Most people have heard of Okinawa, yet not many living outside of Japan would have heard of the Okinawan island of Miyakojima, located much closer to Taiwan than to mainland Japan. Even fewer people would be aware of an apparent ‘special relationship’ between Miyakojima and Germany. That’s right, Deutschland. Now, you would think Miyakojima and Germany do not have much in common. And you’ll be right, they don’t. Except that on the island there is to be found a longish road named after German Chancellor Schröder who visited there in 2000. The road stretches for miles, from the attractive airport all the way down to the Ueno German Culture Village, which is dedicated to the friendship between the two countries. The village boasts the original-sized Marksburg castle replica, the XIX c. German villa and a number of German traditional artefacts. The staff, among them the castle reception lady, look overeager to put their rusty German into practice at every opportunity (‘Du bist Deutschland?'). Pity my German’s even rustier. Slightly disappointed, she still seems delighted to meet a ‘European’.

As far as replicas go the Marksburg one in Miyakojima strives to emulate the original in as much detail as possible — including the major interior rooms like the Rittersaal, the painted Chapel Tower, and the Kemenate (bed-chamber). The castle also seems to have succeeded in preserving the mediaeval chilliness of the place — the original Marksburg’s Kemenate, for instance, was one of the few rooms to be heated with a stove — despite the fact that the outside temperature on the day was in the high twenties. I particularly liked the irregular, acute-angled, claustrophobic spaces between the inner walls of the castle and the keep, which instantly reminded me of Wiene’s Dr. Caligari expressionistic sets.

So, what’s the Germany-themed park doing on this tiny Pacific island? The story goes back to July 11, 1873, when a German merchant ship R.J.Robertson wrecked after being hit by typhoon and smashing against a large coral reef. The Ueno islanders rescued all of the eight stranded crewmembers and gave them shelter and food for 37 days, until the sailors were fit for the return to China and finally back to Germany. Having learnt of the incident, the German Emperor sent a memorial and gifts of appreciation to the Okinawan island. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

At the village one cannot help but march from one building to another to the tune of the Bavarian brass band coming from the PA system. One of these building is the strange ‘Children’s House’. It hosts an odd mix of children’s toys and books, on one hand, and two slabs of the original Berlin Wall and a photographic retrospective of the divided Germany, on the other. No concept to speak of. Nevertheless it was the opportunity for what I like to call the third-hand photography: the taking of a photo of a photo of a photo. Still, some haven't lost much of their emotional potency.

The last photo goes nicely with Matthew Sweeney’s poem ‘Breaches’ from his ‘Cacti’ collection — one of the few poems in English on the demolition of the Berlin Wall written first-hand. The poem starts:

Glühwein with honey at Potsdamer Platz,
at the breach that drew the biggest cheer
when the pastel-coloured Trabis drove through.
Slush underfoot, wrecking shoes.
In the darkening distance: the Reichstag.

The middle section of the poem gives some first-person reportage-like descriptions of the wrecking activities, and ends with the equally matter-of-fact

We took our tiny hammer and whacked chips
from that graffiti-daubed, astoundingly thin,
infamous construction, helping in our way
to make it disappear.

The historical symbolism of the places mentioned — the Wall, the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz — would weigh heavy in any poem, and Sweeney’s documentary/picture-postcard voice gives his a releasing counterweight.

Other British poets have written on the subject. Bloodaxe called Ken Smith’s poem The Wall ‘the quintessential English poem on the Berlin Wall’ — due to potential copyright infringements I am not going to publish it, but here is the Facebook link for you poetry nuts:

On the same post you will find a link to the New York Times page containing 9 poems on the Berlin Wall commissioned by the paper on the 20th anniversary of the fall (where you can download all 9 poems as a single jpeg). The poets commissioned hail from US, Poland, Yugoslavia (Slovenia), Germany and Russia. Bloodaxe wonders why on earth there were no British poets included. Well, there were no Canadians, Icelanders, Mexicans, South Africans, Irish either. Being born in Yugoslavia myself, it’s only fitting that I should post a poem by a then-Yugoslav writer Tomaž Šalamun. I like the poem’s seemingly disinterested, laconic voice, and the way it works as a curious hodgepodge: bumblebees, a resurrected Artaud, Ron Padgett, the Pergamon Museum, the Great Depression, all laid out as evocative couplets like twinned remnants of an ancient wall. Click on the image to view the poem large.

It is funny, astonishing even, that the Wall is described by Šalamun as being ‘thick’ whereas Sweeney calls it ‘astoundingly thin’. Even if one took these descriptions metaphorically — ‘thickness’ may hint at the magnitude of separation, ‘thinness’ at the poet’s realization that the apparent thickness was in fact very fragile, or that Sweeney the poet had expected the wall to be much thicker — this poetic discrepancy calls for factual clarification. Having recently seen two original slabs in Okinawa, I recall that the thickness/thinness was no more than 20cm. Well, just to make sure I’ve consulted a few internet sources. Although there were variations in the construction, the final scores amount to this: the Wall was 4.1 m/13.5 ft high, 16 cm/7 in thick, 155 km/96 mi long. Made of concrete slabs. End of story.

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