Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa


Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa
by Davinder L. Bhowmik and Steve Rabson (eds.)
University of Hawaii Press (2016)
ISBN-10: 0824839803

Review by Charlotte Goff

The image of Okinawa presented in the Japanese media is overwhelmingly that of sun-soaked islands where things move at a leisurely pace and action takes place under the shade of the kuwadiisaa or the yuuna tree: a land of traditional festivals, of drinking Orion beer and awamori and of dancing to the notes of the three-stringed sanshin. This new collection of Okinawan literature refutes the image of a peaceful land where danger comes at the fangs of the habu snake or the box jellyfish rather than the tensions between its inhabitants. It shows how life on the Okinawan diaspora is dictated by the relationships between outsiders and locals: by the efforts of mainland Japanese and US military to assert their presence on islands which try in turn to reassert their own identities. These are undeniably, Bhowmik and Rabson show us, Islands of Protest.

Okinawa comprises just 0.6% of Japan’s land area and yet hosts 62% of US military bases in Japan, a disproportionate burden and a cause of tension which is, unsurprisingly, a central theme in this collection. The literature spans life on the islands both during and after war, and the line between being in a state of conflict and one of peace blurs as tensions continue, heedless of diplomatic status. It is so much a part of the narrative of the Okinawan islands that one is left wondering what the islands’ identity had been before the onset of war and the arrival of American and Japanese soldiers that came with it; had they then been purely, uncomplicatedly, the ‘Islands of the sanshin guitar/ Islands of awamori liquor/ Islands of verse/ Islands of dance…’ that Yamanokuchi Baku remembers in the bittersweet ‘Okinawa, Where Will You Go Now?’  The identity of the Ryukyu Islands as described in this collection is something which has developed in and been defined against battles and their aftermath.

Nowhere is the anger towards the US military clearer and more visceral than in ‘Hope’, the short story by Akutagawa prize-winning author Medoruma Shun which opens the anthology. Medoruma, who was himself arrested this year for trespassing onto an American naval base in Okinawa as part of a protest, paints a picture of a local man so filled with the need to take action against the soldiers, and equally sure that mere protests cannot effect this, that he abducts and murders a child with ‘straw-coloured’ hair: the killing of this one American child more effective a protest against the rape of a young Okinawan woman than 80,000 demonstrators could ever be. But relations between the Okinawan islands’ inhabitants and the US military are characterised by more than simple, unilateral hostility; the refusal to oversimplify, reducing Okinawan society to that of a schism between ‘us’ and ‘them’ make both Medoruma’s stories and the anthology as a whole all the richer. Three of Medoruma’s short stories are included in this collection, and in ‘Tree of Butterflies’, written just a year after ‘Hope’, village women live in anticipation of ‘catching’ an American soldier and becoming his “Honey.”

Just as the relationships between US servicemen and Okinawan people can be peaceful, it is also clear that tensions exist which are just as strong, at times stronger, between Okinawans and mainland Japanese people. It is the Japanese who dictate assimilation to mainland Japan and have in the past punished the use of the Okinawan language – by referring to it as the ‘Okinawan Dialect’ and forcing its users in schools to wear the ‘Dialect Placard’ they refused even to admit that it is its own language, distinct from Japanese – and at the same time perpetuated the idea that, try as they might, Okinawans would never be truly Japanese. In Sakiyama Tami’s ‘Island Confinement’, we see some assimilation in the opposite direction, as a woman from Nagasaki who moves to a remote Okinawan island loses her Nagasaki dialect over the course of decades, but does not slip into the island’s dialect: ‘Her smooth and flat use of standard Japanese made clear that, although she blended in with the island atmosphere, she had surrendered nothing of her independent spirit.’ We see it, too, in Mabuni Chōshin’s ‘White Ryukyuan Tombs’, the protagonist lamenting how ‘With feet used to walking the beach/ how painful it is to pass down/ Ginza’s boulevards.’

Tensions exist, then, between the US military and the Okinawans, between the Japanese and Okinawans, and at times between Okinawan people of the various islands themselves. One constant is the Okinawan characters’ conviction that Okinawan is still superior to ‘foreign’: in Medoruma’s ‘Tree of Butterflies’, village woman Gozei is forced into prostitution but remains separate from the brothel in Naha, which houses ‘Korean comfort women who served the lower-ranking soldiers.’ Faultlines exist between dialect and skin colour, but also between the different genders, and across age-gaps. Time and again, we see the determination of elderly inhabitants to keep the islands’ traditions and festivals alive in the face of youthful indifference. Much of the texts’ action takes place on the small, often unnamed islands, places which are home to the elderly population but for young people have become somewhere to visit. This brings with it, inevitably, change in the islands’ demographics: in Sakiyama Tami’s ‘Swaying, Swinging’, the oldest man on the island laments that the 133 years he has lived now outnumber the island’s population.

Chinen Seishin’s ‘The Human Pavilion’ is for me the highlight of this anthology. Based on the 1903 national exhibition held in Osaka which offered audiences an exhibition of peoples including Koreans, Jews, Ainu and Okinawans, Chinen’s play centres on the relationship between two Ryukyu ‘specimens’ and their trainer. The trainer, who brandishes a whip and tries to Japanize his charges, ridiculing their Okinawan customs and language and comparing them to the sweet potatoes that they eat, later reveals that he too has been discriminated against and passed over for promotion because he was suspected to be Okinawan. Chinen asks: when does a war end? For him, the war ends not with the last gunshot, but with the end of the mental turmoil experienced by people who lived through the war, the passing of the ‘storm of war that rages in their brains.’ The play, which has been performed in Okinawa regularly since its publication in 1978, ends back at its beginning, and can be performed again and again on a loop. The message, which seems appropriate for the collection as a whole (the play comes at the end of the collection) is that the war will not be over until the divisions which it engendered have been removed in the minds of the people, and if that does not happen history risks repeating itself.

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