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Archive for the ‘琉球’ Category

Shlepped myself out to Chiba last month, to the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku) to see their new temporary special exhibit, Umi no teikoku: Ryukyu 海の帝国:琉球 , which focuses on “medieval” Ryukyu from the perspective of Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama. These are the island groups to the north and south of Okinawa Island, each with their own distinctive histories and culture, that were forcibly brought under the sway of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15-16th centuries, where notions of being “colonized” by Okinawa can still today be heard, in contrast to notions of unity or solidarity as fellow Ryukyuans.

This is fantastic. It’s rare enough to see whole special exhibits dedicated to Ryukyuan history, and as wonderful and special as it would have been to do a Shuri-centered or Okinawa-centered exhibit (both in general, and in the wake of the fire at Shuri gusuku in 2019), it’s really something to see them do a show based on perspectives from outside of Okinawa Island. I have to wonder, when was the last time that any of the most major museums in the greater Tokyo area did a show focusing specifically on these “outer” parts of the Ryukyus? And, not only that, but as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, there a several current trends in Ryukyu Studies for reassessment of the Ryukyu Kingdom as an “empire,” reassessment of just how unified even Okinawa Island really was prior to the 15th or 16th century, and an increased focus on these outer islands and the differing perspective they can offer. So, as I’m sure the curators are well aware and did quite intentionally, this exhibit comes at an extremely timely time, in terms of its relation to current trends in scholarship. I know for myself, having enjoyed the privilege of visiting Okinawa quite a number of times but largely remaining centered in Naha, and outside of my trip to Amami last year, having never been to any of the other islands, I learned so much from visiting Amami, and sorely want to visit some of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas. Beautiful, fascinating, culturally rich places, and places which will surely provide new perspectives, new insights, on Okinawa.

Just walking into the gallery was a pleasure. I’m not sure whether I feel I should compare it to the feeling of seeing the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit at LACMA back in 2016, when the gallery was filled with special guests from Hawaiʻi, and it just felt like I was back in the Honolulu Museum or something; amidst a community. But there was maybe an inkling of a similar feeling that day last month, as I stepped into a space that made me feel as though I were transported to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Amami Museum. Made me feel like I was in a wholly different cultural space, learning about the local histories of a place far from Tokyo or Chiba, and seeing artifacts and topics discussed that would be exactly what’s expected from a (beautifully newly redone) local history museum, yet transported, transposed, to this national museum and made available, visible, to people in the metropole.

Furusutubaru ruins フルスト原遺跡 on Ishigaki Island.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

After a brief section of maps showing Japanese and European awareness of Ryukyu in the region, the very next section introduced us to the history of medieval settlements in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. Now, I suppose I should take a moment to mention, I’m using “medieval” here only as a standard translation or equivalent for the Japanese term chūsei 中世, used to refer to the period between (in Japan) roughly 1185 to 1600. As it happens, there’s a discussion on the Premodern Japanese Studies (PMJS) mailing list right now about these periodizations and what we should call them and questions of just what was “medieval” about this period – of course, applying Japanese periods to islands with minimal Japanese contact yet at this point is even more iffy. But, for simplicity, I’m sticking with it. The exhibit uses the word 中世, as does the 2019 book Ryūkyū no chūsei 琉球の中世, which represents some of the newest scholarship on the subject, so I’ll just stick with it too.

In any case, apparently many of the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands feature the remains of chūsei-era settlements encircled with stone walls (石垣を積み上げた集落) in forms unlike anything seen on Okinawa Island. Archaeological excavations at these sites have uncovered large amounts of Chinese pottery, porcelains, and coins, and something about the relative absence of these same styles of porcelains from other islands or from mainland Japan at the same time strongly suggests to scholars that there must have been some kind of direct trade/interchange between the islands and mainland China at this time – i.e. these porcelains and pottery were not coming in via trade with Japan. The Japanese describes these materials as 白磁 and 青磁, literally “white porcelain” and “blue porcelain,” and to be frank I was a bit confused because these were most certainly not the “blue and white porcelain” we are most familiar with seeing – white porcelain decorated with bold cobalt blue designs. Now that I’m home and writing this up, I googled and found that 白磁 refers to a plainer white porcelain (without cobalt blue designs) and 青磁 to celadon, which is like a lightbulb moment – makes a lot of sense, since when we read about medieval Ryukyu or Japan in English, we hear a lot about celadons. In any case, shards and scraps of such porcelains were overwhelmingly the most numerous artifacts in the exhibit. The exhibit notes that it’s unclear exactly what the islanders traded in exchange for these Chinese goods, but Korean castaway accounts record indigo dyeing in the Yaeyamas, and it’s believed that textiles, lumber, and grain are likely candidates.

These settlements mostly seem to have appeared around the 13-14th centuries, enjoyed their peak in the 14-15th centuries, and declined and disappeared in the 16th. I didn’t read every word of every label, and I’m not taking the time to check again in the catalog (which I bought for a surprisingly reasonable 1300 yen), but I’m pretty sure the exhibit didn’t talk explicitly at all about the ethnic (for lack of a better word) origins or character of these people.

In his 2019 book Maritime Ryukyu, Gregory Smits argues (based on the work of Okinawan and Japanese scholars too) that most of the big-name figures in medieval Ryukyu history, including in Miyako and Yaeyama, were likely not “indigenous” islanders in the sense of being some completely different ethnic group from the Japanese, but rather were likely wakō sea lords, likely of Japanese descent, who had come into the islands and established themselves there only a generation or two or three earlier. Overall, he suggests that “the Ryukyuan people,” such as they are understood today, are descended primarily from a number of successive waves of migrations into the islands from Japan in the 11th-15th centuries, completely displacing or absorbing the non-Japonic (Austronesian? Filipino?) indigenous peoples who may have been there previously. Scholars such as Mark Hudson, similarly, suggest that while up until a certain point the islands were inhabited by Austronesian or perhaps pre-Austronesian peoples2 with stark cultural differences from the Japonic peoples of the northern and central Ryukyus, isolated to a certain extent by the Kerama Gap – a large span of ocean between Okinawa and Miyako in which there are no islands – the indigenous languages spoken on all the southern islands in early modern and modern times are all related to one another and to Japanese – they are not Austronesian languages.

Given the implications for popular and scholarly understandings of just who the peoples of these southern islands are today, and who they were centuries ago – indigenous Ryukyuans? indigenous peoples distinct from the Okinawans who invaded them? descendants of Japanese migrants? – I was a bit disappointed, and frankly confused, that unless I missed it, I don’t think the exhibit actually talked about who it was that occupied these 13th-16th century (pre-Ryukyu Kingdom) settlements at all. Still, it was fascinating to learn about these, and to learn the names of specific ones; many of these stone-walled ruins later became sacred sites, which islanders respect as associated with their distant ancestors, performing ceremonies or ritual acts of respect or honor, apparently in ways (traditions) unrelated to Okinawan religion. Very interesting. And now that I know the names of these sites (incl. Furusutobaru on Ishigaki, Komi harbor on Iriomote, and Mishuku & Mashuku mura on Hateruma), I can add them to my list of places to hopefully visit someday.

Model of Yoron gusuku. Property of Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Image from this Asahi shinbun article, because god forbid Rekihaku should make any effort to grant visitors permission to take photos of things in Rekihaku’s own collection, or to secure permission from other museums for visitors to take photos of what’s not even a precious historical artifact but only a model.

The exhibit continued by then jumping from the Miyakos and Yaeyamas in the south to the Amami Islands to the north of Okinawa. We got to see a nice model/diorama of Yoron gusuku, which I had not known about. And which I now wish I’d snuck a photo of, since the image in the catalog is terrible. Not that I would have had a chance to see this gusuku on my 45 min layover or whatever it was on Yoron last year, but, well, one more place to know about to try to visit in future. The northernmost of the large-scale Okinawan-style gusuku fortresses (i.e. akin to Zakimi, Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Nakijin on Okinawa Island), Yoron gusuku apparently still has some significant remaining ruins of stone walls, occupying two or three levels stepping up along the side of a cliff, in the southwestern portion of Yoron Island, facing Okinawa (the next island to the south). According to the exhibit, legend says it was built by Okinawan-based rulers (i.e. the kingdom of either Hokuzan or Chūzan) in the 15th-16th centuries, but archaeological evidence suggests it was built earlier. This is just my amateur opinion, but if a fortress is facing towards Okinawa, seems to me more likely it was built as a watchtower and defense against the Okinawans than being built by them, no? In any case, perhaps this is just one more example of (1) Okinawa-centered narratives, and (2) speaking more globally, narratives which presuppose that the most dominant culture in a region must have built X, because surely the local indigenous people couldn’t have done so. … Of course, that said, it’s also quite possible that “local indigenous people” had less to do with this than, again, sea lords (brigands/smugglers) of some sort.

Moving on, the exhibit talks briefly about the early history of Kikaigashima (Kikai Island), saying that the ki in the name of the island was originally written with the characters 貴 (ki, precious, valuable) or 喜 (ki, rejoice, take pleasure in), because of its association with the shimmering, precious, turbo (turban) shells (J: yakо̄gai 夜光貝) which were a highly-prized and widely traded luxury good in the region in ancient times. Kikai and the surrounding islands were apparently regarded even in ancient times by the Dazaifu (the branch headquarters in Kyushu of the imperial government in Kansai) as being in some way part of the territory of the Yamato state (i.e. “Japan”) – as it’s phrased in the gallery labels, 「南九州の領主、内の世界とし自分たちの所領として確保」. Still, that said, the earliest record of an island by the name of Kikaijima is an entry from the Nihon kiryaku 日本紀略 corresponding to the year 998, in which Dazaifu orders the capture of “nanban” 南蛮 – southern barbarians – from Kikai. Based on a document from the previous year called Shōyūki 小右記, scholars apparently understand that “Nanban” here refers to Amami Islanders (even though the same term is much more familiar to most of us in Japanese Studies as a term referring in the 16-17th centuries to Europeans).

By the late 12th century, Kikai became a place for the Heian court or the Kamakura shogunate to exile people. It then became common to replace the “esteemed” 貴 or 喜 in the name of the island with the character 鬼 (ki, demon), making it Kikaigashima 鬼界ヶ島 – the Demon World Island. There were a number of prominent historical figures exiled there over time – one of the most famous being the monk Shunkan, who got in trouble for plotting against Taira no Kiyomori (top samurai puppetmaster of the imperial court at the time) in the 1177 Shishigatani Incident, and whose grave can still be found on Kikai today. I sorely regret not visiting when I had the chance a year ago, when I was on Amami; if I’d planned my time better, or had just one more day, I could have taken a little boat over to Kikai, poked around the sites, and come back all in one day. I think. Maybe.

1306 shobunjо̄ associated with Chikama Tokiie. Reproduction owned by National Museum of Japanese History. Image taken from somewhere on the internet because, again, god forbid the museum should allow photos of an object in their own collection, which isn’t even an original artifact but is merely a reproduction.

In any case, the exhibit then jumped ahead a few centuries to show a series of documents indicating the progression of which of the northernmost Ryukyu Islands were regarded as included within Japanese – really, Satsuma province – spheres of authority or conceptions of outright territory, and how this changed over time.

The first is a shobunjо̄ 処分状 – a document dividing up [territory] – associated with Chikama Tokiie 千竃時家, a gokenin (houseman?) for the Kamakura shogunate, c. 1306. Originally from Owari province (Nagoya), he was appointed jitôdai (steward?) of Kawanabe district in Satsuma province (basically, somewhere in the western fork of that southernmost part of Kyushu, south of Kagoshima castle-town). This was really interesting to see, for two reasons. Firstly, according to the interpretative information on the gallery labels (I couldn’t read through the document on my own), the document somehow shows an awareness or acknowledgement at the time that Kawanabe district or Satsuma province collected revenues and resources (収益と資産) from the islands of Kikai, О̄shima, Erabu, Tokunoshima, Yakushima, and “the seven islands” (a reference to the Tokaras), but did not control / administer (支配) those islands. So, that’s really interesting. I’d have to read up more – I’m only learning a lot of this for the first time – but it would definitely be interesting to learn a little more extensively just how territory or the bounds or extent of “Japan” was imagined or regarded at this time. The second piece of this that was really interesting was that the document then divides up those revenues or resources among the members of Tokiie’s family – *including his wife and daughters*. I suppose I did know on some level that elite women had quite a bit more social rights and privileges in earlier periods, e.g. pertaining to inheriting headship of a family, owning land, calling for their own divorce. But, again, this is way outside my field and period of specialty, so… it’s interesting to see how women may have been included in this, with seemingly some sort of rights to actually be granted, or to claim, a share of the family’s revenues or inheritance or whatever it may be. If anyone reading this knows gender politics in medieval Japan better, please do let me know your thoughts or knowledge on this.

The next was a document from 1227, associated with Fujiwara Yoritsune, which documents the transfer (譲与) to Shimazu Tadahisa (d. 1227) of the position of jito (steward) overseeing the twelve islands (the five Kuchi islands 口五島 and the seven islands 七島).1 A document from 1363 in which Shimazu Sadahisa describes the territory he is granting to his heir Morohisa acknowledges the “twelve islands plus the five islands” (which islands? beats me) as being attached to 付随 Kawanabe district. So, basically, we’re seeing Shimazu claims to territory – or to rights to revenue, or something – gradually increasing. From these documents alone, of course, it seems arbitrary and one-sided, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true; but we don’t have the in-between information, or, at least I didn’t happen to notice such information in the gallery labels.

The exhibit devoted quite a bit more space than I would have expected to developments on Okinawa Island. I suppose that this is likely due to either my misinterpreting the theme – it’s “empire of the sea: medieval [Ryukyu] as seen from Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama,” i.e. an exhibit focusing on the “empire” and not solely on those “outer” island groups. Or it could also be in part because of a lack of artifacts, documents, or content to share if they had focused more exclusively on those islands; also, given how infrequently the museum does special exhibits on Ryukyu, perhaps they also felt they just had stuff they wanted to share.

The Engaku-ji bell as pictured in the exhibition catalogue. Because, again, no photos allowed in the gallery for god knows what reason.

One particularly striking item, which I was surprised to learn about, was a bell from Engaku-ji 円覚寺 – the Zen Buddhist temple located just below Shuri gusuku – which includes in its inscription the phrase Shо̄ Shin teiо̄ 尚真帝王, using the character 「帝」for “emperor.” What. Wow. While I’m beginning to be convinced that Ryukyu functioned like an empire in certain ways, in terms of the way the center extended its power over the peripheries, etc., I had always fallen back on the argument that Ryukyu very explicitly had a “king” 国王 whose legitimacy was invested in him by the Emperor 皇帝 in Beijing, thus making him a “king” of a “kingdom,” and not an “emperor” of an “empire.” But, if Shо̄ Shin is explicitly calling himself teiо̄ 帝王, then that complicates things a bit. Hmm. Food for thought.

The exhibit continued in the back corner of the first gallery, where we were treated to a brief overview of early developments on Okinawa Island itself. Migrations from Kyushu and elsewhere around the 11th century spurred the introduction or expansion of agriculture and a shift away from more exclusively hunter-gatherer / fishing lifestyles; in connection with this, many settlements began to move inland from the coast, i.e. towards agricultural land and not only grouped up on the coast where fishing and other maritime activities could be the sole / primary source of survival. This was when we began to see post-construction homes and storehouses, it seems.

Then, in the 14th century or so, gusuku. Though most gusuku today are known most famously or most iconically for their winding stone walls, it makes sense that the earliest gusuku (like early medieval fortresses in Japan) began with wooden fences and the like, before stone walls became a prominent feature in later decades/centuries. The exhibit devotes a little space to highlighting the Mekarubaru settlement as an example of one site from this time. Dating to roughly the 12th-13th century, digs at Mekarubaru have uncovered great amounts of Chinese pottery and porcelain, an indication of the interconnectedness of even these slightly less-central settlements into region-wide trade networks. Sadly, the site of Mekarubaru (near Ameku, in what is today northern Naha City) was largely destroyed during the establishment of US military bases on the island in the late 1940s or later. Sadly, a very common story in Okinawa and around the world. (Interesting to see how when one Googles “US military babylon,” the first three results are an article from the UK-based Guardian entitled “Babylon wrecked by war: US-led forces leave a trail of destruction and contamination in architectural site of world importance,” and two from US-based news agencies, with much softer, hedgier, headlines: “U.S. troops accused of damaging Babylon’s ancient wonder” and “U.S. admits military damaged Babylon ruins.”)

Model / diorama of Naha harbor. To the right we see the two fortresses of Mii gusuku 三重城 and Yarazamui gusuku 屋良座森城, which guarded the entrance to the harbor. On the left, Umungusuku 御物城 hanging out in the middle of the water – this was iirc a relatively general storehouse, while the one near the bottom left corner of this image is Iо̄gusuku 硫黄城, the sulfur storehouse.

Finally, the last section of the exhibit focused on how goods (tribute or taxes) from the various islands were brought into Naha harbor, and where they were stored. There were a couple of gorgeous models of the harbor, with each fortress and warehouse labeled, which I sorely wish I had snuck photos of, since I didn’t realize they weren’t going to be depicted well in the catalog, and since I have never seen these on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (which owns them). I am not really properly expert at the urban history of Naha, but I’ve spent enough time in the city – including walking around to as many historical sites as I can – that I have a pretty good sense of the basic geography. As a result, as someone who does have some sense of the geography, I found it particularly interesting and meaningful to see on these models and on maps/diagrams just where each of these different sites had been located. The Iо̄ gusuku 硫黄城 warehouse for sulfur (iо̄ 硫黄) from Iо̄torishima, which I’d already known vaguely of, was in the area of the city known as Watanji 渡地, and what I didn’t know is that another warehouse was quite nearby – known as the Miyako-gusuku 宮古城, it held goods shipped in from the Miyakos.

Finally finally, we saw a few of the original handwritten notebooks of Ifa Fuyū 伊波普猷, “father of Okinawan Studies.” Like those of Kamakura Yoshitarо̄, these are just beautiful. I wonder if I could get a chance to see them in person; they’re held at the Hо̄sei University Okinawan Studies Center, here in Tokyo, which is certainly easily accessible. But, I always get nervous requesting to see items that I don’t actually have a serious research reason to see… and especially things like these. I mean, it’s funny – they’re 20th century items; a lot younger/newer than most of the original historical documents I handle. Newer, in fact, than most of the hand-copied manuscript copies that are just sitting on the shelves at my own Institute. But, even though, they’re fragile and precious… One thing I do think I’ll be able to get access to, though, is a set of illustrations or paintings which are held by my own Institute and which I had no idea about, depicting shrines, temples, and various other locations in Naha.

I’m not sure I have anything to say to wrap this up… It was fantastic to see an exhibit focusing on Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama, and to learn more about these “outer” islands of the archipelago. The Ryukyus are marginal enough in Japanese history (and all the more so in world history) – to get to learn about these fascinating different islands, deepening my understanding and appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within Ryukyuan or Japanese or East Asian history, was just great. It’s a shame the exhibit wasn’t larger, and didn’t allow photos. To be honest, it felt like sort of a start, a gesture in the direction of that there might be a fuller exhibit at some point… but it is most definitely a start.

The exhibit is still open until May 9. National Museum of Japanese History 国立歴史民俗博物館, a short walk from Keisei Sakura station [1 hr from Ueno; 20 mins from Narita Airport, by local train], in Chiba.

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1 The seven islands here again refers to the Tokara Islands. The five Kuchi islands, I’m assuming includes Kuchinoshima and Kuchinoerabushima, but which other three I’m not sure.

2 The idea that the peoples of Sakishima prior to Japonic migrations were Austronesian means they were descendants of people who came into the Yaeyamas and Miyakos from Taiwan; it means they would have been ethnically or culturally related to the indigenous groups of Taiwan today, and a bit more distantly but nevertheless related to Micronesians and Polynesians who settled the Pacific. “Pre-Austronesians” here means they may have been descended from peoples pushed out of Taiwan when those Austronesian (today “indigenous” or “aboriginal”) groups gained dominance.

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Thanks to Risako Sakai for sharing this article from yesterday’s Okinawa Times (17 Jan 2021) on Twitter:

There has been some progress in recent years in having universities and other institutions in Japan gradually begin to repatriate human remains (bones, etc.) in anthropology research collections back to Ainu communities; the Ainu situation still has its problems, with many universities having extremely poor records, poor management of the collections, and being very passive, half-hearted, and slow (if not outright resistant) to conduct proper investigations into the provenance of their collections or to begin the repatriation process at all; prior to Covid turning out world around, I witnessed protests outside the gates to University of Tokyo on exactly this point. Further, while some number of items have been returned to individual Ainu groups in Ainu Moshir (Ainu homelands, Japanese: Hokkaido), many have now been returned to the new National Ainu Museum Upopoy (opened in July 2020). Also known as 民族共生象徴空間 (roughly transated, “Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space”), a name which makes me roll my eyes and want to throw up, Upopoy has come under considerable criticism for being very much a national project, run by the state as part of some effort to pretend to show the state cares about the Ainu people, while not actually giving them the power to tell their own story, not sufficiently asking for or properly responding to Ainu people’s requests or desires for what they want from the national government (and from the museum), and so forth. It is my understanding, and please correct me if I am wrong, that the national government and/or the Museum is (mis)representing the Museum as in some sense belonging to the Ainu people, and that therefore remains placed in the collective memorial structure 慰霊施設 are considered “repatriated.” This is in contrast to, for example, the National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, DC, which I’m sure has its problems and its criticisms as well, but which is at least run through extensive involvement of Native American staff, curators, input from Native American Nations who actually agree to and/or recognize objects in the museum as counting as being “repatriated”, and so forth.

But, to get to the point, whatever progress is gradually being made with Ainu remains, the Ryukyuan peoples are still not officially recognized as indigenous peoples by the Japanese state, and efforts to get universities to repatriate remains stolen from Ryukyuan gravesites are seeing more foot-dragging, more obstacles and difficulties, and little progress. I’m a little embarrassed to admit, even as I read bits and pieces here and there about the Ainu case, I didn’t really think about Ryukyuan remains that might also exist in such university collections, that were also excavated (tomb-robbed); I especially didn’t think that there would be remains explicitly identified as relatives of the royal family, robbed from known and named tombs, still in university collections today.

In any case, here is my rough translation of the Okinawa Times article above:

Repatriation of Ryukyuan Remains Not Progressing ー Japan Failing to Keep Up with World Trends


The use or return of human remains taken from gravesites in Okinawa and Hokkaido for anthropological research purposes is becoming a problem. In a lawsuit calling for the return of [the remains of] Ryukyu royal family descendants held by Kyoto University, the university has not made sufficiently clear the conservation status or details of how/when they were collected [i.e. provenance] of these remains. Lack of transparency and … [?] of the management [of these objects] is emblematic of the state of Japan amidst global trends towards continuing returns to indigenous peoples.

Anthropological Research Kyoto University Collects

In the field of Anthropology, which spread from Western Europe, research also continues to progress in Japan, and in the 19-20th centuries, human remains were collected all over the country. Whereas excavation of shellmounds predominated in the mainland, in Okinawa and Hokkaido, which were de facto colonized by the Japanese government, there was also grave robbing of gravesites which were the sites of reverence and worship.

The remains which are under contention in the Kyoto District Court were collected in 1929 by Kyoto Imperial University Assistant Professor Kanaseki Takeo from the Mumujana gravesite in Nakijin village [in the northern part of Okinawa Island]. The university, based on writings by Kanaseki indicating he had the approval of the Okinawa prefectural government and police at that time, emphasizes that “the proper paperwork/procedures were followed, so it was not a crime.”

However, a survey performed by Doshisha University professor Itagaki Ryūta suggests there is a strong possibility that most of the remains were collected on Amami Ōshima and Okinawa in 1933, by lecturer Miyake Muneyoshi, at the direction of Kyoto Imperial University professor Kiyono Kenji. The numbers assigned to his Ryukyuan remains match those of 25 out of the 26 items under dispute. Kyoto University has explained that “Miyake and Kanaseki had a close friendly relationship, so it can be thought that Miyake, too, would have gone through the proper procedures in the same fashion,” but they have not found detailed records of the collection of these items.

The plaintiff, Ryūkoku University professor Matsushima Yasukatsu, is indignant that “there is no registration ledger for these remains, so even Kyoto University cannot clearly say who collected them. This is evidence that their management is sloppy and that they have not sincerely investigated the details.”
In recent years, through the advancement of DNA analysis techniques, the information that can be gleaned from bone has expanded, and research into the origins of the Japanese people is flourishing again. The Anthropological Society of Nippon in 2019 submitted a written request expressing the principle that “ancient human remains are cultural properties belonging to the people of the nation which have academic value. They must be conserved and made available for research.”

The Anthropological Society of Nippon, Japanese Archaeological Association, and others that same year, regarding the Ainu people who are recognized by the state as an indigenous people, also formulated a proposal (or draft) of guiding ethical principles demanding that human remains for which there is a possibility that they were looted without agreement [from the Ainu people] not be used for research. Prof. Matsushima argues “it’s a double standard; it’s discrimination against Ryukyuans.”

Overseas, a movement for conducting thorough investigations and returning remains to indigenous or formerly colonized peoples is growing. Kyoto University’s collection also includes remains collected in Taiwan and Korea, but their conservation status is unclear. Prof. Itagaki pointed out that “compared to overseas it is a remarkably passive stance. Kyoto University must be transparent, immediately conduct investigations, and discuss the methods for repatriating the remains, etc., in earnest.”


(inset box, left) Repatriation Problem
In the late 19th century, scholarship measuring the size and shapes of skulls in order to learn the state of development [process, advancement] or superiority or inferiority of different races spread, and the remains of people from various ethnic groups were collected. In a Ministry of Education survey, twelve universities in 2018 held more than 1500 items of Ainu human remains. Trials have resulted in objects being repatriated to Ainu groups in the regions they were taken from, or being placed in a memorial structure at the Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space (Upopoy). Surveys of the conservation status or [possibility of] repatriation for remains collected in Okinawa, Amami Ōshima, etc. are not progressing.

Glad to have learned about this. My thanks again to Sakai-san for re-tweeting about this. I have yet to read anything else about it, so I won’t go on and on speculating or commenting further, but will just leave this here for now.

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It’s easy to think of things in black and white, and to paint things with a broad brush of imperialism, colonialism, racism, militarism (take your pick). But dig just a tiny bit under the surface, and you’ll find that reality is rarely that simple. Is the solution really so obvious, simple to achieve, and definitively the right thing to do? Is it truly the case that the only obstacles to that solution are bad people, villains? Or are the obstacles at least partially logistical, practical, and due to the complexity of the situation? Are there really only two sides?

Sometimes it takes far more courage than it should have to, to simply be willing and able to say that things are more complicated than a simple full-throated defense of one side (and an equally full-throated condemnation of the other) would have you believe. And it is precisely that courageous stance that Akemi Johnson takes in her book Night in the American Village (The New Press, 2019). As she writes:

I was tired of hearing these crude dichotomies, wielded for political use. The pure, innocent victim and the slut who asked for it. The faultless activist and the rabid protestor. The demonic American soldier and his savior counterpart. They’re all caricatures, and if we’re using them to understand the larger political, sociohistorical situation – the U.S. military in Okinawa, and by extension the U.S.-Japan security alliance and America’s system of overseas basing – we’re not getting anywhere. Dichotomies like these disempower and silence the real people involved with the bases, the full cast of characters who often inhabit ambiguous spaces. (13-14)

I had the pleasure of meeting Akemi in 2017, while I was in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and she, I presume, finishing up work for this book. I waited eagerly for the book, and as soon as it came out, I dove right in; Johnson’s narrative style makes it, for sure, a page-turner, though due entirely to my own distractions and faults, my hopes and intentions of devoting myself to it and finishing it quickly did not pan out. Still, better late than never to draft and post a few thoughts, I figure.

A road construction sign along the highway in Nago. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Over the course of years of fieldwork, Johnson spoke with, and lived among, Okinawan women with a wide range of relationships with the US military bases, and she relates their stories in a way that brings to life the complex, nuanced, realities of life in Okinawa. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, in most cases given by a pseudonym, using their experience as a window into, or jumping-off point for, discussing a different aspect or different side of life in Okinawa. The women range from military wives, on-base workers, and young Okinawan “amejo” girls at clubs + bars disparaged for seeking relationships with American men to devoted anti-base protesters; from exotic dancers, English teachers, and foreign workers to multiracial students. Relating all of these stories through a focus on women brings, of course, a feminist perspective to the entire subject, and we do see discussion of issues of sexual assault, the intersections between military culture and toxic masculinity, interracial & international marriages, sex work, and other issues one might expect in a “feminist” or “gendered” approach. But centering women also serves to de-Other them, implicitly showing that by virtue of women being people (imagine that) all issues, by virtue of being issues that involve and affect people, are thus issues that involve and affect women. Johnson masterfully weaves these themes together in a way that makes the entire book read not like a Women’s Studies / Feminist book that happens to be about Okinawa, but rather an Okinawa book – a book about politics and society – that happens to relate its stories and arguments through a focus on some people (women) much more so than others (men), naturalizing and centering women’s experiences and concerns as human experiences and concerns.

The book is thoroughly researched and extensively footnoted (well, endnotes, but “footnoted” sounds better), but at the same time reads engagingly, at times narratively, less like much academic writing (including my own) and more like, well, exactly the sort of non-fiction “trade” book that it is. Sections of artfully phrased, compelling writing about the situation in a grand scope are interspersed with ones relating elements of the life of an individual woman living on Okinawa.

For foreign host communities, American bases provide jobs but also eat up land and spew American soldiers, American families, and American culture; they fill the air with jets, the roads with tanks, and the ground with toxic waste. The United States is the only country in the world to have this worldwide network of bases, and yet they remain largely outside the American consciousness. Americans unconnected to the military don’t often think of them. (6)

Arisa had grown up to marry one of the men behind the fence. She was in her early thirties now, a beautiful woman with bright eyes and freckles. Her husband Brian had retired from the military and worked as an on-base contractor, granting the family SOFA status and access to the base. That day, she was headed with their one-year-old son to an international festival, where Brian was performing with his dojo. The festival was off base on Gate 2 Street, but Arisa was using the base as a shortcut. Driving around it would have taken much longer. (91)

Night in the American Village provides us with the kind of personal, emotional, human sense of the situation that is so often missing from academic writing and thus so refreshing to find in literature and art. But Johnson does not skimp on hard-hitting, important, and interesting facts. I learned more about the US Occupation of Okinawa, and the facts and figures of the situation today, than I think I ever have elsewhere. Though the themes and information are scattered throughout the book, making it difficult to think of assigning students (or friends, or relatives) any one chapter, the volume as a whole is probably the best introduction to the complexities and realities of race, nation, economy, and the US base situation in Okinawa today that I have read.

A restaurant/bar directly across the street from the fences of Camp Foster Marine Corps base. Photo my own, Nov 2016.

One theme I found particularly compelling, which pops up here and there throughout the book but particularly in Chapter Eight (“Miyo”), is that of biracial or multiracial (or, as is commonly said in Japanese, “hafu“) identity, the place of multiracial people within Okinawa, and the character of Okinawa (not unlike Hawaiʻi) as a place where cultural & ethnic identities mix enough that Johnson (someone of mixed Japanese/white background) should write that she felt more comfortable in Okinawa than in mainland Japan. I found particularly compelling the way that Johnson illustrates the complexity here as well – tensions and issues of “race,” “ethnicity,” or “identity” are not so simply a matter of Black and White, American and Okinawan, Okinawan and Japanese, “half” and “full.” It’s also the multiracial folks who speak English and those who don’t; those who by virtue of their family members’ jobs have access to base (and the experience of that very different cultural space) and those who don’t; the influences of mainland/mainstream American and Japanese discourses upon multiracial kids’ ideas about what sort of appearances or features are beautiful, or normal, or desirable; American and Japanese notions of Blackness; and so on and so forth. The complexities of the pros and cons to special schools for mixed-race kids that provide a conducive environment among other kids with whom they share the experience of being mixed-race (and mixed culture, and so forth), shielding them from the bullying or harassment they might suffer in mainstream public schools, plus the opportunity to have American-style, partial American content, and/or English-language instruction, but then also the question of whether separating students out in this way makes it more difficult both for them and for their mainstream public school counterparts (who are mostly of “full” for lack of a better word Okinawan or Japanese ethnic background) to engage with one another and get along once the mixed-race students are forced into mainstream public high schools, and of course after they graduate and go out into society as adults.

Johnson’s line that “to me, Miyo [a young woman of mixed Okinawan/African-American background] belonged here, to this whole island” (180) stood out particularly strongly for me. I am not mixed-race myself, but after living in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa for some time, I think I have some sense of what she is talking about. She goes on to talk about how being of mixed-race on Okinawa isn’t entirely different from being Okinawan more generally, insofar as all Okinawans – those of mixed-race and those not – all struggle with being seen as Japanese enough, and with the various ways in which their “Japanese but not Japanese [enough]” status or identity manifests itself. While the conversation around mixed-race people so often centers on belonging to multiple communities, and/or feelings of insufficient belonging or insufficient “fitting in” with any of those communities, and while that is of course very much true for mixed-race people on Okinawa as well, I think it also rings very true that being mixed-race is so typical in Okinawa (as it is in Hawaiʻi) that it results in an identity that in some ways perhaps helps one feel like they belong fully to that place, perhaps even more fully than someone of solely Okinawan or, especially, Japanese background. When mixed-race, or (Japanese but not Japanese) Okinawan, people are the majority, then being mixed-race doesn’t make you stand out, different, an outcast, only partially or imperfectly belonging – your mixed identity is fully matching with the mixed identity of the society you live in. Indeed, while white privilege certainly rears its head in Okinawa as it does almost everywhere in the world, at the same time, Johnson writes that in Okinawa, many White kids feel it’s the half-Okinawan kids who are the cool ones, for their ability to feel comfortable and fit in both on- and off-base, and their ability to navigate both worlds. One hafu woman said that she used to wear brown contacts to hide her blue eyes, so she could look more Okinawan (182). There is a privilege to being Okinawan, as well; and we can see a similar phenomenon in Hawaiʻi, too, where the White (haole) majority may on average be more wealthy, more well-placed and influential in local politics and business, and “privileged” otherwise in many of the typical meanings of the word, but where they will at the same time always be outsiders amongst the Asian/Pacific Islander (most of whom are mixed-race) majority.

Barbed wire blocking access to Umungusuku, the historical site of the kingdom’s chief storehouse. Base fences block many Okinawans from accessing their ancestral graves, the former sites of their ancestral villages and the associated sacred spaces, and indeed land their family once owned or still does. Photo my own, Aug 9, 2013.

The imperialist and colonialist treatment of Okinawa, and the negative impacts of the ongoing US military presence there, are real, and the impacts are profound, serious, severe. From the wide-ranging assimilation efforts following the unilateral annexation of the islands by the Empire of Japan in 1879; to the willful neglect of Okinawa’s economic development in the decades following; to Tokyo allowing, or even encouraging, extensive death and destruction to be visited upon Okinawa and its people in 1945 in the hopes that in sacrificing Okinawa in this manner, mainland Japan, the “real” “Japan,” might be spared the same; to 27 years of US occupation; to nearly 50 years now since the end of the Occupation, years filled with plane crashes, sexual assaults, murders, environmental damage, noise pollution, and in 2020, the spread of Covid-19 by American servicemembers into an Okinawan civilian population that had had zero known positive test cases for weeks on end. And on top of all of this, the utter falsehoods which too many in the military believe, and teach to one another, about anti-base protesters being shills paid by the Chinese Communist Party; or that they’re allied with mainland Japanese right-wing ultra-nationalists; the kinds of lies that, through denying the validity and seriousness of the protest, makes it even more difficult to ever reach a solution. All of these problems are real, and profoundly seriously impactful, and I am now and expect I will always remain deeply sympathetic towards the Okinawan people in their fight for justice and equality, for cultural revival and pride, and for reconciling with an extremely difficult past and attempting to build a brighter future.

But that alone is not the end of the story. When I visited Okinawa for the first time, way back in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of anti-American sentiment. I had certainly experienced plenty of it at SOAS, which is a story for another time, and I had never yet been to Hawaiʻi; had no experience yet with navigating that somewhat similar situation. Anxious about being associated with any sort of stereotype of the bad American, whenever people asked me outright where I come from, or if I’m American, I answered that “I am American, but I’m opposed to the bases.” To my surprise, though, people very often responded with something along the lines of, “oh, it’s not that simple. You can’t just be ‘opposed to the bases.’ They cause a lot of problems, yes, but a lot of us work on base. We rely on the bases for jobs, and for the economy. You can’t just say ‘get rid of the bases.’ And, besides, after so many decades, we’re a little Americanized. It’s part of what Okinawa is today. So, it’s more complicated than that.” Now, granted, there are all kinds of factors – this was said to me most often by older men, so perhaps it’s not perfectly reflective of what most Okinawans, old and young, men and women, would all have to say.

Driving past the gates to, I’m guessing, Camp Schwab, near Henoko Bay. I’ve never been inside any of the bases on the island. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

It’s exactly that complexity, that nuance, that diversity of opinions, experiences, and perspectives, that Akemi Johnson so adeptly and engagingly brings to life in Night in the American Village – far more masterfully than I can in my summary of it. Johnson devotes multiple chapters to the perspectives of, and issues pertaining to, activists. The book begins and nearly ends (but for a few pages) with discussion of the horrific rape and murder of a young Okinawan woman by a former Marine in 2016, just months before I arrived in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and explores at length the dangers of the US bases, the damage and problems they continue to cause, and the uphill battle to convince Tokyo and Washington to finally give up on building a new, way-over-budget and devastatingly environmentally destructive base in Henoko Bay.

But then she also presents stories and perspectives of women who find working or socializing with Americans a way of escaping gender inequalities or patriarchal or sexist attitudes in “regular” Okinawan or Japanese society, or simply as a practical choice for a good-paying, stable job with flexible vacation time and so forth. American women who never really asked to be involved in any of this, but have simply been deployed – or have followed along with a spouse who was deployed – to somewhere new and different, where they don’t speak the language and where they’re just trying to get by best as they can; I’m not sure if Johnson provides the numbers, but I get the impression that a very considerable portion of the US servicemembers in Okinawa have never lived outside the US before. Many may not have ever left their home state before. She presents a complicated story in which there is, to be sure, much to the idea that the fundamental culture of the military “breeds violence both at work and at home,” that military culture breeds toxic masculinity and thus domestic and sexual violence, and that the military presence is just, overall, across the board, dangerous and damaging; but, then, at the same time, marking the bases as “pollution” means that everyone associated with them is also polluted, stigmatizing everyone who works on base or has relationships on base, which both prevents them from feeling welcome in the protest movement, hardening people’s attitudes and exacerbating social/political divisions, and creates further problems among friends, families, and so forth. I very much felt when I was living in Hawaiʻi, and I can easily imagine in Okinawa too, that local community can be very tight-knit, or interconnected. Everyone knows one another. Everyone, even if they are strongly anti-base in their political attitudes, knows people who work on base or who are married to someone who does.

We are introduced too to women like the artist Ishikawa Mao who are strongly proud of being Okinawan and opposed to the bases (one of her art books is entitled 「フェンスにFuck You!」or “Fences, Fuck You!”) but who found themselves in working and socializing with Black men, and Black Panthers in particular, forming a bond with these men over their shared racial/ethnic struggles (155). And women who fight for women’s rights and women’s issues (e.g. protesting against sexual violence) as their contribution to the anti-base fight, but who are then criticized for focusing “too narrowly on women’s issues,” something many activists wrongly see as “non-political,” or the wrong kind of fight (139). Women who have set up English-language conversation groups or other activities in an effort to build bridges: not ignoring or denying the problems of the bases but trying to address them and seek solutions in a different way. And women who are simply apolitical regarding the bases because, at least as some older activists see it, they just don’t know any better; they grew up around the bases as an everyday element of what was normal, were raised by general Japanese popular attitudes to think of activism or protest as radical, extremist, and were educated in a public school curriculum set on the national (Japanese) level, with little instruction on Okinawan history.

And in the process, with these women’s experiences and perspectives as the jumping-off point, we learn so much that I had never known before about the history of the bases and of protest in Japan; the history of the bar/club/entertainment districts (and the associated world of sex work) in Okinawa; issues and complexities related to what happens when base land is “returned” to Okinawan control (most often, it’s made into strip malls and the like); complexities of Japanese attitudes and laws surrounding race, gender, sex, and sexual violence; people’s conceptions and misconceptions about media bias, the true intentions (and identities) of protesters; and a variety of other topics.

While, as I’ve said above, I remain deeply sympathetic to the suffering and struggles of the Okinawan people, to the anti-base movement, anti-colonial discourses, and efforts to raise awareness of – and reduce instances of – sexual violence, at the same time we come to appreciate that nothing is black and white. There is both good and bad on-base, and off-base; good and bad within activism and protest; good and bad within sex work. Taking people as individuals, few fully match any stereotype; we are complex beings, multi-faceted. Perhaps we should not take everyone to be wholly guilty or innocent solely based on which side of the fence they stand on. I think that reading this at this time, given what’s going on in our world right now (and most especially back home in the United States, something which of course bleeds over onto the military bases, and out of them, as well as bleeding over into civilian life here in Tokyo and throughout the world in other ways), the lesson is perhaps all the more important. If we want to solve any problem in the world – if we want to heal divisions, bring people together, find compromises and solutions – we have to first understand the true complexities and nuances of the reality of the situation, and not the strawman version painted by rhetoric within one echo chamber or another. I think this goes for problems in our own country and communities, but I think that, despite not being particularly overtly a book about (anti-)Orientalism or indigenous perspectives or the like, Night in the American Village is also a powerful read for helping us to appreciate the profound importance of not going into another community’s situation, another culture’s problems, and thinking you already know the right side to be on, or the right way to understand the entirety of the situation. “I’m an American but I’m opposed to the bases” doesn’t cut it.

The “American Village” of the book’s title. A shopping center in Chatan, just outside Camp Lester and south of the massive Kadena Air Base, that doesn’t resemble a theme park nor any sort of reproduction of American townscapes like I might have expected, but is truly just a place to shop during the day, and get drunk at night. Even if it wasn’t way too far from Naha or University of the Ryukyus for my convenience, I still wouldn’t want to spend much time there; I generally try to avoid the military folks as much as possible. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Night in the American Village is going immediately into any syllabus (reading list) for courses I might hopefully get to teach in future on Okinawan or Japanese Studies. Maybe even for World History, if I can squeeze it in. The one difficulty, though, is that if I were to assign Night in the American Village to students, it would be difficult to select which chapter to assign. Johnson weaves such a wonderfully intricate, complex, nuanced – and yet every easy-to-read, engaging, page-turning – picture of life in Okinawa today, it is difficult to pick out any one chapter to represent the whole. I may decide to have students all read different chapters, and then present on them so as to give one another an impression of the content, without having to burden non-native English speakers with reading an entire book.

I think it is so important for students – and, indeed, for all Americans (and Japanese) – to learn about Okinawa, to learn about this place that is so rich and vibrant and fascinating, and that also continues to struggle under burdens placed there by both Washington and Tokyo and yet which so few Americans (or Japanese) know almost anything about. I think it is so important for people to learn about the effects of imperialism and militarism, what it looks like on the ground, how it affects people’s lives, their culture, their peoplehood and sense of identity, and the path of their collective history. But beyond anything specific to Okinawa alone, I think it is also so important for people to understand and appreciate complexity and nuance, and this is something I think this book shows, teaches, in such a compelling and brilliant way.

I hope that many people interested in issues of militarism and its effects on civilian communities; colonialism and post-colonialism; women’s rights; history of protest; and so forth, far beyond those with a particular interest in or connection to Japan or Okinawa, will come to read this book. It sorely belongs on more undergrad + graduate reading lists, and on more “recommended reads” displays in local and big-box bookstores.

Futenma airbase, and a section of the city of Ginowan, the Okinawan, Japanese, American, and other civilians who live just outside its gates. Photo my own, Aug 5, 2013.

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「美術漆器製造販売」, Meiji period catalog for ordering Ryukyuan lacquerwares.

Here’s one of the many posts I drafted a few years ago and never got around to posting. Still relevant today, I think.

In the course of my dissertation research, I began to get the feeling that Okinawan history can often be prone to certain ideas of conventional wisdom being repeated over and over, without a real solid notion of their veracity. Gregory Smits’ critiques of the oft-cited official histories produced by the royal court in his recent book Maritime Ryukyu would seem to support this. Now, whether this is typical in other fields as well, or whether it is more distinctly an issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, I’m not sure. But, regardless, I grew worried – and to be frank, remain worried – about accidentally including in my dissertation (as well as in conference presentations or journal articles) the kind of statements that would make an expert shake their head at my mistake. Much like how I shake my head at people who say that Okinawan is a dialect, or that Japan was “closed” for hundreds of years, or, as much conventional wisdom in the karate world would have it, that King Shō Shin banned weapons in the 16th century and that Ryukyu has been a kingdom of peace, a culture of pacifism ever since.

I know most people worry the most about the argument, the theoretical interpretation, and so forth. And of course all of that is important. But I think getting the details right, and doing your best to be a source that people can learn (and cite) accurate information from is also important. Advancing knowledge of the field not only in our interpretations but also in our findings: in correcting misconceptions and putting forth correct information, best as we can.

An 1889 book called Ryūkyū shikki kō (琉球漆器考, “Thoughts on Ryukyu Lacquerware”), oft-cited and regarded as a classic on the subject, almost a primary source, tells us the lacquer tree is not native to Ryukyu and has never grown well there – that Ryukyuan lacquer has always been made with imported raw lacquer from Japan or elsewhere. A number of museum catalogs, academic articles, and the like from the 1980s to today say the same, citing only this source. A curator I spoke with during my time in Okinawa, whose specialty of expertise is Ryukyuan lacquerware, told me much the same. And yet, I then read an essay by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1933-2005)* explicitly addressing the point and saying “while many have long said that Ryukyu never had its own lacquer trees, most often simply citing the Ryūkyū shikki kō, as I have explained elsewhere, evidence shows that Ryūkyū certainly did produce its own lacquer, perhaps even since the Jōmon period, thousands of years ago”. Great. Now what? Absent the time, resources, expertise to hunt down the truth myself – which could, honestly, be an entire PhD project unto itself – which are we to believe?

One of the main gates into the portion of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is not open to the public. But prior to 1889, the emperor did not reside beyond this gate, but rather at a temporary palace outside of the current palace grounds entirely.

Learning new things very typically is not this ambiguous. I could cite numerous examples of things which I never knew, but which one scholar revealed, and which I feel I can now take to be true. To name just one, there is the basic general assumption that Edo castle quickly became the Imperial Palace after 1868; in fact, as Takashi Fujitani explains, Edo castle burned down in 1873, and for the better part of the next fifteen years – a pretty central key period in the development of the new “modern” Meiji Japan – there was nothing in the center of Tokyo but a gaping burnt-out hole, and the Imperial Court was based, instead, in the former mansion of the Kishû Tokugawa lords. If you never read Fujitani’s book, or certain other sources, you might never know, simply because so many other authors breeze past it or don’t even realize themselves that “the imperial palace” at that time wasn’t the same site or the same structure as post-1889.

Similarly, most discussions of Commodore Perry omit that he ever spent time in Okinawa. But, once you learn about it, you know it, and there’s no need to worry about doubting its veracity, or being unclear or undecided on which interpretation or account is correct. I could also cite numerous examples of things which remain a matter of interpretation, but at least there is a standard interpretation that’s widely popular and widely accepted among scholars today. I don’t have to feel frozen with indecision over whether to think Japan was “closed” in the Tokugawa period, when pretty much every major early modern Japan specialist today agrees that it wasn’t, or at least that it was no more “closed” than China or Korea at the same time, that “maritime restrictions” might be a better term, and that Japan did have very active and significant contacts with the Ainu, Korea, Ryûkyû, the Dutch, and the Chinese, albeit not with any other major Western powers.

But then you come back to something like the question of whether Ryûkyû historically, traditionally, had its own lacquer trees. And there just isn’t enough published on it to know. As of right now, as I sit here typing this, I have one curator telling me they didn’t (and I presume the gallery labels at that museum would say the same), and one rather preeminent scholar writing that that’s hogwash and that Ryûkyû did have their own lacquer trees. I also have a handful of museum catalogs and other books and articles on Okinawan art in general, or Ryukyuan lacquerware in particular, which make no mention of the issue. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much for my own work; I’m not basing my larger arguments on any of these particular points. And, besides, there are always the questions of who’s going to actually even read my dissertation? And even if they do, are they really going to take note of that one footnote? Ah, but if they do, and if they cite me as having said that Ryûkyû either did or didn’t have its own lacquer trees – and all the more so if they then make some argument that rests on this assertion, well, now I really am complicit, if that’s the right word, in perpetuating a misconception.

So, what am I supposed to believe? This isn’t about judging the quality of the argument, or the evidence – it’s just one assertion against another, with very little if any evidence being presented. Nor is it a case of an active debate in the field, so much as it’s just a lack of information. A lack of evidence. A lack of scholarship. And so, everyone goes along either believing the Ryūkyū shikki kō (and the lineage of scholarship citing back to it), or they believe Tokugawa-sensei. Either way, young scholars like myself who are trying to build up their own knowledge of Okinawan history and culture are left just not knowing.

A bingata robe, formerly owned by the royal family, now a National Treasure and held at the Naha City Museum of History.Gallery labels tell us that this brilliant yellow was restricted to members of the royal family. Is that true? Or another piece of potentially mistaken conventional wisdom?

And, it can be very hard to know who to turn to. I have great admiration for traditional practitioners – dancers, musicians, weavers, martial artists – and could indeed write a whole blog post about how I would love to have a stronger ability to see things through their perspective, a perspective of traditions, cultural significance, technique and aesthetic; understanding things within a cultural context, a context of the tradition to which they belong, and not merely a political, economic, or social history sort of context that may pay attention to that history but without the same sort of appreciation. And yet, at the same time, while some traditional practitioners will have a keen eye for the questions and problems involved and may be able to regale you with their brilliant personal knowledge – beyond anything that can be found in books – as to the entire history of the issue, many other traditional practitioners are simply going to tell you conventional wisdom. They’re going to tell you what their sensei told them, or what they heard through the grapevine, like it’s gospel.

And so, perhaps we turn back again to researchers. And, yes, I can and I should reach out to people like Sudō Ryōko, who is probably one of the leading experts within formal academia on garments worn in the royal court, and ask her what she knows of whether bingata (a particular style of resist-dye decoration) garments were in fact truly limited to only the aristocratic classes, and in what ways and in what contexts. But I fear there will always remain this niggling feeling in my mind that it still isn’t settled. Whatever answer she gives me, there will be some other person, or book, that happens to say otherwise, and I’ll be left not knowing again. This nagging, frustrating, feeling, that no matter where you turn – encyclopedias, or something like Okinawa bijutsu zenshû (“Complete Collection of Okinawan Art,” pub. 1989) – you’re still not getting a truly definitive answer.

Were sanshin truly limited to only the aristocratic classes as well? I have certainly heard it said, many a time, but I am not sure if I’ve read that in a proper scholarly article, let alone read a fuller explanation about it. If I say they were, and even if I cite it to this book or that book, or to a conversation with this sanshin master or that music professor, am I still shooting myself in the foot for other readers who will look at it and say

ugh, how can this guy be so clueless!? Relying on X, doesn’t he know that Y showed that it wasn’t that way? How can I trust anything else this guy is saying if he even gets this wrong!?

Thankfully, I don’t think many or perhaps even any of these debates are crucial to my own argument, and so I may be able to continue to just skirt them entirely. But, even so, wherever I do cite anything on any of these issues, I’m entering into the danger of myself unknowingly repeating the same problematic conventional wisdom. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

*Descendant of the Owari Tokugawa clan, and long-time head of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. Not to be confused with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) of the Mito lineage, and the final shogun.

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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.

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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.

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I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization” (International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

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*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

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As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

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Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

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Early in the morning on Thursday Oct 31, 2019, exactly 27 years to the day after its postwar restoration was complete, seven of the central buildings of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku) the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, burned down in what seems to have been a tragic, tragic accident.

The front page of the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, Nov 1, 2019.

I awoke that morning to this shocking news. Whether I saw it first on Twitter or on Facebook, I don’t recall. I had actually been in Naha just a week or so earlier, but hadn’t made it to the castle on this visit. Video of the castle in flames was showing amongst other news briefs on the video screens on the Tokyo Metro subway as I made my way into work, and by the time I got into the office, there was an email very kindly forwarded to me by a friend, from Singapore-based Channel News Asia looking for someone to speak briefly, live on-air, via Skype. We had already begun to see reactions in the English-language news, social media, and elsewhere – of which I, I will admit, was guilty as well at first – dismissing the fire as being not that important, since the buildings destroyed were all 1990s-2000s reconstructions and not authentically historical buildings. As I later learned, contributors on Wikipedia similarly came to a swift conclusion not to include the fire in the “In the News” section of Wikipedia’s front page because, as one user wrote, “If this was about the original buildings being destroyed, it’d be newsworthy,” later adding “Thanks for the correction, let’s make it a strong oppose then. I’ve got clothes older than the buildings destroyed. This is completely misleading and not in the slightest newsworthy.” Having since read much, not only in scholarship and newspapers, but also on friends’ social media accounts, about how much the castle meant to them, I was saddened and infuriated.

I still feel conflicted about having accepted the invitation to speak on-camera, rather than doing the “recognize your privilege” thing and deferring to Okinawan or Okinawan-American friends – I hate that anyone should think that I would be eager to use such a tragic event as an opportunity for self-promotion. But I did think that most Okinawans or Okinawan-Americans I might pass it along to were likely plenty busy with commenting or responding in other ways – and many did end up being interviewed by the media, or having an opportunity to respond publicly in other ways, and I hope I can feel okay with the idea that I wasn’t really stealing anyone’s spotlight but simply adding an additional, supporting, voice, repeating and amplifying the voices I had heard, to do what little I could to try to help correct some misunderstandings and, simply, to bring Okinawa, its people, and their history and culture, to the world’s attention if only for a moment.

Jon Itomura, executive director of Hawaii United Okinawa Association, being interviewed by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Company (琉球放送, RBC):

Since then, I have been keeping up with the news as much as I can, and with individual friends’ and colleagues’ social media posts, as well as discussing the fire and the significance of Shuri with friends both here in Tokyo and overseas. That very night, after the fire, I immediately started reading two books which had long been near the very top of my “to read” pile: Tze May Loo’s Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation Into Modern Japan, 1879–2000, and a chapter on Shuri castle and “Ryukyu Restoration” in Gerald Figal’s book Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa. Thanks to another kind recommendation, I was able to share some of what I had learned, about Okinawans’ own feelings about the significance of the 1992 restoration, the existence of the castle since then, and the tragedy of its loss, in a piece for a UK-based art world magazine, Apollo. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Simon Kaner for passing this opportunity along to me, and to Apollo for seeking to publish something on this beautiful and powerful place that has such a special space in so many people’s hearts.

The main hall (Seiden 正殿, or Momourasoe udun 百浦添御殿) at Shuri castle, in a photo I took in Sept 2014.

There is still so much more that I have to say, and that so many others have been saying. It’s been more than two weeks since the fire now, and a part of me felt that I really ought to post something here on the blog almost immediately. Some of my loyal readers, if I indeed have any (I don’t presume I do), may have noticed the conspicuous absence of any comment on the event until now. But I delayed because I felt there was still so much to read, and to think about, and to synthesize. And I think there will still be more posts yet to come. But I wanted, now, finally, today, to start to share some introductory thoughts. Over the coming days and weeks, if I end up keeping to it, I may end up posting more.

For those interested in contributing to the reconstruction efforts:
*One way to do so, particularly for those in the US, is through a GoFundMe organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
*Those who pay taxes in Japan can redirect their furusato zeikin to the reconstruction effort: https://www.furusato-tax.jp/gcf/717.
*And the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper is maintaining a list of other ways to donate: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/entry-1019118.html

Those who have visited the castle may wish to share photos with a lab at the University of Tokyo which is working to combine crowdsourced photographs into a 3D virtual digital model, or recreation, of the castle. See this link: https://www.our-shurijo.org/index_en.html

Another organization is working on creating an archive of people’s thoughts and experiences regarding the castle – not just rebuilding the castle, and continuing to try to safeguard the roughly 1100 out of 1500 physical historical cultural treasures which survived the fire, but to build and maintain an archive of memories. Watch this space: https://miraifund.org/kikin/shurijo/

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