LETTER TO A STRANGER: OKINAWA, JAPAN
BY AKEMI JOHNSON
You called the U.S. military bases “sylvan” in your note to me, and—I’ll admit now—I had to look up the definition: wooded. Just like a poet, I thought, to use a word like that to describe a military base.
You were farther north in Japan, traveling down the fire ring, on a worldwide pilgrimage to climb and write about volcanoes. (“Had to buy myself a gas mask in the end,” you wrote me, “but I fumble on.”) You had found me on social media through mutual friends. We made loose plans to meet once you arrived in Okinawa.
Okinawa is covered in U.S. bases, and since the end of World War II, a stream of Americans has made the islands their temporary home. You called your visit a kind of homecoming, because you’d lived on Kadena Air Base as a kid. You said you remembered “lots of uncleared brush & forest & old fortress, lots of weird insects.”
“At 6, 7, 8 years old it was a tropical paradise to me,” you wrote. “What's it like now?”
Not sylvan, I thought. Your description confused me, because the bases I knew were manicured and sterile. After you wrote, I’d sit in traffic on Route 58; look through the fences at the wide, neat lawns; and wonder if forests were hidden in there. Maybe the bases had changed. Maybe your memory was faulty. Maybe a child could conjure woods from a line of scrawny, government-issued trees. I decided to ask you when we met.
I was in Okinawa because I, too, was researching a book. Half of my year on the island was over, and lately I had been feeling lonely and on edge. An American civilian, I felt just as foreign on the island’s bases as off. I wondered why I had exiled myself to this remote area of the globe, severed from family and friends.
One night, I went to a party on Futenma, the Marine Corps base notorious for its place in the middle of Ginowan City. Surrounded by a squadron of pilots and their wives, I drank and drank and drank, even though I was taking medication that forbade me to drink. The next morning I woke with a ringing in my ears that—I never admit this to anyone, but I’m going to admit it to you—has never fully gone away.
Just before you were scheduled to arrive, I heard you read a poem on NPR. I was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes and turned off the water to listen. I was delighted that you had a spot on All Things Considered, that the program had been relayed from Washington, D.C., to the battery radio on my windowsill.
Then came horror. Your voice was an old recording. I learned that you had gone to hike a volcano on an island north of Okinawa three days earlier and never returned. Helicopters, dogs, and forty people were looking for you. The segment ended, “Craig Arnold, lost in Japan.”
That morning, I had an appointment at the U.S. consulate, where I asked about you. A Foreign Service officer assured me the situation was under control. They would find you.
They never did. The search teams scoured the small island, eventually surmising that a deer trail had led you off the edge of a cliff. They rappelled down that cliff and combed the area below, but you weren’t there. Your loved ones were left with searing questions. In her beautiful book, an elegy to you, your partner Rebecca Lindenberg writes, “What makes a man impossible to find / on such a chip of land it’s hardly there?”
We never met and never will, and I’m not here to tell your story. Others have done so in ways detailed and incandescent, and there is, of course, your writing, words that continue to speak.
I do want to tell you this:
Before I left Okinawa, I went to visit a small museum outside Futenma. At the end of a dead-end road, I parked along the rusted base fence. No one was around. Cicadas roared, and a turtle-shaped tomb crouched nearby. Beyond the fence, on Futenma, there was some kind of monument: a white rock with a black plaque written in Japanese.
I peered at the rock, wondering what it meant, and then I noticed the dense, unruly foliage crowding around it. Branches heavy with leaves arched overhead. Of course. I’d seen only parts of the bases, the humorless buildings and hamburger joints. But the bases occupied so much space. Of course there were also areas like this—edges and corners left to the subtropics, wild and sylvan.
I stood there and thought of the word you had taught me. I thought about going home in a week. I thought about you on the base—six, seven, eight years old, amid the trees.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Akemi Johnson is a writer who has contributed to NPR's All Things Considered and Code Switch, The Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. She's currently working on a narrative non-fiction book about the clash and coexistence of locals and the U.S. military in Okinawa, where she was a Fulbright scholar. She hopes you'll read Craig Arnold's poetry.