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'Relocate a US military base to Shibuya': Okinawan comic's empathetic skits a hit

Masamitsu Kohatsu, known more commonly as Maachan, plays the role of U.S. transport aircraft Osprey in a skit in the 2020 performance of "Owarai Beigun Kichi" (Jokes about U.S. military bases). (Photo Courtesy of FEC Office Inc.)
Masamitsu Kohatsu is seen here in Naha on April 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

NAHA -- The show "Owarai Beigun Kichi" -- or Jokes about U.S. military bases -- has been capturing the hearts of fans in Okinawa as it features U.S. military bases and the issues that come with them that continue to inflict pain on Okinawans. So what does it mean that the topics addressed in the show are pain-inflicting, but are still received as comical? The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to Masamitsu Kohatsu, 46, also known as Maachan, who performs in and directs the show.

    There is a classic skit in "Owarai Beigun Kichi" that is set up like a television shopping channel. Its most highly recommended item on sale? U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The advertisement goes something like this: "What we have here for you today is the U.S. military's Futenma air base. You get to see U.S. military aircraft with your own eyes. You can get yourself all kinds of funding from the Japanese government. It's good for your health, if you participate in peace marches protesting the base. We will not charge you for delivery or consumption tax. The Japanese people will pay for that separately." The skit was first performed in 2006, but it's still one of the show's most popular acts.

    Mainichi Shimbun: Why did you think to do comedy on the topic of U.S. military bases?

    Masamitsu Kohatsu: After graduating from high school, I began doing comedy as I attended college (in Okinawa Prefecture). But at the time, I didn't address the topic of U.S. bases. It was only once I went to Tokyo that I began talking about military bases. It was then that I realized that the young people in Tokyo who came to my comedy shows knew nothing about U.S. military bases. They didn't know that U.S. military bases are surrounded by metal wire fencing. They didn't know that local residents couldn't freely go in and out of the bases. These things were common knowledge in Okinawa, but it was shocking to me that people outside of Okinawa didn't know. What I'd thought was normal in Okinawa was not so normal on the Japanese mainland.

    And once I started doing jokes that compared Okinawa to the mainland, I started to realize a lot of things. In Okinawa, when U.S. military aircraft fly overhead, school classes screech to a halt, people raise the volume on their televisions. But in Tokyo, the city is noisy with people but the skies are quiet. Okinawa is seen as this relaxing chain of islands, but the skies are much noisier than in Tokyo. It was when I was addressing these realizations that the incident occurred.

    A building at Okinawa International University is charred after a U.S. military helicopter crashed into it in the southern Okinawa prefectural city of Ginowan on Aug. 13, 2004. (Mainichi/Masayuki Tanaka)

    Mainichi: You're talking about the incident in which a large U.S. military helicopter crashed onto the grounds of Okinawa International University, which is located right next to Futenma air base, in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Aug. 13, 2004, right?

    Kohatsu: Yes. It just so happened to be my 30th birthday. I was in my single-room apartment costing 20,000 yen (approx. $184) per month when my wife's friend got in touch with us to let us know that "things were crazy in Okinawa," that a U.S. military helicopter had crashed into Okinawa International University. I turned on the television but all the national news channels were reporting on the start of the Olympics in Athens and the surprise resignation of Tsuneo Watanabe as owner of the Yomiuri Giants professional baseball team. And here I was, desperate for news about Okinawa. The front page of the local Okinawa newspaper that arrived a day late featured a photo of black smoke rising from the university campus, like there was a war going on or something. But when I looked through national dailies at the library, all the photos were of athletes with smiles waving their hands with the Olympic flame in the background at the opening ceremony in Athens. In the same country, one photo showed what looked like a war, while the other photo featured "a festival of peace." They were complete opposites. I felt anger, but at the same time, as a comic, I thought, "I could use this."

    U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan, is seen from the Mainichi Shimbun aircraft Kibo on April 6, 2021. (Mainichi)

    Shortly afterward, I used it in a bit with my partner. My partner would say, "Things are getting fired up in Athens, at the Olympics, aren't they?" And I would rip him apart, saying, "What?! What are you talking about? People on the mainland may be getting fired up over the Athens Olympics. But in Okinawa..." And I would open up the local Okinawan newspaper and say, "People are getting fired up because a U.S. military helicopter crashed!" And the audience responded. Because I'm feeling this anger inside of me, I let it all out. So for me it's half serious, half comedy. I go on to say, "Don't get all carried away by the Olympics" and "We're going to relocate a U.S. military base to the middle of Tokyo, to the crossing in Shibuya." And those jokes got a lot of laughs. And after doing those jokes in Tokyo for about a month, it hit me. This was what could only be said by an Okinawan; this was what could only be expressed by an Okinawan comic.

    Mainichi: What are you referring to when you say "this?"

    Kohatsu: The gap, this discrepancy. People have this image of Okinawa being a place of healing and comfort. But that's not the only Okinawa there is. Okinawa feels this sense of discomfort and inferiority toward mainland Japan. Okinawa has U.S. military bases, but it also idolizes American culture. We've heard stories about the war since we were little. What happens in Okinawa, with the U.S. military bases here, are like comedy sketches themselves. That's why I decided to express them through comedy.

    Mainichi: And that's why you started "Owarai Beigun Kichi" (Jokes about U.S. military bases) in 2005. Why do the people of Okinawa laugh when they watch the show?

    People form a human chain around the Futenma air base as they seek the return of the base to Japan, on May 16, 2004. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

    Kohatsu: People tell me I'm an advocacy comedian, but I don't think of myself that way at all. I just exaggerate the things that actually happen in Okinawa and perform them on stage. For example, there's this skit called "Human Chain." People hold each other's hands to form a chain around a military base in a show of protest, but the chain won't close. There's an older man who's fighting really hard to protest the U.S. military bases, and then a younger person who just kind of joined the human chain without that much conviction. The older man is desperate to close the chain, because otherwise the protest movement would have been for naught. But the younger person is thinking it's not that big a deal. Ultimately, they can't close the chain, and the older man says he has to leave. Asked where he's going by the youth, the man says, "I'm going to a festival inside the base."

    This kind of thing is pretty common in Okinawa. The people of Okinawa will take part in anti-base activities, but they also somehow place the bases on a pedestal. It might be difficult to understand for people from the mainland, but this is the type of sadness and comedy born from the military bases being in Okinawa for all these years. There's no contradiction to it for the people of Okinawa. But for people from the mainland, it all appears contradictory.

    What we're doing in "Owarai Beigun Kichi" is showing things objectively. Okinawan audiences also see themselves objectively (through our shows). When the older man trying to complete the human chain says he's going to an event on a U.S. military base, everyone laughs. That's when it hits them. "Yeah, we are like this." We do things that seem to contradict themselves, but that's what makes it Okinawan. And that's when we realize what role the U.S. military bases play in our lives. And what's happening in Okinawa is comedy itself.

    A scene from "Owarai Beigun Kichi" (Jokes about U.S. military bases) performed to an empty auditorium in 2020. (Photo courtesy of FEC Office Inc.)

    What our show expresses can be what the people of Okinawa are feeling at any given time. It's empathy. It's empathetic comedy. The kind where the reaction you have is, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," or "Yep, that's how things are nowadays." Instead of watching the show and thinking, "I'm going to protest the bases" or "I'm going to support the bases," it's enough for people to just share and empathize with what's going on in Okinawa.

    Mainichi: So you think that before one decides if they are for or against the bases, they must first have an interest in the issues.

    Kohatsu: People should decide for themselves whether they're for or against the bases after they see the performance. People say the U.S. bases are there to "protect the country," but at the end of the day, bases are places from which aircraft leave to go drop bombs somewhere, to attack another place. And a lot of incidents and accidents occur near bases. Not knowing about these things is dangerous, like seeing a lion with its mouth wide open in front of you but not running away from it.

    In a skit staged in a 2020 performance of "Owarai Beigun Kichi" (Jokes about U.S. military bases), a performer plays the role of the endangered species dugong, which used to inhabit the waters off Henoko, in the Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago. (Photo courtesy of FEC Office Inc.)

    When we talk about the issue of military bases, we may cite a lot of reasons why they might be needed, but older men and women who actually experienced the Battle of Okinawa 76 years ago don't care about such rhetoric -- as the bases are "necessary," or them being there "to protect the country." Ultimately, they just feel, "We don't ever want to experience anything like that again. That's why we don't need the bases." That sentiment is ingrained in me as one who was born and raised in Okinawa.

    Mainichi: April 12 marked the 25th anniversary of the agreement between the Japanese and U.S. governments that the U.S. would fully return U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma -- which is located in the middle of the city of Ginowan -- to Japan. A quarter of a century has passed, and the return of the base has not become a reality.

    Kohatsu: The issue of U.S. military bases is essentially an issue that involves all of Japan, but it's spoken about as if it is an Okinawan problem. What I fear the most is that that makes it harder for people to see the essence of the problem. So then what's the best way to communicate the base issue to people on the Japanese mainland? To relocate bases to places where people from the mainland will visit. Of course, it would be best to relocate the bases to the mainland.

    Masamitsu Kohatsu is seen here in Naha on April 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

    Even if the Futenma air base were to be relocated to Henoko, this area is very far (from where tourists commonly visit). That makes the base even harder to visualize. Then what should be done? I think Ryutan Pond next to Shurijo Castle should be reclaimed, and a V-shaped runway be built on that. A lot of tourists go to Shurijo Castle, right? So if Osprey aircraft were flying in the skies above it, people would realize how loud they can be. They won't be able to hear guides explaining the castle's history. It might sound like dark humor, but instead of communicating all this to the people of the government or politicians on the mainland, I think it would rather be better to let the tourists who come to Okinawa know. And if that's the case, the Futenma base should be relocated not to Henoko, but to a place that will be easily seen by visitors from the mainland.

    ***

    Masamitsu Kohatsu, known as Maachan, was born in 1974 in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha. He graduated from the University of the Ryukyus, and belongs to Okinawan performance group FEC, and has also appeared in television dramas as an actor. He writes and directs "Owarai Beigun Kichi" (Jokes about U.S. military bases).

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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