Okinawa restaurateur lives American dream out east
Stripes Japan | .
published: June 11, 2018
From his childhood in Mississippi to his paratrooper days in Fort Benning and mainland Japan, or to his business ventures that go beyond Okinawan borders, Ray Payne has some stories to tell.
“I was born during the Great Depression. I was 13 years old when it ended. I went through it. We thought the whole world was like that. We didn’t know. We were kids. We thought everybody’s that way,” said Payne, as he looked back at the extraordinary journey he lived.
Quite the interesting start to a life full of one story after another.
Payne, who turns 90 this summer, is the founder and honorary chairman of The Great Eastern Corporation, which includes 11 restaurants as well as other businesses on Okinawa such as Sam’s By-The-Sea, The Rose Garden and Sam’s Anchor Inn.
Many on the island are familiar with his businesses, but not nearly as many have heard his story. Though, some have read about it in the form of non-fiction novels he has written, which provide many behind-the-scenes stories of history that conventional text book often do not talk about.
During my time with him, Payne came up with one unique episode after another. The non-stop storyteller that he is, reminded me of what Jojen Reed said to Bran Stark in “A Dace with Dragons”: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.”
And for Payne, Okinawa served as the stage for many of the stories that he lived.
Okinawa in the 1960s
Payne arrived on Okinawa on June 30, 1960. Just 11 days prior to his arrival, President Eisenhower visited the island and wasn’t met with a warm welcome. At the Government of the Ryukyu Islands in Naha City, a large crowd staged a protest, chanting “Ike, go home.”
Against the backdrop of such sentiment of Okinawans, one of the challenges Payne faced as a General Manager of the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company on Okinawa, was to engage with local employees.
“Years ago, almost all major corporations Americans owned in Okinawa had unions. Strong unions. Even the military. They had strong unions,” says Payne.
It would have taken a lot just to communicate with heavily unionized locals. Japanese language skills that that he had learned from his earlier days in Japan surely came in handy, but more than anything, it may have been his experience as a paratrooper that helped him win the heart of Okinawans.
“I learned this from my paratrooper days when you are band of brothers. I learned that if I take care of my people, if I tried to work with them, helped them with this and that, they will take care of me,” said Payne.
As he engaged with locals, Payne brought many changes to the company. He helped cut costs, increase sales, and improve employees’ welfare.
Payne’s nonfiction novel, ‘The Wild Wild East,’ explains in detail about how his “paratrooper-style” of management turned the union into ‘brotherhood.’
Rolling the dice
According to Payne, there were many Americans who were drawn to the island for the opportunities in the 1960s.
“Not only active military, but many government civilians, and then many commercial civilians. Some of them were very successful and made a lot of money,” Payne said.
For Payne, who describes himself as a risk taker, leaving behind a big company and launching his own business in Okinawa may not have been a difficult decision to make. The move eventually led to him having success with the Sam’s restaurants. But his ventures started with a humble beginning.
“We sold syrup and cleaning supplies, things like that,” said Payne looking back at his start.
It took a lot of effort and ingenuity to get the business going. He traveled to foreign countries looking for lower-cost materials. He even invented his own methods to produce different color soaps and fragrances to make products more attractive to customers. The operation took a full family to run.
“I would do the mixing, one of our children hold the butter holes, and another one would help him some way. And we made all the cleaning supplies. And my wife did the invoices. And it worked,” Payne said. During those days, Payne and his family lived and manufactured products in Quonset huts like the one left on Kadena Air Base.
Nightlife and more
As he was establishing himself, Payne enjoyed the colorful nightlife in Okinawa. There were parties every night with a big orchestra at Kadena Officer’s Club, NCO club, American Legion and others on and off-base, according to him.
“Every night it was party, party, party. You get drunk, no problem. Get in your car, drive away,” said Payne looking back on much looser times.
Out of such a flourishing nightlife came business opportunities for him.
At one point, a manager of a VFW club asked him if he can get a sink, touching on the fact that Payne was selling various cleaning supplies.
“I said, ‘sure we make sinks.’ So, I went to a friend of mine and I had him make the sink. Five days later I delivered it. I learned something that day - under promise, over deliver,” said Payne with smile.
This helped lead to owning a steel fabrication plant in Okinawa, and set a stage for his success that goes beyond the island.
“Someone would order beer coolers in the states, 30 at a time for a division (in Vietnam). After they ordered them, it would take months and months,” Payne said.
His company in Okinawa beat the competition by utilizing roll-on roll-off ships out of Naha port, according to Payne.
“I could get a purchase order from Vietnam for whatever they needed. I could manufacture it in about a week and have it on the ship the next day. They’d receive it maybe five days later. No waiting for months. That’s really what made my company.”
Vietnam was not his last stop. Based in Okinawa, the ex-paratrooper continued traveling, looking for opportunities.
“I traveled constantly, so I knew the cities of Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, and Seoul like the back of my hand,” Payne said.
There were many business opportunities in the 1960s on Okinawa. There were also many opportunities for unusual experiences thanks to the kind of freedom unseen on the island these days.
Access to guns is one example.
“Sometimes I had a shotgun in the car on the front seat,” Payne recalled. “And I would drive along, I’d see a crow and roll the window down. ‘Boom!’”
Local farmers thanked him for defending their potatoes from crows, he said.
Taking a flight to Taiwan from Okinawa just for a lunch and shopping was another example of something pretty unheard of these days.
“I’d call a couple of friends up and we’d meet at the airport,” said Payne. “We would leave at nine and arrive at nine because of time difference. And we’d do a little shopping and go to the ‘Mayflower’ for lunch. Then we were back on the plane at four o’clock and arrived at six.”
Band of brothers
The wild days Payne spent in Okinawa and other places have their roots in the time he spent as a paratrooper in mainland Japan earlier in his life. It was in 1946 that Payne came to Japan and was stationed as 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Hachinohe under the 11th Airborne Division. The deployment was intended to prevent Stalin’s aggression toward Hokkaido.
“In my day, there were no Navy Seals. There were no special forces. The American Airborne Regiments were the elite. They really were,” said Payne. “They were well trained for combat, just in case Stalin and the Soviet Union tried anything. It was really a comradeship. A ‘Band of Brothers.”
In the war stricken country, the young paratrooper witnessed scenes which would be hard for most to imagine.
“Anyway, I sure noticed the all these beaten people. Some left their wounds festering. They were begging for money, food, whatever they can get. In those days, there was no medicine. 1946, 47, was the coldest winter on recorded history. And the war just ended. So there was a lot of suffering. There was a lot of sickness.
Seeing the Japanese people in a dire predicament, Payne came to nurture compassion toward them.
He also turned his eyes toward the beauty of the country.
“Riding across Ueno Station to Hachinohe, I saw the picturesque valleys, rice fields, and waterfalls,” Payne said.
Private Payne didn’t stop exploring. Not satisfied with just being a regular paratrooper, Payne ventured into scenes outside of his military duty. Working as a snack bar manager for PX, he gained business experience. He even went to off-limits clubs that catered to Americans “through the back door,” and ended up getting in trouble at times.
An American dream in the East
Listening to his days in mainland Japan may remind some of “Tokyo Underworld,” a book by Robert Whiting about post-war Japan. In fact, Nick Zappetti, a main figure of the book has a couple of things in common with Payne; both of them came to Japan shortly after war, and both ex-GIs had a notable career as a businessman and restaurant owner. And the worlds of both cross over when Payne visited locations like Copacabana and Imperial Hotel (Teikoku Hotel), which are often mentioned in the book.
Nevertheless, the journeys they took afterwards showed a clear contrast.
While Zappetti’s journey is painted in a dark tone like film noir movies, Payne’s adventure in Japan is rendered romantic and sometimes humorous, which is to be carried on in his later adventures on Okinawa.
Payne is no stranger to dangers. He traveled with a beretta in his pocket. He took a risk for his business and sometimes pulled off some tightrope walking. But whether he is in mainland Japan or Okinawa, Taiwan or Vietnam, he seemed to have enjoyed what he was doing throughout his nearly 90 years.
“It’s just the wild wild east,” said Payne looking back at the adventures he went through. And the days he spent in Okinawa have a special place in his heart.
“Today is much better for the Okinawan people. Much better. But I do miss those days,” Payne said. “There was so much going on. Things were simpler then. But I really miss it tremendously.”