NAHA, Japan — For centuries, most Japanese homes have had a sacred alcove to display the household's prize possessions: an ancient scroll, a seasonal flower arrangement, the family's samurai sword.
But in the southern archipelago of Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom until Japan annexed it in 1879, the mainland's military traditions never took hold. Here, the object lovingly displayed in many alcoves, or tokonomas, is a musical instrument, the three-stringed sansen.
"Our slogan is to turn every weapon into a musical instrument," said writer Akira Arakawa, one of the leaders of the movement to oust the U.S. military bases from Okinawa.
Okinawans go to the polls today for a referendum on whether to shrink and consolidate the bases that still sprawl across the main Okinawan island five decades after the end of World War II.
But the referendum is also seen as a chance to gain cultural recognition and the respect that islanders feel is still being denied them. Most of all, it is the first opportunity in a century for Okinawans to shape their own political fate.
"Okinawa has never had self-determination. Its history has always been determined by outsiders," said Teruo Hiyane, professor of political history at Ryukyu University, which was founded by the Americans during the occupation. "So this referendum is a symbolic act."
Okinawa's 160 islands are located roughly halfway between Kyushu, in southern Japan, and Taiwan. Okinawa historically shared the ancient culture of mainland Japan, and its inhabitants spoke a different version of the Japanese language. But the Ryukyu Kingdom, as Okinawa was known until 1879, was an early Pacific trading post and was heavily influenced by China, Korea and Southeast Asia. For a time, the king paid tribute to both Japan and China.
After annexation, a "Japanization" program discouraged Okinawans from using their own language, and when Okinawa reverted from U.S. to Japanese rule in 1972, Tokyo tried to reestablish standard Japanese dialect and customs in its far-flung new prefecture. But in recent years, Japanese have begun to look past their homogeneity to treasure regional differences. Since about 1990, Okinawan culture has become popular in Tokyo, especially lively and rhythmic traditional music and pop music set to a bouncing Okinawan beat.
Here in Naha, the Okinawan capital, the referendum campaign looks like it was designed by the tourist board to showcase Okinawa's easygoing subtropical culture--and to emphasize the differences between Okinawa and mainland Japan.
Posters urging Okinawans to vote are plastered all over Naha, showing islanders in the bright traditional costumes that are more reminiscent of Chinese clothing than of Japan's kimono. One of the people featured prominently in the posters is a leading local musician, Rinken Teruya, who has a large following in Japan.
Teruya, who grew up in a shabby bar district near Kadena Air Base, thinks Okinawa would be better off without the U.S. bases. He agreed to give free concerts to promote the referendum.
Teruya, 47, was raised in intimate contact with three cultures: Okinawan, American and Japanese. His grandfather, also a musician, had a store that sold guitars and records to American GIs and sansen to Okinawans. The family lived in the back of the store, and in the evenings, the sound of sansen music would drift through the thin plywood walls together with the strains of American rock.
Today, he sings in uchinaguchi, the local language, and his music blends both traditions. Although his passport declares him to be Japanese, when asked his identity he replied, "I am a Ryukyuan."
Teruya questions whether the U.S. bases are really a military necessity for Japan--and why, if they are essential, they must all be located on Okinawa.
"I travel all over the country, and [the rest of] Japan is big compared to Okinawa," he said wryly. "I think they could find a place" to relocate some of the 27,000 U.S. troops stationed here.
In the year since the rape of a 12-year-old girl involving three U.S. servicemen sparked a broad anti-base movement, the Marine Corps has begun a major campaign to become a better neighbor to the Okinawans.
Every Marine now has to undergo cultural sensitivity training, including a briefing on Okinawan customs; the drinking age has been raised to 20 in keeping with Japanese law; alcohol is not sold in stores after 9 p.m.; the rowdy bar district around Kadena has been put off-limits to Marines from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.; and Marines are now required to carry more auto insurance coverage.
As a result, the number of fights and other incidents has declined, said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Daniel K. Carpenter.
Okinawan public opinion is divided over whether the Marines' behavior has improved of late, and over whether the U.S. forces should be withdrawn entirely or merely scaled back. What is striking, however, is the widespread anger not at the Americans but at the national government in Tokyo.