The Kadena Base Exchange as well as most other Base and Post Exchanges world-wide have annex areas on their property where local vendors lease stores and floor space to sell their wares. Last year I had shopped at one of these annex stores at Kadena and came away with some great oriental goods for holiday gifts. A pleasant, older lady had waited on me then. Today when I went back into that same store to look around, she was again on duty.
The Okinawan saleslady was obviously somebody's revered grandmother. She was stylishly dressed, and her white hair had strong hints of lavender and even a bit of pink. She was puttering around dusting, but as I was her only customer and had already selected a couple of items to purchase, she quickly engaged in conversation.
Kiko told me that she was born on Okinawa in 1937 and had been eight-years-old during the Battle of Okinawa. I already knew some of how brutal things were during the war for the residents of Okinawa. They were subjects of the Japanese at the outbreak of the war, though Okinawa had been an independent kingdom for several hundred years and most did not really consider themselves to be Japanese. But the Japanese brought its war machine to Okinawa in full-force in a final all-out attempt to keep the Americans from reaching the Japanese mainland.
Some of the worst fighting of the war occurred on this small island during the nearly three months that the battle raged. Okinawan men were conscripted into the Japanese military, and their families were left to fend for themselves. By the time the siege had ended, the island was decimated and the locals who survived were literally living hand-to-mouth.
Kiko told me that she was born in Yomitan City, a community about ten miles north of the present Kadena Air Base. She had four brothers who were taken south to fight in defense of the capital, Naha, and of those four, only one survived the battle. She said that she and her mother fled Yomitan, along with many others, and headed north to the larger city of Nago on foot. She said they would walk all night and hide during the day.
Kiko said that after the Americans won the battle they began gathering up the locals. She said that she and her mother were captured and placed in a large military truck and taken to a camp. She was very scared. When they arrived at a camp, the Americans tried to feed her, but her mother told her that she must not eat what they were providing. She said one American tried to give her a chocolate bar, but when her mother stopped her from taking it, the GI unwrapped it and took a bite himself to show that it was okay. Then, she said, her mother permitted her to eat the candy.
Kiko-san had a lovely smile and even managed to laugh a few times as she told me her war story. She said that after she grew up she moved to mainland Japan for a few years, but finally came home to Okinawa. Although at seventy-three she could be retired, she didn't want to be at home doing nothing. Today she has two part-time jobs - one at the Kadena Airport, and the other selling goods and chatting with Americans at the Base Exchange. She said that she likes Americans very much.
And I liked her!