Last month, I embarked on a journey I was towards the top of my my list for travel destinations in one of Japan’s more unlikely places: Okinawa, specifically Naha and the surrounding areas. When I travel, it is usually purely for leisure, sampling local foods, and taking photos at the famous locations and historical sites I encounter while walking through the streets or dashing from point A to point B. This time, the travel was very different and had a much deeper, personal meaning.
Let me preface the discussion with now of the questions both foreigners and Japanese ask me all the time in Japan: “Why did you come to Japan?” My answer, as I have discussed before on this website, is different than many other traditional answers. I have never had any interest in manga, anime, or video game culture. I actually never really even had an interest in Japanese food before I went to Tokyo for the first time some three years ago. My reasons always surrounded the important role the Japanese plays in US military and security policy in the Pacific and the large role the Japanese play when it comes to international trade and economic might.
There is, however, one more, more personal reason that I have not discussed on this website: my grandfather.
My grandfather (currently in his upper-80s and very healthy) joined the United States Marines following Pearl Harbor quickly after his high school graduation. As fate would have it, he received a Purple Heart at Okinawa and is a member of one of the most decorated and famed Marine Divisions in the Pacific during World War II: The Sixth Division. One of the division’s claims to fame was valiantly fighting and winning the Battle of Okinawa. For as long as I can remember, I have heard stories about the battle, the island, and the Okinawan people. When I was accepted to my current position in Japan, I made visiting Okinawa while my grandfather is still alive one of my top priorities. I wanted to see what he saw from a first hand perspective. More than anything, I wanted to talk about Okinawa with him when I return from Japan at some point this summer for a few weeks.
With these thoughts and conversations in my mind, I boarded a plane bound for Naha (major city on Okinawa’s main island) and looked forward to seeing the island though the lens of my grandfather. Almost immediately after arriving, I recognized the island was different than anywhere else in Japan. The presence of American military personnel, American military bases, and the English language in more places than on the main island certainly show how much of an effect American rule (until 1972) and the American military have had on the island. I will never forget hearing the jets roar past as I neared Kadena AFB shortly after arrival. The might of the US Air Force was awe-inspiring.
I will spare the graphic details of many of the stories and discussions we had while I was younger, but it was amazing to see many of the places, beaches, and characteristics of Okinawa my grandfather described, much in the way he described them, more than sixty years after the fact. As I walked the city and the beaches, I could not imagine how much American blood was shed during the campaign and how fortunate I was that my grandfather survived the battle.
While I rode a boat leaving Naha out on the open ocean bound for some smaller islands, I closed my eyes and envisioned my young grandfather and his friends as they were on their boats dodging fire from the small volcanic islands before landing on the main island. The feeling I received in that moment is something I will never forget. The rocking on the boat through the surf as the high peaks peaked through the water is feeling I will always remember.
As the trip continued onward, I visited other famous war sites on the island and spoke with some Airmen and Marines I met out and about on the streets. This trip certainly was not all for leisure and I needed a change of pace when it came to traveling. Certainly the trip to Okinawa will resonate with me for years to come.
To get back to the main point of this post, it is important to travel with a deeper meaning than just sightseeing from time to time. It enhances the whole experience and allows you to focus like a laser on different aspects- history, relationships, family ties, etc., that may often be ignored while you are out on the road. This trip was so special for me as I connected with my family’s history in a first-person way that many people may never be able to do. If you have the chance to do this, you must.
Needless to say, my grandfather was surprised and happy to receive the post card I mailed him from Naha.
Have you ever traveled with a deeper meaning? What stuck out most to you?