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Public Market


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

There is no formal name for the Naha public market. It begins on the south side of Kokusai Dōri along three streets – Ichiba Hondōri, Mutsumibashi Dōri, and Heiwa Dōri – and continues about 700 meters south until it runs into Kainan Hondōri. Right in the middle is a structure with the name, Daiichi Makishi Public Market where butcher shops, fish sellers, and dried and pickled food stalls are assembled. However, the entire market spans a wide area, with shops for vegetables, fruit, tea, clothing, and ready-made side dishes. The shops come in all sizes and shapes, from street stalls to barracks and multipurpose buildings, forming an intricate maze.

The people of Naha simply refer to the whole area as machigwā (market). While the word itself is straightforward, the marketplace is anything but that, and somehow this juxtaposition is what makes this so Okinawan. For this essay, we will refer to the whole area as the “Naha Public Market.” 

Enter the Daiichi Makishi Public Market and you’re in for an immediate shock at the meat and fish section. The pieces of a cleanly butchered whole pig are stacked in a huge pile. The pig’s face, organs, feet – everything is there. The main cuts such as the red meats, pork belly, and spare ribs are laid bare, kept as dramatically large pieces. The beef is treated much the same. Rarely will you see meat cut thinly and or prepared in small quantities. Here, the meat is unbelievably big and it’s as if you have arrived in the kingdom of meat-eaters.

At the fish stalls, you will be mesmerized by the colorful array of tropical fish on display. The colors are so vibrant and layered that it’s as if the fish were hosting a festival of their own. It is sure to be difficult for tourists to imagine what each fish tastes like judging solely from their colors. 

There are about thirty butcher stalls and eighty fish stalls (article written in 1992)1. Even so, you will recover from the initial shock after two or three rounds through the market as your eyes get accustomed to the sights. At around this point, a question will start to arise as you begin to wonder, where are the boundaries between each of the stalls? Where does one shop end and another begin?

The space for one stall inside the building is referred to as a koma, and one koma has a width of three shaku (about 90.9 cm), which is quite narrow. This equates to a total area of 2.2 square meters as the typical space for one stall. Some stalls take up two to three koma, but those are a rarity. Thus, in those narrow spaces huddle the store-keepers – women of all ages, obaas, anmaas, and nēnēs. And with everything in the shops and display cases looking all the same at first glance, the boundaries become all the harder to distinguish.

The meat and fish stalls are not the only shops that have clustered in one area to sell the same goods. In fact, the entire market is organized in this unique way. It is said that when one shop runs out of stock, they lend and borrow from their neighbors. Since they are all selling the same goods, it might be that they see no use in trying to sell more than another shop, and the women noticeably never make lively sales pitches to the customers. Instead, they await quietly for the customers to approach as if they await the same fate.

The sellers’ sales technique is not competitive. Rather, they quietly and steadily help each other. Markets like this probably function like a communal entity. However, even when you understand this, the situation is puzzling once you step into the clothing section.

There are plain, one-piece dresses for middle-aged women hanging in great numbers in each stall, and these stalls seem to extend endlessly. Here, you really can’t tell the difference between one shop and another – it’s a genuine maze. As if rehearsed, there are hardly any customers at any time of the day. It is a true mystery how they all don’t go out of business together. However, even after mustering the courage to timidly ask one of the anmaa tending her stall how they’re still in business, she only smiled mischievously and did not reply.

Another unique characteristic of this market is its smell. The smells of meat in the meat section and the fish in the fish section are very strong. Although it is not wholly unexpected, it is quite striking. The cause of this is that a lot of the meat and fish products are not encased in glass. Here, there’s no attempt to conceal the products for what they are in some elegant fashion.

Each food sits nonchalantly and only quietly asserts itself with vigor. The smell of burdock mixes in with the smell of the medicinal root “utchin” and the sweet smell of sātā andagī. It’s an unfamiliar smell, but it awakens feelings of longing, verging on nostalgia. One realizes that this is the smell of daily human life which is a little confusing and also a little sad.

All the “things” that are the stuff of people’s lives are thrown together in a tranquil disorder. In all of Japan, this is the only market of its kind left. That’s why you never get bored, even after wandering about and getting lost in the maze the whole day. However, being a wanderer, you will get tired.

If you do get tired, simply make your way up to the eating area on the second floor of the Daiichi Public Market. Here, customers mix with shop owners to visit the numerous food stalls surrounding the dining space. Most Okinawan dishes are made here, and the food is inexpensive and delicious.

The beginnings of the Naha public market were unplanned and its formation occurred almost naturally in 1947, soon after the war ended. Everything had been burned to the ground and stripped bare. People began gathering on this unusable wasteland because they had nowhere else to go. They engaged in bartering, and it developed into becoming something of a black market. Even now, the Gābu River that flows nearby still shows vestiges of this original state. Although the damp ground becomes a slough when it rains, the marketplace became Naha’s most thriving black market. Eventually, the black markets multiplied like amoeba and transformed to become the public market.

The people who built this market and kept it alive were tireless women. The women of Okinawa are generally hard-working, but the women of the market are especially so. Even when it comes to physical labor, the men don’t compare. Once, a male manager of the Market Association was asked, “What were the men doing?” to which he replied, pulling himself up straight, “We supported everything from underneath!” Four or five middle-aged ladies having lunch at the corner who were listening let out a hearty laugh all at once. Even their laughter rang true with both mirth and admirable strength2.

Editor’s Note:

  1. Today, in October 2022, there are 12 butcher stalls, 16 fish stalls, and 41 grocery stalls selling things as dried provisions.
  2. The market was carried on in a temporary site for a re-equipment project due to deterioration, until the opening of the new market in March 2023.