The secret of Okinawa

A paradise island 100 miles off Japan conceals one of the war's tragic stories. By Simon Calder

Of course, I did not want any raw goat. But politeness is sacred in Japan. Three engaging hosts were sharing the tatami mat with me in the restaurant, so the only possible answer to "Would you like some raw goat?" was a meek "Yes".

In case this happens to you, note that there are two kinds of raw goat. The first sort is relatively easy: gamey, steak-like slivers that you can just about swallow whole with the support of a stiff swig of awimora, the local version of rice wine. The next course is more of a challenge. The skin, a layer of belly fat and another of flesh sit threateningly on the plate. Imagine "goat scratchings" prior to frying: that is how they look, and taste. Eyes from adjacent tables focused on every unhappy chew. While I turned as pale as the now-empty plate, my hosts applauded and proudly said, "Japanese people cannot eat this."

Okinawa: a 50-mile straggle of volcanic island, dangling 100 miles southwest of the mainland. The currency is the yen, and the prices are as scary as a recently deceased goat. But Okinawa is also a sub-tropical idyll. The verdant terrain between the beaches and coral reefs, shimmering in the Pacific, is filled with un-Japanese calm. In the capital, Naha, pensioners amble through a game of croquet while a cyclist passes the afternoon watching street life strangely detached from the city's gleaming office buildings. Okinawans seem more motivated by meditation than remuneration. And the high value of the yen protects them from despoliation by tourists.

The coast is superb for sub-aqua exploration, while the fine walking possibilities in the interior belie the idea that Japan is crowded. Fishing is the main industry, and grace is the principle characteristic.

Part of Japan, but apart from Japan. Until 1879 the present prefecture of Okinawa was an independent nation, trading with Korea, the Philippines and the rest of southeast Asia, while Japan had cut all contacts with abroad. The Ryukyu kingdom, as it was then called, thrived until Japan took control. Much of the South China Sea was controlled from Shuri Castle, an intimidating fortress hovering on a hillside over the capital. But today the whole place is an Eighties remake, from the thick walls and strident scarlet columns to the intricate marquetry on the throne. The original was comprehensively obliterated by foes out to neutralise Okinawa's strategic importance.

More goat arrived, this time floating unhappily in a soup. Since someone had boiled the poor beast for this course, I devoured it at a gallop. Then the singing broke out, accompanied by gentle plucking on the three- stringed sanshin - like a balalaika, made with a soundboard of snakeskin and strings of silk. Lyrics in the Okinawan dialect accompanied first, "Auld Lang Syne", then a mournful version of "There's No Place Like Home". How, I wondered, had they learnt these tunes?

"They were learnt on the Burma railway during the war," said Kazugi, one of my culinary challengers. "The Scottish prisoners taught them to their guards."

The war. So far I had not mentioned it, but nowhere in Okinawa is unscathed by the Second World War. In the fierce fighting 50 years ago, 200,000 people perished on the island called "the keystone of the Pacific".

More died here than in the atomic attacks on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. On 1 April 1945, a US force landed in the middle of the island. The barren north was quickly taken, but the more populous south was where most of the Japanese defenders were stationed.

A "change of course" was ordered: a chaotic retreat to the island's southern peninsula. As town after town fell, the Japanese military and Okinawan citizens became more desperate. Caring for the sick was impossible; those unable to walk were ordered to commit suicide. Cyanide was handed out, and anyone who refused to swallow it was simply shot by the Japanese army.

The more beautiful the island becomes, the sadder are the stories concealed within it. In the village of Haebaru, an exhibition tells of the people's war. The most moving exhibit is of a simple cloak, with a hole ripped through the centre. The woman who owned this is still alive, but not the baby she was cradling in the cloak when the bullet struck.

By the end of the battle, the defenders had moved underground. Today a thousand cameras click busily at the site of the "First Surgery Cave". The people taking aim are all Japanese, come to see what war looks like: Okinawa was the only piece of Japanese soil where fighting took place. The visitors are visibly shocked by what their compatriots endured half a century ago. Teenagers were pressed into service as paramedics and errand-runners. Eventually their cave was surrounded by the Americans; 200 schoolgirls committed mass suicide. In 1995, a requiem plays softly while the sombre faces of the living look at the photographs of the soon- to-be-dead.

Thousands more perished at the extreme south of the island. To visualise the setting, imagine that the population of Cornwall was beaten back to Land's End. On the cliffs above the crashing waves, many of them leapt to their deaths rather than face the terrible retribution that, they had been warned, the conquering army would exact.

This is surely the war memorial to end all war memorials. As you approach the coast, the terrain becomes more dramatic. A tree-strewn hill rises sharply from the plain, then plunges away into the sea. The slopes are shattered by row upon row of black marble tablets. Bleak and mute, they commemorate the dead of all sides.

In peace, as in war, the Okinawans suffered more than the mainland. The Americans governed the province until 1972 and still have a massive presence, with huge areas out-of-bounds to the local people where noisy war games are played. Supersonic fighters scream along the coast, trucks fight with rush-hour traffic, helicopters bat madly overhead. Yet the dollar's decline means life outside the base is savagely expensive. Few have the cash to visit Payless Motors and the drive-thru McDonald's outside the base, so they rent videos and watch forces' TV. Barbed wire was installed to keep the Okinawans out, but now it serves to keep the Americans inside their slice of small town, USA.

So hardly anyone from the West sees Okinawa these days. They do not witness the enchantingly scruffy city market, where dank, half-smoked cigarettes dangle from the mouths of slouches not yet seized by the Japanese work ethic. They do not catch the idle grace of the harbour, where fishing boats slip by oblivious to the 20th century. Or the startling beauty of the clifftop, its rugged folds draping the coastline and concealing a calamity: it goes unobserved except by those who come to mourn.

A shame: when you strip away the history, you realise that Okinawa is one of those great undiscovered destinations. Even for Capricorns like me.

When to go

The ceremony to mark 50 years since the end of the battle of Okinawa takes place next Friday.

The rainy season in Okinawa is just coming to an end. If you can travel next month, you will be in time for the Peaceful Love Rock Festival.

How to get there

The official economy fare from London to Okinawa is pounds 2,440 return. Simon Calder paid pounds 810 for a ticket on China Airlines via Amsterdam, Bangkok and Taipei, booked through Bridge The World (0171-911 0900). You could travel more quickly via Tokyo or Osaka, but the fare will be much higher.

What to spend

Yen, currently trading at about 130 to pounds 1. At this rate of exchange, the minimum bus fare is pounds 1.50 and a beer costs pounds 3.

Where to stay

Simon Calder paid pounds 40 per night at the Hotel Ekka Annex, in the centre of Naha (00 81 98 861 1181).

Who to ask

Japanese National Tourist Organisation (0171-734 9638).

What to watch

The first programme in the new series of Channel 4's "Lonely Planet" is on Japan: Tokyo to Taiwan, including Okinawa. It begins on 28 June at 8.30pm.

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