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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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Driving on Amami

While on Amami Ôshima, I rented a car and drove for the first time in Japan. Driving on the left takes a little bit of getting used to. You have to constantly remind yourself to be on the correct side of the road, and especially when making turns, which side of the road you’re supposed to end up on. Plus all the signs are in Japanese (and English) and are different colors, shapes, styles from in the US. Different symbols. So if you’re moving along, you only have a few seconds to figure out what a given sign means – have to interpret very quickly. But, actually, all of this ended up being far easier than I’d expected. The two things that gave me trouble: the fact that the driver’s seat is on the opposite side of the car, which means my general feeling of how far to the left or right I was, how centered I was on the road, was all messed up. I was constantly drifting off (just the tiniest bit) across the left side of the road, because I wasn’t used to having that much car to the left of me. And I was probably leaving more space than I needed to on the right, because I’m used to having half of the car be to the right of me, if that makes sense. Secondly, really, the thing that gave me the most trouble was having the turn signals and wiper controls switched. So my instincts, to just flip that switch every time I was about to make a turn, inevitably ended up turning the wipers on and off and not actually signalling… it was a mess.

National Route 58 is the main national highway which runs the length of Amami Ôshima from north to south, and also the length of Okinawa Island from north to south.

But I am so glad to have rented a car. Number one, because I’d been nervous about doing so, and Amami was the perfect place to get over that. There are very few other cars on the road (especially outside of Naze city center), and everyone’s pretty slow and kind and just not in a hurry or anything; that is to say, the other drivers are patient and kind with one another, and with me. At one point, when I even parked myself somewhere that I couldn’t figure out how to get out of (there was a drainage ditch behind my car, and I didn’t have a good sense of how far I could back up out of the parking spot before I’d fall in the ditch), I was even able to ask a local person to pull out for me, and he very kindly took the time to do it.

But also, number two, I was so glad to have rented a car because it gave me such freedom to make it out to all kinds of sites – and in relatively good time – that would have been a pain in the ass to get to by public bus. The downside, of course, is that you can’t take photos while you’re driving (or read, or do anything else) the way you can while you’re on a bus. But, not only hitting “major” historical sites and stuff, but also just being free and on my own to stop at the one FamilyMart with the fun map/pictures of Amami, and just otherwise stop wherever, was wonderful.

At one of the very few FamilyMarts on the island.

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Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

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Amami: Yamato or Ryukyu?

I count myself just so incredibly fortunate that I get to travel the way I do. After a brief trip back to Okinawa yet again, which I may write about in a separate soon forthcoming post, I managed to take a few days and visit the island of Amami Ôshima, a beautiful and fascinating place which despite being the 7th largest island in Japan (i.e. still pretty sizable) is I would venture to say far off the radar of most tourists and travelers, Japanese or otherwise.

First of all, before I say anything else, I guess I should simply say that it’s beautiful. The greenery, the sea, the sky, it’s beautiful. I’m not sure what I expected – I guess that since I was leaving Okinawa prefecture, that I’d be going back into winter. And, in a certain sense, that’s true. The entire region, from southern Kyushu down through Okinawa, saw a bizarre few days of genuinely summery weather for pretty much the whole time I was in Okinawa (75F / 24C in Naha on Sat Jan 25!), and then several days of very strong and cold winds, and on & off rain, while I was in Amami. So, not necessarily indicative of a difference between the two places so much as changing weather patterns across the week. But, in any case, who am I kidding? It was beautiful when I visited Hiroshima back in 2018 too. Regardless of whether you’re in “the islands” or the “mainland,” there’s still plenty opportunity for beauty.

Tiny lanes with stone walls, in a section of Tatsugô Town near where Saigô Takamori’s old house has been reconstructed. One of many little village communities on the island; reminds me of Ôgimi, way-out-there inaka village in the northern part of Okinawa Island.

So, I guess before I delve into the history or the culture, I should say something about just the general feel of the island, in terms of how rural or urban it is. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But now that I’ve visited, looking back over the last few years I’m realizing that my sense from X years ago that actually I’d only ever seen the big urban centers, the major touristy cities, in Japan and had never actually really seen other parts, let alone truly “countryside” parts – that is no longer true. Amami is definitely inaka – the countryside, or however you might want to translate that. I mean, it’s a big island, over 700 sq km (roughly 275 sq mi?), but with only about 73,000 people, and while I sorely regret not visiting any of the shimanchu marts, which is just adorable, there are only five or six big chain convenience store locations (all FamilyMarts, no 7-11 or Lawson) on the entire island, for whatever sense that may give.

In terms of the general feel of how it looks and feels driving around here, what the roads and the view along the sides of the road look like, and so forth, I’m not sure I thought about it in this way at the time, but sitting in the hotel room and looking back upon today, I think it was very much like driving around the more rural parts of Okinawa. Long stretches of little more than lush greenery and wide open sky and the occasional (or much more than just occasional) view of the ocean; and in town, not sure how to describe it, but a level of urban/rural that reminds me very much of, for example, Ginowan. Much more of a working, industrial city than a touristy one. Even with the beautiful view of the water from my hotel room, it felt like grey, concrete, industrial. Not the sort of semi-tropical “island vacation” feel you get in many parts of Okinawa or Hawaiʻi. And as soon as you leave the most central urban part of urban Naze, you get into long drags with intermittent large box stores with large parking lots, though I suppose it reminds me of many mainland Japanese cities as well – driving around Hiroshima or Kure, for example, but not Tokyo.

Above: a warehouse in central Naze. Below: Tecchan, a great little keihan restaurant on the side of the highway.

Amami is located roughly halfway between Okinawa (to the south) and Kyushu – i.e. “mainland” Japan – to the north. A part of the broader Ryukyuan/south Kyushu cultural zone in ancient times, and in fact a major center of trade and activity in the 10th-11th centuries or so before Okinawa Island ever was, Amami was forcibly incorporated into the orbit of the Okinawa-centered Ryukyu Kingdom in the mid-16th century, and then conquered and annexed just a few decades later by the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Kagoshima. Unlike Okinawa and the other islands to the south which remained under the control of the largely independent Ryukyu Kingdom (though the king was counted as a vassal of the Shimazu, and owed various obligations to them), Amami and the surrounding islands came under more direct Satsuma control, and thus for several hundred years longer than Okinawa and the southern Ryukyus had at least somewhat more direct and extensive Japanese influence. Jumping ahead to the end of the post-WWII Occupation in 1952, the US military thought for a fancy moment that they just might get to keep all of the Ryukyus indefinitely, as one giant military colony, a whole series of “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” But while they managed to continue the Occupation in Okinawa for another 20 years, Amami was “reverted” to Japanese authority in 1953. So, building upon a fundamental base of indigenous/ancient Ryukyuan culture – which can still be seen in the language, the local deities, folk music and folk festivals, etc. – Amami has a far longer history of being (in one way or another) under the control of, or incorporated into, some form of “Japanese” polity, nation, cultural sphere.

As a result of this geography and history, the one main thing I’d think anyone should expect when coming to a place like Amami is a preconception or expectation of curiosity of just how “Ryukyuan” vs. “Japanese” it’s going to be. And I found my experience of this to be, well, interesting. When I visited Japanese restaurants in Okinawa, I was struck, really struck, by how “Japanese” they felt. Like it really was a foreign culture; the Japanese restaurant at Naha Main Place felt to me no less foreign to Okinawa than being in a Chinese or Indian restaurant, and I consciously felt, or imagined, an added layer of colonial imposition. Being in that restaurant it was just so easy to imagine up some image of Japan having come in and inserted Japaneseness, including Japanese restaurants, into everyday Okinawan life. … And of course I’m in a different position myself right now, having been in Okinawa for only the last few days, and Tokyo for months before that, as compared to the time I went to that Japanese restaurant in the mall in Naha after having lived in Okinawa for months, eating a lot of Okinawan food and having not been to a soba/udon/washoku place for a long time. ….

But still all of that said, getting to the point, I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that shock value on Amami. I did feel there were clearly many things around that were decidedly Ryukyuan, intermixed with many features that make me feel like it’s just another region of Japan – like it’s not a different culture entirely, but just one possible variation, just like I might expect to find in traveling around various parts of “mainland” Kyushu or Shikoku and seeing what the local culture might happen to be like there. From certain local food specialities like keihan, to individual local products like the “shima ramune” (ramune soda made with juice from local citrus), to t-shirts and tote bags labeled with Amami themed images, I feel like it’s just the Amami equivalent of exactly the same kind of “local” stuff I’ve seen in the Inland Sea, for example. But it’s interesting, that at least in this very few interactions or experiences so far, it hasn’t struck me as decidedly Ryukyuan or decidedly Japanese, or as intriguingly mixed. It just is what it is. To be sure, if you wrote out a list of cultural features, you could say which things can be put in a Ryukyuan column, and which in a Japanese column, and you could craft out an imagined understanding of Amami that is, indeed, a matter of multiple different cultural layers placed upon one another. The Ryukyuan deity Amamikyo, for example, being worshipped on Amami but in sites featuring Shinto shrine architecture rather than more closely resembling the kinds of spaces you’d find at Okinawan utaki.

Above: A shrine on Amami Ôshima dedicated to the Ryukyuan creation deity Amamikyo/Amamiku 奄美姑(阿麻弥姑), with torii gate and haiden worship hall showing a combination of Japanese and distinctive architectural features.
Below: An utaki sacred space at Ameku Shrine 天久宮 in Naha, Okinawa, which admittedly also has a torii and haiden (not shown), but which really centers on this sacred tree or sacred grove, marked by simpler stone markers.

Traveling from mainland Japan to Okinawa or vice versa I think there’s a certain degree of culture shock. But in Amami, I think what I sensed was less a striking mix of two disparate things (Ryukyu and Japan) and much more so a place that lies along a spectrum. I wonder if perhaps it’s fair – accurate – to draw a contrast between Okinawa, which of course, received considerable influence from China, Japan, and elsewhere over the course of its history but which was at the same time very much its own place, receiving a sudden, powerful influx of imposed Japanese culture beginning in the Meiji period, versus Amami, which has since ancient times possessed a culture that exists in the space where the two (Ryukyu and Japan) fade into one another. Okinawan songs might have two sets of lyrics – a more traditional set of lyrics, in the Okinawan language, passed down through the generations by oral tradition and custom, and another in the Japanese language, invented by a record company or radio company in the 20th century and deliberately introduced for commercial purposes which has since gained widespread familiarity; by contrast, I don’t know much about Amami music, but from what little I do know, it’s played on an Okinawan sanshin, but in a scale shared with certain mainland Japanese traditions, and sung in a language which lies in-between Okinawan and Japanese. Traveling from Japan to Okinawa, you go from a place where “today” is kyô to a place where (if people are speaking in Okinawan, rather than in Japanese) “today” is chû. Two distant points along a spectrum. But on Amami, if people are speaking “shimaguchi” (island language), it’s kyû. Just a little different from standard Japanese, and I can easily imagine certain parts of Kyushu or Shikoku having similar vowel shifts… but you can also see how it’s in a sense halfway towards the Okinawan pronunciation. Kyô–>Kyû–>Chû.

Three different varieties of Miki. Thanks to the owner of the Amami-an bookstore for introducing me to this interesting and, frankly, delicious, drink.

Food, of course, is another thing to consider. And I honestly wasn’t sure what to think. Amami food is certainly different from Okinawan food, albeit with some similarities. And there are some things that are definitely distinctive, if not entirely unique, to Amami, starting with Miki ミキ, a drink made from rice, sugar, sweet potato, and water, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, and which I could imagine discovering as some regional specialty somewhere in “mainland” Japan but which is certainly not mainstream standard. I’ve never seen anything like it in Tokyo or Kyoto, except for maybe amazake which is I guess a bit similar but is not sold in bottles or cartons right alongside the juices and sodas.

And there’s keihan – what Okinawa soba is to Okinawa, the one most iconic, most standard, if it’s an Okinawan restaurant they’re sure to have this, dish, keihan is to Amami, it would seem. Chicken soup with rice. And some other, more distinctly Japanese toppings (picked ginger, shredded nori, thin slices of omelette, etc.). Very tasty. … Another thing I was told about and saw on menus but never got around to trying was the goya (bitter melon), which on Okinawa is often cooked in a style of stir-fry called chanpuru, but which on Amami is apparently served cooked in miso; and, I don’t know if this is typical or indicative, but on Amami I saw it described on menus as nigauri 苦瓜 – literally, bitter melon, a melon that is bitter – rather than using the Ryukyuan(?) term gôya ゴーヤー. … But what I didn’t realize until just now, a couple of days after getting back, is that I don’t think I ever saw any soba or udon or sushi on the island. I’m not even sure if I saw ramen. There was that one shop I sat down in that had omuraisu (omelette rice), a standard mainland Japanese dish invented/introduced in the late 19th or early 20th century… but when I was experiencing that culture shock at the shopping mall in Naha, it was in large part because I had walked into a restaurant where nearly every aspect of the decor and menu was identical to what you might find in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Udon, soba, sushi, wholly entirely standard stuff. Whereas on Amami, the entire feel was of it being a variation on Japanese culture – something that you could absolutely imagine exists within the regional variation within Japan, not needing to be seen as outside of it – and yet with hints or touches that, if you can recognize them, are decidedly Ryukyuan.

I guess that’s it for now. I’ve kind of run out of steam…

Below: video I took at a concert of Amami folk music performed here in Tokyo a few months ago. Amami folk music has a ton in common with mainland Japanese folk music, and uses a Japanese musical scale – not the Okinawan one – so the overall sound is quite distinct from that of traditional music anywhere in Okinawa prefecture, even though the instrument they play is little different from the Okinawan sanshin. Visiting a live-music shimauta (lit. “island songs”) bar was one of the primary things I was excited to do on Amami, but in the end, the only shimauta bar I knew of (Kazumi – recommended by multiple people, probably one of the top ones on the island) was totally packed one night, and unexpectedly closed the next. Oh well, maybe next time.

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