Okinawa, 1969

In the summer of 1969, university student Kei Orihara applied for special permission to visit Okinawa. Exchanging her Japanese yen for dollars, she entered the only part of Japan still under the control of the U.S. military occupying forces.

From March, 1965 to early November, 1968, U.S. bombs rained upon North Vietnam, killing hundreds of thousands and destroying the countryside, cities and villages. Following the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, in late January and early February, 1968, U.S. popular and political support for the war had waned, and popular protest increased.

In the spring of 1969, with a newly elected U.S. president in office, the bombing of North Vietnam had ceased, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam was being slowly reduced, and the secret U.S. bombing of Cambodia had begun.

Having been designated by the U.S. military as “The Keystone of the Pacific,” Okinawa now contained more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel. The Treaty of San Francisco, also called the Treaty of Peace with Japan, which came into force in April, 1952, legally granted the men and women of the U.S. military stationed on Okinawa benefits and privileges denied to native Okinawans. The resentment of the native people of Okinawa resulted in outspoken political opposition to the U.S. military presence there. Such candid activism was not present in Japan’s other island populations.

As world-wide opposition to the U.S war in Vietnam grew, allegations (later proven true) and public alarm over the storage of U.S. nuclear arms at the base at Kadena aggravated an already fraught political atmosphere. Native opposition to the de jure and de facto U.S. military colonization of Okinawa was explicit and persistent.

I this context, Kei Orihara half-expected to see Okinawa as merely an American facility. What she discovered was a vital, affable and warm-hearted combination of cultures — Okinawan, American, and old-fashioned Japanese — in a tropical setting.

Looking at these photos, one can walk alongside the young aspiring photographer. The fascinating, sometimes ominous scenery, the charm of the people, the thrilling moments inspired and initiated Kei’s career as a documentary photographer.