For Okinawa comedian Masamitsu Kohatsu, Aug. 13 is synonymous with the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States.
Aug. 13, 2004, was the day a U.S. transport helicopter from the Futenma air station in the city of Ginowan crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University, injuring its crew.
Accidents like that, though rarely as serious, are viewed as an everyday threat for Okinawans like Kohatsu, but he was irate when he saw the coverage in the Tokyo-based newspapers. Their top stories included the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens and the resignation of the owner of the Yomiuri Giants.
“I thought ‘What is this? Don’t monkey around with us!’ ” said the 38-year-old Kohatsu.
He took an unusual step to express his anger: Three days later, he made a joke about it on stage.
“The Olympic torch is burning in Athens, but in Okinawa a U.S. chopper is in flames,” Kohatsu said, holding up an Okinawan newspaper. The audience burst into laughter.
“I thought the U.S. base issue can be used for comedy and we can laugh about it,” Kohatsu said.
The local entertainment industry has helped maintain Okinawan pride and offers channels to vent their anger over the frustrations they have felt for decades since the prefecture’s reversion from U.S. to Japanese control.
The central government’s assimilation policy eroded Okinawan pride and invited an identity crisis. Okinawans were led to believe that they had to be “full-fledged Japanese,” by renouncing their culture and language. The prefecture’s burden of hosting the lion’s share of U.S. bases in Japan feeds this feeling of discrimination.
Comedians and musicians have provided solace to the Okinawan people, who were devastated by the biggest World War II battle that took place on Japanese soil. Buten Onaha, an Okinawan comedian who also played the “sanshin” stringed instrument, and his apprentice, Rinsuke Teruya, lifted Okinawans’ spirits by singing “Let’s Celebrate Our Lives” immediately after the war.
Yet experts say Okinawans under the assimilation policy felt prohibited from engaging in any activities in public places that represented the islands’ unique culture. There were no school activities to promote Okinawan culture or music.
“There are people who played the sanshin in the back alleys, not on the main street,” said Shinsho Miyara, a professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus.
It was not until the 1980s that people started to feel that the concept of pursuing Japanese life didn’t really fit their Okinawan spirit. Such sentiment was expressed by Junji Nishime, a former governor of Okinawa, who in 1985 said that “we try but can’t fully become Japanese. This is the Okinawan mind.”
As artists, musicians and comedians have reflected such frustrations.
“Almost 15 years after the reversion, we started to have ‘side effects,’ ” said Mitsuru Tamaki, a member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly. “We still used Uchinaguchi (an Okinawan language) at home. I came to realize expressing Okinawa in the Japanese way was wrong.”
In 1983, Tamaki formed a comedy troupe called Shochiku Kagekidan. The group became popular enough to host a TV program called “Owarai Popo,” which featured dark humor using Uchinaguchi words.
In one skit Tamaki produced, comedians dressed as an Okinawan sanshin and a Chinese stringed instrument told a comedian posing as a samisen they are not related as they look very different. The Chinese instrument was the prototype of the sanshin, which influenced the Japanese samisen.
“What drove us was the rebellious spirit against Japan,” said Tamaki.
Tamaki’s troupe along with the Rinken Band, which pioneered Okinawan pop music featuring the sanshin, boosted Okinawa’s repressed pride and led to Okinawans re-evaluating their culture.
Kohatsu is one of many influenced by this trend. He said the notion that Okinawan culture was somehow “backward” was erased when he saw Shochiku Kagekidan perform.
“Shochiku changed the definition of coolness, and Okinawan culture has become something we wanted to share,” said Kohatsu.
The comedian took a step further by accepting the U.S. base issue as a part of what it means to be Okinawan and something to capitalize on. After the success of his self-deprecating show after the helicopter crash, he launched the comedy group Owarai Beigun Kichi, or Comedy U.S. base, to mimic the everyday life of Okinawans surrounded by the U.S. military.
They perform in Tokyo as well as Okinawa.
In one skit, he portrays an Okinawan who has joined a demonstration against a U.S. installation but leaves the protest to enjoy a festival on the base. Kohatsu says this double standard is part of what represents Okinawa today and playing up such contradictions is a way of expressing frustration.
“Okinawans have become much more hard-nosed. As an Okinawan, I don’t want the U.S. bases, but as a comedian, I want them to stay as it boosts my business.”