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
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
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
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 treasured spot for jazz aficionados. …