• “In the past this spacious Hokkaido was our ancestors’ world of freedom. Living with ease and pleasure in the manner of innocent babes in the embrace of beautiful, vast nature, they were truly beloved children of nature. Oh, what happy people they must have been!”
  • “They have no history, their traditions are scarcely worthy of the name, they claim descent from a dog, their houses and persons swarm with vermin, they are sunk in the grossest ignorance …”
  • “It is a great insult for the people of our prefecture (Okinawa) to be singled out for inclusion with Taiwanese tribesmen and (Hokkaido) Ainu. … We are being portrayed as an inferior race.”

Hokkaido and Okinawa, poles apart climatically, have in common the sort of past that begs the question: Can human simplicity survive contact with human complexity?

Both territories having failed to do so, and being now part of Japan in consequence, the answer seems clear.

Maybe it is.

Let’s explore it anyway.

Related questions come to mind: Can weak nations coexist with strong ones? Does strength confer rights to which weakness must (and, therefore, should) yield? Is savagery a viable, even preferable alternative to civilization? If so, “savagery,” with its pejorative connotations, hardly seems the right word. What then? “Innocence?” Were Hokkaido and Okinawa “innocent” before Japan got its hands on them? Would they have been better off had Japan never encroached on them? If so, was Japan’s encroachment a crime?

A sad truism: nations commit acts in the name of honor, glory and prosperity that, committed by individuals, would be judged criminal, if not monstrous. But nations are not individuals. Does that absolve them?

Let’s consider Okinawa first, if only because Okinawa to this day harbors grievances whose modern manifestations have ancient roots. In 1591, Japan’s supreme warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having united most of his fractious country under his personal rule and feeling unabashedly omnipotent, wrote to the Ryukyu court as follows: “Throughout our nation of more than 60 provinces, I have pacified all people and governed with mercy and affection. … Consequently it is my desire to spread my administrations to other regions. … Henceforth, even if a land be thousands of miles distant, I shall … build with foreign lands the spirit of the four seas as one family.”

Ryukyu, Okinawa’s original name, means “circle of jewels,” an apt description of a sprawling and lovely archipelago of 160-odd large and small islands, 48 of them inhabited. Agriculture came late — not before the 10th century. Local potentates ruled locally until the 15th century when one, stronger than the others, forced unification on recalcitrant former peers, somewhat staining a claim to moral superiority. Yet early in the 20th century the folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962) professed to see in Okinawa the pristine and divine purity that Japan proper had thrown away in its hell-bent drive to modernization.

Traders the Ryukyuans were, their seaborne commerce mainly with China but extending all over East and South Asia. Hideyoshi, boundlessly bumptious, conceived a desire to conquer China. Why? Why not? A letter he wrote in1591 reads, “My country is secure. Nonetheless, it is my intention to govern China,” a feat “as easily done as pointing to the palm of my hand.”

From the Ryukyus he demanded troops and provisions. Not daring to refuse outright, the Ryukyu king extended grudging and minimal cooperation — trade with China was his kingdom’s lifeline, after all — no doubt rejoicing when the expedition came to grief.

It mattered little in the end. Ryukyu was doomed. It was too prosperous and too feeble to be left alone by a Japan whose newfound unity and burgeoning strength demanded an outlet. In 1609 came the almost effortless invasion — the end (in fact though not in name until 1879) of Ryukyu’s independent existence. Ironically, 30 years after the invasion, Japan, feeling threatened by Western powers, turned deeply inward, not emerging from its shell until the mid-1850s, when those same Western powers, led by the United States, treated Japan much as Japan had treated Okinawa.

So that’s power politics. When has it ever been different?

Well, take Hokkaido for instance. How could Yanagita have missed it? Here if anywhere primitive simplicity, noble savagery, natural goodness (is there is such a thing?) had a chance. If the ancient Ryukyuans were slow or reluctant to develop agriculture, Hokkaido’s Ainu were much more so, preserving a prehistoric hunting and gathering economy until well into the 19th century. Yukie Chiri, the early 20th-century Ainu writer quoted above (she died of heart disease at 19) was born too late to taste the primordial happiness she wrote about, but the oral tales on which she based herself (she is remembered as the first to have preserved them in writing) are too beautiful and too transparently joyful to be disregarded as evidence of the possibility that civilization may be more corrupting than beneficial — Isabella Bird notwithstanding. Bird is a fine observer, but she wouldn’t have known the tales, and her feelings in any case were mixed; she could not deny that there was something very fine about the Ainu after all. “They are uncivilizable and altogether irreclaimable savages,” Bird writes, “yet they are attractive and in some ways fascinating, and I hope I shall never forget the music of their low, sweet voices … and the wonderful sweetness of their smile.”

Is this paradise lost? Were the Ainu “innocent babes,” as Chiri thought, or vermin-ridden savages, as they appeared to Bird? “Inferior race,” said the Ryukyu Shimpo — yet who today doesn’t see something admirable in their loving symbiosis with nature, their lack of greed, their ability to live in peace with one another?

Hopeless, doomed. In the 16th century rumors swirled of gold to be found in the far north, and Japanese prospectors poured in. The rest, as they say, is history.

Michael Hoffman’s latest short fiction, “What Happened to Mr. Goto on the Train,” is in the September issue of Eastlit.com.

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