As the United States exits two protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s easy to forget that nearly 100,000 defense-related Americans remain in Japan, a country with which the U.S. ceased hostilities nearly 70 years ago. The American bases occupy about one-fifth of Okinawa, an island unfortunate to have served as a rampart for the Japanese mainland during the war and as an aircraft carrier for the Americans after it. Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird attempts to bridge the gap between these two phases in Okinawan history.
Luz is a modern American army brat, in Okinawa because of her gung-ho military mother. In her crass way, she tries to navigate global transience and her own mélange of ancestries. The other narrator is Takimo, a wartime Okinawan teen convinced that Japan is invincible and that her emperor is divine. She is forced to suffer all manner of privation on the road to disillusionment with the imperial cause.
That these two eventually become connected Hollywood-style may go without saying. But the contrasts between them are fascinating. During World War II the Americans were hardly innocent of demonizing the Japanese, but Takimo reminds us that the demonization went both ways. Luz, for her part, gets a schooling in East-Asian ancestor worship and filial duty that helps her better accept her mother’s idiosyncrasies and the premature death of her soldier sister.
Once herself an American in Okinawa, Bird knows her subject; the novel displays keen appreciation and sympathy for the Okinawans and their culture. The prose could benefit from more showing and less telling, as the cliché goes, but the voices of the girls are convincing.
The American presence in Okinawa remains controversial, whether because it desiccates a vibrant island or because soldiers there occasionally go berserk and assault the locals. Above the East China Sea provides welcome context to the news reports from an island whose pivotal place in global power politics remains mostly unexamined.