Rare color photos show Naha’s Kokusai-dori street under U.S. occupation

Courtesy of Akira Ikemiyagi
People sell vegetables on a path leading to Kokusai-dori street in 1953.

NAHA — Rare color photos of Naha’s main street in the early 1950s, during the U.S. occupation, were recently provided to The Yomiuri Shimbun in digital form.

Saturday marked the 49th anniversary of Okinawa Prefecture’s reversion to Japanese control. A former photographer who grew up in the area helped repair the pictures of the street, taken at a time when the prefecture was recovering from the Battle of Okinawa.

One photo shows a young girl in a sailor-style school uniform walking down the street, which is dotted with signs in English and Japanese. Another features a man pushing a cart on a muddy dirt road, wearing a work uniform with a Coca-Cola logo.

Stretching about 1.6 kilometers, Kokusai-dori street takes its name from the Ernie Pyle Kokusai Gekijo, a movie theater that opened on the street in 1948. The theater is said to have been named after Pyle, a war correspondent who died in the Battle of Okinawa, in order to gain permission from U.S. authorities to open it.

Kokusai Gekijo means “international theater” in Japanese.

A department store also opened on the street in the mid-1950s, and the street has been popular among tourists since the 1990s. In recent years, it had flourished thanks to visitors from cruise ships, but 51 stores, including drugstores and others popular among foreigners, had to shut down by April amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Courtesy of Akira Ikemiyagi
Boys and girls in school uniforms walk on the white-paved Kokusai-dori street in Naha under U.S. occupation in 1952.

The photos were taken by an executive of Zenitaka Corp., a general contractor involved in construction work inside a U.S. military base at the time. They were included in a photography book compiled by a local publisher in 1979.

Ikemiya Co., a printing and publishing company in Naha, bought the copyright of the book around 1983 and obtained the film as well. Akira Ikemiyagi, 72, an advisor to the company and a former photographer, has been working on digitizing the old photos for about 10 years.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Akira Ikemiyagi recalls memories of Kokusai-dori street in Naha, where he lived for about 40 years since he was a child.

There was not much fading of the color on the Kodak film — Ikemiyagi used computer software to restore the parts that were faded to the same color tone as the surrounding areas.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s reversion to Japan next year, Ikemiyagi provided the data to The Yomiuri Shimbun “in the hope that as many people as possible will get an opportunity to see the photos.”

According to the Naha City Museum of History, color film had to be sent to Hawaii for development at the time, making it rare to find such photos that were taken by a Japanese person as opposed to U.S. military personnel.

Okinawa Prefecture is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan, and Kokusai-dori street also changed drastically to cater to tourists. However, the prefecture has not yet been able to break away from being an island of U.S. military bases, in the way that many Okinawans had envisioned it would following its reversion to Japan.

Ikemiyagi still doesn’t feel that Okinawa has truly been returned.

As an increasing number of people don’t know what it was like in the prefecture under U.S. occupation, Ikemiyagi feels many residents accept the situation as it is.

“If you don’t know about the time when we started out amid unreasonableness and chaos, you can’t understand why we sought to get Okinawa back,” said Ikemiyagi. “I want to restore as many photos as possible.”

Courtesy of Akira Ikemiyagi
Work is done to widen Kokusai-dori street in 1954. A spiral staircase can be seen at upper right.