In a small jazz club in Okinawa, Japan, waitress Akiko Chino vocalizes a rendition of "Paper Moon." The aspiring singer struggles to interpret the song phonetically, having memorized the lyrics from a CD. The crowd applauds as she leaves the bandstand, bowing before resuming the work of clearing tables.
When she passes my table, she asks for clarification of a line in the song: "What is a Barnum and Bailey world?" I try to explain, but the barriers of language and cultural history get in the way.
Regardless, her love for jazz will go on. She is typical of many jazz musicians on this tiny island - self-taught, with a limited knowledge of English, but a great dedication to an American art form.
Okinawa has more jazz clubs than most cities in America. Located between mainland Japan and Taiwan, it has a history of Asian and American domination, and was a major battleground inWorld War II. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the American occupation, and the clubs are windows on that time.
In April 1945, the US military occupied Okinawa after a three- month campaign that resulted in some of the heaviest casualties of the war. American marine and naval forces lost an estimated 13,000 men in an invasion met head-on by Japan. About 80,000 Japanese troops were killed. The islandlost one-third of its population, about 150,000 people, caught in the crossfire.
The US administered Okinawa until 1972, when Japan resumed control with the agreement that the American bases would remain. During the years of occupation, the jazz clubs were havens where former enemies came together in the safety of cultural appreciation.
Japanese filmmaker Junji Sakamoto portrayed the impact that jazz had in mainland Japan in the historical feature film "Out of This World - Club Occupation Army." The movie documents the story of Japanese musicians such as singer Toshio Oida and drummer George Kawaguchi devoted to the "enemy music." It shows young Japanese musicians struggling to master jazz in postwar Japan by playing at nightclubs for US enlisted men.
Mr. Sakamoto said he made the film to chronicle the historic relationship between Japanese and American musicians, and to show how former enemies could move beyond the war and form a common bond through appreciation of jazz.
In the postwar period, Okinawans viewed the military bases through a multilayered prism, says Hayashi Oshiro. On one hand, they were considered installations of military oppression; on the other, they were seen as extensions of American abundance and popular culture. Once a week, Okinawans could go to stores and nightclubs on base.
Mr. Oshiro became a jazz fan from going to the base clubs, and he opened an American-style diner, The 50s Cafe, in the capital city of Naha. He also witnessed the influence on local musicians. They were drawn to both the music, the friendships, and the money earned in tips.
Most people preferred the swing music of the war era, but many others took to the innovative style of bebop. Over time, a few musicians even integrated traditional Okinawan melodies and instruments into their performances.
Some of the first-generation Okinawan musicians went on to careers as entertainers and jazz club owners. A few continue to perform today. One is pianist Yara Fumio. He is a short man with a long goatee. While he questions the need for the continued presence of the military bases, he appreciates the opportunity they provided to learn about jazz.
He owns a club called Gu-Wa Jazz Live in Naha. The name means fable, and the club is a …