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Spoils of War


American MPs and Ryukyu police officers checking a senka agiyā. (Source: Wikipedia)

There was a time when the people of Okinawa took a great many things from the US military bases, adding those goods to their own lives or selling them. We called those goods senka—“the spoils of war”—and we called the act of taking them “presenting the spoils of war.” We used to call the people who did the taking senka agiyā.

After the Battle of Okinawa, the US military occupied the islands. They brought their American way of life, unchanged, to Okinawa. On the main island, where most of the fighting took place, the number of prisoners of war began to increase steadily beginning in early April, 1945. The fighting went on much longer than the US military had initially projected, and as a result, the prisoner population exploded. This was a miscalculation on the part of the US as they began to incur huge expenditures provisioning the prisoners.

During imprisonment, the rations given to Okinawans were their first step in experiencing US food culture (portable rations during the war included ham, cheese, coffee, and chewing gum).  Forced into starvation through the extremities of war, the people took to US food culture without hesitation.

Once the war ended, residential neighborhoods and US military bases were divided by chain-link fences. The bases started hiring for military jobs like guards. Okinawans’ curiosity was piqued as the world’s foremost material civilization piled its goods out in open air, right before the islanders’ eyes. The spoils of war were not limited only to food and cooking supplies, but also clothing, whiskey, tobacco, bedding, building materials, sewing machines and more—the Americans brought every conceivable thing. 

When it came to the spoils of war, teamwork between those within and without the chain-link fences was necessary. Teams formed between people who obtained jobs inside the military bases who could then act as guides and people on the outside called “the shock corps”. The guides inside the bases were not limited only to Okinawans; there were cases of US troops who acted as guides when they needed a little pocket money. 

At first, the spoils of war taken from the bases mostly went directly into residents’ bellies or onto their backs, but eventually those goods flowed into the black market and were put up for sale. The main drag of Heiwa-dori in Naha was one of those markets. There was also a large black market trade of machine parts between the shops that stood side-by-side down Naha’s Himeyuri-dori.

There were so many machine parts on Himeyuri-dori it was said you could put together a whole car with just a brisk walk. But of course you could: people stole whole cars from the bases, tore them to pieces, and sold off the parts to various machine shops, so of course you could put a whole car back together again. When the Anti-organized Crime Division carried out house raids, they confiscated hand grenades, automatic rifles, and even bazookas—these too were spoils of war from the bases. 

At their cores, the senka agiyā were thieves, yes, but the feeling and sound of the word in my mouth ring somehow close to respect—chivalrous thieves with courage and determination that went above and beyond. You might even call them Davids taking on the Goliath USA.

Spoils of war supported Okinawa’s post-war economy for quite some time. Even now they serve as a major indicator of the way relations continue to stand between Okinawans and the US military bases.