I’d been meaning for quite some time to go rewatch the anime series “Samurai Champloo,” with an eye specifically to how accurate the show’s depiction of Ryukyuan culture is. Mugen, one of the main characters, claims to be from Ryukyu, a brilliant touch I think in a show that makes reference to so many aspects of the Edo period, remixing them into something quite edgy. In making Mugen Ryukyuan, they make reference to something relatively obscure – I wonder how many young Japanese really know anything at all about the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and its status relative to Edo period Japan. In historical fact, so far as I know, I have never heard of (read of) any Ryukyuans mingling in with Japanese society, as an independent traveler, as Mugen does. But that’s besides the point; it fits in as a possibility, with just enough thematic accuracy to make the inaccuracies, the remixed/reimagined elements not seem too out of place.
In any case, getting to the point, even within the first ten minutes of the first episode, I can tell this much: I have yet to see anything from Mugen, anything about Mugen, that marks him as Ryukyuan in a historically/culturally accurate manner. His clothes, though not necessarily absurdly out of place for the period, do not strictly speaking resemble anything I’d associate with being distinctively Ryukyuan. He has simple bands tattooed around his wrists and ankles, but Okinawan tattoos are generally known to have been worn by women, not by men, and featured certain patterns on the hands. Mugen’s sword is curved like a samurai’s blade, but it has a rather distinctive, or should I say unusual, style of hilt that definitely marks it (and him, by extension) as foreign. But, I actually don’t know what a Ryukyuan sword would look like. More Chinese, like this? Or more similar to the Japanese swords? The myth of Ryukyuan pacifism – and/or the influence of katate – is too pervasive. We don’t see Ryukyuan swords represented all that often. Finally, one last thing which is quite obvious: Mugen does not have an Okinawan accent, nor does he use any distinctively Okinawan words.
Then there’s the use of the word “champloo” (チャンプルー, chanpuruu), an Okinawan word meaning, essentially, “all mixed up.” It’s a word most commonly used to refer to stir-fry dishes, but I suppose it can be used to refer to anything that’s a jumbled up diverse mix. Such as the ethnic makeup of the local Hawaiian community, which is a total jumble of people of Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Korean, Filipino, white, and Native Hawaiian descent, many of them containing a jumble of ethnic backgrounds within themselves individually. In this respect, “appropriation” or no, I think the use of the term for this anime seems quite appropriate, referencing the “remixing” aspect of the style and approach of the whole show. It follows three main characters, but is really just a champloo of aspects of Edo period history & culture, from Ryukyuans and ronin to ukiyo-e and Commodore Perry.
None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with the show. The show is great. It’s easily one of my favorite series. But, even if I were to hypothetically be trying to conceive of a formal academic essay on the (mis)representation of Okinawan culture in this series, I’m not sure I have too much to say. … I guess we’ll see as the series goes on what else comes to mind.