Military Intelligence Service
Youth in Okinawa
In Okinawa, Takejiro speaks Okinawan hogen (dialect) at home and Japanese in school. His family cannot afford to send him to high school.
At 14, to help his uncle, Takejiro regularly transports black sugar to Naha on a horse cart.
Almost 16, he anticipates conscription into the Manchuria Development Youth Corps. He begs his sister for passage to Hawaii before this happens.
[I]n Japan, up to sixth grade is compulsory. So when I became - what, eight? - I went to school. And much to my surprise, I wasn't supposed to be there. Because according to my sister, my father asked somebody and paid the fee to register me at the consul general's office. But somehow, he did not. So I had no Japanese citizenship. But luckily, the teacher, Mr. Kina, comes from the same village my father comes from. So he knows who I am. So with his testimony, I was able to go to school.
[W]e were in an area that had nothing but farms. Our school was composed of twelve villages those days. Twelve village people come school. And our school was centrally located. Although our village was farthest away from the school - we have to go over the mountain trail.
I don't know the exact time but it took quite a while [to get to school]. Maybe a mile. Over the mountain trail. Stony mountain trail. And being a poor farmer's kid, no more shoes. Barefoot. So winter months, sore, walking on the stone path. But yet, in those days, our sole was so thick just like got a rubber slipper, yeah. No problem.
[I]n school, there's a special dome-like thing where they store the emperor's picture. When you pass in front, you're not supposed to look, you just bow your head and then go through. The only time you have an emperor's picture is some kind of ceremony in the school and the picture is displayed in the front. Every student line up and they sing Kimigayo [the national anthem of Japan]. And then service goes on. . .[it] was that strict.
[The teachers] don't tell you why you have to study. Just keep reading the textbook, whatever textbook says, and teach you the kanji [Chinese characters used in Japanese writing]. In Japan, they have a course known as shushin [ethics, morals]. I think it's a part of a propaganda course. Teach you ways of life. What you're supposed to do as a human being. Be respectful to your elders, authority, and anybody above you. Or treat your people below you. And in that, of course, they stress the fact, imperial system.
I tell you, [my marks in school were] pretty good. There were two of us, always competing one or second. See, in Japan, in those days, either very early April or late April, every year, next to the principal's office, there's a bulletin board. They record those who took examinations to high school, name come out.
Every time I look at that, I used to be real envious. Because my family, being poor, I couldn't afford to go to high school. And I felt that if I took that test, I have self-confidence I can pass it. Because those written-down names, I was above them in class every year. So I used to be real envious of seeing the names of my fellow students written up. There's one section for high school girls and one section for boys. Jogakko and shogakko. I used to be very envious.
I was just like a regular Japanese student. [A]t home, I spoke Okinawa lingo, and in school, standard Japanese. In those days, we had a policy of trying to encourage everybody to speak standard Japanese. And if you speak Okinawa lingo in school, we used to have demerit tags, hogen fuda.
And it's a shame to have a hanging thing [hogen fuda] all the time until you find somebody who speak the Okinawa lingo, and then pass on. If I ever get one, I used to go behind my friend, kick him from behind. And then he'd yell back in Okinawa hogen [dialect]. I'd say, "Ah, ah, ah." So I report to the sensei [teacher], and sensei passed the tag to him. I guess I was kind of naughty.
So anyway, because of it - this was way prior to the war, of course - the Okinawans spoke so much their own language, when you go to Mainland Japan, they'll look down, like a lower-class of people. So the school policy was, if you want to succeed in your life, you got to master standard Japanese. To encourage that, they had the demerit system of högen fuda if you speak hogen at school.
[F]arm just enough to survive. Subsistence farming. Not even profitable business farming. So main product was, of course, potato. And your own vegetable. And my grandfather was unofficial butcher-like. He used to go to a slaughterhouse, pick up the pig, portion out pork, and they used to retail. So sometimes he get leftover and we have a chance to eat meat. And Okinawa, as a general rule, of farm, just about every farmer has a pig. Domestic animal. Pig and goat, usually.
Pig - I don't know if I should say this to you, but it's a dirty place. In Okinawa, in the olden days, they used to have a pig and human waste, pig used to eat 'em. Anyway, raise the pig, that plus regular food. And at the end of the year, many families slaughtered the pig for one year's supply of meat. They'd slaughter the pig, salt 'em up. Fatty portion, they'd make into oil. And the leftover from oil - aburakasu, they call 'em - we'd keep 'em in a separate jar. And every now and then, take a few pieces and put 'em in the miso [soybean paste] soup, floating. Was quite a treat in those days. Vegetable, we have enough because we raise our own vegetable. Meat items, very rare. Especially in the countryside.
And, of course, fish is very rare. Unless you catch yourself, your own fish from the pond or the river. They call funa [a carp], yeah. It's a small fish, funa. But even then, once in a while, you can catch 'em and you can make into soup. That's about the gochiso [delicacy] you can think of.
I used to go in the morning, cut the grass. Before I even go to school, many times I used to go out and cut grass and come home and then go to school. And same thing with the potato leaves. . . Before you harvest, you've got to cut the leaves. You bring that leaves to feed the goat, domestic goat.
And in the afternoon, after school, go to the field and dig potato. Daily ration. You don't dig the whole place and store like American potato. Just you dig as much as you need.
And in my house, we had a big horse because my uncle was formerly a cavalry man. [I]n those days, all the young men have to serve military. Everybody. Healthy guys, have to serve three years in the army. My youngest uncle was a discharged cavalry man. And because of that, we had the big horse. And Okinawa had two kinds of horse. Regular, small pony; and one big one, like a regular American horse. It's good for real hard work.
So my grandfather had a bigger horse because of my uncle. And he used to be very proud of showing that horse to everybody. And I remember, as a child, whenever my uncle takes the horse to the pond to wash, I used to ride on that horse. And then wash the horse and come back. And sort of smoothing out the skin before putting 'em in the corral.
But all those things turned out to be a good lesson to me, I think.
[N]o more such thing as organized sports. The only play, probably play around in the taro patch. You know, with rice paddy area, run around, that's about it. No organized baseball, or basketball, or volleyball. That's only available in school. Poor district, you know, farm district.
Summer months. . .we used to swim around in the pond. And the pond is kind of shallow. So we kick around so much that a lot of times, became muddy. At the end of the day, you had a muddy moustache underneath, with the mud. And yet, we swim, and wash ourselves, and go out. Probably the dirty water was more dirty than before. That was one of the fun parts.
Winter months, of course, you don't go inside there, too cold. See, Okinawa, temperature-wise, almost like Hawaii but there's a tremendous difference between the summer and the winter. Winter is quite cold, summer is quite hot. Muggy. Not like Hawaii, no trade winds.
Well, after I got to be about fourteen, I used to transport - you know Okinawa black sugar? During the sugar harvesting season, I used to transport that to Naha on a horse cart. And that's a hard job. So, because of that, I used to go to Naha about three or four times a week. . .Twenty kilometers [twelve miles].
[M]y grandfather had a small patch of sugar cane. Just about everybody had a small patch of sugar cane. Because the main portion of the farm is always for subsistence purpose, yeah, potato and vegetables. Mostly potato. Potato takes about three to four months after planting, ready for harvest, see. And you cannot plant all one time either. You have to sort of - installment like. As you dig, and when it opens up, and get ready for new planting. And in the meantime, other parts have matured. So you cannot have too much sugar cane, either. Sugar cane was only cash for crop.
I think we had the two company we used to deal in Naha. But anyway, this company, warehouse, was near the Naha wharf. So from the prefecture road, ken doro, I used to transport, on the horse carriage. The black sugar, we'd pack 'em in. . .bamboo. And we used to pack in there, what, hyakusanjugo kin [135 Japanese kin]. I don't know how to convert it into pounds right now. [1 kin = 1.323 pounds] Anyway, hyakusanjugo kin, that tub. I used to pack ten of those on the horse-drawn buggy.
The sugar itself, the black sugar, is made in the village. Each village has a very crude sugar factory. Several. And from villages, we would collect the sugar tub and then I'd transport. I was only one of the other two to transport regularly to Naha. Not everybody transports. Only two - my uncle was only one of the two.
My uncle had one regular outside helper working for him. See, my uncle was a village head. I mean, unelected village head. I guess my uncle was pretty smart. Anyway, because of him, all the village people used to come to my uncle's house, all kinds of discussions. And my uncle, he was sort of liaison between village to yakuba [government office]. And because of that - I'm being a curious little rascal - I used to hear a lot of things. And those things taught me a lot of things to my knowledge.
About family problems in village. Some kind of dispute you hear about. Or good things. All kinds. Hard to pinpoint, but all kinds of other - I wouldn't say rumor - just conversation. And some of the things I learned, I felt, was about safety purposes, too.
[I]n ancient times, Okinawa used to have a famine quite often. So people survived on the wild plants and fruits. And many of them ate sotetsu. The Japanese [sago] fern, palm fern. That is edible, the trunk. But you have to know how to prepare properly. If you don't prepare properly, it changes to severe poison. So some people, not knowing the proper way to process, ate that and died. This period in Okinawa history is known as Sotetsu jigoku [Palm hell].
Sotetsu jigoku. And sotetsu - here are two kinds of sotetsu, male and female. Male is the one get almost a stick - something comes out every summer. Female bears fruits. Almost like - much bigger than macadamia. During the harvesting season, quite often you find snake inside. So my uncle used to say, "Before you harvest that, don't stick your hand inside. Be sure to stick your sickle and crisscross. Make sure there's no snake in there. If there is a snake, you cut 'em up before you put your hand inside." Those things, I learned from my uncle. And some people talking about it, eh. And that became, I think, useful. And another thing, Okinawa is known for poisonous snakes, see.
Unlike regular graves, Okinawan haka [grave] is dug in, or built. Because in the ancient days, Okinawa had no practice of cremation or burial. All in preserving the haka.
Haka is built in the shape of a woman's womb. Entrance is. . .enough space where two guys can carry the casket inside. And once inside, it's quite big. . .wide enough for even six-footers can walk around inside. And in the backside, there's usually, a two-shelf where you can store your remains.
After the senkotsu, after you wash the bone, they put 'em in a ceramic container. In Okinawa, known as jishigami, see. It's a very beautiful ceramic container. So after senkotsu, after you wash the bone real carefully, you lay the bone from feet down, build up, and put the skull on the top. And they put 'em in the back of the haka. Preserve.
Takejiro Higa's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Takejiro Higa and Shari Tamashiro.