Occupation legacy: Marshall Islands residents use Japanese term for traditional handicrafts

by Ronron Calunsod

Kyodo

The tradition is theirs, but the name is Japanese.

Loretta deBrum of the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority said that before the Marshallese adapted the Japanese word “amimono” to refer to handicrafts, they used the local word “monakjen.”

The Japanese word came into use while Japan occupied the Marshall Islands, a nation in the heart of the Pacific near the Equator, in the early part of the 20th century.

“We have this tradition already on our own. We knew how to make amimono. I heard it being called ‘amimono’ when I was growing up,” Gradle Alfred, who owns a handicraft shop in the capital Majuro, said in a separate interview.

Alfred, 83, was born in 1934 during the Japanese occupation.

The relatively young country is known as a former nuclear bomb testing site by the United States after World War II.

Japan took military possession of the Marshall Islands in October 1914, when World War I broke out. Prior to that, it was a colony of Germany.

From 1914, Japan expanded its presence in the nation of 29 atolls and five islands, going on to establish military fortifications on several atolls in the late 1930s.

Alfred disclosed that her father was Japanese, identified by her mother as Marita Fujita, who was said to have been an engineer on a ship that brought commercial goods to the islands.

“My father did not see me when I was born because my (maternal) grandfather kept me and my mother away from him for fear he would take me with him to Japan,” Alfred said. “So, we don’t really know what happened to him — whether he went back to Japan or stayed here until he died.”

She said she does not even have a photo of her father.

Alfred recalls that during the occupation, the Japanese used the word “amimono” to refer to handicrafts.

The Marshall Islands Visitors Authority said the term was “coined by the Japanese in the early 1900s to describe any and all of the handmade crafts created by the Marshallese people.”

Alfred said she learned about making handicrafts from her grandmother and mother when she was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, creating skirts and sleeping mats even when she was still a little girl.

“The Marshallese already had this handicraft tradition even before the Japanese occupied us,” she said.

Japan’s occupation ended in 1945 after its defeat in World War II. The United States took over and went on to be its administrator until the nation sought independence in 1986.

After retiring from government work and with the intention of helping local women make their own living, Alfred opened the Leipajid Handicraft Shop in 1988.

Employing women, her shop produces and sells handicraft items. She also buys and sells crafts made by others.

Before opening her shop, she recalled that a women’s club on Majuro was already running a formal handicraft business.

According to the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority, the Marshallese have perfected their handcraft skills over time, thanks in part to resources being naturally abundant.

With just basic materials like coconut shoot membrane, pandan leaves and strips of coconut frond, artisans are able to create woven mats, model canoes, work baskets, hats and a popular wall ornament called “ubon.”

They have also ventured into making purses and jewelry, such as earrings and hair pins, with the utilization of additional materials like seashells.

Alfred’s shop is filled with ubon, baskets, fans, necklaces, keepers, and decorative items.

With five employees and products from outside artisans, Alfred also sells items outside of the Marshall Islands, including in Guam, Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan.

Currently, more than 10 handicraft shops are operating across Majuro, aside from individual vendors and special sections in some stores.

“The Marshallese are very well known now with amimono in the Pacific region (for the) very nice and fine weaving,” Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine said in a recent interview.