I already skipped ahead and posted about my last day in Okinawa this summer, so this post here, as the last post I expect I’ll be doing about my time there this summer, is somewhat out of order and possibly anti-climatic. But, so it goes.
Following Ryukyumura and the brief lunchtime stopover during which I poked my head into the new Okinawa rekishi minzoku shiryôkan, our pre-packaged tour took us to Ocean Expo Park. Located near the tip of the Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa, Ocean Expo Park was the site of a major ocean-themed world’s fair-style exposition in 1975, and is today most famous for the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the most popular tourist sites on the island. But, you know me. I didn’t go to the aquarium. Which isn’t to say I’m not interested – I’d love to go back someday, and see the whale sharks and all the other wonderful things I hear they have. But, give me only a few hours to visit such a large site, and you know I’m guaranteed to focus on the more history & culture oriented sights.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Ocean Expo Park is home to some great open air architectural exhibits, recreations of a wide variety of traditional Ryukyuan buildings, from the elegant home of a member of the Shuri elite, to the homes of farmers from a number of different islands, as well as storehouses and priestesses’ homes & shrines.
A Kula canoe, such as used in the Kula ring trade of the Trobriand Islands, made famous by anthropologists as an example of gift-giving cultures and among the most standard examples discussed in introductory anthropology courses. Photo my own.
The Park is also home to the Oceanic Culture Museum, quite possibly one of the best museums in the world focusing on the maritime cultures of the Pacific. Established in 1975, in conjunction with the Expo, the museum was entirely renovated over a ten-year period beginning in 2003, under the leadership of Gotô Akira, a PhD graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, who became director of the museum in that year. And it certainly looks that brand-new, in the sleek aesthetic of the exhibits and the incorporation of audiovisual and other technology in the displays. The main hall features a large map of the Pacific across the floor; as this is all video screens, it is animated, showing ships, currents, storms, whales, and the like making their way across the ocean. A large vertical screen in this hall shows a number of short videos, including one in which islander children learn from their father about the great voyages of their ancestors; the storm depicted on this screen spills over into the animated floor map, and thus almost gives the impression of reaching out and pulling you, the viewer, in. Certainly the kids I saw sitting watching the video seemed rather engaged. Another section, on performance arts across the Pacific Islands, includes a small room where visitors can try musical instruments and other performance objects for themselves, and can watch videos of performers from various islands showing them how to do it; the curator for this section is also a UHM alum, and at least one of the videos features a Samoan (I think, if I remember right) student from UH.
The exhibits cover the maritime cultures of Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Okinawa, and some parts of maritime Southeast Asia, and include a number of boats representing many places and peoples across this region. All of these are interesting, but a giant Tahitian double-hulled canoe housed in the entrance hall is perhaps of particular interest; built in Tahiti, it was designed by Herbert Kane, who also designed the Hokulea, the traditional-style Hawaiian ocean-voyaging canoe which sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in the 1970s using only traditional modes of navigating by the stars, waves, birds, etc., proving it could be done, and which is today in the middle of its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. I am terribly sad that the Hokulea will not be visiting the California coast on this trip – how cool would it have been to see the Hokulea at Stearn’s Wharf? – but after a friend reminded me of the general trend of the Coriolis effect currents in this part of the world I realized how difficult that would have been. I’m hoping if I get lucky I just might get to see them in New York, though.
The exhibits also included a number of other boats, including descriptions of a number of aspects of numerous Pacific cultures. A section in the rear of the museum focuses on the maritime culture of Okinawa, including some elements of the history of boats in Okinawa, and of fishing. I was disappointed to not see more about official elite ships, such as the tribute ships, but so it goes. In any case, I find it very interesting the way the museum places Okinawa – and not (mainland) Japan, Korea, or China – within this frame of Oceanic cultures. I’m not sure I have too much to say about it right now, exactly how to word it, but there’s something very intriguing and appealing about the idea of trying to view Okinawa as, first of all, not so automatically or exclusively associated with Japan or China, and second of all, as connected into these Pacific cultures. The various ways in which cultures represent themselves as “island countries,” or not, in which contexts, in which ways, at which times, and what it is used to mean, to suggest, or to argue, is something quite interesting.
A set of displays on the upper level, in the style of comic strips, relates about traditional navigational techniques.
Sadly the Oceanic Cultures Museum not only doesn’t allow photos in most of the museum (much thanks for allowing photos in at least some of it!) but also doesn’t have any published museum catalog that might have allowed me to take home a more extensive, thorough version of the contents of the museum. I apologize to harp on this sort of thing, as I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but I do find it frustrating that the only way to really get at the information in the exhibits is to visit there in person again, and to either take painstaking notes, writing every single thing down, or to have to visit again, and again, since there are both no photos of the labels allowed, and also no published catalog available for sale. Thus, I am left with a generally positive impression, but remembering very little of the precise details of what I saw (and, having not had nearly enough time to read everything, even if I could have remembered it).
So, it’s certainly a bit out of the way, to go all the way to Motobu, and most of the labels are only in Japanese, to go to see presumably one of the best museums of Pacific Islands / maritime culture in the world. But it really is a nice museum, and given its location right alongside the aquarium and the other sights of the Ocean Expo Park, I guess in a sense it’s not /that/ out of the way… it does remind me that I forgot to be sure to check out the newly renovated Polynesian Hall at the Bishop Museum when I was in Honolulu earlier in the summer. Oh, well. Next time.