Myth, Struggle and Protest in Okinawa

By Miyume Tanji

reviews08_myth

Routledge, 2006, 234 pages including index, maps, glossary and abbreviations. Hardback. £85.00. ISBN13: 978 – 0415365000

Review by William Farr

Tanji sets out a strong and quite explosive thesis right from the beginning of Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa as she argues that the struggling relationship of the Okinawan population with its Japanese overlord and American military presence is one that has been fraught (and often fought) with difficulty. A nerve is struck straight away in the book as Tanji recounts an incident in 1995 where three American marines kidnapped and then gang-raped a young Okinawan girl. Okinawa was plunged into the international spotlight, which exposed the fact that American forces enjoyed extraterritorial privileges, and incidents of this sort rarely ended in a just outcome.

The Okinawan people have seen their own land and people used and abused, with little or no respect for rights and privileges, and when the Okinawan people have sought help from the Japanese government they have often been ignored. Until the late nineteenth century Okinawa, known then as Ryukyu, was under the authority of the Satsuma domain in Southwest Kyushu after it was invaded in 1609. At that time Ryukyu was a tributary of China. Negotiations later by the Japanese government with China over the value of Okinawa, placed it firmly within Japanese rule, but negotiations had also discussed the splitting up of the Ryukyu kingdom. Islands were to have been given as gifts to the Chinese. This sets the tone early in the existence of Okinawa [for the Japanese] as an elaborate bargaining chip and buffer against the outside world.

Okinawan princes and rulers tried to retain power over their diminishing strength at the hands of Japanese rule, but all this was at a cost to the common Okinawans. In the 1920s for example, Okinawan peasants facing famine conditions turned to eating the wild-growing cycad palm tree. If not processed properly, the leaves are extremely poisonous. As a result many Okinawans died in what became known as ‘palm tree hell’.

In 1947 the American military viewed Okinawa as “justly acquired by the sacrifice and casualties of American youth in the Battle of Okinawa” (p55). Over 45,000 acres of land was occupied, mostly farmland as it was cultivated and flat – important for the creation of military runways. The farmers of Ie-Jima (Ie Island) believed that if they co-operated with the invading American forces, the Americans would help them re-build. The people of Ie-Jima were in fact glad the Americans had won, as they thought the Japanese military treated them with contempt. Re-building did not occur and the American forces continued to claim more land – often using armed soldiers. This was because at the time Okinawa was seen as being strategically important for regional security against the communist bloc.

After World War II, Okinawa had an uncertain future, occupied by American forces with the Japanese government having no central control over the land. Okinawan schoolteachers wanted the land to return to Japanese rule, an opinion that divided the country. In many ways the Okinawan people did not want to return to the abuse suffered under Hirohito, yet occupying American forces were proving to be no better. For the farmers of Ie-Jima in 1953 and 1954, a slogan of ‘Bulldozers and Bayonets’ summarized their often helpless struggle against occupation.

Myths surround the Okinawan people, such as the idea that they took part in collective suicides in World War II. Images from World War II programmes come to mind, of individuals throwing themselves from cliffs rather than be captured by invading American forces. Yet these collective suicides where whole villages were killed were never the result of warped collective thinking, but rather compulsory deaths, imposed by the military. This was changed in the official version of events through the intervention of Monbusho (the Education Department) into the re-writing of Japanese history textbooks in the early 1980s, where events such as the suicides and what is now known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’ were effectively deleted from history.

At times like this the Okinawan protest movement has often burned the familiar Japanese national Hinomaru flag, as in 1987 at an annual sports event in Yomitan village. Here the flag was burnt in protest at continued pressure to use the flag for public events. For many Okinawans, the Hinomaru flag still symbolizes the old Japanese army and the military as it was under Emperor Hirohito.

After World War II the Okinawan people have sought to adapt to the hard regime of the US military – and have since rediscovered their own method of protest and provocation in an effort to reclaim their own island and identity. Some have even sought to exploit the situation by focusing on business opportunities.

The Okinawan population has faced difficulties in the development of its own personality. Various factions grow, some die but all in Tanji’s view are complex and contextually organic. Within each group various battles are fought to find a voice, and more often than not the dominant US military has achieved its aim through a divide and conquer approach.

The Okinawan struggle (Okinawa toso) is not clear-cut and the people’s movement is “fragmented, untidy, and marked by conflicting ideas, definitions and methods of protest” (p178). The huge American military industrial complex dominates the post World War II experience of the Okinawans, but from this Okinawa has started to piece together its own collective history from its own sources, ignoring revisionist history.

This is an intellectually tight and well-crafted piece of work. The book may be of value to readers interested in the re-emerging idea within international and intra-national politics of small nation-states growing beyond the larger unions they are a part of, especially through burgeoning cultural identity. Tanji points out that the crashing of a cargo helicopter into the Okinawa International University campus in August 2004 brought about protest as 81 per cent of the Okinawan population called for the air base nearby to close. The struggle for the Okinawan people is clearly not over yet, but perhaps a singular voice of protest is becoming a reality.

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