Precious little was written about Okinawa in English before World War II. Early accounts by ship captains and officers offer only passing impressions of the islands. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that more considered observations appeared.
“There were no lethal weapons in Luchu (an early English name for Okinawa), no feudal factions, few if any crimes of violence,” writes British scholar Basil Hall Chamberlain, describing the islanders’ natural preference for compromise over force, which arose due to a strong Confucian system — one that was absolute and patriarchal.
Few foreign writers ventured to Okinawa in the early postwar period, but in the 1980s and ’90s several accounts of the Battle of Okinawa were published, including “Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II” (1995) by military historian Robert Leckie and “Okinawa 1945: Gateway To Japan” by Ian Gow. These books are interesting, but ultimately contain little or no analysis of the effects of war on the lives of Okinawans, who would come to describe the role their island played in the conflict as a sute ishi (“throwaway stone”).
The war’s legacy lives on in Okinawa, and the islands’ explosive political landscape — with its lines of confrontation periodically redrawn — can impact the shelf life and relevance of books about the region. There are several instances of admirable titles that have been overtaken by the shifting temporal nature of their subjects.
The following 10 books represent a diverse focus on Okinawan subjects that have stood the test of time — for now. They are highlights from what is becoming a respectable body of English-language books about Japan’s contested island “paradise.”
George Kerr’s 1958 history of the Okinawa islands is the single most meticulously researched work on the subject. The author traces a line from the mythological past to the establishing of the 14th-century Sho Dynasty. He continues through to the age of the great trading routes synonymous with the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, the devastating impact of the 1609 invasion by the Shimazu clan, the unilateral recasting of the islands as a Japanese prefecture and the abduction of the last Ryukyu king. Kerr ends with the trauma of WWII and the American Occupation.
Though a thoroughly impartial history, one suspects Kerr’s sympathies lie with the common Okinawan people, who, as he mentions in relation to the Battle of Okinawa, were “forced to make a hideous sacrifice on Japan’s behalf.”
This extremely well written book remains eminently quotable. Almost 60 years after its publication, the reader will be impressed by Kerr’s prescience. Referring to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) government’s decision to build a military base on the island, he notes how, “Okinawans protested that a garrison would attract Japan’s enemies, with whom they had no quarrel.” One hears the same complaints voiced today from Okinawan residents resentful at being implicated in foreign wars, and cognizant of the fact that American bases and Japanese Self-Defense Forces installations have turned their homes into primary targets.
William P. Lebra
University of Hawaii Press
William P. Lebra’s 1966 study of the beliefs and rituals that constitute a unique religion — a system quite distinct from Buddhism and Shinto — remains an enlightening read. Placing local practices in the context of the history, ethnic characteristics, habitats and language of the islands, the author stresses the centrality of community and kin groups, two strong aspects of contemporary Okinawan life.
Some of the rituals described by Lebra no longer exist. For example, a latter generation of women rose up against the traditional bone-washing ceremony in which body parts of deceased persons — beginning with the feet and ending with the skull — were picked clean of flesh before being placed in mortuary jars.
Translated by Mark Ealey
Caught between two pathologically violent forces, roughly one-third of the islands’ civilian population perished in the Battle of Okinawa. Many of these deaths occurred after excruciatingly long periods of suffering involving physical and mental torment. It is against this backdrop that Akira Yoshimura, whose sympathies were firmly with the excluded and expendable, set his 1967 novel.
The effect of military indoctrination is so strong that 14-year-old Shinichi, recruited into Japan’s youth corps during the desperate last days of the battle, is resolute in wanting to die as a “soldier of the Empire … to be enshrined with the war heroes at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.”
The child-soldier’s vision of glory, disturbingly similar to that of today’s young Islamic martyrs, ends with Shinichi huddled in the septic filth of a cave, the air tainted with the odor of purulent corpses.
Tomiko Higa’s account of being a lone 7-year-old child during the Battle of Okinawa was originally published in 1989. The English version was released a mere two years later.
The book’s cover image — taken by an American service photographer on June 25, 1945 — depicts Higa holding a white flag. In the weeks before the photograph was taken she roamed a scorched wasteland, witnessed starvation and disease, and kept herself alive by, among other tactics, removing morsels of food from the knapsacks of dead soldiers. Even when the conflict was over, the effects of wartime propaganda were still evident, Higa hearing a woman wailing, “They’re going to put us all in a big hole, pour gasoline on us, and set us on fire!”
A record of the destruction of an island, people and culture, Higa’s book is also an elegy to the annihilation of childhood.
University of Hawaii Press
Mitsugu Sakihara’s translation of the “Omoro Soshi” is part fact, myth and dream world, with a cover resembling a blackened funeral tablet embossed with gold lettering. This history of Okinawa, however, is less solemn than it appears.
The contents of the “Omoro Soshi” — an anthology of ancient songs and verse collected from the Okinawa and Amami islands — covers almost six centuries of literature, folk legends and creation myths, from anonymous 12th-century contributions to poems composed by Queen Sho Nei in 1610. Beside examples from the original 22 volumes of the “Omoro Soshi,” Sakihara provides a fascinating text on Okinawa’s links to an indigenous belief system.
The deities, in imparting ritual meaning to the lives of the ancients, created a stabilizing structure that would be eroded in the coming centuries by the encroachments of outside forces, whose intentions were seldom in the best interests of Okinawans.
Tony Barrell and Rick Tanaka
Die Gestalten Verlag
This highly accessible potpourri of voices and personal tales is a refreshing break from more academic titles about Japan’s island chain.
“There’s no war on now,” opines former Prefectural Assembly member Keiko Itokazu, “but it feels like we are at war.” The authors cast their net wide in this book, with content running from interviews with people such as Itokazu to pieces on karate, musical genres, the work of filmmaker Go Takamine, conservation issues and thoughts on local gastronomy. The authors also speak with a minshuku (traditional guesthouse) owner, and share the rarely heard voices of American military personnel who reside on Okinawa’s U.S. bases.
Christopher T. Nelson
Duke University Press
Christopher T. Nelson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, put in plenty of legwork for this work of social anthropology — the writer is more participant than observer. Nelson’s own memories of Okinawa loop back to the summer of 1985, when, as a newly recruited lieutenant in the U.S. Marines, he recalls standing outside a bar in the Okinawan city of Koza, soaking up the “smell of the street, asphalt and exhaust, frying oil, sewage.”
Seasoned by experience, and with a more mature slant on the concealed intentions of Washington and Tokyo, Nelson finds Okinawan performers active in reactivating and transmitting the past, through music, film, recitation, story telling and dramatic monologues.
Ruth Ann Keyso
Cornell University Press
Nine Okinawan women of different generations reflect on their complex and ambivalent feelings toward the Japanese state and the American Occupation, but also provide telling insights into their own lives and concerns.
The women Ruth Ann Keyso chose as her subjects — store cashiers, maids in private homes, club waitresses — had direct contact with U.S. military personnel and, in the most intimate cases, some were the wives of GIs. This latter group appears to have been the prime victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Not all the women featured here are hostile to the American presence. One woman, employed at a U.S. installation, claims the bases are easy targets for people who want to blame the Americans for their own shortcomings in taking action against such problems as pollution, traffic congestion and noise.
Nobody who has spent time in Okinawa can fail to notice the primacy of music in the lives of islanders. English music journalist John Potter, who has made Okinawa his home, is eminently well placed to guide us through the history, key figures and new developments in an ever-evolving music scene.
Potter’s passion for his subject, his tireless research into the origins of the music and its bifurcating forms, has resulted in a study that is both accessible and hugely satisfying — a book that even those with only a passing interest in the topic will enjoy.
Potter demonstrates how Okinawa has long been fertile ground for the kind of instrumental fusions, genre blends and collaborations we now call world music. The writer was instrumental in bringing together the American pianist Geoffrey Keezer and the Okinawan singer and sanshin player Yasukatsu Oshima, who would go on to create a studio recording with a small number of jazz musicians.
“The Power of Okinawa” comes with an appendage of recommended albums to assist further explorations of this vibrant musical scene.
Edited by Davinder L.Bhowmik and Steve Rabson
University of Hawaii Press
“Islands of Protest,” a recently published anthology of Okinawan literature, is a fine companion anthology to the 2000 collection “Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature From Okinawa.”
There is more than a touch of irony in the title of Shun Medoruma’s powerful and oppressive story “Hope,” in which the protagonist, after abducting and murdering an American child, self-immolates in a park known for holding a protest against the real-life 1995 rape of an Okinawan child by three U.S. servicemen. Medoruma’s work depicts Okinawa as the stage for some of the most violent dramas unfolding in Japan today, not as the peaceful, tropical paradise the media is at pains to project.
“The Kunenbo Orange Trees,” written by Yamagusuku Seichi in 1911, prefigures Medoruma’s concerns, this time exposing the behavior of Japanese soldiers billeted in Okinawa during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War. Here, in a rehearsal of what would take place on a far larger scale in WWII, we read of drunken Japanese soldiers, referred to as “Yamato beasts,” pouring into the grounds of Shuri Castle, intent on sexually assaulting Okinawan women.
Among the stories and short poems is a startling 1976 stage play titled “Jinruikan” (“Human Pavilion”) by Chinen Seishin. The story seems to be referencing the reaction of an incensed newspaper editor in Naha who complained about the representation of Okinawans at the 1903 Osaka Exhibition. He said islanders were being displayed alongside other “primitive peoples” — including Ainu, Taiwanese, Javanese and Asian Indians — as exotic specimens. Seishin’s satire reveals the relentless pressures that have been put on Okinawans to become more Japanese and more “civilized.”
“Islands of Protest” is a fitting addition to a canon of highly varied literature that expresses the humiliation of living on an occupied island. These texts provide a vent for the release of deeply festering grievances, serving as a voice promoting the transmission of memory and experience in a country that is more inclined to see itself as a victim of historical injustices than a perpetrator of them.
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