If you had asked me two weeks ago where Saipan was, much less to whom it belongs, I would have looked at you blankly. Now I can answer that the island of Saipan is: a 3-hour plane ride due south of Tokyo, and it belongs to us. Who knew?
The only reason I now know this is because we went there last week! Rob got some of his Christmas leave paid back and our priorities were to go somewhere 1.) warm, 2.) not a really long flight away (had enough of those) but definitely out range of the ship being able to call us. Saipan fit the bill. What’s more, it’s America! Being our nation’s easternmost territory (part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) Saipan’s cheery slogan is: “Where America’s Day Begins.” It’s also the first place America’s day ends, so think about that.
It doesn’t seem that belonging to our (non-)empire has done Saipan many favors. The drives we took around the little island (12 miles long by 5 miles wide) left the impression of hard times in paradise. The main north-south road is flanked with closed sweatshops, shuttered resorts, Chinese restaurants, and cinder-block markets with large signs reading “We take food stamps!” Not so cheery. I guess Saipan had some special immigration status in the 80s and 90s that allowed big clothing manufacturers to open sweatshops there with underpaid Asian migrant laborers and label their clothes “Made in the U.S.A.” The sweatshops, and the ill-gotten wealth that went with them have all vanished, but nothing much has seemed to replace them.
Two things that Saipan has in spades, however: beautiful weather and historic sites! Apparently Saipan holds the world record for most consistent climate, and every day we were there was a beautiful sunny 85-86 degrees with just a couple of charming tropical showers drifting through to make everything smell lush and green.
The whole place was a cultural resources petting zoo, although of a somewhat tragic nature. Saipan has native populations, and since the 17th century has been alternately claimed by Spain, Germany, Japan, and now us (my next bet is China). We’ve held the island since we took it forcibly from the Japanese, with lots of casualties on both sides, in June and July of 1944. Anyway, there are Sherman tanks moored in the coral reefs offshore! Pillboxes on beaches! Japanese tanks still broken down on the side of the road! Bunkers everywhere!
The American Memorial Park, a U.S. National Park, had an excellent exhibit on Saipan’s history. It was so wonderful to be back in a National Park Service site. Love you, N.P.S.
By far the saddest historical sites were two sets of cliffs on the north side of the island called the Banzai Cliffs and the Suicide Cliffs. With such evocative names, you can probably guess what happened there. Rather than be captured by the Americans when they took over in July of 1944, over 22,000 Japanese civilians who had lived on Saipan threw themselves off of those cliffs. (How had I been a history major without ever hearing of this?) The N.P.S. had some good information on the site, including gut-wrenching firsthand accounts from some of the American marines and soldiers who had watched the proceedings helplessly. Standing on those empty, quiet, windy cliffs was as moving to me as standing at ground zero in Hiroshima had been.
Anyway, we stayed at a nice place called the Pacific Islands Club which had like a million things that you felt compelled to do all day during your relaxing vacation. Kayak! Sail! Surf! Eat! Wind surf! Rock climb! Eat! Swim! Tennis! Ping Pong! Eat! Badminton! Snorkel! Get massaged! Nightly shows! About the only thing I availed myself of was snorkeling and the Lazy River, but Rob did some extreme water-sliding with a lot of 9-year-old Korean kids on their New Year’s holiday break.
Although we were ostensibly in an American beach resort, I think that I saw only one other American family there. Everyone else was Japanese (what must they think about visiting there?), Korean, or Russian. (I could tell the Koreans from the Japanese because they had more stylish glasses and they weren’t so in to Chip. The Russians were completely indifferent to him.) Cultural differences were most obvious at the breakfast buffet which was strictly segregated by geographic region and saw little cultural exchange, although a couple of Japanese or Koreans would stray into Western territory for the occasional cinnamon roll. I was less diplomatic; I’m all for Asian food but was not about to squander my precious American breakfasts on fish and udon noodles.
It was so nice to get away and be warm for an entire week, albeit on one of the most peculiar little outposts I could imagine.