There is a saying in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island, that sounds much simpler than its meaning: Ichariba choodee. The two-word phrase means “once we meet, we are brothers and sisters,” and while people typically use it with a gentle smile, one can’t help but think of the irony that this phrase is rooted in a region where people are as divided as in no other place in Japan.
Okinawa is a land of opposites. It has stunning natural beauty obstructed by tall wire fences. It’s a slow-paced island blessed with chirping bird sounds blurred by helicopter noise. It’s a second home to travelers with a mission, who, at times, trade good intentions for iniquity. Once an independent country, Okinawa came under the governance of Japan in the early 17th Century until the end of World War II when it was briefly placed under U.S. administration. The island was officially returned to Japan in 1972. Today, despite occupying just one percent of Japan’s landmass, Okinawa contains more than 70 percent of the country’s U.S. bases — a political decision sealed by the U.S. and Japan’s governments with very little consideration for the locals’ lives. The presence of military bases, therefore, for most locals, is associated with nothing but burden and fear.
For Ryota, Shinji, Kotaro, and Daiki, the protagonists of “Little Love Song” (Chiisana Koi no Uta), however, life is far simpler: they’re at the peak of their youth, caring only about making music. But just as things start to look promising for their musical career, Shinji, the mastermind behind the band, is killed in a hit-and-run accident caused by, presumably, a U.S. military vehicle. Left scarred for life, the group members search for ways to cope with their loss. Daiki joins another band; Kotaro strives to glue the remaining pieces of the group together, and Ryota, grieving for his friend’s untimely passing, detaches himself from everything. But when one day Shinji’s sister, Mai, discovers an untitled song Shinji had been working on and secretly sharing with Lisa, a girl living on a military base, amid raging protests against the bases, the band is formed again to continue Shinji’s interrupted journey.
At the background of youth struggle for life, we are continuously exposed to the ongoing friction between members of the military bases and local Okinawans. “People out there, they don’t think well of us,” says Lisa’s mother as she forbids her to leave the base. “Do you think that it’s better if we try to get along with the local people?” Lisa asks her father in return. Lisa’s family is a representative of the U.S. military, whose stay in Okinawa is a complicated duty. Shinji’s family, on the other hand, represents the many Okinawan families who have been affected by the U.S. military, but have no choice but to continue co-existing with it. Shinji’s father, however, despite his grief for his son, doesn’t believe it’s the bases that should take the blame.
“What’ll they gain by turning their anger at the base?” he says as he watches the news on the protests. “It’s misdirected anger.”
The dilemma we witness in the movie — to resent or not resent the bases — is painstakingly realistic. Since Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972 until 2016, U.S. military troops (or members of their families) have caused 709 aircraft-related incidents, 5,919 crimes, including rapes, murder, and theft, 602 fire incidents that had burned around 38,163,866 square meters of Okinawan land, and 3,613 car accidents (since 1981). Among those, since 1990, 82 were fatal. The data is shocking, and the fear of other potential incidents is something Okinawan people live with constantly.*
But is the U.S. military bases’ presence merely negative? In the movie, Ryota’s mother runs a bar that is full of customers — mostly from the bases — before Shinji’s death, and empty after. We witness Shinji’s father relying on a base to make ends meet. And like in the case of Shinji, Lisa, and the band, we see people overcoming borders in the name of friendship and love. So is there a solution to Okinawa’s struggle with U.S.’ military bases? Is there a way to overcome the barriers between those people who call these islands “home” permanently or temporarily?
Inspired by the songs of Okinawa’s punk-rock band Mongol800 (who also make a guest appearance in the movie), “Little Love Song” is a movie that hints us a potential answer to this question. It tells us that if people across the globe raise generations who look at life beyond the narrow prism of nationality, language, race, age, and other social obstacles, there is a way to bid farewell to many of the atrocities that still exist today.
When finally leaving Japan for good, in a letter to her friends, Lisa bids goodbye by quoting the phrase she had come to adopt as a memory of Okinawa — Ichariba choodee. If the future is determined by minds like this movie’s characters, yes, there is hope that, one day, there’ll be more people to call “brothers” and “sisters” across the globe.
Cast: Hayato Sano, Gordon Maeda, Anna Yamada
Director: Kojiro Hashimoto
Text by Rose Haneda