Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Teahouse of the August Moon

by Pa Rock
Okinawan at Heart

The late novelist Vern Sneider was among the initial occupation troops on Okinawa after the bloody battle for the island in April of 1945.  Sneider was assigned to the village of Tobaru (population 5,000) to assist with the transition to a peace-time government and economy.

Six years later Sneider penned a fictional account of a young army captain assigned to a similar duty on Okinawa just after the war.   Captain Jeff Fisby was a former pharmacist from a small town in Ohio who was given command of the village of Tobiki with orders to intensify sweet potato farming, build a school, and start a Women's League.  Before Fisby could begin getting those priorities attended to, he received a gift of two Geisha girls who wound up taking his village administration in a whole different direction.

What followed was as much a procedural on how to nation-build as it was a novel.  The Geishas wanted Captain Fisby to construct a teahouse where they could practice their art forms.  That led to a cascade of other necessary activities to support the teahouse, and the reconstruction of Tobiki soon developed into something far more complex and far-reaching than what the military had envisioned.  Captain Fisby, who had an office and living quarters in the teahouse, created and took over control of an import-export business.  The psychiatrist, Doc Maclean, who had been sent to Tobiki by Colonel Purdy, the area commander, to spy on the Captain, wound up heading the village's farming and agricultural projects, and even the colonel himself was eventually swept into the enterprise.

The novel, as a reconstruction or nation-building procedural, shows the importance of integrating local customs and culture into the overall rebuilding plan.  It is something that would have benefited the "planners" who rushed into Iraq after the initial phase of the Bush War ended.  It presented a very thorough and detailed plan for rebuilding an economy and a social life from the ground up through a unique blend of custom and capitalism.

But, as someone who has lived on Okinawa for a total of nearly four years, I had misgivings about the way the author characterized the people.  Sneider portrayed the island's natives as somewhat comical and almost childlike - and the whole thing had a scent of MASH or McHale's Navy to it.  In actuality, Okinawa, once a proud and independent nation, had suffered two invading armies back-to-back.  First they dealt long years under the autocratic rule of the Japanese, and then the Americans showed up.  By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, much of the native population was homeless and living off of the land - in some cases reduced to eating grass.  They were far from the happy-go-lucky conniving natives that Sneider portrayed.

My personal misgivings aside, however, there is a lot of good information about the Okinawan and Japanese cultures in this novel.  Sneider expended great effort in discussing and describing Oriental cuisine, dress, manners, and attitudes - and his book is a very basic cultural digest.  And, I did get a few pangs of homesickness at various points during the telling of the tale!

Though the novel may have been a bit on the dry side, the material was later adapted by dramatist John Patrick in 1953 for an extraordinarily good play - one that won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  It was also made into a movie in 1956 starring Glenn Ford and a very young Marlon Brando.

President Nixon and the U.S. Congress returned Okinawa to Japanese control on May 15, 1972 - at a time when I happened to be living on the island.  There were many Okinawans who would have preferred that the island be granted its independence, and some today who are still unhappy at living in a Japanese prefecture (state).  But the island has modernized over the intervening decades - and now even has a monorail where ox carts once slogged through the mud.  The island has a growing and vibrant economy and is home to an industrious people.

Captain Fisby would be pleased.

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