Kubasaki High School Alumni Remember Fondly Their Alma Mater
Grant Kagimoto and Karleen Chinen
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: I was a student in the University of Hawai‘i Ethnic Studies class on the Japanese in Hawai‘i in the 1970s when I heard about Kubasaki High School for the first time from one our lab leaders, Bobby Nishida, who had graduated from Kubasaki. I remember him saying that when he lived in Okinawa in the 1960s, he used to climb up on the rooftop of his house and watch the planes take off. I think he meant from Kadena Air Base, bound for Vietnam. It was a scene I could visualize and it has stuck with me all these decades, as has the name “Kubasaki.”
Whenever I toured to Okinawa, I would always ask our tour guide whether we were near Kubasaki High School. “Oooh, that’s good school,” the guide always said. “Smart people graduate Kubasaki Kökö (high school).”
And then, while attending a Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival — or “Taikai,” as most people refer to it as — I saw a lively contingent of people of various ethnicities and hair colors, proudly walking behind the banner, “Kubasaki High School Alumni.”
And, of course, whenever, my longtime friend and co-author on this story, Grant Kagimoto, founder and creative wiz behind Cane Haul Road T-shirts and towels, and I talk story, Kubasaki High School is always part of our conversation.
So, after many years of talking, we finally decided to put together a story about what made Kubasaki High School so special to former “Dragons” — the mascot of Kubasaki High School.
We were all “Kubasaki Brats” — the children of Okinawa-based U.S. military personnel or civil service people working for the military in Okinawa and attending the Department of Defense school known as Kubasaki High School. More often than not, “brat” is a term of endearment used to define military-dependent children.
My father was an Army veteran who was working for the Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian when he moved our family to Okinawa in the 1950s. We lived on-base at Fort Buckner during most of my 12 years in Okinawa, from 1954 to 1966. The only schools I attended from first grade until I graduated from high school in 1966 were in Okinawa. Although I returned to Hawai‘i in 1966, my parents remained in Okinawa until 1972 (my dad actually lived and worked there from 1952 until 1972). My sister and brother also graduated from Kubasaki in 1963 and 1964, respectively.
Kubasaki High School is the second-oldest Department of Defense school overseas. (The oldest, according to Wikipedia, opened in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1931.) Kubasaki, or some iteration of it, opened in 1946, a year after the Battle of Okinawa.
I’m often asked that quintessential Hawai‘i question: “What high school you went?” More often than not, people’s response to my “Kubasaki High School” answer is a puzzled “Where?” look.
Others have heard of the school, but know very little about it. At a Hui O Laulima event last year, I mentioned to a woman that I was talking with that I had attended Kubasaki High School in Okinawa. People from Kubasaki seem to “looove” that school, she said.
And most of us grads do love Kubasaki. A few years ago, my brother and sister attended a Kubasaki reunion in Las Vegas. My brother said he was surprised at the level of enthusiasm for Kubasaki.
Most civilian dependents, like my family, lived in Okinawa for many years; some of my classmates were even born there because their fathers had married Okinawan women. Most of the military dependents, on the other hand, were in Okinawa for two years, three years at the most. These students lived the traditional nomadic life of a “military brat,” pulling up stakes whenever their fathers got a new assignment.
Thus, my loyalty to Kubasaki High School is understandable, since I spent most of my childhood and adolescent years in Okinawa. I often wondered whether my fellow Dragons felt likewise. So I asked several of them in an email.
One friend who ended up working in Saudia Arabia said we had excellent teachers. Another friend who worked in New York and Indonesia reminded me that our time in Okinawa was unique, because from 1945 until 1972, Okinawa was occupied by the U.S. military and not part of Japan.
The third person I talked with was a real “military brat.” She said she appreciated the fact that almost everyone at the school was like her, constantly moving to their father’s new assignment and always learning to adjust to being the “new kid” in school.
Maybe it was because they were military brats whose families moved so often that our reunions are held all over the U.S. mainland, unlike graduates of other schools. My class reunion was held in Daytona, Fla. I sometimes marvel at the fact that although we spent a relatively short period of time with our military brat classmates, we still share a common pride in having graduated from Kubasaki High School. The reunions also tend to stretch out over several days. And although they are meant to bring together alumni of a specific graduating class, the invitation to attend is extended to all Kubasaki graduates. The Kubasaki reunions in Hawai‘i are especially popular for those living on the Mainland. Many alumni say it’s the first time they’ve been on an island since they left Okinawa.
When I attended Kubasaki, it was the only big American high school in Okinawa. We had a student body of approximately 1,500; my graduating class had about 260 seniors. We were the largest DOD school in the Far East as far as I knew, which made us the only real game in town. There was a smaller Catholic School called Christ the King International School, but I didn’t know any of its students.
Kubasaki High School went through many iterations and name changes in the years before 1964 when the campus finally moved to its current location in Kishaba Terrace, overlooking Fort Buckner.
For me, Kubasaki was a home away from home. It was a slice of America in the Far East. We had a basketball team that played other Okinawan teams as well as other DOD schools in Japan. We had football teams — three from Kubasaki that represented the three major military bases. And, if you were interested, there was a fascinatingly different culture right outside the base fence. There were historic Okinawan castles that dated back to the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, festivals, Obon ceremonies and beautiful beaches. We always felt very safe on the island, both on and off the base. It was like Hawai‘i’s neighbor islands in the 1950s — we didn’t even lock our cars.
We were a pocket of America in the middle of an Asian country. Life on-base was totally American and self-sufficient: We didn’t have to leave it to believe that we were “in America.” On the base where we lived, Fort Buckner, we had two movie theaters, a large commissary, a supermarket, a big PX, a department store, a field house, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a hamburger stand, a gas station, a barbershop and a post office. There was even a driving range across the street for the golfers, a nice restaurant, my elementary school and Kubasaki High School. We had it made.
Most families had Okinawan “maids” to help with the housework and/or babysitting. When we moved to Okinawa in 1954, life was still very hard for the postwar Okinawans. Jobs were scarce, so the U.S. military became a major employer and an economic driver for Okinawa.
There was a large military build-up in Okinawa because of the Korean War and China’s communist government. The Vietnam War had escalated, too, in the years before I graduated from Kubasaki. Some of my classmates’ fathers were fighting in Vietnam with Special Forces, but we always felt safe and secure in the “Keystone of the Pacific.”
Kubasaki was a safe place to attend school. Because of the somewhat controlled surroundings, we sometimes felt like we were attending a private school.
Our fights were always verbal; no one got into physical beefs. If you acted up in school, you were reported to your father’s commanding officer. If you continued to misbehave, they would kick you off the island, meaning you had to return “stateside,” to the real America.
I felt a real comfort level at Kubasaki. In many ways, we were like any other school. We had our share of officers’ kids and enlisted kids, jocks, good-looking kids and smart kids. Generally speaking, though, those differences didn’t matter: Your father’s rank rarely came up and all of our civilian dads had white-collar jobs, so we all felt like we were on a level playing field.
I’m told that there are over 500 Kubasaki alumni living in Hawai‘i — nine from my class alone. I’m not surprised, since the federal government recruited many of our fathers from here to work in Japan, Okinawa and South Korea.
The Hawai‘i Herald asked other Kubasaki alumni to share their memories of attending Kubasaki High School.
The Rev. Irene Tanabe, a ’69 Kubasaki graduate, returned to Okinawa earlier this year to become priest and rector of All Souls’ Episcopal/Anglican Church Okinawa in Chatan. Her late father served in the Military Intelligence Service in World War II and then worked for the U.S. Civil Administration Ryukyus.
Tanabe said there were over 2,000 students when she attended Kubasaki between 1966 and 1969.
“It was the height of the Vietnam War, and there were 47,000 U.S. troops on the island at that time. Since it was the only high school, kids came from all over the island, from Naha Air Base all the way to Kadena,” she said. “The kids were mostly Army or Air Force brats, or children of civil servants like our father,” she recalled.
“There were a lot of hapa-haole kids, but I never thought about that,” she said. “I learned only years and years later how many of my friends had Okinawan mothers and horror tales to tell of the war, but no one talked about it,” Tanabe added.
“I remember the teachers as being very young and committed to traveling the region. Every school break, they went off to somewhere in the southeast or mainland Japan and came back with interesting stories. But I also felt like I got a very good education.”
She said that although everyone was living in a Japanese-speaking community, Spanish, Latin and French were the only foreign languages offered at school.
Tanabe said student life consisted of the usual clubs and activities, school dances, and hanging out at the base swimming pools and island beaches. “There was an amazing theater, and I was active in the Drama Club; we called ourselves ‘Thespians.’”
In retrospect, she said it was a shame that they didn’t interact much with the local culture and people.
“The one thing that was really different, I think, than most high schools is that since there were no other high schools on the island, there were still three football teams — Naha Eagles, Kadena Falcons and Sukiran Knights. They played against each other. That was kind of odd, because there was only one basketball team.” The basketball team traveled to bases in mainland Japan and South Korea for their games. Tanabe surmised that they could do that since they were a smaller team.
Tanabe said the Vietnam War was “a constant presence.” “My friend’s father was an officer in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and when that unit was permanently moved to Vietnam, they had to go stateside. I remember as students, we gave blood regularly and volunteered at the U.S. Army Hospital where soldiers from Vietnam were medically evacuated to recover from their wounds. The soldiers were our age, not much older.
“This was set against our awareness that there was unrest and protests on college campuses over the war in Vietnam. Kent State happened when we were students here. It was bewildering, to say the least. I remember asking my dad what he thought of the protestors and he said, ‘I don’t agree with them. But I will defend to my death their right to protest.’”
Former University of Hawai‘i-West O‘ahu administrator Melinda Wood is another proud Kubasaki alum. Her family moved to Naha in the fall of 1967 when she was a junior in high school. Wood’s father was in the Air Force, assigned to Yoza Dake Air Station in Itoman.
“We lived off-base for a year and on-base for a year,” the 1969 graduate recalled.
“I grew to love Kubasaki High School once I got involved in my classes and theater activities,” Wood said, recalling that her favorite teachers were Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Burns, both of whom taught English.
“Some of my best memories were seeing [funk singer] James Brown at Stilwell Field House, being a part of the cast of ‘Camelot,’ and the CIS trip to Japan in the spring of 1969.”
After graduating from Kubasaki, Wood returned to the states and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Colorado. She later returned to Japan, where she taught English for almost three years.
“Now Hawai‘i is my ‘happy medium,’” she said. “I made some lifelong friends in Okinawa and still keep in touch with a handful of alumni.”