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University Of Maryland University College
History Of The Ryukyus Okinawa
Participant Observation Project
"American Village"
By: Cristian Rodriguez
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

This participant observation project is based on two visits I made to Mihama's "American Village" Okinawa on Wednesday 4th at 06:30pm and Monday 9th at 11:00am in May of 2005 as well as some other prior experiences in the area. I chose the Starbucks location for this assignment. Before this project, I would visit the area maybe about two to three times a month on average. While observing the area, the first thing that came to my mind was that it reminded me of an amusement park. All the lights, the giant Ferris wheel with the Coca-Cola logo and the people that seemed to be "visiting" the area rather than just passing by.

While I was waiting for a friend that would serve as my translator, I noticed the interaction among and between the Okinawans and Americans was not as close as I would had thought, especially when it came to groups of people rather than couples. I noticed that for the most part, a group would have just one "type" of individuals in it. There were either Americans or Okinawans/Japanese in any one group. It was also much more often that I saw Okinawan/American couples than groups with both. Also, the great majority of interracial couples were composed of a local female and a foreign male, in fact I did not encounter any local male and foreign female (Okinawan/American) couples in the area.

Over all, there seemed to be no problems, however, with Okinawans and Americans coexisting and enjoying the area amongst each other. When it came to groups, many youngsters gathered around, skate boarding and break dancing, others were watching others perform songs and choreographed dances. Others were also gathering at the Starbucks location, for example. At the Starbucks, the crowd seemed quite versatile, from youngsters to elders, locals to Americans. The main distinction I noticed between groups was the ethnicity, but there are other factors that sort of separated the Okinawan and American groups respectively in the area. Observing some of the restaurants, for example, I noticed that there were some that obviously catered to Americans. English signs, menus and advertisement are displayed, other examples are the stores (such as the two-story emporium called the American Depot).

Many other establishments seemed to not cater for Americans at all in this so called "American Village". From my observations, places were there was no apparent "American outreach" had only Japanese language signs, menus, etc, and were least frequented by Americans. On the other hand, places that were "American friendly" were also frequented by Okinawans as well as Americans, although, the crowd seemed to be of a younger adults.

Another distinction I noticed was the way people dress; there was a very distinctive way in which Okinwans and Americans were dress, in general. Okinawans use a more varied color mixture within their outfits and "earthy colors" seem to be popular. Americans, however, seemed to wear more of two-color outfits and matching colors. There is also a difference in the types of vehicles that are driven by locals and Americans. Small-sized vehicles are overwhelmingly the most popular among locals, while for Americans, the norm is a full-sized vehicle.

My friend arrived and I started interviewing her first. Her name is "Jun", she is a 36 year-old Okinawan born in Naha city. "Jun" told me how she feels about the "American Village", she said it is fun but she can't help but compare the area with other places she has been to before, such as Orlando, Florida. She said "I wished there were more bars, more shopping places, more eating places and amusements. When I ask Americans if they like it here many say they do, but I believe that a place like "American Village" is too small to offer the variety that can be found in similar places in the US". When asked, she told me that she feels comfortable and welcomed in the area, she pointed out that "If I had an American boyfriend, I could walk around with him more comfortably in the "American Village" than the country side because it is much more common to see locals and Americans together in this area".

"Jun" and I continued our talk, she said that what she likes about the area is that there is more activities, places to go, chances to meet other people and shopping available than most other places on the Island. However, she also said that she prefers Naha city because it is more familiar to her and she knows where everything is more than in Mihama. "Jun" enjoys American culture and feels that the area offers a chance for locals to open up to Americans and vice versa, "there are many chances for interaction" she said.

I asked "Jun" about the resemblance, if any, between "American Village" and America. "Jun" replied, "This area does not give me a strong sense of America. There is a little resemblance of American culture but not very strong". "Jun" cracked a smile when I asked her how is the place different from other places people go to relax on the island? She said, "I don't think people come here to relax, I would go up north to really do that".

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I had finished with "Jun", now it was time to look for more "victims". We encountered "Mel", a 23 year-old American girl from Buffalo, NY. "Mel" looks at "American Village" as a "dream world" where she feels safe and gets a positive vibe from everyone. She loves the activities they do outside, such as the talent shows, fashion shows and dances. "Mel" also enjoys the architecture and the lighting…"I had never seen this type of sidewalks they have in the area, with sparkles and interesting details and patterns". "Mel" was very enthusiastic in answering the questions and seemed very happy to be in the area, we continued with our talk.

"Mel" talked about how she likes the "American Village" better than many other places around: "If I am bored at home during the day and want to go somewhere quick, I would think about taking a drive here before anywhere else". Concerning different groups in the area, "Mel" commented, "I see that for the most part people in groups stick with one kind, either Americans or Okinawans. I think the language barrier is what separates us the most". "Mel" had much the same impression as I had about the interaction between locals and Americans, (Local female and American male couples). While in the area, she felt like she was in America but only to a small extent, "…you can hear American music in some stores and some signs are in English, in the other hand, it does not feel like America to me because here I feel much safer, drivers are not nearly as noisy (with the horn and load music) and the people seem more mellow, laughing and enjoying themselves" she said.

At the end, the Buffalo native last statement refered to how Mihama is different from other places on Okinawa, she responded saying that the area feels "like it has a theme". She said that although the shops are essentially different they share the same "type of vibe", unlike Naha city, where each place seems to have its own "history and feel". After I finished with "Mel", "Jun" and I went inside the Starbucks and had some snacks and coffee. We talked for a while; in the conversation, she mentioned how her uncle had told her that she should never marry an American, then I asked her "what about a mainlander? She said "that would be Ok with my uncle." She also mentioned that her grandmother left to Brazil and lived there for many years before returning to Okinawa then joked about how her grandmother never learned Portuguese after expending all those years there. I asked "Jun" to come back here with me another day and be my translator once again and that I would buy her more coffee, she laughed and said "I'd be glad to."

The next Monday we got together again, only now was a bit earlier. The main difference this time was that there were not as many people around, no kids skate boarding, no performances but more traffic on the streets. We encountered "Joshi", a 80 year-old Okinawan lady from Naha, she was sitting outside at Starbucks with her son who is a contractor for the US bases. I was really excited to find out what this older lady would say. I really wanted to ask her so much more than I did but I thought it would be too pushy or inappropriate. After all, I had just met her and would not expect her to open up to me about her experiences and feelings about the war in okinawa and the US military presence that came of it. This is what I really wanted to know from the lady.

Knowing that I would be asking questions about the relationship between Okinawans and Americans, I asked "Joshi" to please be honest in answering them, even if she thought the answers would sound rude. So, I started with the questions. "How do you feel about the place?" She said, "The place is very loud", we all laughed, "this is a good place to visit but not to live by. I mainly like to come here to eat out" (Her son said she likes Sushi.) "Joshi" said she enjoys Naha city and feels more comfortable there where she lives. "It is quite and peaceful for me there", she said. Then "Joshi" told me something else, she said she feels the relationship between Okinawans and Americans is the "same as any other people's relationship". "I feel the same way around Americans, Okinawans and Japanese; we just have different ways to communicate. It would be better if we could all speak the same language."

I have to admit that I did not completely believe she was being honest with me; maybe it was partly due to the language barrier, again. We continued our talk, "Joshi" told me that Mihama does not feel like "America", "It is just crowded but very Okinawan still", she said. "Joshi" compared "American Village" to Kokusai Street, "American Village is more for younger people, Kokusai Street has a wider range of age groups that frequent the area". I was now finished with my questionnaire with "Joshi".

Finally, while walking on the side walk, "Jun" and I stopped a 26 year-old Okinawan male named "Kenji". The first thing that stood out from him was what he was wearing, he was very "accessorized" with metal rings, earrings, stylish sunglasses, a hair dew and a bandanna looking piece of clothing on his wrist. He had a "rock n' rollish" look, I later found out that he had spent some time living in mainland Japan. "Jun" told me she knew he was Okinawan when she first saw him but also noticed the mainland accent on him when he started talking to her. Off course, I did not notice those differences myself but I did noticed however, a difference between his style and his friends' styles (he had two friends waiting for him nearby). The mainland Japan (big city) influence was evident in "Kenji".

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"Kenji" said Mihama was a good place for business, "many people get together here". He also said that he does not feel very comfortable in the area because there is too many people around for his taste. This I found kind of odd considering he lived on mainland, then again this might be why he moved back to Okinawa after all. "I enjoy the architecture of the place, said "Kenji", he also pointed out that he prefers the ocean/beach better than a shopping center environment. When I asked him about the interaction between cultures, he said, "This place shows that Okinawans and/or Americans are just people, we are all equal as human beings". "Kenji" started talking about the resemblance of "American Village" and "America", he said that "comparing the American Village to Tokyo, American village feels more like America than Tokyo". "Compared to other places on the island, like for example Shinto-shin in Naha, to me Shinto-shin is Japanese nice as American Village is American nice". Mihama gives "Kenji" a "sense of the tropics"; it is like a "Hawaiian style" place of sorts to him. I was now finished with my interviews, as for myself, I feel the "American Village" is a nice, clean and safe place where my wife and I can go out to eat and shop for things we may not find on base. As a whole, I do feel welcome when I visit the area but still feel like an outsider, not fully comfortable, maybe due to the language barrier. What I like the most about the area is the safety. Compared to many other places I have been to with similar level of activity, Mihama is much safer. I really enjoy that about this place and hope it stays this way or gets even better in the future. However, I like other places on the island better than Mihama, the problem is the language and the customs. I have noticed that the farther one goes up north, the less English you see and hear. When I go to a resort usually everything is in Japanese and it is difficult to find a room with one queen size bed for me and my wife to stay in, we want to come back home sooner.

When it comes to the relationship between Americans and Okinawans/Japanese in the area--I see many different types of relationships. There is the young American crowds who are usually "hanging around" looking to meet locals to form friendships and dating. It is not unusual to see more than one couple hanging around together with American males and Okinawan females in the group. It is very rare to see Okinawan males in these same groups however. There are also the married couples; there are two main "categories" that stick out in my mind. First, there are the local female & American male married couples that are stationed here temporarily and continue to follow more of the "American life style", they dress with American style clothes, use American style size cars, the male does not know much of the language while the female speaks fluent English (usually works on a base) and overall seems to be used to the "American life".

The second category I see is the couples in which the American male has almost completely submerged himself in the local culture and community. The male has learned the language while the female may not speak fluent English; they live off base and their children go to schools off base, they drive small size local vehicles and wear local style clothes (often wearing sandals and flip flops which are common with the locals). Of course, I am just speaking in general terms here.

Mihama's "American Village" does not make me feel like I am in America. In a way, the only aspect that resembles America is just the Americans I see around, then again that does not make me feel in America as much as it makes me feel like I am "on-base". Precisely, the fact that Americans visit this area more than many other places on island, mainly because the area is surrounded by US military bases is what makes it different. There are also cultural differences in the interactions between Okinawans and Americans that can be observed in the area. For instance, Americans seemed to be louder than the locals when speaking, specially in group settings.

Besides Okinawans and Americans there are other divisions that I noticed, mainly Indians and Filipinos as well as some South Americans. I think that the main impact that historical relations between people have on interactions here, is a culture of amejo, an Okinawan slang for girls who love Americans and their subculture of girls who like black men, called kokujo. This phenomenon, I would think, raises many issues to include problems of very basic questions of racial and sexual identity. In a country where its despise for people of color has been notorious and pale skin has traditionally been the highest mark of beauty, this is particularly interesting. However, the image of the geisha still influences Western ideas of Japanese women so stereotypes swing the other way as well. This is probably the biggest impact in the interracial relationships between people in the area, Okinawa wide and even in main land Japan. Of course, I am speaking in very general terms.

Doing this project definitely gave me a greater understanding on Okinawan and American relationships here on the island; it also makes me more aware of the roles we all sometimes play in society, whether consciously or otherwise.

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