Okinawa 50 years since return / Largest market undergoes change, but retains importance

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
An intermediate wholesaler with a dozen or so radishes on her head counts dollar bills amid the raucous negotiations between buyers and sellers at the Noren Central Market in April 1972.

In this series, we mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan by looking at its past and present through photographs.

Seen from the outside, the modern Noren Plaza shopping center in Naha shows no hints of the thriving outdoor market that occupied the site decades ago.

Shown a photo of the Noren Central Market taken at the time of Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972, Kiku Aragaki smiles as she recalls memories of the place where she starting working as an intermediate wholesaler in 1958.

“As I was still young, I used to carry a load of vegetables on top of my head, and I was pretty good at it,” said Aragaki, who at 95 is still going strong in her shop on the first floor of the Noren Plaza.

The Ryukyu Noren (now JA Okinawa) market that opened in 1953 originated from the black market that developed after World War II. Farmers would sell their produce to intermediate wholesalers, who sold it at what became known as “the kitchen of the Okinawans.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The three-story Noren Plaza was built in a corner of the former Noren Central Market site.

Aragaki remembers the market of a half-century ago as if it were yesterday. “When there was a shortage of goods, it would cause prices to go up, which was fun because it also meant bigger profits.” She recalls it getting so crowded there would be no place to step.

Back in 1972 as Okinawa prepared for the change in sovereignty, Tsuyoshi Akamine started working at her parents’ shop in the market. Now the owner, the 71-year-old remembered those halcyon days.

“Customers in trucks would roll in from every corner of Okinawa island, from Yambaru [in the north] to Itoman [in the south] to make purchases,” Akamine said. “We were too busy to even exchange greetings.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kiku Aragaki, still an active intermediate wholesaler at 95, looks at photos taken around the time of Okinawa’s return to Japan at Noren Plaza in Naha on Dec. 3.

Liquor and canned goods flew off the shelves in a time of great prosperity.

“We used to iron and stretch out dollar bills and yen bills that had got crumpled because we stuffed them into rice bags.”

The market remained the largest on the island of Okinawa from the time of U.S. rule to the mid-1980s. It was the major distribution center drawing together farmers and intermediaries from all over Okinawa.

One of the features was that prices were set by direct negotiations between sellers and buyers, instead of through auctions. These transactions also made the market a social gathering place where information from all over the island could be disseminated.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yukie Uehara, right, sells her spinach and komatsuna spinach to a regular customer.

However, over the past half-century, auction markets developed and direct sales spots sprung up all over the island. Supermarkets and convenience stores, which lagged behind the rest of Japan, started arriving. As systemized distribution took hold, more and more vendors left the market and it lost its vitality.

In 2017, the market was moved to a building constructed as part of a redevelopment of the area. About 100 businesses — 26 members of the market’s cooperative and other enterprises such as restaurants and souvenir stores — now operate at the site.

At the time of Okinawa’s return, about 300 farmers used the facility, but recently with the spread of the coronavirus, only a few show up.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
In this photo taken in April 1972 just before Okinawa’s return to Japan, a woman carries a heavy load of vegetables on her head at the Noren Central Market.

However, some of the old-fashioned ways of trading still go on. Yukie Uehara, a 72-year-old farmer from Tomigusuku, started coming a few years after Okinawa’s return to Japan. Now on weekdays, she brings komatsuna spinach and other vegetables and takes in about ¥20,000 a day.

“With this way of negotiated trading, I can always find a buyer for what I’ve grown,” she said. “Without this place, I’d have no means of living,” she adds before heading home, toting a boxed lunch she bought at the plaza.

The market may have lost some of its mojo, but there are still livelihoods relying on it.