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Backstreet shopkeepers take life as it comes

By: Christopher Lynagh

Date Posted: 1998-06-20

Shin Machi Street branches left off Kadena Rotary as you drive towards Nago. Behind it are the Shin Machi Markets, and its rough concrete paths linking rickety old shops. The smell of tempura, fresh vegetables and fish fill the air. Unfashionable clothes hang on racks. Standing behind trays of fresh meat, Okuma Chokichi makes a sweeping gesture. " One day, this will be gone and a supermarket will be here instead." But he doesn't seem unhappy, nor is Fish/ Meat vendor Gushiken Hirokazu, commenting that, " Things have become slow since the 70's with the rise of supermarkets. It can't be helped."

When you first enter, it's easy to be charmed. You might imagine that you are one of a select few to smell, watch and listen in a place that seems a quaint reminder of a lost age. It could easily be that profit and loss have taken a backseat. Sitting on a bench along the pathway, three old ladies while away the hours in talk. Across the corridor, the owner of kimono shop puts her feet up to watch TV. Surely, you think, they must be saddened that it will all too soon disappear. But a sentimental outsider doesn't face the realities of a small business. Gushiken describes a daily routine of rising 4:00 a.m. to be at the fish markets in Naha. He closes the shop late; it makes for a long day.

Both men say they will continue while they have the energy. Neither will be passing on their trade to a younger family number. "My eldest son is a special needs teacher. It's good secure work with a regular income," says Okuma. "Here, there is no guarantee of what you'll earn from one day to the next. The hours are long with little free time," explains Gushiken. "That's why no young person will replace me."

These days, people with cars drive to the larger stores where they offer discounts. Once, people came to shop from as far away as Yomitan. Now on average day, only eight to fifteen locals come. Mostly, they are the elderly, the ones who cannot drive. Asked how he feels about the changing times, Mr. Gushiken grins and again replies, "It can't be helped." This could easily be interpreted as hopeless resignation but both men willingly laugh about their situations. Perhaps it's because they have dealt with things much harder.

At fifteen, Okuma was hiding out in a mountains to the north while the final campaign of the Pacific War raged all around. When it was over, he found work as a laborer on Kadena base. Later, he maintained and drove trucks as well. Gushiken remembers hiding in caves during the battle. He also became a laborer and later drove trucks too, first for a company and then as a private operator. He remembers a friend at the time advising him not to think too much. It seems to have influenced him to this day.

Indeed the ability to take life as it comes, is no rarity on Okinawa. Despite having experienced war and rapid social change, these two men seemed at peace with their lives. They are however, concerned for the young. With Gushiken, it's a problem close to home. "Even my own children have no time to talk to me now." Concerns for the unemployed weigh on Okuma's mind. He hopes that they can withstand the hardships.

Difficult realities aside, there is at least time in this place for talk. There is also a sense of community. They refer to each other as friends, not competitors. "If I can help someone, I send them to Mr. Gushiken," says Okuma. This warmth also extends to his customers . "If someone's short on cash, they pay me later. That's something they won't do for you in the supermarkets.

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