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Archive for the ‘Okinawa’ 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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Since the fire at Shuri castle / palace / gusuku this past October, I have been reading a lot about the site; about the process leading up to its postwar restoration in 1992; about the events that have been held there since 1992, including the revivals and reenactments of various forms of court ceremonies and entertainments; and about the meaning, significance, and character of the site for people before and after the tragic October 31, 2019 fire.

The royal throne, imperial plaques (扁額), and decorated pillars produced by Maeda, or under his instruction, in the upper throne room (大庫理, ufugui) of the restored royal palace at Shuri. All lost in the 2019 fire. Photo my own, Sept 2016.

In the process, I have enjoyed learning about some of the people who played a prominent role in these processes. Outside of the field of Okinawan art, I would imagine Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 isn’t a name very many people are familiar with, at all; probably not even within Okinawa, except among those within particular circles. But Maeda was perhaps the leading lacquerware master involved in the restoration work, creating reproductions of the ornate red-lacquered, gilded royal throne (with mother-of-pearl inlay); red-lacquered and gilded plaques which hung over the throne, bearing the calligraphy of Qing emperors, as well as plaques hanging over many of the castle’s gates; and the decoration of the pillars framing the throne, encircled with multicolored and gilded dragons; among many other objects.

Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 was born in 1936 in the village of Ôgimi, in the Yanbaru/Kunigami area of Okinawa Island. A small village near the northern end of the island, Ôgimi is today home to just over 3,000 people, and is famous for its shikuwasa (a fruit related to the lime), its kijumunaa (local spirits somewhat akin to leprechauns or menehune), and perhaps the highest life expectancy in the world, with a considerable number of residents over one hundred years old.

Above: Maeda on Oct 31, 2019. Image from the Okinawa Times.

Maeda would have been 14 when the University of the Ryukyus was established, in 1950, right atop the ruins of Shuri castle (destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the island). He later attended that university and graduated with a degree from the fine arts section (美術工芸科). His teacher Adaniya Masayoshi 安谷屋正義 (recognized now if not back then as one of the *giants* in early postwar Okinawan painting) then introduced him to a job as a designer in a lacquerware company. Five years later, he showed his works for the first time in a large lacquerwares exhibition, and reportedly made a big impact. In 1968, he opened his own workshop, the Maeda Shikki Atorie 前田漆器アトリエ (Maeda Lacquerwares Atelier).

At some point, he was later designated by the prefecture a “holder of Intangible Cultural Heritage” 県指定無形文化財保持者 – a title granted to those who are exceptional masters of particular traditional cultural techniques, skills, and knowledge. He also came to serve as an advisor to the prefecture on matters of traditional arts, and taught courses as a lecturer at both the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa geidai) and Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). It is difficult, he has said, however, to maintain and pass down a tradition of the most expertly refined skills, and of producing the highest-quality works, when popular conception is of your works as “souvenirs.” From the 1950s or so onward (if not in the prewar period as well), Ryukyuan lacquerwares began with increasing rapidity to be produced ever more cheaply, and ever increasingly with styles or motifs catering to a tourist or export market. Americans, as well as Japanese tourists and tourists from elsewhere in East Asia, wanted lacquerwares they could buy as affordable and stereotypically “tropical” or “Okinawan” souvenirs. As many lacquerware makers began to regularly cut corners and to use new techniques to save money, thus producing works they could afford to sell for less, the traditional techniques of how to produce the finest objects began to be lost; Maeda worked to revive that tradition by studying in mainland Japan and bringing such techniques, knowledge, and skill back to Okinawa – such as the skill to select the best part of the turbo shell, and to slice it as thinly as 0.07 mm, to produce the most delicately colorful and iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay.

When he was in his 50s (in the 1980s), he proposed to his partner by saying “let us rebuild Shuri castle together” (一緒に首里城を造ろう),1 which I think is really kind of beautiful, and says something about how engaged and supportive she must have been. Her name is 栄, and I want to be able to talk about her here by name, at the very least, rather than only calling her “his wife.” But I sadly have not yet come across anything which indicates how she pronounces her name. I’ve known some men named 栄, and they pronounced it “Sakae.” Is she Sakae-san? Or is it perhaps Yô-san? Clearly, she deserves profound recognition as well.

The “Shurei no kuni” 守禮之邦 (“Land of Propriety”) plaque hanging over the famous Shureimon near the entrance to Shuri castle is also one of Maeda’s works. Photo my own, Jan 2020.

In a 2013 interview, Maeda said he had discussed with his wife that he would retire at age 90. What will I do when I am 90 and weak? he says he asked her, to which she responded, it’s better to think of that once you turn 90.2

Learning of the fire on Oct 31, 2019 from his hospital bed, Maeda spoke of his hope to leave the hospital soon, after which he would immediately jump back into work reconstructing what was lost. “It’s not over” (「そしたら、すぐにでも復元に飛んでいきたい。まだ、おしまいじゃない」) the Okinawa Times quoted him as saying. His wife Sakae (or Yô?) added, “This is this man’s good point. He can’t help but to keep going.” (「それがこの人のいいところ。また頑張るしかないね」)1

Sadly, Maeda passed away a few month later, on Jan 14, 2020, at the age of 83. He lived to see the destruction of all those priceless lacquerwares in the castle fire, along with many produced in the time of the kingdom, but not to return to his workbench, or to the palace site to share his wisdom, his knowledge, his masterful skill to recreate what has once again been lost. But he will be remembered. If the name Maeda Kōin does not already appear in textbooks, I hope that it will. I most certainly will talk about him if and when I ever get to teach a course on Okinawan art history; Heritage & Tradition; or the like.

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1. 「「まだ、おしまいじゃない」 首里城の玉座制作の漆芸家 落胆の涙を拭い前向く」, Okinawa Times, 1 Nov 2019.
2. 「90歳までは仕事をして、90歳になったら遊ぼうねと、妻と話をしています。足腰も弱る90歳で何をするかと僕が聞くと、妻は『90になった時に考えればいいさぁ』。」“Shitsugei Maeda Kōin-san: Shurijō ni inochi wo fukikonda shitsugei sakka” 漆芸前田孝允:首里城にいのちを吹き込んだ漆芸作家, ”Shuri: Ryūkyū no miyako wo aruku” 首里:琉球の都をあるく, Momoto special issue 別冊モモト, Itoman: Tōyō kikaku (2013/8), 28.

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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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A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

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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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Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

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