challenges.

Or as Demick writes: “The qualities most prized in South Korea — height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes, English-language fluency — are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks, which accounts for the low self-esteem typically found among North Koreans in the South.”

For example, Dr. Kim, who in her old life had been expected to forage in the woods for herbs and roots to make traditional remedies, had a particular frustrating time. Her medical schooling and practice for eight years weren’t recognized by South Korean officials. So at age 40, she started over, embarking on a four-year medical program.

Similarly, Kim Hyuck, the former prisoner and longtime lone wolf, found himself unable to make small talk, which severely hampered his chances at building friendships.

“He was quick to anger,” Demick writes. “He bristled at authority. He couldn’t sit still. His stature, too, put him at a disadvantage in a height-obsessed society. His legs were underdeveloped and his head too large for his body — his physique typical of people who have been deprived of food during their formative years.”

But as the days and months in South Korea turned to years, the job-hopping Kim Hyuck, then 26, at last began to find his place when he was able to help a new defector avoid the pitfalls he’d encountered. When Demick last saw him, he’d enrolled in college.

Demick, now New York correspondent for the L.A. Times and contributor to The New Yorker magazine, is lending her expertise to her newspaper’s coverage of North Korea as it readies for the summit.

Perhaps in the future she’ll be able to reconnect with the individuals in her book, and update the success or failure of their leaps to freedom.

Six people, six journeys. Their stories are still unfolding.

See my April 3, 2017 post for details about my trip to the DMZ between North and South Korea.