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I was originally going to write this as a comment on my last post; keep the “coronavirus diary” all in one place. But, as it’s gotten so much longer, I figured what the hell, might as well post it as a real post. We’ll see how many more of these I do. Whether I’m moved to do so. And to what extent I may get around to publishing posts in the coming days and weeks on entirely unrelated topics as well. We’ll see.

My workspace, now with newly-arrived comfy chair. All furniture from Nitori. A bit expensive, but saved me the bother of looking around from shop to shop to shop when I’m supposed to be self-isolating. I thought I’d saved myself the bother of having to assemble it all myself, too, but alas, no, I was mistaken.

3/27
It is now only a very few days later, and things have indeed begun to shift here in Tokyo.

The national government and the Int’l Olympic Committee have agreed to postpone the Olympics until 2021.

Whether by coincidence or by what factors exactly I won’t venture to say, but almost immediately afterwards, or in tandem with that solidifying, Gov. Koike Yuriko held a press conference – which I didn’t watch, but the gist I understand from what I’ve seen afterwards is that it’s about time to really start taking this seriously. Even with minimal testing, the numbers are rising, quickly, doubling every few days, just as in Italy, New York, other places among the hardest hit. And so, Koike suggested that this weekend (it’s Friday night now; I think she said this on Tues or Weds) people should stay home. It’s a small measure compared to what many major cities are doing in many parts elsewhere in the world, but it’s something. I don’t know whether there are plans to ask the Tokyo Metro, JR, etc. to reduce service, but a number of major stores, beginning with the big main 109 in Shibuya, have now voluntarily declared they’ll close for the weekend.

Almost immediately after the press conference, from what I hear, people started going to the supermarkets. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I left the house twice in one day, but I went to my local Maruetsu (full-size supermarket; not a Maruetsu Petit) in the early afternoon, and while the shelves were still largely fully stocked, the lines to check out went almost to the very back of the store – multiple lines, one for each register, each of them stretching almost all the way to the back of the store. But, still – I didn’t spy what other people were buying, but most seemed to be carrying just one shopping basket; not hoarding. And when I went back later in the day, many sections of shelves were empty, but even then, everything looked quite orderly. Not like I’d expect an American store to look, stereotypically speaking, like in a movie, where people are actively fighting over individual items, and the store overall has items strewn all over the ground, like the aftermath of some big panic. There was no visible, active panic here, just a busy shopping day.

But all of that we could hypothetically check, in future, by looking back at the newspapers or at Twitter archives overall. How am I doing?

Well, I guess I vacillate between being terribly worried and scared, at times, and being relaxed and comfortable and productive. I have been taking too many breaks, and spending too much time in bed; I haven’t been quite as productive as I might dream of. And I guess I have been finding myself at times glued to the phone, scrolling through FB or Twitter for tens upon tens of minutes… I’m worried about my family, and about my friends. With the US as a whole and NY in particular in only the early stages still of it getting much worse before it gets better, I’m scared and worried. We’ve seen people in Italy talk about moving from knowing people who lost their jobs to knowing people who lost their loved ones, or their own lives. As I said in the initial post, I know so many people all around the world; sheer statistics, sheer percentages, suggests that I’m going to lose friends before this is all over. I’ve lost enough people in my life already to have a hole in my gut, a space of just sucking void in my heart, when I think about them. I saw a thing online recently that I thought described my personal experience of this perfectly. Grief and loss are like a ball in a box. (https://twitter.com/LaurenHerschel/status/946887540732149760). It’s been very nearly 14 years since I lost my mother. I can’t believe it’s been that long. And something like 3 1/2 years since I lost my friend Bryan. I don’t feel that pain every day; I don’t think about them every day. The ball is small, and when it rolls around, or whatever the metaphor is, it doesn’t touch the walls all that often because it’s not so small. But, like the tweezers in the kids’ board game Operation, when it does touch the wall, when I do actively think about losing these people in my life, the pain, the sadness, is still there. It still feels like a cold, dark, black space – an absence in my life, an absence in the universe, where there used to be a person who was such a source of light and happiness and good in the world. I know so many young people who have so much potential; who still have so much to live for; people who bring such love and goodness and happiness to their friends, family, students, and to the broader world they live in. And I know many who are not quite so young, but who nevertheless still have so many potential years left – no reason to call them done yet – and who just the same bring so much light and love, so much good, into the world. I couldn’t bear to think of losing *any* of my friends, least of all my father. And so when I think about him, when I talk to him, I find I get emotional.

When I talk to anyone, these days, in fact, I feel a surge of love, stronger than I have usually. Of course I care about my friends; they wouldn’t be my friends if I didn’t care about them. But if there’s one thing that this whole situation has brought about – I don’t know whether to call it ironic, or perverse, or just normal – it’s that even as we isolate ourselves each in our separate places, scattered all around the world, despite being so isolated, or precisely because we are so isolated, I feel a stronger drive to connect with people. And I feel more emotional towards each and every one of them. I still haven’t figured out for myself the best phrase to say to people to express my caring; or the right emoji. I’ve been writing “take care. stay safe.” and things like that in many emails and texts. But it’s more like, I care about you, and I hope the best for you. All we can do is hope, and so even just saying “I hope” means acknowledging the possibility of things not going that way. I think all of this makes me feel so much more appreciative for each and every one of my friends, and to think of them, and to think, more actively than I imagine most of us ever do in the course of our busy workaday lives, just how precious each of our friends are. What incredible wonderful people they are. The things about them that make us love them. I love all of you, and I want the best for all of you. For all of us. Today, the bar is low. I hesitate to even say it out in words. But I hope you live. I hope you survive. Because you are so special, so precious. You are such a wonderful, incredible person. There are so many of us who could not bear to lose you; but more importantly, you don’t deserve that – you don’t deserve to have your life cut short. You deserve to live, to keep living and hoping and pursuing and creating. You deserve to keep achieving and accomplishing, to keep loving and being loved. I miss you all, and I hope we might Skype or Zoom or just talk sometime soon.

Small things. Supporting small businesses amidst this crisis. Ordered some cups from Yacchi + Moon, one of my favorite cute little shops along Okinawa’s “Pottery Street,” Yachimun-dôri. The “matcha chocolate” cup on the right is one of them. The one on the left is not.

But, as I said in my previous post, I have these thoughts, these feelings. These moments of feeling great love, and of feeling great sadness and pain, fear and worry. New York has… I don’t know the numbers… 1400 ventilators, is that right? And they anticipate they need 30,000? An exceptionally different number. And like Gov. Cuomo said, if we had a normal administration in the White House, everything would have already been mobilized, in an organized and professional way, with all due urgency, to provide New York with what it needs, so that as soon as New York is under control and is on the opposite side of that peak (i.e. when NY is starting to see a serious decline in cases), then New York can mobilize to send resources elsewhere, to help, to work together to deploy and redeploy resources all across the country in a systematic, intelligent, way.

But I don’t want to get into the politics. There are one or two people I’ve been communicating with regularly who just reiterate these same points – points of disbelief, of outrage. I guess maybe they need someone to vent to. Doesn’t accomplish much for me except to raise my stress levels and take up my time, to be blunt. If you’re telling me something I don’t know, that’s good – it’s good to be informed. But as for the rest; yes, we know that Trump and friends are the absolute worst. Yes, we know that tons of people here in Tokyo and elsewhere are (for now at least) being what we think is terribly irresponsible, and reckless, still being out and about when we all should have been exercising self-isolation more strictly for weeks already. What’s to be gained from reetreading that again and again?

But, as I said in my previous post, while I have my moments of stress, of sadness, of various other emotions, I am also finding this time relaxing and somewhat productive. Some have started to post “hey! this is not a writing retreat!” and other things about how (1) it’s okay to be stressed, to be discombobulated, to not be able to be productive during this time, whether because of personal mental/emotional stress, family obligations, and/or just general removal from any semblance of orderliness or stability that would allow you to make better use of the time, (2) we should keep in mind that many people are now home with children, or with parents or grandparents, and just simply do not have the kind of alone time that the rest of us are suddenly experiencing (and/or “enjoying”), (3) that there’s really something wrong with academia, and with all of us, to have this sort of work-oriented, productivity-oriented mindset, that even amidst a pandemic (!?!) we should be thinking about “doing work,” or moving forward on book reviews or journal articles or whatever such things that feel so petty all of a sudden.

Fair enough. And I absolutely won’t fault anyone for being in any of those situations. If you’re too stressed, or if you have hands-on obligations b/c of family or whatever it may be, or if for whatever other reasons this is not a time during which you can be productive, I don’t blame you. You do what you have to, and let’s hope we can convince our universities, and workplaces otherwise, to understand that. To recognize the exceptional circumstances, and to grant extensions and exemptions. A number of universities are indeed extending people’s tenure clocks; for grad students the situation seems more unlikely, more hesitant, but I sincerely hope that schools will start to step up to support their grad students – offering extensions on “norm time” and things like that, if not outright offering extensions of fellowship support.

But for me, I happen to be fortunate to be in a place, a situation, where I *can* actually take the time to be productive. Whether productive means progress on my “actual” academic work, or whether it means reading books I might not have otherwise, writing blog posts, or whatever it may be, I’m making the most of the time we have here, before I have to start going to the office again. And I’m enjoying it. I’m happy that I’m getting to be productive. Perhaps more to the point, feeling productive is one of the key ways I fight my stress and depression – I enjoy feeling like I’m moving forward.

Anyway. That’s where we’re at right now. We’ll see how things develop. Stay safe, everyone.


I’d been thinking I wouldn’t post anything about the coronavirus epidemic, since I’m no expert at all, and since, well, I just have other things to do. But I suppose it would be good to record for posterity, so to speak, how I was feeling, how things were going, at this particular time. I do often go back through old posts myself, to remind myself when something happened, or how I was thinking about it at a certain time. Plus, I felt I should post something about it before I start posting more posts about various other topics – I’m thinking that this self-isolation provides a good opportunity to go revisit old drafts from months or even years ago that never got published, which means my next few posts might be on really scattered, different topics. Before I do that, I thought I should post something about the current situation.

(Note: Please don’t take any of the information I’m presenting here as accurate. This is not a news report, or advice from an expert in the field. This is my personal recollections of what I think I’ve seen and heard, and how I’m feeling, and how I’m doing. It’s not about getting it right. For *information*, go check out some real proper news sources and the like.)

It’s March 24 right now. I’m not even sure exactly how long it’s been since we first started hearing about cases in China, and then cases in Japan. It’s been a weird experience. Most museums are closed, most theatre performances and other events are cancelled. Many schools are closed. Travel restrictions are tight. South Korea has implemented widespread testing and lots of other good procedures, and everyone seems to be hailing them for doing it right. China, where the outbreak began and was initially the worst, seems to be seeing a very significant decline in the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, Israel has blocked off nearly all travel in or out of the country, and Italy and Ireland (and now, if I have it right, Spain and France as well, as well as parts of the US) have gone on even fuller lockdown, with mandatory quarantine procedures in place for, if I’m understanding correctly, *everyone* in Italy, all stores closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and from what we’re hearing the medical facilities are just completely overwhelmed – more sick people in need of emergency treatment than there is emergency equipment (and even just space, i.e. hospital beds themselves) to go around. The situation sounds absolutely horrendous. Iran seems to be digging mass graves.

The Trump administration’s response has started to come around, maybe, a bit, but is still rightfully being roundly criticized from all sides (well, most sides – not from the “Dear Leader can do no wrong” camp among the Republican Party and Fox News, but their horrific misinformation campaign is a whole other story); but things are getting worse in New York, and elsewhere. I read recently that New York had something like 5% of all confirmed cases in the entire world, and overall a higher “attack” rate (i.e. confirmed cases as a percentage of total population, as opposed to confirmed cases as a percentage of those tested, though I think that number’s also high in NY). I’m worried about my family.

Anyone who’s doing full-on hanami parties right now is being terribly irresponsible. But if I should happen upon a nice tree on my way to the supermarket, my only one little outing from the apartment the entire day, with a mask on, that’s okay, right?

But here in Japan, or at least in Tokyo, it’s hard to know what to think, what to believe. I spent at least a week, maybe two, being just terribly anxious, nervous, stressed out about the whole situation until I finally decided to cancel my trip to Boston and New York to attend the annual AAS conference. As it turned out, the conference got canceled anyway. But worrying about it was driving me mad. On the one hand, everyone keeps saying very scary things about how horrible this disease is, how it’s far more contagious than SARS or Ebola and far more deadly than your typical flu – between these two factors combined, making for a serious genuine pandemic threat.

I remember thinking three years ago, that as dangerous as Trump is, at least we don’t have a massive crisis such as a pandemic for him to fuck up. … Well, now, here we are.

And as for the Japanese government response as well, the US and Japan stand out at the bottom of the list among major developed-world countries in testing the fewest people. I’ve heard countless anecdotes about people both in Japan and the US who are being denied testing for the coronavirus on account of they don’t match precisely the right criteria, e.g. they don’t have severe enough symptoms or they haven’t been to China recently… These are people who are afraid they might infect others, and yet many are being told to just go home. I, also, was told by the US Embassy’s Crisis Hotline themselves that so long as I didn’t have symptoms I was safe to fly – no consideration at all given to whether I might be asymptomatic but contagious. (Granted, this was around March 6 or so, before things got more serious, but even so, I think it was serious enough already at the time that the nonchalant attitude of the fellow on the phone was just confusing to me: is this a concern, or not? The CDC, the Embassy, at that time, were still at a very “light” stage of things, saying “if you’re sick, then maybe quarantine, but if you’re not, no problem,” or something to that effect. Frankly, even all these weeks later, my office is largely saying the same; they haven’t suggested everyone work from home, they haven’t closed down the campus. In any case, the point is, especially at that earlier time, I felt like I was getting really mixed messages, and not clear information, and I found it very stressful.)

Many people are saying that the Abe administration, like Trump, has its eye mainly on preventing panic, protecting the economy, and protecting that the Olympics might still go forward – rather than actually doing what’s right, or what’s needed, for the safety of the people. (Now, finally, on Mar 22-24 or so, the government has started to shift from that, saying they may need to postpone the Olympics; I expect this will become even more solid within the next few days.) A lot of people don’t trust the government right now; and after Fukushima, why should they? I did see one article explaining that, actually, the Japanese government is operating in a reasonable and rational way, testing enough people to get a strong sense of the outbreak as a whole, not on the individual/medical level but on a society-wide epidemiological level, so that they can manage the spread. I’m not sure I buy it, but it was interesting to get a real explanation at least.

A snapshot from the live feed camera over Shibuya Crossing, right now, tonight Mar 24. Not nearly as busy as I expect it typically would be on a Tuesday evening, but still plenty of people out and about, not actively making sure to stay X meters away from one another; many of them not wearing masks, in part because so many stores are completely sold out of them.

But even as we keep hearing all this scary stuff, and even as so many events have been canceled, institutions closed, people encouraged to work from home or to adopt shifted working hours (so as to avoid such crowds at rush hour), even so, life goes on here in Tokyo largely unaffected. I’m curious (and terrified) to see how this might change in coming days and weeks, but for now, even as so much of the world is in lockdown to one extent or another, here, restaurants and shops are open, and a lot of people are still out and about, albeit fewer than the massive crowds we’re normally used to. To a certain extent, I’m glad. First of all, because for the first couple of weeks of March, I was right in the middle of moving apartments, and if stores closed, utilities companies or shipping/delivery companies stopped operating, or if more so than that we actually went into some kind of citywide lockdown situation, I would have gotten stuck either in a new apartment with no bed, no appliances, no internet, no hot water, or in my old apartment which I might have needed to vacate by March 16 (who knows exactly what exceptions might have been made… especially if they need the room so someone else can move in and themselves not be screwed by the situation). So, I’m glad I was able to go around and do my shopping for furniture, and to have appliances delivered, and to have the electric company answer the phones (especially since f***ing TEPCO has decided to not have any in-person customer service centers anymore, and that’s long before coronavirus).

Secondly, I was for a time glad things are still more or less running like normal, because in the early stages of this, or even in a situation like Italy’s where the hospitals are totally overrun and the whole medical system is breaking down, even there I would venture that the externally-imposed closings, quarantines, etc. and not the epidemic itself exacerbate the difficulty for most people multiple multiple times over. Between people who can’t work, people whose small businesses (or not so small businesses) are going to be terribly strained or even go under, and so forth. But, that said, of course, we now understand that it’s **essential**, absolutely essential, to lock things down as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing, on a society-wide level, and probably more than just “social distancing,” we need to isolate ourselves, self-quarantine, as much as possible, if we all, as a city, as a country, are going to slow down the spread of this disease enough that we can manage to keep it at bay enough that the medical system won’t get overburdened. Flatten the curve, as people have been saying – so that instead of an insane number of cases all at once, maybe there might be more cases that don’t happen until later, until after there’s been more time for preparation, the development of treatments, etc., and until after X number of people with the virus have recovered [or died, I’m sorry to say] and thus opened up hospital beds, ventilators, etc.

But what’s scary is the false sense of security. As some have started to say in the last few weeks, with a situation like this, it very often can feel perfectly fine right up until it’s not. Italy in particular, but Iran and other places as well, saw such rapid changes of circumstances over a matter of just days. Going right from having a nationwide number of cases in the 2- or 3-digits to 4-digits in a matter of days. Going from cautionary measures to full lockdown. New York, too. The days bleed together, time feels like it’s flowing at such a very different rate than usual, but I think if I remember right it was only a few days ago that New York was just not quite there yet. And now they’ve got 5% of the cases in the world, 5x the attack rate of most other places, and a city-wide “stay at home” order or whatever exactly they’re calling it in New York.

Japan seems to be way behind the curve, in terms of many workplaces still saying “stay home if you’re sick,” and just wash your hands and be careful, rather than “we’re closing down. No one come in to work” or the like. I gather that a great many workplaces – or mine, at least – haven’t budged from that level for weeks. But does that mean it’s because things are actually okay here? Are we going to get put on lockdown tomorrow or the next day or the next day? I’ve been asking myself that question for at least a week and a half. It’s impossible to know.

The 7-11 near my new apartment, with plenty of canned mackerel and Monster energy drinks right up front by the door, because obviously that’s what people need to be stocking up on the most.

It’s a strange feeling, to be amidst such an incredibly uncertain, stress-inducing, emotional time, and yet at the same time find it actually pretty relaxing. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to compare, but when my mother passed away, it was in mid or late April, I don’t actually remember the date at all, but while it was in some respects the darkest, saddest day in my entire life, it was a sunny, breezy, happy day. The last few days before I heard that she’d gotten worse, before I knew that end was near, happened to be days of sunny warm weather, flowers blooming, birds singing.

When I read about the current pandemic situation online, or put my thoughts to worrying about it, I am in fact terribly worried, terribly scared, about how long this global societal shutdown might last, and the economic consequences. If “this is my life now” for so many of us, for how long might that remain the case? To say it might be a few weeks or a few months, well, that feels manageable. It’s only temporary, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.Though even if it does last just a few weeks, or a few months, who knows how that might actually feel on a day-by-day basis. The days certainly seem to be flowing much more slowly lately. The faster events change, the easier it is to feel like “I can’t believe it was only X days ago that this or that event happened.” Here it is, March 24, and so much has happened, I can’t believe it’s been only X days since we first heard of Italy going into lockdown, only X days before that that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, only X days before that that we first heard about the first cases coming out of China. … And now we’re seeing reports that according to some studies, some extrapolation models, we may need to stay in lockdown for up to 18 months (!?!), until such time as the vaccine can be mass-produced and administered to everyone in society, if we want to avoid millions of deaths. And, of course, that comes with tons of complications, whether the virus will mutate and the vaccine won’t be as effective.. All kinds of things. And in the meantime, whether it’s a (relatively mild) several-week or several-month slow down, or something like an 18 month lockdown, the economy is going to suffer hugely. How can we even think about the broader societal, economic, impact of so many small businesses going out of business, so many individuals losing their jobs (and then their homes, going bankrupt, etc., whatever may happen)? On a national level, on a national/global history level, this isn’t some blip. This has the potential to radically alter the balance of power, the quality of life, the status of conditions in many countries all around the world. As a historian and as a world traveler, I can’t help but think about that.

But as a person, of course, I’m also terribly worried and scared for my family, and more broadly for my friends and colleagues. My family has been lucky. From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to countless storms I don’t remember the names of, we’ve never lost a family member in any such disaster, and we’ve never lost our house. But my father and most of my aunts+uncles are over 65; my brother is young, and has no particular dramatic health conditions; but even so, contrary to earlier reports from China, Korea, and elsewhere, I’m now hearing that some significant percentage of young people who’ve gotten sick, 20-30% in some places, as high as 50% in some places, have developed truly severe or critical (whatever the precise technical term may be) cases.

If I should lose my father or my brother in this, I don’t know what I would do. It would be world-changing for me. I can’t even think about it. It would be so devastating.

And beyond that, I am fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues all around the world. Hearing that *any* of them have gotten sick and died from this – or even “just” lost their job, lost their house, whatever it may be – is a horrific thought. I just hope and hope and hope that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll all make it out okay at the end.

Not much to look at, I suppose, but, fwiw, on the left, some very simple french toast I made, with real genuine Canadian maple syrup which was a gift from a friend. On the right, my workspace, my world for the next X weeks.

But, even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but find this “self-isolation,” for the time being at least, to be rather relaxing and productive. Even while I am continuing to press forward on the work I’m supposed to be doing for work, devoting more or less the normal amount of time that I would to it (something like 20-30 hrs/wk), it’s wonderful to not commute, it’s wonderful to not feel that pressure of being in the office. I’m extremely fortunate to have a work situation where my supervisors aren’t present to physically see whether I’m ever in the office or not (they work in a different building), my coworkers aren’t interested in policing me or anything, and even on paper, officially, my schedule is pretty flexible: get the work done for our project, but also nip off and do what you need to as often as you need to, to continue making progress on your own research. That’s also part of the job, part of the professional obligations/expectations. I count myself exceptionally grateful to have landed such a position. But even despite the flexibility of that position, there’s still something about working a 9-to-5, going into the office, trying to devote yourself to a single project for 8 hours a day, that’s just tiring and draining… Being home, I find myself much more productive. And, we’ll see how I feel in a few more days, cabin fever and so forth, but for now at least, telling myself to stay home and to not go out to cafes or anything – forcing myself to stay home – has meant I’m not wasting time on my off-days traveling to some other neighborhood, walking around looking for a cafe to work at, getting antsy after just a couple hours, walking around looking for a different cafe to work at… or going to museums or anything else. So, while I’m definitely sad that so many institutions are closed and am missing that, the art, the theatre, the research trips, the little trips to explore different cafes/restaurants, being home means I’m actually getting a lot more done – whether that means actual work, or if it means blogging, connecting with friends, whatever it may be, I’m getting things done that I haven’t otherwise. And it’s a very nice feeling.

I know that’s an absurd note to end on. But this entire post is just tentative. Just some thoughts, somewhat stream of thought. Not truly fully considered, and it’s not meant to be. Just some thoughts, for now. We’ll see how things develop.

In the meantime, I am thinking about my friends and family all around the world. I hope you are all safe and healthy. I hope that you all remain so. This crisis is unbelievable. Larger and crazier and deadlier than most things we’ve actively, directly, had to experience and deal with in our lives. For most of us, anyway. Of course, there are those who are refugees from warzones, and who knows how many other different stories. But I think about my friends who are doctors and healthcare professionals otherwise, living an incredibly different life from the rest of us right now, devoting all of their time and energy, even more so than usual, to trying to save as many lives as possible amidst nearly impossible conditions. And I think of all the people I’ve met, however tangentially, in my life and in my travels, who for one reason or another, in one way or another, don’t have the luxury to just stay home. People without job security, people without health insurance. I’m worried about my home country, and about Japan, and about our world. But at the same time, I’m also at home, sleeping and eating and watching Netflix, and making more progress on my work than I have in months. I think the most any of us can do is to just do what we can, make do as best as we can.

JoJo Rabbit

I had heard good things about this film, heard it was funny. I was nervous at first, of course, because it’s a movie about Nazis, and that’s a difficult and complicated topic for me, as it is for a lot of people. But, I trust Taika Waititi (who, let’s not forget, is Jewish on his mother’s side), and Scarlett Johanssen (also Jewish), and even more than that, I’d just heard kind of general buzz, that it was a good film.

So, ultimately, I went into the film unconcerned, ready to have a good time. Within minutes of leaving the theatre at the end, I was bawling my eyes out. This was in part because Jojo loses his mother, and I’ve lost my mother, and it’s still a very raw spot for me. I think maybe it always will be. And because as the credits rolled, I for some reason started thinking about wanting to visit my grandparents’ village in Poland, and being there and what it might be like, and what it might be like to call my dad from there and surprise him that I was there… and thinking about all of that brought up some rather complex emotions.

But there was more to it, that I couldn’t quite put into words at the time; to a certain extent, I didn’t even know what I was upset about. But, a day later, having had some time to stew, and watching a lengthy and very interesting interview with Waititi about the film, I’m starting to put it together.

We are supposed to believe that Nazis, most of all, perhaps more than any other group of people in all of history, were just straight-up, irrevocably, unredeemably, bad people. We’re supposed to believe that anyone who went along with it was equally complicit, equally guilty, equally horrible. And, of course, in terms of outcomes, that’s certainly true. All of these people, who joined or otherwise supported the Nazi cause, regardless of their inner hesitations or justifications, even so they contributed to – or at the very least did not resist sufficiently against – the horrors of that time. The political system which utterly destroyed the lives of millions upon millions. And my own family among them. My grandparents survived horrors I cannot imagine myself ever braving; they lost countless friends and family to the gas chambers, to firing squads, to labor camps. They lost community, their homes and hometowns, an entire way of life. …

And I was raised to believe since childhood that if anything like that were to ever happen again, that we would do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. That we would protest, we would fight, we would resist. But I’ve always known that in such a circumstance, I’m not the guy who joins the resistance; I’m not the guy with either the brains or the brawn, or the mental/emotional fortitude or courage to survive and to fight. We all want to believe we would be heroes. But I’ve known for a long time that when the revolution comes – whether it’s fascists, communists, or something else – I’d simply be among the victims. I don’t know how to fire a gun. I don’t know how to keep hidden. I’d be caught, and I’d be killed. I hope I’d be killed, and not tortured, or put to hard labor, or whatever it may be.

But we’re getting a bit away from the point. The point is, we are supposed to believe that everyone should resist. That everyone has the equal power to resist. That everyone who doesn’t is just as fucking guilty as all the rest. And, sure, if we take the example of the countless Republicans who are still saying today that they don’t like X, Y, or Z about Trump but even so he’s doing good for the economy or whatever; people who try to distance themselves from the horrific things he’s doing… as my friend who I saw the film with helped me see quite clearly, by voting for him, by continuing to support him, by continuing to support Senators who have acquitted him, they are complicit. This blood is on their hands. They had a choice – even if they did nothing else, they had a choice to vote differently, and they have refused. They have chosen to vote for racism, sexism, for hate.

But in this film, we see children who don’t know any better. Children who have been taught to believe all these things about nationalism and Aryan supremacy and Jew-hatred and all the rest, and it’s not their fault. We’re given an image of the Hitler Jugend that really isn’t all that different from the Boy Scouts, and figures like Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Finkel (Alfie Allen), and Frau Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who, while most certainly are not “good guys” by any stretch of the imagination, are also not quite the kind of intentionally evil, deliberately, fundamentally evil, Nazi figures we see in just about every other movie. We get the impression that they are people somehow, in one way or another, just sort of caught up in all of this. And what sense do we have about the townspeople? …. I am not saying that these various adults in Jojo’s life are necessarily sympathetic figures. We don’t really get a sense that they question or oppose the Nazi ideology all that much, if at all. I don’t think that overall as a film it’s a film that’s sympathetic to Nazi ideology. Not hardly. As Waititi has explained many a time, and as I think his performance as Hitler shows, it’s about satirizing them, about showing them for being ridiculous, absurd, and vulnerable. It’s about defanging them, making them less fearsome, and perhaps also contributing to, in the process, making them less impressive, less of an ideal model for neo-Nazis and the like today.

Actors dressed as Nazi soldiers, taking a break from filming on the streets of Dublin. June 2007. Photo my own.

But even so. Rosie says she does what she can, she does the best that she can. She’s actively part of the resistance in some way; to what extent exactly, we’re not sure. Waititi had to be sure to make her a particularly sympathetic figure; and yet, even so, she’s not some superhero. She’s just a woman doing what she can. Am I doing enough? Am I doing what I can? I know I’m certainly voicing good opinions, trying to stay on the right side of things. I’ve put a few tens of dollars – not much, I know, but something – towards the people I believe to be the best candidates. I’ve written many emails, made phone calls, sent letters. Not nearly as many as some people, but I’ve done some. And I will vote for those people I believe to be the best candidates. But I’m also going to work, and going out with friends, and trying to continue my life. I’m not ignoring protests outside my door and refusing to join them; there are no protests right outside my door to join.

If the current Left/progressive attitude is that a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi, and that a racist is a racist, regardless of nuance or complexity or degree or level or extent; and simultaneously also that all of us, most especially white people, are complicit simply by existing, and that if we are not doing everything in our power to contribute to the overturning of this racist society – “it’s not enough to just be not racist, you have to be anti-racist” – then that means that all of us, all of us, are horrible horrible people. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I haven’t been doing enough, but also thinking what can I do? What, really, truly, on a practical right here, right now, in my actual day-to-day life, what am I actually capable of doing to help? …. And so I cried.

The general attitude in Japan is that everyone was a victim of the militarist/ultranationalist ideology. That it was foisted upon them, that they were educated into it, that for the vast majority of people it wasn’t their fault. That that was simply the times they lived in. … I know a lot of people would say that’s simply justification; excuses; an easy out. Just like white people are constantly looking for excuses, for justifications. But I’m not strong enough to face this face-on. And no one wants to ever have conversations about it – they want to just call you a racist, call you complicit, call you guilty, and leave it to you to do better. And that makes sense, of course, on a certain level .By all means. But then even so. ….

And here you have Jojo and Elsa, with no parents, trying to make their way, trying to make a living, trying to find food, in a bombed out city, surrounded by Americans who don’t speak German…. how are they going to live? And are they ultimately going to get tired of each other, or frustrated or angry, or resentful, and leave one another? And then they’ll both be even more alone, more lost, more screwed amidst this wartorn devastation….? …. And so I cried.

A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

Driving on Amami

While on Amami Ôshima, I rented a car and drove for the first time in Japan. Driving on the left takes a little bit of getting used to. You have to constantly remind yourself to be on the correct side of the road, and especially when making turns, which side of the road you’re supposed to end up on. Plus all the signs are in Japanese (and English) and are different colors, shapes, styles from in the US. Different symbols. So if you’re moving along, you only have a few seconds to figure out what a given sign means – have to interpret very quickly. But, actually, all of this ended up being far easier than I’d expected. The two things that gave me trouble: the fact that the driver’s seat is on the opposite side of the car, which means my general feeling of how far to the left or right I was, how centered I was on the road, was all messed up. I was constantly drifting off (just the tiniest bit) across the left side of the road, because I wasn’t used to having that much car to the left of me. And I was probably leaving more space than I needed to on the right, because I’m used to having half of the car be to the right of me, if that makes sense. Secondly, really, the thing that gave me the most trouble was having the turn signals and wiper controls switched. So my instincts, to just flip that switch every time I was about to make a turn, inevitably ended up turning the wipers on and off and not actually signalling… it was a mess.

National Route 58 is the main national highway which runs the length of Amami Ôshima from north to south, and also the length of Okinawa Island from north to south.

But I am so glad to have rented a car. Number one, because I’d been nervous about doing so, and Amami was the perfect place to get over that. There are very few other cars on the road (especially outside of Naze city center), and everyone’s pretty slow and kind and just not in a hurry or anything; that is to say, the other drivers are patient and kind with one another, and with me. At one point, when I even parked myself somewhere that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of (there was a drainage ditch behind my car, and I didn’t have a good sense of how far I could back up out of the parking spot before I’d fall in the ditch), I was even able to ask a local person to pull out for me, and he very kindly took the time to do it.

But also, number two, I was so glad to have rented a car because it gave me such freedom to make it out to all kinds of sites – and in relatively good time – that would have been a pain in the ass to get to by public bus. The downside, of course, is that you can’t take photos while you’re driving (or read, or do anything else) the way you can while you’re on a bus. But, not only hitting “major” historical sites and stuff, but also just being free and on my own to stop at the one FamilyMart with the fun map/pictures of Amami, and just otherwise stop wherever, was wonderful.

At one of the very few FamilyMarts on the island.

Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

Amami: Yamato or Ryukyu?

I count myself just so incredibly fortunate that I get to travel the way I do. After a brief trip back to Okinawa yet again, which I may write about in a separate soon forthcoming post, I managed to take a few days and visit the island of Amami Ôshima, a beautiful and fascinating place which despite being the 7th largest island in Japan (i.e. still pretty sizable) is I would venture to say far off the radar of most tourists and travelers, Japanese or otherwise.

First of all, before I say anything else, I guess I should simply say that it’s beautiful. The greenery, the sea, the sky, it’s beautiful. I’m not sure what I expected – I guess that since I was leaving Okinawa prefecture, that I’d be going back into winter. And, in a certain sense, that’s true. The entire region, from southern Kyushu down through Okinawa, saw a bizarre few days of genuinely summery weather for pretty much the whole time I was in Okinawa (75F / 24C in Naha on Sat Jan 25!), and then several days of very strong and cold winds, and on & off rain, while I was in Amami. So, not necessarily indicative of a difference between the two places so much as changing weather patterns across the week. But, in any case, who am I kidding? It was beautiful when I visited Hiroshima back in 2018 too. Regardless of whether you’re in “the islands” or the “mainland,” there’s still plenty opportunity for beauty.

Tiny lanes with stone walls, in a section of Tatsugô Town near where Saigô Takamori’s old house has been reconstructed. One of many little village communities on the island; reminds me of Ôgimi, way-out-there inaka village in the northern part of Okinawa Island.

So, I guess before I delve into the history or the culture, I should say something about just the general feel of the island, in terms of how rural or urban it is. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But now that I’ve visited, looking back over the last few years I’m realizing that my sense from X years ago that actually I’d only ever seen the big urban centers, the major touristy cities, in Japan and had never actually really seen other parts, let alone truly “countryside” parts – that is no longer true. Amami is definitely inaka – the countryside, or however you might want to translate that. I mean, it’s a big island, over 700 sq km (roughly 275 sq mi?), but with only about 73,000 people, and while I sorely regret not visiting any of the shimanchu marts, which is just adorable, there are only five or six big chain convenience store locations (all FamilyMarts, no 7-11 or Lawson) on the entire island, for whatever sense that may give.

In terms of the general feel of how it looks and feels driving around here, what the roads and the view along the sides of the road look like, and so forth, I’m not sure I thought about it in this way at the time, but sitting in the hotel room and looking back upon today, I think it was very much like driving around the more rural parts of Okinawa. Long stretches of little more than lush greenery and wide open sky and the occasional (or much more than just occasional) view of the ocean; and in town, not sure how to describe it, but a level of urban/rural that reminds me very much of, for example, Ginowan. Much more of a working, industrial city than a touristy one. Even with the beautiful view of the water from my hotel room, it felt like grey, concrete, industrial. Not the sort of semi-tropical “island vacation” feel you get in many parts of Okinawa or Hawaiʻi. And as soon as you leave the most central urban part of urban Naze, you get into long drags with intermittent large box stores with large parking lots, though I suppose it reminds me of many mainland Japanese cities as well – driving around Hiroshima or Kure, for example, but not Tokyo.

Above: a warehouse in central Naze. Below: Tecchan, a great little keihan restaurant on the side of the highway.

Amami is located roughly halfway between Okinawa (to the south) and Kyushu – i.e. “mainland” Japan – to the north. A part of the broader Ryukyuan/south Kyushu cultural zone in ancient times, and in fact a major center of trade and activity in the 10th-11th centuries or so before Okinawa Island ever was, Amami was forcibly incorporated into the orbit of the Okinawa-centered Ryukyu Kingdom in the mid-16th century, and then conquered and annexed just a few decades later by the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Kagoshima. Unlike Okinawa and the other islands to the south which remained under the control of the largely independent Ryukyu Kingdom (though the king was counted as a vassal of the Shimazu, and owed various obligations to them), Amami and the surrounding islands came under more direct Satsuma control, and thus for several hundred years longer than Okinawa and the southern Ryukyus had at least somewhat more direct and extensive Japanese influence. Jumping ahead to the end of the post-WWII Occupation in 1952, the US military thought for a fancy moment that they just might get to keep all of the Ryukyus indefinitely, as one giant military colony, a whole series of “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” But while they managed to continue the Occupation in Okinawa for another 20 years, Amami was “reverted” to Japanese authority in 1953. So, building upon a fundamental base of indigenous/ancient Ryukyuan culture – which can still be seen in the language, the local deities, folk music and folk festivals, etc. – Amami has a far longer history of being (in one way or another) under the control of, or incorporated into, some form of “Japanese” polity, nation, cultural sphere.

As a result of this geography and history, the one main thing I’d think anyone should expect when coming to a place like Amami is a preconception or expectation of curiosity of just how “Ryukyuan” vs. “Japanese” it’s going to be. And I found my experience of this to be, well, interesting. When I visited Japanese restaurants in Okinawa, I was struck, really struck, by how “Japanese” they felt. Like it really was a foreign culture; the Japanese restaurant at Naha Main Place felt to me no less foreign to Okinawa than being in a Chinese or Indian restaurant, and I consciously felt, or imagined, an added layer of colonial imposition. Being in that restaurant it was just so easy to imagine up some image of Japan having come in and inserted Japaneseness, including Japanese restaurants, into everyday Okinawan life. … And of course I’m in a different position myself right now, having been in Okinawa for only the last few days, and Tokyo for months before that, as compared to the time I went to that Japanese restaurant in the mall in Naha after having lived in Okinawa for months, eating a lot of Okinawan food and having not been to a soba/udon/washoku place for a long time. ….

But still all of that said, getting to the point, I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that shock value on Amami. I did feel there were clearly many things around that were decidedly Ryukyuan, intermixed with many features that make me feel like it’s just another region of Japan – like it’s not a different culture entirely, but just one possible variation, just like I might expect to find in traveling around various parts of “mainland” Kyushu or Shikoku and seeing what the local culture might happen to be like there. From certain local food specialities like keihan, to individual local products like the “shima ramune” (ramune soda made with juice from local citrus), to t-shirts and tote bags labeled with Amami themed images, I feel like it’s just the Amami equivalent of exactly the same kind of “local” stuff I’ve seen in the Inland Sea, for example. But it’s interesting, that at least in this very few interactions or experiences so far, it hasn’t struck me as decidedly Ryukyuan or decidedly Japanese, or as intriguingly mixed. It just is what it is. To be sure, if you wrote out a list of cultural features, you could say which things can be put in a Ryukyuan column, and which in a Japanese column, and you could craft out an imagined understanding of Amami that is, indeed, a matter of multiple different cultural layers placed upon one another. The Ryukyuan deity Amamikyo, for example, being worshipped on Amami but in sites featuring Shinto shrine architecture rather than more closely resembling the kinds of spaces you’d find at Okinawan utaki.

Above: A shrine on Amami Ôshima dedicated to the Ryukyuan creation deity Amamikyo/Amamiku 奄美姑(阿麻弥姑), with torii gate and haiden worship hall showing a combination of Japanese and distinctive architectural features.
Below: An utaki sacred space at Ameku Shrine 天久宮 in Naha, Okinawa, which admittedly also has a torii and haiden (not shown), but which really centers on this sacred tree or sacred grove, marked by simpler stone markers.

Traveling from mainland Japan to Okinawa or vice versa I think there’s a certain degree of culture shock. But in Amami, I think what I sensed was less a striking mix of two disparate things (Ryukyu and Japan) and much more so a place that lies along a spectrum. I wonder if perhaps it’s fair – accurate – to draw a contrast between Okinawa, which of course, received considerable influence from China, Japan, and elsewhere over the course of its history but which was at the same time very much its own place, receiving a sudden, powerful influx of imposed Japanese culture beginning in the Meiji period, versus Amami, which has since ancient times possessed a culture that exists in the space where the two (Ryukyu and Japan) fade into one another. Okinawan songs might have two sets of lyrics – a more traditional set of lyrics, in the Okinawan language, passed down through the generations by oral tradition and custom, and another in the Japanese language, invented by a record company or radio company in the 20th century and deliberately introduced for commercial purposes which has since gained widespread familiarity; by contrast, I don’t know much about Amami music, but from what little I do know, it’s played on an Okinawan sanshin, but in a scale shared with certain mainland Japanese traditions, and sung in a language which lies in-between Okinawan and Japanese. Traveling from Japan to Okinawa, you go from a place where “today” is kyô to a place where (if people are speaking in Okinawan, rather than in Japanese) “today” is chû. Two distant points along a spectrum. But on Amami, if people are speaking “shimaguchi” (island language), it’s kyû. Just a little different from standard Japanese, and I can easily imagine certain parts of Kyushu or Shikoku having similar vowel shifts… but you can also see how it’s in a sense halfway towards the Okinawan pronunciation. Kyô–>Kyû–>Chû.

Three different varieties of Miki. Thanks to the owner of the Amami-an bookstore for introducing me to this interesting and, frankly, delicious, drink.

Food, of course, is another thing to consider. And I honestly wasn’t sure what to think. Amami food is certainly different from Okinawan food, albeit with some similarities. And there are some things that are definitely distinctive, if not entirely unique, to Amami, starting with Miki ミキ, a drink made from rice, sugar, sweet potato, and water, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, and which I could imagine discovering as some regional specialty somewhere in “mainland” Japan but which is certainly not mainstream standard. I’ve never seen anything like it in Tokyo or Kyoto, except for maybe amazake which is I guess a bit similar but is not sold in bottles or cartons right alongside the juices and sodas.

And there’s keihan – what Okinawa soba is to Okinawa, the one most iconic, most standard, if it’s an Okinawan restaurant they’re sure to have this, dish, keihan is to Amami, it would seem. Chicken soup with rice. And some other, more distinctly Japanese toppings (picked ginger, shredded nori, thin slices of omelette, etc.). Very tasty. … Another thing I was told about and saw on menus but never got around to trying was the goya (bitter melon), which on Okinawa is often cooked in a style of stir-fry called chanpuru, but which on Amami is apparently served cooked in miso; and, I don’t know if this is typical or indicative, but on Amami I saw it described on menus as nigauri 苦瓜 – literally, bitter melon, a melon that is bitter – rather than using the Ryukyuan(?) term gôya ゴーヤー. … But what I didn’t realize until just now, a couple of days after getting back, is that I don’t think I ever saw any soba or udon or sushi on the island. I’m not even sure if I saw ramen. There was that one shop I sat down in that had omuraisu (omelette rice), a standard mainland Japanese dish invented/introduced in the late 19th or early 20th century… but when I was experiencing that culture shock at the shopping mall in Naha, it was in large part because I had walked into a restaurant where nearly every aspect of the decor and menu was identical to what you might find in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Udon, soba, sushi, wholly entirely standard stuff. Whereas on Amami, the entire feel was of it being a variation on Japanese culture – something that you could absolutely imagine exists within the regional variation within Japan, not needing to be seen as outside of it – and yet with hints or touches that, if you can recognize them, are decidedly Ryukyuan.

I guess that’s it for now. I’ve kind of run out of steam…

Below: video I took at a concert of Amami folk music performed here in Tokyo a few months ago. Amami folk music has a ton in common with mainland Japanese folk music, and uses a Japanese musical scale – not the Okinawan one – so the overall sound is quite distinct from that of traditional music anywhere in Okinawa prefecture, even though the instrument they play is little different from the Okinawan sanshin. Visiting a live-music shimauta (lit. “island songs”) bar was one of the primary things I was excited to do on Amami, but in the end, the only shimauta bar I knew of (Kazumi – recommended by multiple people, probably one of the top ones on the island) was totally packed one night, and unexpectedly closed the next. Oh well, maybe next time.