At a Christmas party held at Camp Schwab in 2019, a tall blue-eyed gentleman greeted the guests from the neighboring communities in fluent Japanese. His Japanese was so good that he needed no translator and his demeanor was reminiscent of a Japanese native.
This gentleman was Col. Jason S. D. Perry, the current assistant division commander of 3rd Marine Division at Camp Courtney. He most recently came to Okinawa in 2018 as the commanding officer of 4th Marine Regiment at Camp Schwab.
He joined the Marine Corps in 1994 after graduating from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Japanese. His father is also a retired Marine who was in Okinawa in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.
Fate fell upon him
Even though from a Marine family, Perry’s first time in Japan had nothing to do with the Marine Corps. He has a unique history with Japan.
In 1989, he took a two-year break from his university and came to Japan as a missionary. During this time, he visited Gifu, Toyama and Aichi Prefectures, learning Japanese as he traveled.
However, his Japanese was not just learned along the way. Perry’s interest in learning Japanese rose a few years prior. With his father being a senior instructor of Karate in the U.S., Perry, a high school student then, attended a Karate camp in Virginia 1987 when he shared a room with another teen, the son of Sokuichi Gibu, a high ranking Karate teacher from Okinawa.
The two high school boys tried to communicate, but not knowing much of each other’s languages, they were unable to say anything. “If I want to take this seriously, I need to learn Japanese.” Perry said it was then he realized the importance of learning Japanese.
This event in his early life would lead to an amazing encounter nearly 30 years later. When the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu (native to Okinawa) Festival tried to set the Guinness World Record for Most People Performing a Kata on Kokusai Street, Naha, Oct. 23, 2016, he saw a familiar face performing kata across from him. Being unsure, Perry talked to this person and confirmed that it was Gibu, his roommate from the Karate camp in 1987. Of the over 4,000 participants, it was fate that Gibu was performing so close to him that he could see and recognize him some 30 years afterwards.
Stunning encounter in Okinawa, the root of Karate
Perry’s first time in Okinawa was actually in 1995 after graduating from BYU. He went to a joint Karate training at the Aja headquarters dojo of Shorin Ryu Shorinkan Kyokai, in Naha. It was run by Shugoro Nakazato, who was designated as the holder of the Okinawa Prefectures Intangible Cultural Property. Young Perry was a translator and trainee at the event.
The impact of being in the birthplace of Karate was a turning point to this young Karate enthusiast. He saw the world of Karate for the first time even though he had been learning Karate since he was three years old.
“To see, not just Karate, but Sanshin, Eisa (drum dance), and Ryukyu Buyo (Okinawan dance), all those things are part of Okinawan culture. In America, Karate is something you do, but not part of the culture,” Perry said.
“To understand why Karate is the way it is, you understand the history, geography, culture and the lifestyle (of Okinawa). The number of different factors developed Karate,” continued Perry. “The aspect of the martial arts was interesting to me.”
Improving Japanese as a Marine
From 2007 to 2015, Perry came to Okinawa several times as part of the unit deployment program. In 2015 he was selected to study at the Japan National Institute for Defense Studies. According to Perry, out of 50 people, only six were non-Japanese and the classes were conducted in Japanese.
Once in the Marine Corps, he had many opportunities to come to Japan. The first chance came in 2000 while in Yokohama where he studied advanced Japanese at the Foreign Service Institute in Japan for a year. In 2004 to 2007, Perry served as the country director for Japan in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Meeting a lifelong rumored Karate master in Okinawa
At one point as a captain stationed at Camp Hansen, Perry visited a Karate teacher who he heard of his entire life from his father’s friend, a former Marine. Although Perry had not contacted him ahead of time, the karate teacher, Eizo Shimabukuro of Shobayashi Ryu, welcomed the Marine karate enthusiast into his house. They talked for two hours and the Marine asked to train with the teacher. Shimabukuro said no but told him to visit again.
Perry visited again, talked another two hours, but did not ask to be the instructor’s disciple. On his third visit, Shimabukuro invited him to the dojo. Perry recalled his eyes shining like those of a young boy and said that the dojo was beautiful and was the typical Okinawan dojo with all the equipment and pictures of great predecessors.
“I had a great privilege of training under Shimabuku(ro) Eizo sensei for a year,” said Perry.
Becoming an important part of the community
During his time as camp commander of Camp Schwab, Perry enjoyed the interactions with the local residents. Since Camp Schwab is recognized as the 11th residential section of Henoko, Nago, he was the section leader. Perry performed Kobudo Eku (oar) kata as a special demonstrator of the Henoko Youth Association at Mura Odori (village dance), the event residents hold every three years around Obon of the lunar calendar. He also participated in the Harii (dragon boat race), Kaku Riki (Okinawan sumo).
“Col. Perry is the only foreigner ever to be invited to perform at an event where traditional performing arts are handed on to the next generation,” said Fumio Iha, the community relations specialist of Camp Schwab.
According to Iha, Mura Odori is an important event in Henoko in which residents show their gratitude to the good harvest by performing the traditional Kumi-odori and Kyougen dances to pass down traditions to the younger generations. Before the dances, a boujyutu (stick fighting) demonstration is held by the youth association.
“It was very special to me to participate in the Mura Odori,” recalled Perry, who still feels like an outsider among Japanese, even though he speaks fluent Japanese. However, when he held the residential section flag and performed Kobudo Eku, he felt strongly that he became more like a “jimoto” (local resident).
“We are outsiders but we are close. We are members of the Henoko community,” smiled Perry.
From when he first came to Okinawa as a young Karate enthusiast to the present as a Karate practitioner with the responsibility of holding the residential flag, a mere tourist now became an important part of the community.
Perry, seventh dan (degree) red-and-white belt, respects the idea of being considerate of others before yourself and dedicating yourself to the mastery of one thing over a lifetime. He believes in the concepts of everyday training, work and consistency.
“They are Japanese and Okinawan ideals that I learned from my young age that helped me throughout my life,” said Perry.
Okinawan dialect, “Makutu soke nankuru naisa – if you keep making efforts and do the right thing, it will all work out well” is what Perry believes. He sees “chimu gukuru (true heart)” in everyday life in Okinawa.
-Article by Yoshi Makiyama, Marine Corps Installations Pacific