Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.
I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?
This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.
Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that
It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1
Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.
Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?
A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”
That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.
Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.
But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.
Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.
For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.
But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.
1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.
2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.