THE OKINAWAN DIASPORA IN JAPAN: Crossing the Borders Within, by Steve Rabson. University of Hawai’i Press, 2012, 312 pp., $55.00 (hardcover)

Okinawa, mainland Japan’s subtropical playground, is no paradise to Okinawans. Ryukyu, the archipelago’s original name, means “circle of jewels.” Lush appearance is one thing, gritty reality another. Life hasn’t glittered here for centuries.

It did briefly, circa 1400-1550. This was the Ryukyu Kingdom’s “Golden Age,” its cultural and commercial peak, when “a highly developed merchant marine conducted a thriving import-export trade with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.” Japan’s unification around 1600 after centuries of civil war was Ryukyu’s misfortune. A Japanese invasion in 1609 left the kingdom independent in name but a colony in fact. The last king was deposed, and annexation formalized, in 1879.

The “Okinawan Diaspora” began in earnest around 1900, with the development of a modern textile industry in Osaka. Factory work was hell — long hours for low pay in foul air amid endemic disease and rampant discrimination — and yet still, for many, it seemed better than hard labor in the sugar cane fields at home. Otherwise they wouldn’t have migrated in droves. At least “you ate three meals a day,” a woman who had been through the mill recalled many years later. “Even orphans,” she added tellingly, “could make a living.”

Okinawa, for all its beauty, emerges in this study by Brown University orientalist Steve Rabson as a prison to escape from if at all possible. The Darwinian horrors of an Industrial Revolution at full throttle proved more a draw than a deterrent — they were miseries to be conquered on the road to a potentially brighter future visible nowhere on the home horizon. To this day some 300,000 Okinawans — 23 percent of the prefecture’s 1.3 million population — live on the mainland, a measure of the economic disparity that persists even in relatively prosperous times. Discriminatory Japanese policies and attitudes are part of Rabson’s story, but only part. Small cultures in the shadows of great powers rarely flourish long, and Ryukyu-Okinawa was thrice stifled — by China, Japan, and the U.S. in turn — before belated postwar repatriation in 1972 secured it the position it occupies today as Japan’s most economically disadvantaged prefecture, rancorous host to 30,000 U.S. troops.

What people are prepared to endure for hope of better to come is a central theme of this book, emerging clearly in quoted memoirs and recollections. Eighty percent of the textile factory workers during the first two decades of the 20th century were women and girls, many as young as 13. Labor recruiters made the rounds of Okinawa’s towns and villages. Parents driven desperate by poverty signed contracts committing their daughters to years of they hardly knew what — the recruiters didn’t tell them the whole story of what factory work meant in those days.

“I ended up in hospital. Malnutrition was probably to blame … After that I wanted to quit and go home, but they wouldn’t let us leave until our contracts were up.” “The company didn’t even notify their parents when [the girls] got sick, but just sent their cremated remains back home. …”

“Whenever [the supervisor] talked to me, she yelled out scornfully, ‘Hey you, Ryukyu,’ or ‘Listen here, Ryukyu.'” “They kept us on the night shift [5 p.m. to 5 a.m.] and many of the girls lost weight until they were skin and bone … With 2,000 workers, the Toyo factory was so big it had its own crematorium.”

Unbridled sexual abuse and work days that dragged on for 12 hours minimum and often up to 18 hours add up to misery that a more fortunate age can scarcely comprehend. The bright future proved stillborn. World War I brought a fleeting economic boom, but World War II brought the Battle of Okinawa, which cost 120,000 Okinawan lives, most of them civilian. For a Japan staring at defeat, writes Rabson, Okinawa was a “throwaway pawn.”

Further betrayal came in 1951, when the San Francisco Peace Treaty restored Japanese sovereignty but left Okinawa under American occupation. Whatever Occupation had meant for Japan, for Okinawa it was no democracy-building exercise — it was military overlordship pure and simple. The Americans forcibly seized private farmland over owners’ protests and built on it the vast military installations whose presence harasses Okinawans to this day, with no end in sight.

“The Okinawan Diaspora in Japan” is a thorough and sympathetic examination of Okinawa’s situation in particular and, more generally, of minority culture in a nation that even now prides itself on racial and cultural homogeneity. It raises, without fully answering — no doubt because the author would have gone too far from his subject — haunting questions: Why did Okinawa fail to spawn a serious independence movement? Why, down the centuries, were Okinawans more intent on fitting into a Japan whose attitude was patronizing at best and often contemptuous, than on resisting Japanese rule?

And why, after World War II, did Okinawan resistance to U.S. dominion take the form of agitating for a return to Japan rather than for sovereignty?

Part of Rabson’s achievement is making us feel the force of these questions.

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