I have just returned home to New York after completing my MA in Art History at the University of Hawaiʻi. I really cannot believe that chapter of my life has closed – it doesn’t feel like an ending, like it should, but only a break. The people and places and feel of Hawaiʻi are already starting to fade from my mind, as I so wish they wouldn’t. I eagerly look forward to a summer in New York, to enjoying the very different energy here, and of course spending quality time with family and friends. But I so wish I were going back to Hawaiʻi after that. I’m not ready for that to be done and over. But, on the positive side, I do expect to go back for conferences, research, and the like, to stay closely in contact with friends from there (I hope!), and to retain the valuable life lessons I learned there. I have become a very different person, in my outlook and attitudes, since first leaving for Hawaiʻi, and I hope that I do not fall backwards.
Photo taken myself, at an International Food Festival in Yokohama. What is “ethnic” food? What isn’t?
The first link in today’s post addresses precisely the sort of post-colonial and intercultural issues that I gained such a new, more nuanced, perspective of during my time in Hawaiʻi.
*A writer for Maori/Pacific Islander magazine SPacifik mag complains about the use of the term “ethnic,” and about the language and approach otherwise, in discussion of so-called “ethnic foods” or “ethnic restaurants.”
“Ethnic” here is used to mean exotic, Other, non-white. The obvious issue with this is that it involves an Othering, an exoticization. See “Orientalism theory.” But what is ironic is that in order to argue against the use of the word “ethnic” as applying only to non-white cultures, the blogger has to argue for the validity of European cultures as being distinct ethnicities and cultures, something that I feel few non-whites readily admit or acknowledge. In order to eliminate the white / non-white binary, and the colonialist Othering and exoticization it involves, we need to acknowledge Spanish, German, Irish, and Italian cultures (and their food) as being just as cultural, just as traditional, just as interesting and “ethnic” as Chinese, Maori, Kenyan, or Persian cultures – rather than seeing the one as a generic White, a generic colonizing, oppressing, majority culture lacking in heritage, tradition, or “ethnic” diversity and flavor.
This article touches upon a great many very complex, nuanced, problematic issues. I think it addresses them in perhaps too simplistic a way, speaking out for the minorities against the white voice, attacking colonialist discourses from within the duality rather than trying to break it down. But the points it makes are nevertheless very much valid and important. This is a discussion we need to be having more and more, in order to eventually work out a solution, or at least a sea change.
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, surrounded by Ginowan City. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
*The National Bureau of Asian Research has an interview with government/politics professor Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College about Okinawa and the Future of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance. In the interview, Dr. Lind provides an enlightening overview/summary of the basis of the US-Japan Security Alliance, why it exists, and how it functions. We talk so much about post-colonial legacies, or US neo-colonialism, that we forget there are very real political reasons that this situation came into place and remains in place. That the US bases are not in Japan simply because they are, but rather that there is a give-and-take, an exchange, of land (bases) in exchange for protection (i.e. US military protection of Japan). It is good to be reminded.
I don’t tend to read that much politics / economics / contemporary policy stuff. There’s just so much out there, it’d be impossible to keep up with; and, besides, I’m much more inclined towards cultural topics & affairs anyway. So, for me, reading about the Okinawa bases issue from a more upper-level political/military point of view, rather than from an Okinawan popular point of view, is both jarring, and new and interesting for me. What does the US presence really stem from? What is its purpose? How do Washington and Tokyo each benefit? Important aspects to understand.
But, returning to the aspect that most interests me, the cultural/lifestyle impact on the ground in Okinawa, I think one of the keys to a viable solution, perhaps, is the idea that “we need excellent leadership at these facilities to ensure that every soldier, sailor, and Marine knows that his or her daily conduct with the Japanese has a big effect on the U.S.-Japan relationship.” And, taking that further, we need to ensure that every soldier, sailor, and Marine has a respect for the Okinawan people as people, as individuals, as equals, and that they know the impact their daily conduct has on life in Okinawa. The military, both as an organization, and on the individual level of individual military men & women, is I think fairly oblivious as to its impact. Either that, or it is too self-important or uncaring. Soldiers, sailors, and Marines need to relearn to think like civilians, and they need to consider what it would be like if the tables were turned. What would life be like in your hometown in Ohio if half the town were a Japanese military base? What would it mean to be from Ohio if 20% of the state’s land were taken up by foreign military bases? What would it mean for Ohio’s history, its culture, its identity? These are the things we need to remember.
Rapes and helicopter crashes are isolated incidents, but the overwhelming presence of the military in everyday Okinawan lifestyle and culture is not. It may not seem as heinous on the surface, but the US military presence has dramatically and irrevocably altered the image of Okinawa in the minds of its people, countless Japanese, and numerous Americans. The association of Okinawa with the US military – rather than associating it with its own “native” or “traditional” culture – is evident, for example, in the innumerable military-related T-shirt designs that can be found just about anywhere in Okinawa, and in websites like Remembering Okinawa, which focus not on “remembering” an Okinawa inhabited by Okinawans, or one defined by Okinawan culture, but rather on “remembering” Okinawa as “The Rock,” that is, as military base. I have a whole post dedicated to this website, and this concept, which I’ve been working on (or, rather, sitting on), which might get put up soon.
In short, we take it far too much for granted that these bases are our territory, our land – that we belong there, that we’re allowed to be there. We must remember that we are guests in a foreign country, invited not by the local people but by the geographically distant national government, and we need to start acting like it.
*Finally, for today, a 48-minute documentary about tens of thousands of books taken by Israelis from Palestinians in the course of the 1948 War, and never returned. Is this stealing? Looting? Cultural protection? From what little I see here, and not knowing much more about the situation, I cannot 100% defend or justify such relocation of materials, such “taking” or “appropriation,” however much I should like to. The more I learn about 1948, and the events leading up to it, the more embarrassing and regrettable episodes I discover. I will always be pro-Israel; I will not, cannot, ever see Israel as anything but the “good guys,” so to speak. But, boy have we done some seriously inappropriate and regrettable things.
Did we think we were “rescuing” books from destruction in the war? Were we right in believing that? Certainly, as an Okinawan Studies person, I mourn the loss of so much historical materials in the War of Okinawa, and wish we could have rescued more of it. Of course, even if we had, to then keep all those rescued materials in an American archive, and not in a Japanese or Okinawan one, would be terribly wrong. So, maybe we were “rescuing”, or maybe we were just “looting,” in 1948. It’s hard to say. I would rather not jump to conclusions, to praise or to condemn. What exactly was the intention? Would the books have been lost if we’d not done this? What were the Palestinians (the Arabs) doing to protect their own books during the conflict? When and why and by whom was the decision made to launch this systematic acquisition of Arab books?
And, perhaps most importantly, what are the details behind why the books were never returned? Certainly, it may have been far too logistically difficult to actually return these thousands of books to the individual homes and individual people from whom they were taken. But could we not have given the books to a Palestinian university or library or archive? Perhaps it is here where the key stumbling block lies. After all, the Palestinians are known to put far more energy and money into destruction than construction. I firmly believe that if they’d put the kind of energy into wiping out Arab terrorism that they do into wiping out Israel, we’d see a much more prosperous West Bank & Gaza today. But I fully admit that I don’t know the details of whether or not there are, or have been in the past, safe places in the West Bank, well-maintained libraries, to which these objects could have been returned.
Certain phrases in this documentary annoy me. One woman questions whether she should consider the Israeli occupant of a home in her town to be the “owner.” It would have been so simple to just call him the Israeli owner, and move on. “The current owner of the property won’t let me into the house.” Period. But this she refuses to say. Instead, she insists at poking a jab at the idea that any Israeli could be considered to legally or rightfully “own” property in this town (or at all), seizing any and every opportunity, it would seem, to remind us yet again of Palestinian suffering and Israeli wrongdoing – that is, of the pro-Palestinian narratives and discourses she and so many others wish us to believe.
An Arab man’s comment that the term “Israeli Arab” is “a repulsive concept,” that it means something like being owned by Israel, being “Israel’s Arab,” annoys me in a different way. This man obviously does not understand, or appreciate, the meaning of citizenship. Now, granted, if he were to go into detail about Israel using Arabs for discursive purposes, treating them in some way as “our” Arabs, that would be one thing. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he denies, refuses, spits on the very concept of the modern international concept of citizenship, saying that to be “Israeli Arab” somehow is an attack on his identity as an Arab Arab.
Look, you don’t have to politically favor this or that Israeli policy. Plenty of citizens of plenty of countries around the world disagree vehemently with their governments’ stances on this or that issue. But to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in a first-world, advanced country while at the same time spitting on the idea of belonging to that country… that, to me, is a “repulsive concept.”
Everyone in the United States, and I am sure a great majority of the people all around the world, negotiate with multiple identities. I am myself both Jewish and American, while others are both British and Indian, both Okinawan and Japanese, or both Chinese and Christian. Thousands of Japanese Americans worked, spoke out, and fought on battlefields to prove their loyalty to the United States in the early 1940s, and people of all stripes continue to do so today, fighting with words and with actions to prove their identity as American, or as British, as members of Japanese society, for example, despite their lack of Japanese ethnic (racial/genetic) background, to fight for their right to be considered French, etc. I sincerely hope that not all Arabs think the way this man does. Imagine someone sitting there saying “Arab-American – it’s a repulsive concept. As if we are owned by America; as if we are America’s Arabs, rather than being Arab Arabs.” It would go against everything the Japanese-American community (and countless others) have fought for, and would only serve to solidify the idea that Arabs have no love for America, no loyalty to the place they live, the place they grew up, to their neighbors…
He claims that the severing of Palestine from connections to the wider Arab world has left him without a cultural space, without the connections that once existed to Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. This, I can appreciate; I can sympathize. You used to feel connected to the cultural activity of these places, and now Arab Palestine has become Jewish Israel and it is no longer an Arab space, and it is no longer as easy as it once was to feel connected to these other places. As if New York had suddenly become a different country, and I found myself suddenly in a foreign place, no longer in the same country, the same cultural space as Boston and DC. Sure. But, if you miss the cultural scene in Beirut, go there. No one is stopping you. And, more importantly, you say that you cannot redefine your identity here in Israel, that you feel disconnected from the ability to have an Arab cultural space? Why? You’ve had 60 plus years to create or recreate Palestinian identity within Israel. This is no different from the formation of a Jewish-American identity (as distinct from Jewish or Israeli identity elsewhere in the world), or the formation of a distinctly Arab-American or British Arab identity. If it can be done by these other groups, why can it not be done for/by you? There is so much scholarship out there on diasporas and identity formation. I can appreciate the frustration with being in, in a sense, a diaspora, in a place that is no longer wholly or chiefly an Arab place when once it was, but that does not mean you cannot redefine, recreate, or relocate an identity. Jewish-Americans did it; Hawaiians under occupation have done it; peoples define and redefine their identities every day. If you have not found it, it is because you are not looking, or are unwilling to accept what you have.
Returning to the matter of the 1948 “looting” of Arab books by Jewish (Israeli) soldiers, at 20 minutes into this 48-minute documentary, these questions I have posed above remain entirely unanswered. These seem to me the most key questions about this situation, and yet, the documentary seems to have some other agenda – namely, to take it as a given that it’s a crime that these were taken, and that they ought to be given back. We finally begin to see in the last 10 minutes, some answers to some of these questions. We learn that many of the books were taken from empty homes, not stolen from owners who were present; we learn that there were Arab students working with the collections, and that there was never any intention to “hide” the books, nor in fact a belief that they had in fact been hidden – there were Arabs who knew quite well where they were, and how to access them. We learn as well that the goal was very explicitly to safeguard and protect these books from destruction, but also that there was a hope that many of the books would end up being kept by the Library and not returned.
It would have been nice to see a documentary explaining, in more objective, historical detail, why this was done, what was the thinking at the time, what efforts were made to return the books over the years, and if not why not. But, so it goes. Some reports are better than others… at least, I think it valuable and interesting to have learned about this collection, to learn that it exists, and that this “acquisition,” “looting,” whatever we want to call it, happened. I’d had no idea.
I am glad to see that these objects are accessible to the public, and are not simply “locked away” in archives as the film states them to be. I hope that a solution can be reached – either that the collection be relocated to a Palestinian National Library, or that the Palestinians should (god forbid) start considering the Israeli National Library as their own as well.