I have been very fortunate to be a Japan Foundation Fellow this year, generously granted an 11-month fellowship to come to Japan to continue my dissertation research. While most people spend such fellowship years in a single place, I decided to split my time between Okinawa and Tokyo. The first half is now coming to an end.
I feel like I’m leaving Okinawa just as I’ve finally started to get to feel really situated and comfortable here. Which isn’t to say that I’ve only just first started to learn my way around the library, or that I’ve only just first found a good café to work at, or certain various other things. I have been using the library, and working in local cafés, and making use of the cafeteria and school convenience store, and I have been attending seminar. And I already knew my way around the monorail and the basic layout of Naha, and of various museums, shopping centers, and key districts, to a considerable extent from previous trips. But it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve first started attending a kuzushiji (manuscript documents) reading group that I never knew about until just now, and it’s in these last few weeks that I’ve felt more comfortable than ever with many of the grad students and undergrads in the Ryukyu History circles here on campus. It’s in these last few weeks that (in part because of the impetus inspired by knowing I’m leaving soon) I’ve started making more serious and intensive use of several of the museums, libraries, and archives on the island that I previously had only sort of dabbled in and left for investigating more seriously later.
I’ve finally started to feel I’m recognized, or known, as a semi-regular, or at least a repeat customer, at a handful of local establishments in Naha. I’ve gotten to know my way around the maze-like corridors of the Heiwa-dôri covered market district – and become familiar with a great many of the individual shops – to a far greater extent than ever before, though I imagine I will never completely stop getting lost. I’ve been taken around to more parts of the island, and more specific individual historic sites than I might have ever imagined I’d get to see yet.
As I prepare to leave, I realize I’ve only studied at the Kokusai-dôri Starbucks twice, and never at the one at Naha Main Place, and while I don’t mean to be some cheerleader for multi-national mega-corporation Starbucks, in actual practical truth, I do find it a rather productive environment to work in – perhaps some of my most relaxed, enjoyable, and productive work times these last six months have taken place in a Starbuck’s. And I’ve only just first gotten introduced to this and that restaurant (I’m thinking in particular of a Nago soba diner I was just very recently introduced to), and to the realization that the highway express bus actually isn’t that much more expensive than taking the regular bus to the monorail, though I suppose that works chiefly only if one is going all the way to the airport, and not just into town.
There are, admittedly, a handful of restaurants I’ve now been to enough times – chiefly by way of going there with friends or family when they’ve been visiting from out of town – that I feel I’ve pretty much gotten my experience of them; that I’m satisfied with how often I’ve visited. But, even so, nevertheless, to have gotten to know them so well, and to now not be going back for years, most likely, perhaps ever, is a weird feeling. To have finally learned which places I really like, and would want to introduce others to, over and over again (it’s new to them), and to have finally gotten to be recognized and welcomed back by the owners, is a pretty great feeling – and to not be living here more permanently to take advantage of that new achievement, is a shame.
Perhaps most significantly, most importantly, I feel I am leaving just as I’m being told more openly, more freely, about more seminars, classes, events, that I now won’t be able to attend because I’m leaving. And, as I prepare to leave, I realize I’m not sure I ever got nearly as much of a deep or strong sense of the Okinawan perspective – whether scholarly or more personal/general – as I had hoped. Further, I never did develop any sort of regular pattern of working closely with any of the professors at all. I’m quite grateful for all that Tomiyama-sensei, Asô-sensei, Higa Etsuko-sensei and others have done for me, but compared to students who have been here for years (even though, yes, I know it’s an unfair comparison), I really don’t think I could even say word one about Tomiyama-sensei’s perspective, his particular teachings, his particular attitude or guidance or views on any of this. Should not one come out of a research year having gained some stronger sense of the overall field, the various perspectives and disagreements within the field, from the perspective of the particular professor you worked under or the particular research group or department you worked in? … But, I suppose this last one is really primarily my own fault, for not reaching out more, for not more directly, more avidly, seeking such engagement. Besides, while I do regret this and feel bad for it and see it as a real loss, at least, on the positive side, I still have a whole next five months in Tokyo. So, if I never quite got the perspective of Tomiyama’s “Ryukyu shi” research group, at least I can hopefully absorb something of the perspectives of that of Watanabe Miki or other Tokyo-based sensei.
Research, academia, is about people. And there are some great people here. I really regret not getting to know some of them better.
Tomiyama-sensei, when it does come out, when it does come through, seems like a pretty wonderful guy. He says History is not just about sitting in a room looking at documents – it’s an outdoor activity, it’s about walking, seeing, looking, listening, as well as eating and drinking. Experiencing history. I love it. I really wish I had gotten over myself – gotten over being intimidated by the idea of trying to talk to an important and busy sensei; gotten over my worries about doing it the right way, politely, according to proper Japanese modes of etiquette and respect, and just gotten over it and talked to him more. Akamine-sensei, is basically the same situation. I came here explicitly to work with these giants of the field, and they are nice people, not inapproachable I don’t think to their own minds, though I do feel somewhat reassured that several US-based professors have now told me they had similar intimidation experiences, and difficulties, at my age – that it’s normal and not something to worry about, and that I’ll get more out of those relationships later, over the years.
One of his more senior grad students, Maeda-san, has been wonderful to me, inviting me along to lots of seminar-group dinners and parties, and just chatting and talking with me, making me feel included, making me feel like I’ve really made a friend.
Some of the other grads and undergrads, including Higa Yoshiyuki, Uchima Yasurô, I don’t feel I know as well, and Heshikiya, Sakiyama Takuma, and half a dozen others whose names I don’t even know, all seem like pretty cool people. Genuinely, truly, I regret not getting to know them better. And it felt so warm, so great, to have them say they remember me, at all, after meeting them only a handful of times over these six months, and that they’re eager to meet again sometime. I mean, maybe that’s just the polite thing to say, but I think maybe they really meant it. And I genuinely look forward to maybe seeing some of them again someday. I’ll be honest, even if we do run into one another, it may be difficult to realize it – to actually remember one another – especially since I’m not FB friends with any of them, or otherwise in some more ongoing contact; but, here’s hoping.
Watching these profs & grads at work, there’s a wonderful feeling of these people recovering the history of their people, and sharing it both with their own people, and with the world. Makes me feel like my work is noble, in a sense, as I contribute in my own tiny, humble, peripheral way to bringing this people, their history, and their culture, to the attention of the world. To make it known, to make it appreciated. (And just to be clear, I am very conscious of the pitfalls of white savior syndrome, and Orientalist tropes and so forth, and am constantly trying my best to be wary to avoid them. I don’t see myself as doing this for them, or even that I’m doing anything truly original in terms of my research, that would result in me making up my own version of what Okinawa is, or what Okinawa means – that would be the very essence of what Said calls “Orientalism” – rather, I genuinely do see myself as simply working out of what local native Okinawan scholars like Tomiyama and Akamine have said, and bringing their perspectives and understandings of their own history back to my English-language community.)
A plane passing overhead as we watch sabani (traditional sailing canoe) races at Itoman.
Anyway, I suppose this is inevitable. No matter when you leave, you’re going to think it too soon. I was in Hawaii for three years, and as I left I felt then too that I was only just then starting to really get into a new phase of being more settled, more situated, more comfortable there. A new phase of knowing the city and the campus and the people even better than ever before. And, looking back on these last six months in Okinawa, while I do have my regrets, I am kind of amazed too to realize just how much I’ve accomplished. I’ve scanned or photocopied an incredible amount of documents, and with luck (fingers crossed) by the time I actually leave for Tokyo I will have photographed pretty much all the museum objects (paintings, etc.) currently on my list. (Which isn’t to say of course that this is anywhere nearly all the documents I might ever ever want to look at, but only those I happen to know about as of right now, and happen to have in my sights at the moment. But, it’s more than enough at the moment.)
And, oh my god have I visited so many more historical sites than I ever thought I would – not that that’s essential to the research at all, but I count it as valuable towards experiencing Okinawa, and being able to tell others – friends, students, colleagues, professors – about places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, things I’ve learned, about Okinawa more broadly, beyond my specific research topic; this is essential to my more general growth as the resident Okinawa expert in almost any room I expect I’ll most of the time ever be in. Plus, not just historical sites and such, but streets, markets, shops, restaurants. In some respects, of course, I remain very much a newbie, but in other respects I am so much more knowledgeable about the city (Naha) than I have ever been before.
But, you know, it’s funny. When I first started thinking about drafting this post, many weeks ago, before I ever actually set down a single word on the virtual page, I had all kinds of ideas for this post in terms of how to talk about Okinawa, how I’ve learned to see it differently. How I’m going to miss the particular energy, the particular pattern of life here, when I go to Tokyo. And I didn’t write any of it down because I felt it so strongly at that time and felt I’d surely still remember exactly what I wanted to say. But, of course, as always happens, I don’t remember. … At least not quite as clearly, quite as strongly. But, there are certainly elements.
One, I’m going to miss being in the place where Okinawa is the chief central thing, and not something marginal or just partial. Both in terms of the Okinawan life, culture, everything going on all around (by definition), by virtue of the fact that this is Okinawa, but also in terms of the people around me all being Okinawa specialists. In Tokyo, my Okinawan history may be appreciated and recognized as interesting and as a valid part of Japanese Studies (putting aside the political issue of the ways in which Okinawa is not just a part of Japan, but that’s really a matter for another time) – it won’t be as marginal as it is back home in the US – but even so, I’ll be in the minority again, surrounded by a whole different culture, a whole different energy, both within the research institute and out on the streets of Tokyo more generally. And that sort of connects into my next point, which is closely related to what I’ve been saying in many of the preceding paragraphs – as an Okinawa specialist, anything and everything I do in Okinawa is part of deepening my experience and specialist expertise in Okinawan knowledge/experience. Whereas in Tokyo, you’re deepening your familiarity with something entirely different.
Plus, there’s something to be said for just the feeling of being in that special place. I don’t know how to articulate it, really. It goes beyond the very practical matter of personal professional networking, in terms of getting to know the very people who will be useful to me in the future – it goes beyond that to something else, that I should be at *the* University of the Ryukyus, studying with *the* students of *the* University of the Ryukyus. I can study kuzushiji, for example, almost anywhere, but even truly putting aside completely the matter of what little I might learn of actual historical content by practicing on Ryukyuan records rather than Japanese records from some totally other topic, there’s something really special, something I can’t quite articulate, about doing it in this small, friendly, group of Okinawan students who are just sort of trying their best at it, best as they can (and doing an amazing job!), as compared to being yet another foreign researcher through the revolving door of what’s of course the most standard, central, mainstream, presumably high-quality, kuzushiji groups at the University of Tokyo. There’s something special about being able to walk around Tokyo, or Santa Barbara, or New York, with a “University of the Ryukyus” T-shirt, and to have that experience under my belt of knowing that research group, that class, that room, on that campus, so many hundreds or thousands of miles away from what most other researchers – even within the field of Early Modern Japanese Studies – have seen or known. And not just in a practical way, nor only in a superficial hipstery “I bet you haven’t even heard of Ryûdai” kind of way, but hopefully something deeper than that, even if I can’t quite articulate why or how…
And there truly is something about the culture and the pace of life. I haven’t heard nearly as much Okinawan accents as I’d expected, let alone picked one up myself at all, nor have I learned very much Okinawan language at all, nor have I gotten any better at sanshin. Nor am I going to say anything about over-generalizing broad cultural attributes – which I honestly don’t believe in – about how Okinawans, like Hawaiians, are generally a more laid-back people, or anything like that. I really just don’t like such generalizations. Even when there is a seed of truth to it – of course every place, every people, every culture *is* more X than another, or less Y than another; that’s a key part of the very fact that difference and diversity do exist in our world. Even on a very practical level, taking “essential” “culture” out of it, Naha is a smaller, quieter, less dense city than New York or Tokyo; that’s just a fact. And Los Angeles or Santa Barbara are (for the most part – I suppose it depends on what part of town, and/or what business field you’re in) less formal, less buttoned-up-suit-and-tie than Tokyo or New York. But when I say I’m going to miss the feel of Okinawa, and that Tokyo is indeed going to come as a shock, I mean it mainly in terms of two things:
(1) practicalities, like the actual pace of life, the actual density of people on the street, etc., and
(2) concrete, specific, cultural elements, like having certain foods be the more standard dominant food available,
far more so than (3) any sort of hand-wavey over-generalizing, hard-to-articulate-without-being-essentializing-or-just-grossly-inaccurate notions about what Okinawa as a place or Okinawans as a people are like, overall.
Okinawa soba at Ishigufu in Shintoshin Park.
Kokusai-dôri – Naha’s Main Street, Naha’s Times Square – is, at its busiest, absolutely nowhere near even a normal average day in Shibuya; as someone who absolutely loves New York and Tokyo, I was surprised to feel myself having these thoughts, but it really is quite relaxing to have that kind of space on the sidewalk, and it really is going to be a shock to have to deal with real crowds again. Okinawa soba, and numerous other Okinawan foods that I’ve grown quite fond of, are not going to be nearly as accessible in Tokyo; yes, there are plenty of Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo, just as there are plenty of restaurants of just about every cuisine, but I’m not going to be going out of my way to eat there all the time unless I want to become some kind of weirdo. And, besides, they’re going to serve only some more touristy, standard, version of the menu. Yes, I’ll be able to go to an Okinawan-theme restaurant and get all the standard basics – peanut tofu, tofu champuru, sea grapes, hopefully if I’m lucky shima-rakkyô (shallots) – but no matter what they have, it will never compare to the fuller range available here. I’ve really kind of grown to love in the last few weeks the Okinawan “diner” (shokudô), which I’m going to have to hunt one down in Tokyo; not a fancy “try an exotic regional style of cuisine” sort of restaurant, but just a real basics, cooked by your grandma, sort of version of the food. I’ve grown to love the Taste of Okinawa craft beer hall, where they always have plenty of different Okinawan craft beers on tap or in bottles. I love the shima-yasai (island vegetables) tempura place in the yatai-mura (market of small food stalls), and the kushi-age (deep fried various things on sticks) place in Heiwa-dôri; whether this is Okinawan-style kushi-age I’m not sure, but it is amazingly delicious.
I love Tokyo, and there are a great many things about living there that I am extremely excited about. And I like who I am when I’m there (or, who I’ve been when I’ve been there in the past). But, like the version of me who wrote that post about Hawaii five years ago, I rather like who I was then (in Hawaii), and who I am now (in Okinawa), and who I might become were I to be staying in Okinawa longer, and part of me is just a bit sad, and concerned, about the “opportunity cost,” so to speak, of not remaining or becoming that version of me…
Minamoto Kichôan – a very mainstream, big-chain, wagashi (Japanese sweets) shop in San Francisco. Amazingly difficult to find a good picture of their Naha shop online; seems I forgot to take a photo when I was last there.
Another thought that struck me recently: Going to a department store like Palette Kumoji Ryûbo, and seeing alongside (presumably locally owned) Okinawan companies, also branches of places based in Kyoto or Nihonbashi, it’s not for me a feeling of the colonial presence per se, as something dark and violently imposed, but rather just a feeling of the juxtaposition of the metropolitan into the provincial. It’s weird, funny, to see something so utterly mainstream Japanese here in Okinawa. I can’t quite put words to it. If it were anywhere else, any other provincial part of mainland Japan, I don’t think it would feel this way. Having a piece of Tokyo or Kyoto in a city like Nagoya just means you’re urban, cosmopolitan. Connected into national culture. That your city is big enough to have access to the biggest and/or most elite companies or goods from the big cities. Like living anywhere in the US and still having … Oh, I don’t know, what’s a good example? Something you could normally only get in The Big City, otherwise.
But, here in Okinawa, there’s a sort of cultural juxtaposition, that makes it feel amusingly out of place. Like a piece of New York in California, or vice versa. Or anything that makes pretend Honolulu is just another part of mainstream America. … Hm. I dunno. I don’t mean to say it’s 100% definitively /not/ a colonial sort of situation, but rather simply to say that it’s not the point I’m trying to make – that the feel or flavor, the fun’iki 雰囲気 of the situation doesn’t strike me as dark or violent on the surface, in the experience in itself – only, perhaps, on the level of some kind of deep analysis. What I feel, rather, in the moment, as I experience it, is that Okinawa lies in an interesting dual position – being, yes, a region of Japan, and as such, why wouldn’t it have branches of these shops, and aspects all around of standard mainstream Japanese aesthetics and forms, but at the same time not just, not simply, another region of Japan – it is a special case, and should be seen as such. Actually, maybe it reminds me more like having these shops – Minamoto Kichoan, other Nihonbashi based stores – in Hong Kong or Singapore or something. Places where it’s definitely foreign, but still Asian – still close enough that it fits in to a certain extent, more than it would, for example, if we had a Minamoto Kichôan inside the 7th Avenue Macy’s. I think maybe that’s the more relevant comparison. Because in some ways, it really is just as foreign here in Okinawa, and yet not…
Walking around Kokusai-dori & Heiwa-dori the other day (Saturday, March 11) for what’s likely to be the last time for quite a while, it’s an interesting feeling. Somehow I hadn’t really thought about it. Hadn’t made any big deal of it to myself, that I should feel any need to visit anywhere (or everywhere) one more time. In actually doing so, there’s a quiet sort of happiness at having gotten to know all of these places so well, and of course a tinge of sadness, but actually I know I’m coming back again, sometime, and I know I’ve gotten to see and gotten to know these places so many times, I feel quite comfortable with it all. Yesterday was quite good in a way – even though I didn’t directly see the guest house one more time, or the Yatai-mura, or the calzone place (to name just a few random places that I had frequented on multiple occasions), I did walk almost right past them, at the other end of a street or alleyway that would have led there. And I passed by the one end of Yachimun-dôri. And walked up from Kokusai-dori to Miebashi, a walk I made numerous times on my 2013 visit to Okinawa, but only once I think ever since. So, a sense of nostalgia for that previous time, too, mixed in. I guess, at this point, it’s looking / feeling like I’m probably not going to make it to the Naha City Museum, or the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or a half dozen other places again before I leave for Tokyo… and I’m alright with that. At least I am for now. We’ll see how I feel when I actually get to Tokyo, and my time in Okinawa is truly over and done with.
All photos my own.