Congrats to Gov. Onaga!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the realms of I’d better post about this soon while it’s still relatively timely, on Nov 16, Okinawa elected a new governor, Onaga Takeshi, who promises to be more unequivocally and steadfastly anti-base than his predecessor, Nakaima Hirokazu.

And my sanshin teacher from Hawaii (Norman Kaneshiro, in the red) was at the victory party!

Thanks so much to Joseph Kamiya of PaperShop Projects for providing this video! (incidentally, Kamiya has a name-your-price digital album of Okinawa-infused remixes which is pretty excellent. Take a moment and check it out.)

That construction at Henoko – run by the central-government, and outside the direct control of the Okinawa prefectural government – continues despite the opposition of as much as 80% of Okinawa’s population, is often represented by Okinawans and their supporters as a failure of democracy. And I would agree. Okinawans have all the same full rights and freedoms as any Japanese citizens, and they get their proportional portion of votes in the national legislature. But, time and again, they are outvoted, overrode, by Tokyo’s decisions. Which would be fine, and fair, when it comes to national matters. But when it pertains to their own home, their own land…

A Washington Post article on the election begins:

The man likely to become the next governor of Okinawa insists he’s not anti-American. He’s not even anti-alliance. In fact, he declares, he loves the United States.

But what he really loves, most of all: democracy.

“It’s good to be democratic,” Takeshi Onaga said in an interview at one of his campaign offices in central Naha, the capital of this sub­tropical island chain south of the Japanese mainland. “How can we criticize countries like China if we don’t respect democracy here in Japan?”

Onaga is further quoted in the New York Times as saying, very much along these lines, that “The new military base will not be built. … I will convey the will of the Okinawan people to the governments of Japan and the United States.” I am encouraged to read, too, that Onaga plans to open a Washington office, where Okinawan representatives can meet with American officials, and maybe, hopefully, get their voice heard a bit more loudly.

A banner hung on the fence at Futenma Air Base, reading “Revoke the stationing of Ospreys. Close the dangerous Futenma.” Photo my own, August 2013.

Maybe I’m just living in an echo chamber, but after reading anti-base blog posts, news articles, and so forth nearly every day, I found it very interesting to see The Economist’s take on the election. Published on Nov 15, the day before the election, the article calls Onaga “the most dangerous … of the three candidates opposing Mr Nakaima,” and speaks chiefly from a very geopolitical point of view, with a focus on the difficulties this will present for the US-Japan alliance. I do appreciate the turn of phrase at the very end of the article, that “many [Okinawans] feel their country has always thrown them off a cliff; American bases, rather than being a cornerstone of their defence, seem another reason why, one day, they might be attacked again.” But, overall, there is the sense here that the Okinawans are the obstacle for the US and Japanese governments, and not the other way around. Not that there’s anything wrong with offering different perspectives. A multitude of perspectives is, of course, ideal. But, I wonder to what extent other mainstream media sources – if they’re covering it at all – present this geopolitical strategic point of view, with only the briefest acknowledgements of any kind of sympathy for Okinawan perspectives.

That a Deutsche Welle article is titled “Japan’s new Okinawa governor could delay US’ Pacific pivot” shows their point of view. The more I learn of this “Asia-Pacific pivot,” the less I like it. Call me just plain ignorant if you’d like, I fully admit I don’t follow political news as closely as some, but when I was at the East-West Center in Hawaii, maybe it was just because of the environment I was in, but when I heard about the Asia-Pacific pivot, I genuinely thought this meant a “pivot” towards listening more to Asia-Pacific voices, and caring more about Asia-Pacific interests. Seems that’s not the case. The Economist article mentioned above describes it as “tilting American strategic weight towards Asia.” Not exactly what I had in mind.

The Guardian’s reporting takes a very similar position, in an article with the sub-title “Takeshi Onaga’s victory poses headache for Japan’s PM and for Washington, which is pushing for construction of new base.” It’s all in tiny twists of the wording. We are told “almost two decades on, local opposition to the move and political indecision in Tokyo means not a single marine or piece of military hardware has been moved,” implying that it’s the Okinawans’ fault that everything has been so delayed, when in truth I get the impression that these activists have never been pushing for anything to be delayed, but in fact, for the removal of the bases to be sped up as much as possible. It is Tokyo, and Washington, who have delayed dismantling Futenma until the controversial base at Henoko is ready, instead of listening to the Okinawan people, abandoning the Henoko project, and dismantling Futenma at the same time. In short, don’t blame the Okinawans for this, and don’t put Tokyo’s and Washington’s “headaches” as the key point in the story.

The Diplomat similarly reports “Local elections in Okinawa deal another blow to the prime minister’s agenda.”

Only in Forbes, of all places, do we find an article more clearly leaning in Okinawa’s favor. Entitled “U.S. Filled Okinawa With Bases And Japan Kept Them There: Okinawans Again Say No,” Doug Bandow’s Forbes article opens with:

The U.S. is over-burdened militarily and effectively bankrupt financially, but Washington is determined to preserve every base and deployment, no matter how archaic. Such as the many military facilities in Okinawa, which risks sinking under the plethora of American installations, runways, materiel, and personnel. No wonder the Okinawan people again voted against being conscripted as one of Washington’s most important military hubs.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the one major paper in the US of which I’m aware that I expected to have a more sympathetic take, as far as I can tell, has not reported on the election at all.

Above: The gates to Camp Kinser, just one of more than a dozen US military bases on the island, taking up roughly one-fifth of all land on the island, and denying Okinawans access to all this area behind the fences.

Below: The cliffs at Mabuni, where many Okinawans killed themselves in 1945, pushed by their own Japanese Army until they had nowhere else to go. Sacrifice for the sake of the nation was the mantra then, and so it remains today, for Okinawa. Both photos my own, Sept 2014.

The Atlantic: 1491

I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)

It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.

In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.

Just a thought.

Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”

Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:

Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.

Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.

This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”

After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?

Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.

From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.

ʻIolani Palace, the former royal palace of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The only former royal palace in the United States, it is built in very much a European/Western mode, with much of the interior furnishings being made in Germany, but out of koa wood, and with traditional Hawaiian symbols of legitimacy and kingship intertwined inside and out.

Back in September, at the East West Center conference in Okinawa, one of the talks was given by a representative from the League of Historical Cities, introducing us to the League and to the idea that perhaps Honolulu should join the League.

This League, which I had not heard of before, sounds like a rather interesting organization. It includes roughly one hundred cities worldwide; many are the classic examples of the stereotypical “great city,” including Paris and Vienna, and the organization definitely does seem to have an elite sort of air to it (though it may have just been the presenter’s British accent contributing to that impression), privileging cities with grand architecture, including palaces and temples/cathedrals, representing, to be sure, a particular set of values as to what makes a city great, what kind of history we should value, etc. But at the same time, being founded in Kyoto in 1987, it is also far more non-Western-oriented or anti-Eurocentric than one might imagine, at first impression, such an organization to be. Member cities include Accra, Huế, Yogyakarta, Chengdu, Chiang Mai, and numerous other cities in Asia, as well as Fez, Tashkent, and Tunis. Altogether, we are told, it is an Asia-dominant organization, with the Kyoto and Nara representatives holding top board positions, though the Vienna representative is vice-chair. Norwich, known for its extensive examples of still-extant medieval architecture, is the only member city in England.

Above: The Guildhall in Norwich, England’s only member city. Below: The Seiden (Main Hall) and Nanden (South Hall) of Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, in Naha, one of only four Japanese member cities.

Naha is also, incidentally, a member city, which is kind of cool to see. Despite the fact that the city, and indeed much of the island, was leveled in 1945, it does have a reconstructed palace, royal mausoleum, numerous shrines and temples, and a rather colorful, precious, unique historical royal and aristocratic culture. Let’s take a moment, actually, to note that while Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, some pretty obvious choices for Japanese cultural centers, are member cities, Naha is the only other member city in Japan, leaving out all of the samurai castle-towns. I’m not sure which ones might be the most intact today – those I have visited, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Hikone, certainly aren’t exceptionally historical in feel. I can imagine an argument being made for Kanazawa, perhaps, but even then it’s really only certain districts. And Edo, while it was at one time one of the largest cities in the world (tied with Beijing at around one million people in the 18th century or so, far larger than Paris or London at that time), and the center of much cultural efflorescence, is now mostly replaced by a city which, while it has a lively vibrant fascinating cultural history of its own in the 20th century, certainly has a much more modern character than a Kyoto or Nara.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, the former chief governmental/administrative building of the Hawaiian Kingdom, whereas ʻIolani Palace, across the street, was the royal residence. The statue of King Kamehameha, created by an American (Bostonian) sculptor based in Florence, Italy, was created with intentional similarities to classical sculpture of Roman emperors, to convey to Western audiences the legitimacy and modernity of the Hawaiian monarchy and kingdom.

In any case, I do think it a very intriguing idea that Honolulu should be a part of this. On a practical and logistical level, it doesn’t sound like membership in the League actually does much, it’s really more of just a symbolic or nominal thing, but then it scarcely costs anything either. We are told the League isn’t really much of an action-oriented body, and is mostly focused on friendship ties and such, but also engages in discussions of historical preservation and related topics like that, which I personally find quite compelling.

I came to this conference only very shortly after spending several months reading a set of works on Pacific, and in particular Hawaiian, history, and so I was in a prime mindset to get right behind this proposal. The Hawaiian Kingdom was certainly not as large, as powerful, or as long-lived as some, but taken from a cultural relativism point of view, and an actively anti-Eurocentric point of view, why should we consider it worthy of exclusion from any sense of comparative monarchy across the world? Even from a perspective of privileging European notions of architectural greatness, of royal dress & presentation, Hawaiʻi had all of this too. ʻIolani Palace and Aliʻiōlani Hale which still stand today, not to mention Kawaiahaʻo Church, the Royal Mausoleum, and the many treasures in the collection of the Bishop Museum, are marvelous examples of a blending of European and distinctively Hawaiian motifs, forms, and materials, truly to my mind a fascinating and beautiful example of an alternative modernity, less successful perhaps than Japan’s (for example) in terms of the longevity of political autonomy, but no less successful, no lesser in rank or quality than Japan’s from a perspective of aesthetics and cultural development, if I might say so.

Stacy Kamehiro, in her book The Arts of Kingship, which I have kind of fallen in love with, details the ways in which Kalakaua and his advisors deployed, or employed, architecture, costume, political ritual, and the like, to make very real, powerful, meaningful discursive impacts, speaking both to a Hawaiian audience to assert Kalakaua’s legitimacy as ruler (he was the first monarch of the united kingdom to not be of Kamehameha’s lineage), and to the great powers of the world in asserting Hawaiʻi’s modernity. Though I don’t believe Kamehiro speaks to it explicitly, and I am not sure if anyone else has written on the subject at any length, based on Kamehiro’s work, I really think that Kalakaua’s administration was doing very much the same things that the Meiji government was in Japan, in terms of the discursive impacts of adopting European clothing, architecture, aristocratic titles and practices, and so forth. It’s only because Hawaiʻi was so much smaller, and because the kingdom does not survive, that it tends to be so overlooked, but that speaks to reading later events backwards onto the past, and in that moment, neither kingdom was yet guaranteed to survive and succeed, or to fail and fall.

While I very much acknowledge the problematic nature of reifying Western value systems as to what is and is not “modern,” “civilized,” “aesthetic,” or whathaveyou, if those are the criteria that earn respect in people’s minds, there is really rather little to see as a failing or a lack in the Hawaiian monarchy. Members of the Hawaiian monarchy studied in England, spoke perfect English, even worshiped in the Anglican Church, and had close friendly, almost familial, relationships with Victoria and Albert, with Queen Kapiʻolani and Princess Liliʻuokalani sitting in places of honor at Victoria’s 50th Golden Jubilee (members of the Japanese Imperial family sat with the Indian princes towards the back, stayed in a hotel, and were otherwise provided a far lower-level of reception). Kalakaua established knightly orders, as so many European states had done at the time, bestowing the Orders of Kalakaua and Kamehameha upon various foreign royals and dignitaries and receiving similar honors in return. He was the first monarch in the world to circumnavigate the globe, meeting with many heads of state, speaking with them in English (or in other European languages? I’m not sure), wearing royal military uniform very much in the contemporary late 19th century European manner (as the Meiji Emperor did too), performing in accordance with European standards of court protocol, and so on and so forth. He made valiant attempts at establishing some sort of Pan-Pacific or even Asia-Pacific Union, which might have united monarchies and other independent states of the region in standing up against Western imperialist pressure/power and encroachment/conquest, and he proposed linking the Hawaiian and Japanese royal families through a political marriage. I suppose I have gone on too long. But the point is, when you think about it a certain way, think of the nobility of the Hawaiian monarchy, and despite its fate less than ten years after Kalakaua’s death, the great, lavish, inspiring visual and material culture of the Kingdom during Kalakaua’s time, before the fall, I think there is something really great in the idea of recovering the legacy, the reputation, of the Hawaiian, Okinawan, Tongan, and other monarch(ie)s, and in asserting their equivalence to those of other regions of the world.

So, again, I don’t know the actual practical impacts that being a member of this League of Historical Cities might have for Honolulu, and the actual cost/benefit analysis for the mayor’s office. Given that none of us in that room that day had heard of the League before, I’m sorry to say I’m not sure what impact this League membership in and of itself might have. But, in some broader sense, even just the notion that Honolulu could, and should, come to be seen as a world city with a “great” history right alongside so many others, that it should be considered and nominated at all, is just very inspiring and encouraging, I feel.

And in conjunction, that the Hawaiian Kingdom, along with those of Ryukyu, Tonga, and others, should be recognized as among the “great” kingdoms of world cultural history, not lesser in any way, but simply culturally different, within a spectrum of diversity, would really be something wonderful. At the very least, I am inspired by my readings this spring/summer to try to incorporate Hawaii, Tonga, and other non-Western cases into World History or other courses I may teach in the future. Even in contexts where efforts are explicitly made to include Latin American, African, Asian, Middle Eastern perspectives, e.g. in a World History textbook that’s trying to de-center The West, the Pacific is still all too often completely overlooked, so it’s very encouraging to see at least somebody – this League of Historical Cities – standing up and taking note.

All photos my own.

Nuufa Gukuru

November 2 (Sunday), Los Angeles

After seeing Majikina Norihiro’s troupe perform kumi udui at the Ginowan Civic Hall back in September, last week I got to see him and his group again, along with performers from the Los Angeles branch of the Majikina school of dance, at a traditional Okinawan dance and theater program called “Nuufa Gukuru,” held at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC) in Little Tokyo. I didn’t even know of JACCC before this production; I guess I can add that to my list of potential places to look for jobs when tenure-track positions don’t pan out. At the very least, it’ll be a place to keep my eye on, as to what events and exhibits they’re doing. And, as a bonus surprise, two of the sanshin players invited to LA to play accompaniment for the dances were my teachers from the Nomura-ryû school of sanshin from Hawaii, Norman Kaneshiro-shinshii and Keith Nakaganeku-shinshii!

In my post about the Ginowan performance, I wrote of kumi udui as something to be appreciated, perhaps more so than being enjoyed – I would have said the same thing for classical dance, such as Ryûkyû odori or Nihon buyô. But, today, I really enjoyed myself. I don’t know if there was an actual difference in the style or manner of performance, or if i was just that I was sitting so much closer, with a much better view, or whether maybe it just takes that one more time before it “clicks,” and you suddenly start to actually appreciate and/or enjoy the art form. The first half dozen times I saw Noh, I certainly didn’t “appreciate” it, though I was certainly trying to. And then, one time, I saw one Noh performance in Kyoto that was just so much more captivating, and moving, than any I’d seen before that.

To be sure, I won’t pretend that I have come to possess some deep, true, appreciation for these very subtle arts, which can sometimes be so slow moving, and so obscure in the symbolism or aesthetics of gesture and movement… I also graded this weekend tens of undergrad papers on the role of elegance and refinement in the Tale of Genji, and I won’t pretend that I truly appreciate any of this as deeply or as genuinely as the historical Japanese seem to have…

A performance of Chikuten 作田節, filmed and posted by YouTube user kumiken34. Thanks, kumiken!

But even so, I did get something out of Chikuten, a slow, elegant dance tonight. And I thoroughly enjoyed some of the more lively, more folk-style dances. My favorite was easily Watanja, which I sadly cannot seem to find a video of online, and which features a variety of figures each entering and dancing separately, one by one, each in a different style, and then hopping into a small ferry rowboat together. Seeing this sort of made it click for me just how much so many Okinawan dances feature “characters” of one or another social type – the fisherman, the market woman, the bold nobleman, the refined noblewoman, each with their own style. And here, they’re all mixed together, highlighting it. And, plus, some wonderful small humorous moments of acting in character, such as when a young woman with a basket of fish sits in the boat, and the nobleman fans away the smell.

A still from “Watanja,” showing the various characters, each with their own dance style. Photo from Majikina Honryû LA.

Another interesting thing about today’s performances was that all of the pieces were composed in the 20th century, most of them in the postwar, and yet they are near as I can tell fully within the stylistic forms (and themes content) of the more truly classical pieces. For Ryukyu even more so than Japan, it would be easy to draw a dividing line, between those things performed in the time of the Kingdom, and those composed only after the kingdom’s fall. But I saw no language in the program indicating these pieces are considered shinsaku (“new pieces”), or considered outside the standard classical repertoire. Is the Okinawan dance tradition simply ongoing, with no such dividing line?

The kumi udui we saw scenes from that night, Chindera nu Turaju, more so than Yuki barai, played as a dance drama. Brief exchanges of dialogue, with a minimum of “acting,” interspersed with dances to represent travel, combat, or other action. This, combined with the mode of chanting, makes it highly stylized to be sure, but still I didn’t have too much difficulty following it…

… and that’s all for the notes I wrote that night. I suppose I could try to force myself to come up with something more to say, but perhaps it’s better to just leave it at that… It surely won’t be for a while, but I hope to get to see some more kumi udui again before too long, expand my experience of it. And, now that I know that it’s possible, and not all that difficult, to go down to LA and back up in a single day, and still have plenty of time to poke around Little Tokyo, I just might do it a tad more often. Fortunately, that samurai exhibit at LACMA doesn’t close until February.

Oceanic Culture Museum

Main hall at Oceanic Culture Museum. Image from Churaumi Aquarium website.

I already skipped ahead and posted about my last day in Okinawa this summer, so this post here, as the last post I expect I’ll be doing about my time there this summer, is somewhat out of order and possibly anti-climatic. But, so it goes.

Following Ryukyumura and the brief lunchtime stopover during which I poked my head into the new Okinawa rekishi minzoku shiryôkan, our pre-packaged tour took us to Ocean Expo Park. Located near the tip of the Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa, Ocean Expo Park was the site of a major ocean-themed world’s fair-style exposition in 1975, and is today most famous for the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the most popular tourist sites on the island. But, you know me. I didn’t go to the aquarium. Which isn’t to say I’m not interested – I’d love to go back someday, and see the whale sharks and all the other wonderful things I hear they have. But, give me only a few hours to visit such a large site, and you know I’m guaranteed to focus on the more history & culture oriented sights.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Ocean Expo Park is home to some great open air architectural exhibits, recreations of a wide variety of traditional Ryukyuan buildings, from the elegant home of a member of the Shuri elite, to the homes of farmers from a number of different islands, as well as storehouses and priestesses’ homes & shrines.

A Kula canoe, such as used in the Kula ring trade of the Trobriand Islands, made famous by anthropologists as an example of gift-giving cultures and among the most standard examples discussed in introductory anthropology courses. Photo my own.

The Park is also home to the Oceanic Culture Museum, quite possibly one of the best museums in the world focusing on the maritime cultures of the Pacific. Established in 1975, in conjunction with the Expo, the museum was entirely renovated over a ten-year period beginning in 2003, under the leadership of Gotô Akira, a PhD graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, who became director of the museum in that year. And it certainly looks that brand-new, in the sleek aesthetic of the exhibits and the incorporation of audiovisual and other technology in the displays. The main hall features a large map of the Pacific across the floor; as this is all video screens, it is animated, showing ships, currents, storms, whales, and the like making their way across the ocean. A large vertical screen in this hall shows a number of short videos, including one in which islander children learn from their father about the great voyages of their ancestors; the storm depicted on this screen spills over into the animated floor map, and thus almost gives the impression of reaching out and pulling you, the viewer, in. Certainly the kids I saw sitting watching the video seemed rather engaged. Another section, on performance arts across the Pacific Islands, includes a small room where visitors can try musical instruments and other performance objects for themselves, and can watch videos of performers from various islands showing them how to do it; the curator for this section is also a UHM alum, and at least one of the videos features a Samoan (I think, if I remember right) student from UH.

Right: The Tahitian double-hull canoe designed by Herbert Kane and displayed at the 1975 Ocean Expo. Photo from Ocean Policy Research Foundation.

The exhibits cover the maritime cultures of Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Okinawa, and some parts of maritime Southeast Asia, and include a number of boats representing many places and peoples across this region. All of these are interesting, but a giant Tahitian double-hulled canoe housed in the entrance hall is perhaps of particular interest; built in Tahiti, it was designed by Herbert Kane, who also designed the Hokulea, the traditional-style Hawaiian ocean-voyaging canoe which sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti in the 1970s using only traditional modes of navigating by the stars, waves, birds, etc., proving it could be done, and which is today in the middle of its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. I am terribly sad that the Hokulea will not be visiting the California coast on this trip – how cool would it have been to see the Hokulea at Stearn’s Wharf? – but after a friend reminded me of the general trend of the Coriolis effect currents in this part of the world I realized how difficult that would have been. I’m hoping if I get lucky I just might get to see them in New York, though.

The exhibits also included a number of other boats, including descriptions of a number of aspects of numerous Pacific cultures. A section in the rear of the museum focuses on the maritime culture of Okinawa, including some elements of the history of boats in Okinawa, and of fishing. I was disappointed to not see more about official elite ships, such as the tribute ships, but so it goes. In any case, I find it very interesting the way the museum places Okinawa – and not (mainland) Japan, Korea, or China – within this frame of Oceanic cultures. I’m not sure I have too much to say about it right now, exactly how to word it, but there’s something very intriguing and appealing about the idea of trying to view Okinawa as, first of all, not so automatically or exclusively associated with Japan or China, and second of all, as connected into these Pacific cultures. The various ways in which cultures represent themselves as “island countries,” or not, in which contexts, in which ways, at which times, and what it is used to mean, to suggest, or to argue, is something quite interesting.

A set of displays on the upper level, in the style of comic strips, relates about traditional navigational techniques.

Sadly the Oceanic Cultures Museum not only doesn’t allow photos in most of the museum (much thanks for allowing photos in at least some of it!) but also doesn’t have any published museum catalog that might have allowed me to take home a more extensive, thorough version of the contents of the museum. I apologize to harp on this sort of thing, as I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but I do find it frustrating that the only way to really get at the information in the exhibits is to visit there in person again, and to either take painstaking notes, writing every single thing down, or to have to visit again, and again, since there are both no photos of the labels allowed, and also no published catalog available for sale. Thus, I am left with a generally positive impression, but remembering very little of the precise details of what I saw (and, having not had nearly enough time to read everything, even if I could have remembered it).

So, it’s certainly a bit out of the way, to go all the way to Motobu, and most of the labels are only in Japanese, to go to see presumably one of the best museums of Pacific Islands / maritime culture in the world. But it really is a nice museum, and given its location right alongside the aquarium and the other sights of the Ocean Expo Park, I guess in a sense it’s not /that/ out of the way… it does remind me that I forgot to be sure to check out the newly renovated Polynesian Hall at the Bishop Museum when I was in Honolulu earlier in the summer. Oh, well. Next time.

Now that I’ve posted about that really fantastic last day in Okinawa, let me jump back to our Saturday of field trips. Between the Ryukyumura theme park, and Ocean Expo Park, we stopped for lunch at a rest stop sort of place on the side of the highway. Run by the Okinawan chain of souvenir sweets shops called Okashi Goten (“Sweets Palace”), the place included a lunch buffet restaurant, and large souvenir shop. Though the official field trip schedule gave us a woefully limited time at each actual stop, they gave us a whole hour and a half for lunch. I noticed signs indicating some kind of museum across the street, so when I finished eating I went and took a look.

Feels a bit bizarre to find a museum of any sort just on the side of the highway in the middle of, well, not exactly nowhere, but… Yet, as it turns out, there is some sense to it after all. The Okinawa rekishi minzoku shiryôkan, or Okinawa Museum of History and Folklore, which just opened in summer 2013, is a private venture showing off the personal collection of the CEO of Okashi Goten. So, if you want to see the museum, you’re going to end up at the rest stop for lunch and/or souvenirs; and, if you’re stopping at the rest stop as we were as part of a bus tour, you just might take a moment to check out the museum, as I did.

Sadly, the museum doesn’t allow any photos inside, but boy was it incredible. I’m not sure if there’s any one item, to be honest, which is all that photo-worthy, but I wish I even just had a picture of the rooms themselves, filled with objects. The sheer number of things came as quite a surprise, as I walked into this small random building on the side of the highway way out in Yanbaru. The collection includes quite a number of ceramics, lacquerwares, farming and fishing implements, and other “folklife” and “folk craft”/decorative arts sort of objects. Plus, a whole set of displays of papier-mache figures, each meticulously dressed in garments made from real bingata and the like, and made up otherwise – hair, props, etc., depicting various aspects of Okinawan history and folk life, from royal processions to sacred rituals.

Generally, you can walk around the place freely, on your own. But one of the staff was kind enough to chat with me, and walk me through the exhibits. She explained that all of this is the personal collections of the Okashi Goten CEO, who established the museum and decided to share his collection with the public out of concern that the younger generation simply isn’t taught enough, and thus doesn’t know enough, about their own history. The Okinawan language (“hôgen“), so harshly suppressed in the early 20th century, was apparently strongly discouraged within the classroom even as late as the early 1970s, under the US Occupation, and as a result, few still speak it well; further, Okinawan history, art history, etc. simply aren’t taught in the public schools. My tour guide, probably in her 60s or so, born and raised in Yanbaru going back many generations, expressed her own deep personal concerns for these things, and her own personal embarrassment that she herself knew so little about any of this before working at the museum.

She eagerly pointed out notable works of ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, and explained that many of the works in the collection are by Living National Treasures such as Kinjô Jirô (金城次郎) or otherwise famous or prominent Okinawan artists such as Kobashigawa Genkei (小橋川源慶), Seiji (小橋川清次), and Isamu (小橋川勇), and Ômine Jissei (大嶺實清), and that the collection in fact includes more numerous or better works of various types than even the Prefectural Museum. If you’re into Okinawan ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

An Okinawan lacquerware stand, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2009. I wonder how light this is; I wonder what wood it’s made from.

I also learned that traditional Okinawan lacquerware, being made from the wood of the deigo tree, rather than other woods used in Japan, is amazingly lightweight. All lacquerware is surprisingly lightweight, if you’re not used to it, but this stuff especially so. This is the first I’ve heard of deigo wood being used for anything; since so much of Okinawan arts tends to seem, at least initially, on the surface, to be simply variations on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian forms, I quite like that they should use something like deigo wood, adding considerably to the distinctiveness of the art, and the object. It reminds me of how all sorts of things are made from koa wood in Hawaii, infusing them with a distinctively Hawaiian character even if the form may not be. Much of the furnishings of ʻIolani Palace, though made in Germany in purely European styles, is made of koa, making the palace itself – its floors, its staircase bannisters – something that feels decidedly distinctively Hawaiian. Similarly, with the Okinawan lacquerwares. Sadly, though I didn’t quite catch the reason why, in more recent times (I can’t remember if she said since the fall of the kingdom in the 1870s, or if she said since 1945), they don’t use deigo anymore, and instead use banyan tree wood (gajumaru), which at least is also a distinctively Okinawan material.

I know this doesn’t make for the most informative blog post… but, you can see more about this small museum at their blog. Visiting such a place really makes one wonder what other treasures, collections, museums might exist, tucked away in remote parts. Even within Okinawa alone, I just came across the website for yet another similar architecture + folkcrafts museum / theme park, Ryukyu Kingdom Castletown (Ryûkyû ôkoku jôkamachi), in Nanjô City. Time to add that to my list of places to visit next time I’m in Okinawa…

All photos my own.

Kumi Udui & Gamelan

I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.