As I was graduating, I was not able to be on campus to work hands-on directly with the objects, or with the gallery, in order to help figure out what would fit where, or anything like that. But, having handled some of these objects before in person, and drawing upon my MA thesis research, I was able to contribute gallery labels, to suggest which sections of the scrolls to show, etc. It was an absolutely privilege and pleasure to get to have my curatorial debut be in Hawaii, and to be an Okinawa-related exhibit; and, of course, it was a privilege and pleasure to work with Tokiko-san and Prof. Szostak on this.
Long story short, the exhibit, entitled “Picturing the Ryukyus: Images of Okinawa in Japanese Artworks from the UH Sakamaki/Hawley Collection,” opened at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, and showed from February 7-22 this year. While the Rekihaku exhibit featured a wide variety of early modern processions and parades, from sankin kôtai daimyô processions and festival parades to Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan embassy processions, ours focused in on just Ryukyuan (i.e. Okinawan) subjects. The highlights of the exhibit were a 1671 handscroll painting depicting a Ryukyuan embassy procession in Edo in that year, the oldest such Ryukyu embassy procession scroll extant, and another scroll, this one sixty feet long, and in much brighter, bolder colors, depicting a 1710 procession. The 1710 procession is of particular significance as a mission which set new standards in dress, ceremonial, and form of the embassy, precedents which would stand, to a large extent, for the remainder of the early modern period. Plus, it’s simply a wonderfully beautiful object. Given its incredible length, however, we were only able to show a small section.
The exhibition was accompanied by a set of public lectures, and a symposium, held in conjunction. Prof. Kurushima Hiroshi from Rekihaku, Prof. Szostak, and myself, presented on a panel alongside two of the truly top experts in Ryukyuan history, Prof. Yokoyama Manabu of Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Prof. Gregory Smits of Penn State. It was kind of nerve-wracking to be up there along with such prominent scholars, but was really quite pleasant, and extremely informative, in the end. As they say in Japanese, taihen benkyô ni narimashita 大変勉強になりました.
I apologize to not summarize or comment upon the talks here, as I have been doing for the AAS talks I attended last month. But, many of the talks, associated PowerPoints, and even video of the presentations, are now available online, on a UHM Hamilton Library webpage. These will all eventually be added to the University of Hawaii University Repository, also known as ScholarSpace.
And, the full audio from my talk at the symposium can be found via the Samurai Archives Podcast. In the next episode of the podcast, I talk with C.E. West, Shogun of the Samurai Archives website, about the presentation, the symposium, and the exhibit. Now that the following third and final episode in the series is available, I’ve added the link to that here.
Meanwhile, you can also read about the Rekihaku exhibit here; I myself did not get to see the exhibit, which sounds like it was spectacular, but, at least I’ve managed to get my hands on the catalog, and a mighty beautiful catalog it is, for just 2000 yen.
While in Hawaii a couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the sold-out production, “A Cage of Fireflies,” at Kumu Kahua Theatre. Written by local playwright Daniel Akiyama, the play takes place entirely within the Honolulu apartment of a pair of elderly Okinawan-American kibei sisters; kibei 帰米, meaning “returned to America,” is a term referring to Japanese- or Okinawan-Americans who were sent to Japan or Okinawa as children, to be raised and educated within the Japanese/Okinawan education system and culture, and who then returned to the United States. These two, along with their third sister who frequently visits, comprise the entire cast. Through mundane conversations about family events and everyday interpersonal frictions, the play addresses themes of tradition and identity – questions of how to live as an Okinawan-American in Hawaii, what constitutes tradition or Okinawan identity, and how to go forward in the everyday, and in the longer term.
Plays having anything to do with Okinawa are so rare, of course I was glad for the opportunity to get to see this one. And I am certainly glad that I did. Though the overall aesthetic, or mood, of the play is dreadfully modern and mundane, in the end, I could not help but find various aspects quite interesting, moving, engaging, and thought-provoking.
I suppose it is both a positive and a negative aspect of this play (and of so much else besides) that it makes me struggle to decide what I think of it. On the one hand, what drew me to Okinawan Studies to begin with was how colorful and upbeat the culture is, how beautiful, exotic and exciting. Okinawa in my mind is blue skies, white clouds, green trees, blue seas, and white sand; it’s lively, upbeat music and culture otherwise which is keenly in tune with up-to-date trends and fashions (e.g. pop/rock music, street fashion, clever t-shirts) while also drawing upon a vibrant tradition. For me, Okinawa is purple (or blue?) headscarves and taiko, red tile roofs and multi-colored bingata fabrics. It is a bright, colorful, culturally vibrant history full of kings and priestesses, envoys and musicians, scholar-bureaucrats, aristocrats, sailors, merchants, warriors and artisans. And, so, it is frustrating for me when time and time again I see Okinawan culture represented through a lens of the melodramatized issues of ordinary, everyday immigrant families, so disconnected from all of that, and so enmeshed in the same limited set of contemporary/modern concerns.
The plot, for the most part, centers on the youngest and eldest sisters, Kimiko and Yukiko, who live together and tailor or repair clothes for the family of the middle sister, Mitsuko. Mitsuko constantly talks of her children and grandchildren for whom these clothes are being sewn, actively engaged in a busy everyday American/Hawaii life full of recitals and soccer practice and the like, while the other two sisters, it seems, scarcely leave the house, let alone engage in much of a social life at all. In fact, these two do not speak English, but only Japanese (all the dialogue in the play is in English, but we are to understand that it is Japanese), and speak frequently of eventually going “back home” to Okinawa, though in truth it’s been many years since they’ve been there.
I am not sure there is much to be said about the sets, props, and costumes, beyond that I was impressed that the taps in the kitchen sink actually worked. In this respect, it seems very much a play in the mode of realism; not trying to do anything innovative or artistic with staging, but rather reproducing realistically, believably, a very plain, typical Honolulu apartment. The acting, however, was not quite so believable. Watching Dian Kobayashi (Kimiko, the youngest sister) and Kat Koshi (Yukiko, the oldest sister), it was hard to forget they were actors, and to think of them as their characters. There were moments, to be sure, but overall, with my sincere apologies for saying so, they felt more scripted, more unnaturally dramatic, than Karen Yamamoto Hackler (Mitsuko, the middle sister), who seemed quite natural throughout the play, and who truly melted into her character. This sort of stilted, dramatic mode of performance can often be extremely appropriate, and effective, when it is a conscious stylistic choice, for a show that is meant to seem unreal, one that is meant to be abstract, allegorical or metaphorical. When I attended a dramatic reading of Ôshiro Tatsuhirô’s The Cocktail Party, this worked fairly well, as each character was clearly meant to be a stand-in, or allegory, for sides in contemporary Okinawan political issues (e.g. the American serviceman, the American civilian, the Okinawan who suffered during the war, the Chinese man who suffered during the war, the Japanese man who was not involved in the war, the Okinawan woman who is too young to have been directly affected by the war). But that was a dramatic reading, and, I assume, an intentional choice of performance style. I doubt that it was a conscious choice here.
A set of kimonos and other textiles, selected or woven himself by Alfred Yama Kina were gorgeous; it is a shame we did not get to see more of them.
Though the mundaneness of the content of the plot really grated on me at first, by the end of the play, we began to see important themes begin to show through. The eldest sister as having her mind situated in a pre-war conception of what Okinawa is like, and her identity very much in belonging to a pre-war or traditional Okinawa, and not in assimilating or adjusting into American life. She holds on strongly to tradition – not to traditions that truly go back to the brightest heights of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but only to the tradition within which she grew up: a very domestic, mundane sort of tradition centered around tailoring clothing and around her experiences as a child in Okinawa. The youngest sister, it emerges, is sort of trapped by this eldest sister, with whom she lives, having never mustered the courage, it would seem, or the independence of thinking, to stand up to her sister and to say or think anything different, nor to act upon that. We don’t really know how long the two have maintained this same routine, day after day, isolated from the world changing and moving forward outside their apartment, but we get the impression it has been forever – and after however many years, only now does she finally start to express that she wants to explore the world outside the apartment, and that she wants to learn English. She represents, I suppose, a portion of Okinawan-American society that is afraid, or hesitant, to move forward, to know how to move forward, to negotiate a new balance of American/Okinawan & traditional/modern identity. And which is controlled, influenced, by the great discursive strength of the community, of their elders, who wield a monopoly on defining proper Okinawan identity and tradition, or at least claim to. Meanwhile, the middle sister, Mitsuko, has moved forward, creating a new version of Okinawan-American identity, still observing various observances, but performing Okinawan identity mainly through social/community events, such as the Okinawa Festival, something that rings of the same kind of energy as Little League soccer practice.
The family has a set of kimono, which crossed the ocean three times, and which serve as a powerful keepsake or heirloom, a symbol of the family’s history. That the eldest sister wishes to keep them in the tansu (chest), “where they belong,” and just keep them there, regardless of whether anyone ever looks at them, let alone wears them, is a subtle, but excellent, symbol of her attitude towards tradition – to just keep it, preserved, static in a set form from a given not-so-distant time in the past. Mitsuko, the middle sister, comments that some families hang their kimono on the wall, on display, celebrating their history and heirlooms, and performing their traditions and identity in that way. When she declares that she has had them chopped up, to make new, modern garments that the family might actually wear, and framed sections which can be hung on the wall, I gasped. And it was in that moment that I realized the greatest strength of the play – it addresses all of these issues, but acknowledges the complexity, the difficulty, and does not shove any one answer down the throats of the audience. Whoever you are, whatever your views on this matter, you can identify with one of the three sisters. And, then, these moments, these questions come up that force you to think about the other side of the issue. Up until that moment where she talks about chopping up the kimono, I found myself mostly siding with Mitsuko against Yukiko’s stale lifestyle. You can practically smell the mothballs, imagine the dusty, stale air. Reminds me of my uncles’ apartment in Brooklyn, where nothing has changed in I don’t know how many decades. But then Mitsuko talks about chopping up the kimono, and I gasped. I have seen some of these garments – blouses, vests, neckties made in part from old kimono – and while it does provide an opportunity for me to get to wear such things and express my Japanese-affiliated interest/connection/identity in a more everyday setting (actually wearing kimono is such a rare occurrence), still, I find myself very much in support of the threatened, endangered, hopefully beginning to revive, kimono industry & kimono culture. I so wish more people in Japan would wear wafuku more often.
I wish we could have plays/productions that were set in historical periods, or which made more use of traditional Okinawan music, dance, and costume, or related otherwise to the history and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom at its height, rather than these endless performances of Okinawan identity as defined by contemporary/modern political or immigrant issues. How wonderful it would be to see an Okinawan play that features Confucian scholar-aristocrats, whether in Ryukyu, in Japan, or in China, or which tells the story of an episode in Okinawan history. The various events surrounding the fall of the kingdom, the arrival of King Shô Tai in Tokyo, and the Ryukyuan royal family taking on the costume and customs of the new “modern” Japanese aristocracy, could make for a great play, to name just one that wouldn’t require too extensively pre-modern sets, props, costumes, etc., and which might not necessarily get into the issue of the language spoken. I appreciate the difficulties of doing a properly traditional-style kumi udui in Hawaii (or anywhere else outside of Japan), but, if we can have Shakespearean-style performances set in any and every historical period, surely, how hard could it be to do something set in a pre-20th century Okinawa?
That said, tired as I am of these modern themes, “A Cage of Fireflies” addresses them well, provoking the audience to think and rethink their attitudes, and their relationship to tradition and identity. It may not draw you into its world the way the greatest theatre does – its world being the very one you’re already in, living in contemporary Hawaii – but it does go beyond its utterly mundane plotline to address much deeper issues and concepts, and to make the viewer think, and in that, it is truly a successful, powerful piece of theatre.
Thanks to Richie Y. at Karakui.net, I’ve been made aware of a series of new Okinawa Toyota commercials – yes, car commercials – featuring Okinawan historical figures including Shô Hashi, Amawari, Gosamaru, and Momoto Fumiagari. I don’t know what their intention, or message, is, what the purpose or meaning in using this characters is supposed to be, but it’s certainly amusing to see Gosamaru driving a car, and fun to see these historical figures appearing at all. Reminds me of the series of Tokyo Gas commercials featuring Nobunaga and other historical figures popping out of a wardrobe.
Without further comment, I present to you, three Okinawa Toyota X Great Figures of Ryukyu:
I have way too many tabs open once again, and I think it’s about damn time that I post about them, and thus get rid of them.
*Newly discovered papyrus fragment mentions Jesus’ wife – A professor at Harvard Divinity School has revealed a 4th century scrap of papyrus that had been brought to her attention which reads, in ancient Coptic, in part, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” Scholars seem convinced that it is not a forgery, though of course, who knows the context this comes from, or how apocryphal the text it comes from… Courtesy of io9 and the Gothamist and the Mary Sue.
*The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Library Architecture, a slightly old, but nevertheless valid, article describing in neat, clean bullet-points, a number of (well, seven) basic, but very serious, failings in how many public libraries are laid out. Much thanks to the indomitable Jasspears (and a professional librarian herself!) for sharing this with me. Personally, I would argue for the value of ornamentation and historical architectural styles and all of that, creating an enjoyable and/or inspirational atmosphere for the library or museum, surpassing practical concerns about maximum efficiency of space or whatever. But, most of the other points here are quite valid, quite interesting, and, I think, equally applicable to issues of museum architecture as well.
*There’s apparently an exhibition of Okinawan bingata robes up at the Osaka City Museum of Art, and the blog 遊行七恵の日々是遊行 has written a quite nice blog post about it (in Japanese). It’s wonderful to see a mainland Japanese museum, or, indeed, any museum outside Okinawa, featuring Okinawan art/culture in such a big way. And, if I were in the Kansai area, I absolutely would make sure to go see the exhibit, and would probably enjoy it very much. Still, while my interest in textiles has begun gradually to grow over the last year or so, still, I really am growing a bit tired of textiles, pottery, and lacquerware (and music & musical instruments) being so constantly shown and talked about as the shining examples of Okinawan art. I know that the division between art and craft, or “fine arts” and “decorative arts” is old hat, but, still, this whole thing only goes to reinforce age-old stereotypes of Okinawa as a folk art, hillbilly, backwater. Since ancient times, painting – not lacquer, not pottery, not textiles, but painting – has been regarded throughout East Asia as one of the finest of elite pursuits, along with calligraphy. And, surprise surprise, Okinawans produced plenty of paintings and calligraphy. Perhaps not too many survive, but, I really would love to see an exhibit highlighting these, and in doing so, highlighting Ryukyu’s *elite* artistic tradition, and not only its folk tradition. *Asterisk – bingata, though often discussed in the context of “folk arts” or something because they’re textiles, were actually historically, traditionally, exclusive to the royalty & aristocracy.
*On a related note, an article in the Japan Times about traditional Japanese stencil art. I clicked this article because I was recently thinking about stencil print artist Takahashi Hiromitsu. Turns out the article is about stencil-dyeing, known in Japanese as katazome (among other terms? I’m not sure?) and quite similar in technique and process and everything to that used to make Okinawan bingata.
*Resobox, a art gallery and event space in Long Island City (Queens, NYC) that I just recently heard about. Sadly, I never did get around to actually visiting, but it would seem that they very frequently have exhibits, events, workshops, lessons and the like related to Japanese and Okinawan arts. Next time I’m home in New York I’m going to have to check this out.
*There have been a lot of blog posts lately on, what should we call it, the fundamental flaws in the American university system, how we got here, where it’s going to lead us if we don’t fix it, etc. This is one of the better ones I’ve seen, though there certainly are plenty out there. Google something like “why not to get a PhD” or “scarcity of tenure positions,” and you’ll find plenty, I’m sure. It worries me, to be sure, as I am myself starting a PhD right now, but, I remain optimistic that things’ll work out for me in the end, whether as an academic, or otherwise, maybe in the museum world.
*EDIT: One more thing added since this post was originally put together. The latest installment of “I’m missing out because I’m not in New York” brings us the bizarrely controversial Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” installation in which the artist surrounds a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle with a living room so that visitors can experience the statue in a whole new way.
Maybe it’s just because I’m not Italian, but I’ve never really understood why Italian-Americans get so offended when anything happens to Columbus. I mean, it’s not as if Italians (and Italian-Americans) aren’t known, and beloved, for all sorts of other things. I mean, for god’s sake, you’ve got Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello, for starters (and I’m not talking about the turtles). Western civilization owes so much to the Italians it’s almost unfathomable. You really don’t need Columbus, specifically, to remain un-besmirched or whatever, in order to maintain your pride in being Italian. It’s okay. We still love you even if some people have begun to take issue with Columbus Day; and, it’s not even as if Nishi’s installation is anti-Columbus at all to begin with…
I had heard, a few years ago, that way out in New Jersey, there is a legendary Japanese superstore called Mitsuwa Market. I finally went out there, checked it out, for the first time yesterday, largely on account of the fact that they were having a Kyushu-Okinawa Fair; this is a relatively standard thing to see at the large food markets at department stores in Japan, and elsewhere. They call it a “fair,” but really all this means is a few extra booths/stands offering, for a limited time, a variety of regional/local specialties. I’ve seen a Hokkaido Fair at a major shopping center in Naha, Okinawa, and constantly rotating regional fairs just outside Yokohama Station, for example, as well as these same types of events at Shirokiya in Honolulu, and in a Kyushu/Okinawa Month at the cafeteria at Dôshisha University in Kyoto.
Having been to all these events, I guess I should have known better than to expect any huge production. There were no performances, and very few non-food offerings, such as sanshin (musical instruments), music CDs, textiles/garments, or books about the region. But, that’s okay. I don’t mean to be too negative – it was actually really cool to discover such a place so relatively close
to home. Granted, it did take more than 2 1/2 hours to get there, but on a day when traffic wasn’t so terrible, I can imagine it going a lot quicker and more smoothly. Besides, there’s a free shuttle to and from Midtown Manhattan, too. And, once we got there, it really felt, in some ways at least, like being back in Japan, which is a wonderful feeling. I’m not sure what other shops there are in the same complex, the same parking lot, as Mitsuwa, but inside, it’s not just a nice big supermarket; there is a food court with at least five or six places, including ramen, donburi, soba, and a couple other options, plus a bakery, and a few other shops, such as a cellphone booth (I wonder if one can get a phone that works in Japan there, thus circumventing the in-country Japanese policies of only giving cellphones to those with alien resident cards, and not those with a shorter-term visa). The only thing that could have made it feel more like really being back in Japan would be if more of the staff were (or acted like) native Japanese. A little more of the Japanese style of immaculate customer service, and a little less of the American “hey, how’s it going” casual attitude. Which is not to say that the customer service was bad in any way – not at all – but just that in terms of cultural flavor, it was markedly different, shattering the illusion of being in a wholly Japanese space. Or maybe it’s inappropriately Orientalist of me to even talk on this point at all.
In any case, I introduced my best friend to andagi (Okinawan donuts) and a few other such things, enjoyed some special “Tatsunoya” type of Kyushu ramen the noodles in which were a new type, a new texture for me, and some other nice foods, including beni-imo (Okinawan purple sweet potato) soft serve ice cream. It certainly could have afforded to be a bit more extensive, with more different goods on offer, but, with Okinawan food & culture being one of the more difficult things to find here in New York (as compared to how ubiquitous Okinawan culture is in Hawaii), it was great to get to introduce a dear friend to a little of what I’ve been engaging with and enjoying in Hawaii.
The supermarket itself was pretty keen. I’d love to have something this large and extensive more conveniently located, closer to the City. I wonder if it’s out there in Jersey simply because that’s where it’s easier & cheaper to find the space, or because of the large Japanese community out there (for some reason) in Edgewater, NJ. Or, if the Japanese community is gathered out there because Mitsuwa is there…
A couple weeks ago, I dropped by the Nippon Club, here in New York, to check out their Okinawan Art exhibit. I’m afraid it closes today, so, I apologize for the delay in posting this post.
It is really fantastic to see Nippon Club host an exhibit of Okinawan Art. Okinawa tends, all too often, to get rather sidelined. Whether because it is different, and Japanese tend to focus on representing [mainland/mainstream] “Japan,” feeling it’s okay (or even expected) to leave Okinawan matters to the Okinawan clubs, or whether it’s the simple logistical matter that Okinawa is only one (or several) of so many topics or regions or aspects of Japan, and so logistically Okinawa can only come around again so often. After all, it’s not that frequently that we have exhibits specifically about Gifu, or specifically about fan-making, either.
The Nippon Club exhibit was curated by Onaga Naoki, former assistant director of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and curator of several of the museum’s most impressive and groundbreaking exhibits. So, we know that he is an expert on the subject, and someone extremely well-informed as to the range and depth and breadth of contemporary Okinawan art. That his selection of objects is deliberately and carefully chosen from the full range of contemporary Okinawan art; that this is neither arbitrary, nor the product of a curator with only a narrower, or even misguided, awareness of the field.
So, why is it that we only see certain types of styles, approaches, and themes here, and not other ones? I find it very interesting to see how the Okinawan artists included here represent themselves, and Okinawan identity. Is this a reflection of Onaga’s personal preferences and biases? Or is it a relatively accurate representation of what the majority of Okinawan artists are doing?
Either way, I think it a terrible shame that Okinawa’s vibrant, colorful, upbeat, culture, a culture with such strong connections to history and traditions, should be represented almost exclusively by such extremely modern(ist) works. In a brief news article talking about the exhibit, Onaga says “this is the first real introduction of Okinawan art to be carried out in the United States.” I’m not sure that that’s true, but if it is, it introduces Americans to a decidedly different Okinawa than the one I study, the one I love. He speaks of the exhibit “help[ing] Americans and people of Japanese descent to gain a better understanding of the history and culture of Okinawa,” and Nippon Club’s director says that “While Okinawa has an image in the United States as an island full of military bases, we hope to get people to understand aspects of its culture.” Yet, the complete absence of anything in the exhibit related to the glorious history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, traditional folk songs, architecture, painting, or clothing, and only very little relating to ceramics or textile traditions is quite revealing as to what these people believe Okinawan culture and identity to be; or, what they desire the American audiences to believe it to be.
This is not the first time that I have seen an exhibit of Okinawan art (or just read the catalog) where the art is extremely modern(ist) and global in its aesthetic, approach, and content. There are hints of a Japanese quality to the art, in so far as that they are not so different from what a lot of (mainland) Japanese modern(ist) artists of the last 50 years have done; also, in that the exhibit includes ceramics and textiles, a nod, perhaps, to Japanese craft traditions. But, the only hints of Okinawan history or culture in these works is in how they relate to World War II, to the current US military presence in Okinawa, and other aspects of 20th century history and contemporary concerns.
If it were up to me, I’d put together an exhibit of works that in some way reference or recall pre-modern or traditional Okinawa. Works that borrow and reference the past in a more colorful, playful, post-modernist kind of way, and that focus on a colorful, beautiful, Okinawa with strong connections to traditional identity (esp. music & dance), rather than on the dreary, grey, and decidedly modern(ist) Okinawa seen in these works. I’m looking for the (Neo-)Nihonga artists of Okinawa. The Clifton Karhus, Yamamoto Tarôs, and Yamaguchi Akiras of Okinawa. People whose works are centered on, inspired by, reflect or recall sanshin music, bigata robes, the glories of the Ryukyu Kingdom, continuing and reviving traditions for the modern age, just as the Nihonga artists of the early 20th century did for mainland Japanese painting, and just as Neo-Nihonga artists today do, re-injecting elements of traditional Japan into a Japanese identity which threatens to become too (post-)modern, too globalized. That is, if such artists even exist in Okinawa. Or would that be a disservice? Would that be misrepresenting Okinawan attitudes and aesthetics, to show only the pieces I like?
For as much as the Okinawan community in Hawaii identifies itself strongly with suffering and victimhood at the hands of the Japanese, they also express and celebrate their Okinawan identity through traditional garments, crafts, foods, language, history, traditional observances/celebrations, and most especially through music and dance. I would love to see Okinawan art connected to the Okinawan Renaissance of the 1970s through today; art connected not to Japan’s outdated but continuing struggle to be “modern”, nor to the same-old contemporary issues of suffering and victimhood, but rather to Okinawan identity as identified through a connection to history, tradition, and artistic and musical traditions. Do these exist? Does the Nippon Club exhibit reflect that they do not? Or does it reflect some agenda, or biased attitude on the part of Mr. Onaga? I think Onaga’s last comment in the above-linked article is quite revealing that it is, in fact, the latter. “I hope to show that there is a world-class art in Okinawa,” he says, code for “I want to show that Okinawa is as modern(ist) as anywhere else,” an attitude strongly espoused in Japan throughout the 20th century, perhaps most strongly in the 1960s-70s, while the rest of the world has, meanwhile, in the 1990s-2010s, moved on. Mr. Onaga is clearly caught still in the discourses of modernism, which rejects the traditional, and the culturally distinct, in favor of the cutting-edge, the avant-garde, the abstract and experimental; meanwhile, the rest of us have moved on to post-modernism, which embraces individual cultural identities, and borrows extensively from our traditions in order to craft a more colorful, more beautiful, and less sterilized sense of our own identity – in order to revive our diverse identities, rather than losing them to a sort of a-cultural pan-global modernity/modernism.
Image Above: Chinese investiture envoys (冊封使) arrive in Ryûkyû. Detail from a scroll painting by Yamaguchi Suiô. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library.
I don’t know how new a development this is – there have probably been people here and there saying things all along – but in recent days it has become a lot more prominent in English-language news that some Chinese nationalists1 have been calling for Okinawan independence from Japan. Some have gone further, saying Okinawa should be “returned” to China, a truly absurd concept, but I’ll get to that. Of course, much of this comes out of pro-PRC nationalist fervor, anti-Japanese sentiment, and a desire to further the PRC’s national interests. There may be Chinese citizens with a genuine sympathy for the Okinawan people, and an interest in seeing Okinawan independence for the benefit of the Okinawan people, but I don’t think those are the Chinese we’re talking about here.
Chinese/Japanese sovereignty disputes over the Senkaku Islands (C: Diaoyu Islands) have heated up a bit recently, and it would seem that these ideas about Okinawa have come along with it. Many Chinese, it would seem, figure, as long as they’re pushing for Chinese claims to these tiny, insignificant islands that happen to be surrounded by great fishing waters and underwater natural gas deposits, they might as well push further, to argue Chinese claims for the whole Ryukyu Islands chain as well.
I should point out that, in the words of the Financial Times of London, “the Chinese government has offered no [formal/official] endorsement of such radical views.” This is all just individual nationalists expressing their own personal views, not, as yet, anything representing the official position or attitude of the Chinese government (except, of course, insofar as that the government determines the curriculum, and through that citizens learn a twisted version of history, and then speak or act upon the attitudes and understandings obtained through that education). Yet, these do include military officers and government officials, not just random people on the streets.
A week ago, RocketNews24, a sort of aggregator site of Japanese news translated into English, reported on comments made by one particular Chinese officer, a Major General Jin Yinan. Jin speaks of “China’s rightful ownership of all Okinawa too.” What exactly his logic is, is left unclear, but one can easily imagine that he is not alone in holding these opinions. He is not quoted in this article as going so far as to say anything about former Chinese direct control over the Ryûkyû Islands (which China, in fact, never exercised or claimed to), nor even explicitly saying anything about the tributary relationship between the Ryûkyû Kingdom and Imperial China. However, he notes that when Japan formally annexed Okinawa and abolished the Kingdom in 1879, “they threw out all links to China like the Qing Dynasty [dating system] and the Chinese writing style.” These two points are true, as this event severed Okinawa’s tributary relations to Qing China, and with no Ryukyuan king any longer, ended the tradition of the Ryukyuan King being formally invested by the Chinese Emperor. All of Japan, including Okinawa, was now under the Western calendar (albeit with Japanese imperial year).2 With the kingdom abolished, the bureaucracy of the royal government went with it, along with the scholar-aristocrat-bureaucrat class, steeped in the Confucian Classics and models of Chinese government, which ran it. It makes sense that writing in Chinese would have severely declined in Okinawa at this time, though I don’t recall reading anything explicitly discussing the matter; as the scholar-aristocrat class was abolished, they all became equal “citizens” with all the former peasants/commoners, and as the nationwide Japanese national education system was put into place in Okinawa, everyone would have begun writing more exclusively in Japanese.
But, getting to the point, the idea of Chinese historical claims to Ryûkyû is essentially absurd. China never landed troops in the Ryûkyûs, never deployed Chinese bureaucrats/administrators to administer the islands as a colony or a province, but only received tribute from a kingdom that paid ritual obeisance to the symbolic authority of the Chinese Emperor. Even in the 1870s-80s, the pro-China faction in Okinawa was never arguing that the Kingdom “belonged” in any way to China, or that they wanted to be annexed by China, but only that they wished to be allowed to continue their traditional tributary relationship. I’m not positive exactly what kind of rhetoric was used at the time by the Chinese, though, who might in fact have claimed back then as well that the Ryukyus “belonged” to China.
Not that I am saying that the samurai domain of Satsuma in 1609, or the Empire of Japan in 1879, were morally or ethically in the right to do what they did, in 1609 militarily invading Ryûkyû and subordinating it to Satsuma’s authority (controlling the kingdom’s foreign relations, demanding taxes, etc.), and then in the 1870s abolishing the kingdom, annexing its lands, sending mainland Japanese administrators to govern the islands, and imposing various sorts of assimilation policies aimed at wiping out Ryukyuan identity, transforming the Ryukyuan people into homogeneous Japanese citizens. If we want to talk about formerly independent kingdoms that have been conquered, Japan has no more “right” to the Ryukyus than England has to Wales and Scotland, except by law of conquest. The Okinawans have been wronged by Japan, most certainly, historically, and if anyone were arguing for Okinawan independence on the merits of that Okinawa used to be independent, and should be again, for the rights and benefits of the Okinawan people, that would be one thing.
But, here we are talking about arguments made for Chinese national interests, and I don’t think that the interests of the Okinawan people really enter into it, in the arguments of these Chinese nationalists. The Financial Times of London reports on and discusses a more widespread, and varied, set of arguments, in an article entitled “Chinese Nationalists Eye Okinawa,” focusing not only on Major General Jin. (My thanks to Tobias Harris for pointing out this article to me.)
They quote one Japan specialist from a Ministry of Commerce think tank, a Mr. Tang, who says, “When I was in Japan, I didn’t even know that the Ryukyus were once ours.” This goes back to what I was saying above, about how China never actually owned or controlled or even claimed to administer or govern the Ryukyu Islands. It was merely a tributary relationship. Fortunately, the Financial Times is on top of things, and makes the counterpoint that needs to be made:
“Once you start arguing that a tributary relationship at some point in history is the basis for a sovereignty claim in the 20th century, you start worrying a lot of people,” says June Teufel Dreyer, a China and Japan specialist at the University of Miami. “Many, many countries had tributary relationships with China.”
Of course, in light of Chinese control of Tibet, Uyghur lands, and numerous other lands that historically belonged to other peoples, Chinese arguments that Japan has no “right” to Okinawa and should return it seem especially hypocritical. If Okinawa deserves independence based on the fact that it was independent prior to 1879, then what about Tibet, which was independent up until 1959?
(1) Not “Nationalists” as in the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), who opposed the Communists in the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s-40s, and who fled to Taiwan in 1949, but ‘patriotic’ Communists expressing ‘nationalistic’ sentiments.
(2) Japan adopted the Western calendar in 1873. Gone were the days of “the 3rd lunar month, 13th day, day of the ox, hour of the rat [３月１３日丑・子の刻].” Now, when it was Tuesday January 15th, 1879 in London, or in New York, it was “the 12th year of Meiji, first month, 15th day, Tuesday [明治１２年正月１５日火曜日]” (Or 16th day, what with time zones and all that).
I will be beginning a PhD program in the Fall, studying under Prof. Luke Roberts, whose newest book, Performing the Great Peace, just came out a few months ago, and is now sitting on my shelf. I hope to be reading it before the summer is out. I had only a very vague sense of what it was about earlier – something about Edo period politics, and the relationship between shogunate and daimyo – and while I knew that basically anything I were to read would likely be useful information, expanding my understanding of the period, I was crossing my fingers that it would be interesting and exciting, and relevant to my own research.
There is always a danger when writing this kind of “first impressions” post, that the book may still yet turn out to be quite different from what I expect, but, having now read the first few pages, and a Japan Times review of the book, I think it’s safe to say that I do have a better sense of what it’s about. And, I am happy to say that I am actually quite excited to read this, and think it will have great relevance to my research, and to my understanding of Edo period politics in general.
In summary, Performing the Great Peace analyzes the ways in which the Edo period political system allowed, and indeed expected, daimyo to “perform,” on the surface, all due obedience to the shogun(ate) and his/its laws, while at the same time, beneath the surface, doing things very differently. It is about “open secrets” – doing one thing, and pretending to be doing another. As the Japan Times review cogently explains,
Two key terms that must be mastered for a proper grasp of Tokugawa rule are omote and uchi — roughly “outside” and “inside,” “surface” and “beneath the surface.” Omote was the ritual subservience a subordinate samurai owed a superior. Uchi was the willingness of a superior to allow subordinates to do pretty much as they pleased within their own jurisdictions — on one condition: that no semblance of disrespect or disorder breach the surface.
This seems like it could be extremely enlightening, a new seminal book for everyone’s understanding of how politics functioned in the Edo period. And, it could provide some interesting insights into the logic of Japanese administration and governance today. As events developed at Fukushima on & after 3/11, and as details have emerged in the fifteen months since, we have seen how the government, TEPCO, and other institutions tried to make sure that “no disorder breach the surface,” “performing” the proper obedience to order, to protocols and policies, while in fact, under the surface, in certain respects, chaos reigned. In applying the topic to contemporary behavior, we come dangerously close to getting involved with the discourse on Nihonjinron, something that I would prefer to not touch with a ten-foot pole. I would not be surprised if Dr. Roberts feels much the same way, and if he were to hesitate to say anything much about the relevance to today’s situations. Yet, perhaps there is something of value here for students and scholars of contemporary Japanese politics and sociology.
The topic of “open secrets” is an extremely relevant one for understanding the Ryukyu Kingdom’s relationships with Satsuma, with the shogunate, and with China, in the Edo period. It is something I have long known is important, but never really understood, or investigated, sufficiently, and something on which I therefore stumbled in my recently completed MA thesis on depictions of Ryukyu and its people in Japanese visual culture of the Edo period.
The Ryukyu Kingdom, then semi-independent, ruled over the territory that today constitutes the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The kingdom enjoyed a great degree of independence in its domestic affairs, but had been invaded in 1609 by forces from the Japanese domain (han) of Satsuma, and was throughout the remainder of the Edo period subject to Satsuma’s control in certain respects. I am still working out what are precisely the right terms to use when discussing this. Should we say “subject to” and “Satsuma’s control”? Should we say it was “subordinate” or a “vassal state”? In any case, Satsuma dictated Ryukyu’s foreign relations, and exacted tribute, or taxes, from Ryukyu. Ryukyu also sent occasional “tribute” missions to the shogunate, processing through the streets of Edo in colorful parades.
Getting to the point, I think that in these parades, and in many other facets of Ryukyu’s interactions & activities in this period, there was a great degree of precisely the kind of “performing” that Roberts talks about. Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma was one of these “open secrets”, and a big one. At this time, China refused to engage in any formal diplomatic or trade relations with Japan, because the shogunate refused to pay tribute or formally acknowledge the Chinese Emperor as suzerain over Japan. Thus, in theory, China should have cut off relations with Ryukyu, if Ryukyu were controlled by (or part of) Japan. Instead, it was somehow in Beijing’s interests to look the other way and pretend that it didn’t know about Satsuma’s control of Ryukyu. And so, it played out like this: Ryukyu played the part of being a wholly independent & loyal tributary to China, performing all the proper ritual obeisances, and making efforts to hide Japanese influence in the islands, while continuing “under the surface” to pay taxes/tribute to Satsuma, to send missions to Edo, and to otherwise serve as a vassal, or subordinate, or whatever we wish to call it, under Satsuma (and by extension, the shogunate). At the same time, despite the Japanese influence in Ryukyu (the extent of which is still debated by scholars), Ryukyuans traveling to & in Edo on these missions were encouraged to play up their foreignness, and to hide their knowledge or understanding of things Japanese. What the commoners thought about Ryukyu remains largely unclear, but I think it not unreasonable to think that many shogunate officials would have been well aware of the Japanese cultural influence upon Ryukyu, yet all played the game of pretending that Ryukyu was more fully foreign and exotic in its ways – in short, the fact that the Ryukyuan ambassadors (to some extent) spoke Japanese, observed (to whatever extent) Japanese customs, and were aware (to some extent) of Japanese culture, was another one of these “open secrets.” Everyone knew, but everyone pretended not to know, for the benefit of “performing” the proper relationships. Finally, there is the matter of the actual economic & political relationships between Ryukyu and Satsuma & the shogunate. I know very little, actually, as to the fine details of this relationship, but it has been made clearer to me that in Ryukyu’s relationships to each Satsuma, and the shogunate, the “performing” of proper rituals of obeisance was paramount. The tribute missions to Edo were not diplomatic missions in which any serious policy discussions took place – it was all about ritual performance of subordination.
It is my hope, and my expectation, that Luke Roberts’ new book, Performing the Great Peace, will help illuminate these interactions, as they took place between the daimyo and the shogunate, and that it will help me to better understand, and articulate, how “open secrets” and omote/uchi functioned in Ryukyu’s relationships in the early modern period. Once I have finished the book (hopefully by the end of the summer), I shall post a more proper book review.
I journeyed into the city yesterday to check out the Japan Block Fair for the first time, and after that, took some time to check in on a few of these Japan-related places, both old and new.
I’d been to Japan Day at Central Park once, but never to Japan Block Fair. The latter feels like a much smaller event, but only because it’s packed into a much smaller space. Yesterday’s block fair squeezed twenty or so booths into the space of one city block – between 39th and 40th streets, on just one side of Park Avenue. A couple hundred people were in attendance, recreating the feel of the crush of maneuvering your way through Shibuya, or along Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Booths included a few selling tenugui, second-hand kimono, and the like, as well as a travel agency handing out flyers, one booth selling delicious iced green tea, a rummage sale booth, and numerous stands selling takoyaki, yakisoba and the like. I had hoped to find new zori (sandals), but no such luck. Many of the booths were collecting donations for tsunami relief. A few booths represented specific regions – the Aomori kenjinkai had a booth, and were selling food, though to my disappointment weren’t really advertising Aomori with pictures or books, videos of tsugaru shamisen performances, or any kind of flyers (but that’s okay); Shikoku was well-represented, with a Sanuki Udon booth selling freshly handmade noodles, and a “Home Island Project” booth from Tokushima.
The Home Island Project describes itself as “aim[ing] at raising awareness about our “Home Island” SHIKOKU and turning the island into [a] magnet for people around the world.” Their banners and outfits were impressively designed and cohesive, with a clean, sleek design in a beautiful shade of blue; members associated with the project performed Awa Odori, a festival dance for which Tokushima prefecture is particularly famous. I’ve never yet myself been to Shikoku, but I really would love to go. Lots to see and do, from the many still-intact original Edo-period castles, to Dôgo Onsen (inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away), to seeing kabuki at the Kanamaru-za, the oldest still-operating kabuki theater in the country, to the contemporary art goings-on on Inland Sea islands Shôdoshima and Naoshima.
The Fair also included the NY Street Ramen Contest, in which eight or so restaurants and other organizations prepared different types of ramen dishes, and guests taste-tested and judged their favorites. For most of the day the line was way too long for me to even think about getting involved, but just at the very end, suddenly there was no line at all, so I squeezed in and tried a few of the ramen dishes. The cold (hiyashi ramen) dish with shaved ice and sesame dressing from Hôryû Ramen was quite good, as was the tonkotsu shio ramen from Nobu Chan, but of the three I tried, my favorite was Ramen Misoya’s Hokkaido-style miso ramen with corn and a french fry.
The main attraction for me – the main reason I made sure not to miss the Fair – was that a group called Ryû-kaji was performing. My father always says you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough (or wait and happen to come across it), and once again, I guess he was proven right, because while I was beginning to get kind of skeptical that I’d ever find an Okinawan sanshin group, or teacher, here in NY, yesterday I came across Ryûkaji, and their sensei Taguchi Saki. The group played a bunch of Okinawan songs, some more traditional, some folk songs (e.g. Asadoya Yunta), and some more modern pop songs (e.g. Ojii jiman no Orion Beer). They looked great in black (for the girls) and purple kasuri kimono (for the guys), with sensei in full-on yellow and red bingata, her hair up in a bun Okinawan style. Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the students, and to sensei, about the possibility of taking lessons, and I am looking forward to doing so. One-on-one lessons will hopefully get me seeing some improvement, even though it’s only for a few months, before I leave New York for new adventures.
All in all, the Block Fair was great. I thought it a little funny that I didn’t see any people, or organizations or groups that I was familiar with, and it remains a mystery to me as to who exactly is behind this, since it’s not Japan Society or Asia Society or any organization with a recognizable name. But, then, I guess that’s a function of it being New York. The vastness of the city and its communities, the incredible number of Japanese restaurants and organizations, bringing a degree of impersonality. I think that, with time, I could get to know some of the movers and shakers, get to know the people behind some of the restaurants, but I think it would take a lot longer than it did in Hawaii, where the community is much smaller, and many of the same people are involved (or at least attending) in the many different events.
I left the Block Fair eventually, and made my way to Kinokuniya, just because it was nearby. Nothing’s changed over there – still an amazing selection, still all of it quite overpriced. It’s a shame we can’t magically meld Kinokuniya’s (brand-new, imported) selection with BookOff’s far more reasonable (second-hand) prices. Seventy bucks for a kabuki DVD!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d be better off if you didn’t carry it at all – as is, you’re just taunting me.
The final stop for the day was to check out the new Uniqlo flagship store, on Fifth Ave at 53rd St. The largest retail store on Fifth Ave at 89,000 square feet, the store is really something. And, despite my best intentions not to buy anything, I couldn’t resist the half-off T-shirt sale, and ended up with a few from their large selection of One Piece designs. The t-shirts on offer also included a bunch of Japanese corporate logo designs, from Marukame udon to Vermont Curry to Kewpie mayonnaise, as well as Gundam, Evangelion, Mickey Mouse, and Coca-Cola designs. A recent blog post or article I saw talked about how Uniqlo has become sort of anti-fashionable in Japan lately, stigmatized I guess chiefly because it’s so cheap, and because no matter how good you may look, what’s really important (apparently) is that you spent a lot of money on it. Conspicuous consumption. I guess. But, whether New York is just behind the curve (which I’m sure it is, along with myself), or whether the Japanese are just being over-commercialist and crazy, Uniqlo’s offerings are actually pretty nice. A lot of the stuff is just super basic, and I’ve complained before (although perhaps not on this blog; I don’t remember) that I go to a Japanese store for Japanese fashion, not for plain ordinary shirts and jeans like I can get at any American store (e.g. Gap, Old Navy).
But Uniqlo keeps up with fashion, and while they may not have anything too radical, they do have slim fit shirts and slacks, three-quarter length pants (read: capris) for guys, and the like, as well as their own branded and supposedly revolutionary AIRism and Heattech materials, meant to be super thin and light, while keeping you plenty cool or warm (respectively). Now if they took that one further step, and started carrying (a) the same things that they offer in their Japan stores, and (b) a few more things with slightly Asian-fashion touches, like the high collars we see on hoodies and jackets on Asian fashion sites like YesStyle.com, and presumably (I haven’t been there in a while) on the streets of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Also – neckties, bowties, suspenders, and cooler belts. The mannequins looked very cool in slim neckties and bowties, or in neon-colored suspenders, but there were absolutely zero of these goods for sale; the belts were all brown leather, pretty standard and boring. Uniqlo has definitely kicked it up a notch, making things we want – like cardigans, slim pants, and t-shirts with Japanese designs – affordable and available all in one place. They just need to tweak that dial a tiny bit further, and then it could become my absolute #1 go-to store…
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-relatedT-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.