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Posts Tagged ‘battle of okinawa’

Yesterday, June 23, marked the annual Okinawan observance of Irei no Hi 慰霊の日, an official holiday in memory of those many, many Okinawans and others killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

The Cornerstone of Peace.

I figured this an opportune time to finally post something about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park & Museum (Okinawa Heiwa Kinen Kôen / Shiryôkan 沖縄県平和祈念公園・資料館), which I visited several times during my time in Okinawa this past year. I took extensive notes the last time I was there, and went back to my notes to build this post, but found that what I had written was quite descriptive, and strangely I’ve found myself kind of struggling to write something more interpretive about the museum. I guess it’s been too long since I’ve been in a Museum Studies frame of mind.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum is located within the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park at Mabuni, near the southern tip of Okinawa Island. In many ways it reminds me of the memorial park at Hiroshima, and also of Holocaust Museums I have visited in various cities around the United States, and of Yad Vashem, the chief Holocaust memorial site in Jerusalem. The park itself is quite extensive, and includes a number of different memorials. The main one is a series of rows of black stone slabs, inscribed with the names of all those killed in the Battle, whether they be Okinawan, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, or American; the slabs are organized in rows, fanning out from an eternal flame, known as the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no ishiji, 平和の礎), and beyond that, the sea. The whole arrangement creates the impression of waves, waves of peace, emanating out from the Cornerstone, emanating out from Okinawa, into the world. I must admit, when I first read that this was the intention of the design, and first truly felt that image in my mind, in my heart, I started crying. Far too many people are unaware of Okinawa’s story, and of the lessons it has to teach; far too many people are as of yet untouched by those waves of peace, emanating out from Okinawa, trying desperately to bring peace to the world.

As for the museum itself, it begins with a very detailed account of the 1930s to 40s, the economic and political situation in Japan, in Okinawa, and the world, setting the stage, described in a way that strikes me as “objective” in voice, or at the very least, with a detached sort of perspective. And by this I mean that I did not sense within the phrasing of the labels, or the organization of this first part of the exhibit, blatant lionizing or villainizing; I did not sense a blatantly, boldly, pro- or anti-Japan perspective. Rather the exhibit basically just explains what happened, what events took place, what decisions were made; it provides the background situation amidst which Japan made the decisions it did – in terms of both domestic and international considerations, and so forth. All of this set-up is given in a series of labels, displays, objects, short videos, packed into the displays around the edge of the first, circular, room.

I think this is a really good approach for a Memorial Museum. Maybe I’m too biased (in favor of the Okinawans) and thus was blind to the biases in the exhibition, but, really I think it took a rather objective or distanced stance. And this is a smart move because, unlike at so many other museums – e.g. the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, the Yûshûkan at Yasukuni Shrine, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery which I’ll post about soon – where the bias is blatant and obvious, thus making the whole thing all too easy to dismiss out of hand, here the Museum is telling you, in cold hard facts, this is what happened. This is real, this is true. It’s not being blown out of proportion or taken out of context.

In truth, I think there’s a lot to be taken away from this first room, alone. I’m not as expert on this period as some of my colleagues, and I am not expertly familiar with all the various nuances and complexities of the different narratives, different versions, different approaches, to understanding Japanese imperialism, but from what I have seen, I really think this is about the best. It presents the context, the pressures upon the Japanese government (both real and perceived), the reasons the government did what it did – even if those choices were, to be sure, horrible and worthy of being condemned – thus presenting the Japanese certainly as oppressors, aggressors, but not as irrational monsters, while also not going too far in the other direction, portraying the Japanese as merely victims of world circumstance. Imperial Japan had real reasons for choosing the path that it did – they were regular human beings, not monsters – but still, the path they chose was one of violence and oppression. We must understand the circumstances, the choices made, and the repercussions, the outcomes, in order to learn the lessons of the past, and to be able to work more truly towards building a better future, a better path, such that similar events should never happen again.

Because I found this exhibit so well done, I was quite frustrated on my first and second visits to the museum that they don’t allow photographs. And, as you’d expect if you know me, I’m still quite frustrated about that. But, on my third visit I found, what I had not seen previously, a museum catalog book of the permanent exhibition for sale, which essentially contains much of that same content, in easily purchasable and keepable form, for less than 2000 yen. Now that I own this book, I very much hope that I find the time at some point to read it all and write it all down – in English – into a form I can use for lectures, whether it be World History, Japanese History, or East Asian History.

Another way the museum did an excellent job in making their story more accessible, more meaningful, is that they don’t really limit it to the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan perspective. Yes, the succeeding rooms are specifically about Okinawa, but the set-up, this first room of 1930s-40s Japanese and world historical context, is broad enough, general enough, that it really works as a quality account applicable and useful in general, for anyone discussing Imperial Japan & the Asia-Pacific War – perhaps even the best account I’ve yet seen at all. Hopefully, it speaks to visitors from all around the world, and not only to those interested in the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan position. Hopefully, by telling the story this way, it should be able to successfully convey the message of the dangers of militarism, of ultranationalism, in general, no matter who is doing it (not just the Japanese).

A view of the first gallery, courtesy OkinawaClip.com.

After making one’s way through this detailed and well-presented background behind the origins of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and imperialism, a short video in the center of the first room summarizes the progression of the war itself, from one battle to the next.

To the side of this room is a special exhibit corner, which at that time had a small exhibit on the Japanese colonies in Nanyô/Micronesia. And also on comparing history textbooks not only between US, Japan, China, Korea, but also with Palau, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Really interesting to see – not something we normally get exposed to.

The next room is set up to evoke the atmosphere of the so-called Typhoon of Steel – that is, the Battle of Okinawa. It is dark, with steel girders and concrete protruding here and there. A large 3D map of Okinawa sits in the middle of the room, with various things about the battle marked out on it. And hanging above the map is a large video screen, on which plays a short video about the Battle. This, for me, was probably one of the centerpieces of the entire exhibition. The museum provides the background, the set-up, in the previous room, and the aftermath in the following rooms. Here, it provides the story of the event itself: what happened to Okinawa that this museum as a whole (and the memorial park outside) is memorializing – what suffering, what death and destruction, took place here. It brings you in, it makes you understand. It makes you feel, the death and destruction, the sadness.

Then, we move into the following room, and the museum shifts dramatically, from historical narrative, to a memorial mode. I suppose, sitting and writing this out now, that this is still historical narrative, but it’s shifting from a “big picture” mode of the history of politics, economics, and war, to a far more personal level. We see large photos of individual people and individual scenes of death and destruction, and next to it, a walk-in reconstruction of the gama, the caves in which people hid during the Battle. Mannequins are set up to show how people suffered and survived in the caves, and committed some truly horrific acts in order to survive, including killing crying babies so their screams wouldn’t alert soldiers outside to the presence of the civilians hiding inside the cave.

The Testimonials Room at the museum. Image again thanks to OkinawaClip.com.

The next room of the museum is a Testimonials room. I don’t know if it’s actually more brightly lit than the previous rooms, but it gives a feeling of starkness, whiteness. Desks are arranged in perfect rows, and books/binders provide numerous first-hand accounts of people’s experiences during the battle. I only read a very few, but they were horrific. People who were just small children at the time, witnessing their siblings or parents killed right in front of them, whether by soldiers, or by suicide. People who hid in caves and were so terrified to come out, for fear of what might happen to them. Reading these individual stories, of individual people, often young children, who had lived such (relatively) normal lives up until then, and who we can imagine might have had such bright futures ahead of them, thrown into this world of suffering and death, and all because of war, because of militarism and imperialism and ultranationalism, and in the specific case of Okinawa, because two world superpowers based in capitals thousands of miles away decided that their tiny island should be the place to battle it out.

A bank of small viewing rooms sits on the back side of this Testimonial hall. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to sit and watch any of the the video testimonials, though I really should.

A poem, written on the wall outside the Testimonial room:

Image again from OkinawaClip.com.

Whenever we look at
The truth of the Battle of Okinawa
We think
There is nothing as brutal
Nothing as dishonorable
As war.

In the face of this traumatic experience
No one will be able to speak out for
Or idealize war.

To be sure, it is human beings who start wars
But more than that
Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars?

Since the end of the war
We have abhorred all wars,
Long yearning to create a peaceful island.

To acquire
This
Our unwavering principle,
We have paid dearly.

From here on, we are led through a chronological narrative of Okinawa’s post-war history. The Testimony room is followed by refugee camps 収容所. Dark wood poles and canvas tent sections overhead evoke the feeling of being in such a camp. Along with laundry hung on barbed wire fences. This is followed by a section made up to look like a 1950s commercial shopping street, with barbershop, bars, nightclub, tailor shop… And then, as we enter the next section, it turns to barbed wire fencing, with a mannequin in US military uniform looking as though he is asking for your ID. Exhibits include detailed descriptions of the progress of developments in politics, economics, protests, and so forth, from the US Occupation of Okinawa, to the eventual “freedom” from Occupation, and rejoining Japan in 1972, up to the present, as the military presence and protests against it continue.

I made sure to take extensive notes on my last visit to this museum. While I had known about the prewar and wartime history to a certain extent, I had very little sense of the date-by-date chronological developments of the post-war period. Seeing it spelled out was really quite interesting, moving, and impactful. There’s just so much here, so many twists and turns, that add such depth to the story. We learn about the refugee camps and the evolution of semblances of Okinawan self-governance from the 1950s through the 1970s to today; how the US Occupation ended so much earlier in the Amami Islands; the visit of the head of the ACLU to Okinawa; the way the military forced people into leasing out their land for exceptionally low, unfair, rates; the way bayonets and bulldozers were used to physically remove people from their land; and details of how the resistance and protest and independence movements rose and fell; connections to Communism and to US anti-Communist crackdowns; and the progress of developments in how the US Occupation authorities dealt with political opposition, and how they deal with crimes and scandals today.

I know I haven’t said much in this post of an analytical or interpretive nature. There are formal Museum Studies academic journal articles, and exhibit reviews, out there, I’m sure, which articulate far better what I wish I could here. But, as much as I wish I knew how to articulate all that myself, I think that for now, I’ll just leave it by saying that this is truly an excellent Memorial Museum, an excellent history museum, and while I know it’s a bit out of the way, I really wish more people – I wish everyone – would go and visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum. This is not just a niche story relevant only to those with interest in Okinawa; nor is it in any way what you might expect from a local, out-of-the-way, provincial museum. Truly, this is a top-notch, world-class World War II Memorial Museum. I think the lessons it has to teach are of immense importance for everyone around the world, and that this museum does an excellent job of conveying those lessons (including by making the exhibits quite accessible, with labels and video subtitles in multiple languages).

On this Irei no Hi, let us take a moment to think, to remember, and to sympathize. Let us picture in our minds waves of peace, flowing out from Okinawa, waves of people trying desperately to reach out, and to wash over the whole world, such that what happened in Okinawa, and tragically in so many other places all around the world, might someday truly cease to ever take place again.

The Mabuni cliffs, just outside the museum, where in 1945 a great many people, pressed down to the southern end of the island trying to flee the violence, had nowhere left to go, and threw themselves off the cliffs, to their deaths.

All exterior photos my own.

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Following my week in Kagoshima, I spent a week or so in Okinawa. So much to say about my trip, and yet… Well, where to start? I was in Okinawa chiefly for an International Conference held by the East-West Center & East-West Center [Alumni] Association. But every time I try to write about East-West Center, I find it really difficult, and I end up rambling and second guessing myself, and just sort of going all over the place. My thoughts about, and relationship with, the East-West Center are quite complicated. I might end up putting up a post about that in the near future, if I ever manage to write one. We shall see.

But, in the meantime, maybe we should just start by focusing on everything but the conference. The conference ran three days, Weds through Friday, Sept 17-19. On the middle day, we had a half-day tour to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and to Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, located in Naha (historically a separate city from Shuri, but which has now grown to gobble Shuri up), just a few short monorail stops away from the conference hotel.

Our half-day tour was a pretty lengthy one – 2pm to 7pm, if I remember correctly. And yet, somehow, within that space of time we only had one hour at the Peace Memorial Museum, and one hour at Shuri castle. Granted, it takes considerable time to drive from one place to the next, but, geez.. surely there was a better way to schedule this out, no?

The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Regardless, I’m glad to have gone. I’d never been to the Peace Memorial Museum at Mabuni, and now that I have a somewhat better idea of what it entails, at least I know what I’m getting into if and when I make my way back there. It’s a very well done museum, actually, telling the story of the Battle of Okinawa. Very sleek, professional, up-to-date looking, in terms of the style of presentation. Another museum I visited on my own, earlier in the week, the Battle of Okinawa Holocaust Photo Gallery (沖縄戦・ホロコースト写真展示館), operated out of a small corner building in Naha, has a very different aesthetic, being comprised of little more than photos hung on the walls. If one were to really take the time to really analyze both museums more closely, I’m sure a lot could be said for differences in their approach, and in their message. Are either more extreme in their politics than the other? I’m not sure. The chief message of both seems summed up well by a quote from the OPRI’s English website:

There are many problems in the world. But, war is not the answer to the problems. Look at these pictures. War creates another problem.

There is a great deal to be said about the Battle of Okinawa. Entire books, upon books, have been written about it. I, personally, am not sure that I would go so far as to associate it with the Holocaust (as this smaller OPRI museum does, and as some other groups are known to do), given that the Japanese government, for all its wrongs, for all its horrific atrocities, never made the explicit, intentional, directed, and highly coordinated effort to truly extinguish another people that the Nazi German government did. The Okinawans, by contrast, were less targets of genocide, than ignored, uncared for, collateral damage, as two great armies met one another in battle, trapping the Okinawan people between them, trampling their culture, their history, their land, and their lives, with neither side – not the Japanese government which claimed them as Imperial subjects and rightful citizens, nor the American government with its eternal rhetoric of bringing freedom and combatting oppression – doing nearly enough to watch out for, take care of, the Okinawan people and their interests.

Right: Naha destroyed, and a famous photo of a girl with a white flag. Public domain photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I really struggled to find images to put here, looking for the one or two that would, by themselves, without any other images, convey what happened here, and convey the tragedy and the emotion of it. But in the end, I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to find individual images that can do that. It takes looking at tens or even hundreds of photos, a whole room full of photos, and reading about what happened, immersing oneself in the subject even if only for 10-15 minutes, but really surrounding oneself, immersing oneself, to really “get” it, to feel it for ourselves, to be emotional as if it were our own families, or our own people, to truly appreciate just how horrific this was, both for those killed, and those who survived, and all the impacts and implications that come as a result.

Or maybe it simply takes a conscious effort of thinking about it based on the stories and experiences of our own families, our own peoples. While I am not Japanese or Okinawan, and certainly cannot claim to understand or appreciate their own sense of their own identity in quite the same way as a person of Okinawan descent would, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I think there is something to be said for connections, similarities, in how that period of history impacted our families and our identities. It is not only by studying Okinawa’s history, and talking to Okinawan people, but also by reflecting upon my own exposure to stories, documentaries, and museum exhibits about the Holocaust, that I think, or I should like to think, I can appreciate something of the emotion, the experience, the impact upon Okinawan identity, that comes out of this. As I sat in Yom Kippur services a few days ago, in Yizkor services in particular, thinking about all those we have lost, about my own grandparents who went through so much, about all their friends, relatives, neighbors – my relatives, my people – six million of them, who died in the Shoah, I thought too about the Okinawans, their experiences, their suffering, their tens of thousands of deaths. And I felt a connection, rightfully or not, feeling a deep sadness, not only for those individuals who suffered through this, for their suffering, their terrible loss of potential, loss of happiness, and in far too many cases loss of life, but also a terrible sadness at the loss of potential at what Okinawa and its people might be today, might have been, if not for these terrible events. We are all each of us irrevocably changed by even the death of a single loved one; how much more so by terrible grand scale sweeping events such as these.

This is why museums such as the one at Mabuni are so important, especially for outsiders – in this case, for non-Japanese. We have to learn one another’s stories, see the similarities, and sympathize. We have to learn to not see others – Jews, Okinawans – as Others, but rather as people just like ourselves. We have to imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine losing your home, your mother, or your brother in such circumstances. Imagine losing your friends, your neighborhood, your school. Losing your livelihood, your entire world turned upside down, and losing perhaps even your life, where only years earlier, things were so much happier and safer. It is a story which repeats itself far too often, in far too many places around the world.

I plan someday to read more deeply, more thoroughly, about the Battle, what led up to it, and the aftermath. My specialty in the earlier period doesn’t allow for much opportunity to really take out time to study more in depth about these subjects. I hope, too, to someday post something more well-organized, more thoroughly thought through and planned out on the subject. But, for now, from my brief scattered notes from the exhibitions (there was no time to read, let alone copy down, everything), just a few scattered points and thoughts:

By 1944, the entire island was “mobilized” for development of airstrips and other military construction and preparations. On October 10, 1944, the Allies launched their first air raids against the island, resulting in 668 deaths, and leading to mass evacuations, with as many as 70,000 Okinawan civilians fleeing to Taiwan and Kyushu, where they thought they would be safer. In the meantime, the Japanese strengthened their positions, building a massive command center beneath Shuri Castle. As troops deployments to Taiwan increased, the Japanese stepped up their recruitment of Okinawan schoolchildren into the military. The Okinawan people were caught between conflicting expectations and demands, as the Japanese simultaneously treated them as full Japanese citizens, demanding them to sacrifice their livelihoods, their land, their very lives for their country and for their Emperor, while at the same time treating them as decidedly lesser, and Other. Okinawans were trusted enough to be impressed into military service, but were distrusted enough that those speaking the Okinawan language – not generally intelligible to Japanese – were often executed as spies. In the end, in some of the toughest fighting of the entire Pacific War, the Allies invaded Okinawa, and took the island, over the course of April through June 1945. Many Okinawans fled south, fled /towards/ the Japanese positions, believing their own country’s military would protect them from the Americans. Many, ultimately, found themselves pushed, between the two armies, with nowhere left to go but over the cliffs, to their deaths upon the rocks in the sea below. The cliffs right behind the Peace Museum are one of a number of locations where this took place. Only in retrospect, in hindsight, is it clear that had they stayed in the north, so many more might have survived. Just over 12,500 Americans lost their lives, along with 188,136 Japanese nationals, including roughly equal numbers of Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians. Roughly 1/4 of the civilian population of the island was killed, and nearly all, at least in the southern half, were rendered homeless. Shuri Castle and all the historical sites surrounding it were pounded into dust, and countless irreplaceable documents and artifacts of Ryukyuan history and culture went up in flames. Around 10,000 Koreans, most of them laborers, were also killed. Today, nearly 70 years later, around 3,000 tons of unexploded ordinance remain on the island, and it is expected it will take another 35 years at least to finish clearing it all away.

A few of the many, many memorial stones at Mabuni Peace Memorial Park. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The museum itself reminds me, as one might expect, of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Most of the rooms are quite dimly lit, and combined with the 1940s photographs themselves, it gives a black and white and grey feeling. A few rooms are built up to look/feel like the inside of caves, where so many Okinawans hid from the fighting, and where so many died, convinced by the Japanese that they should commit suicide, gloriously sacrificing themselves for their Emperor, like so many shattered jewels, rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Americans. A few spaces had latticed bars which reminded me of the Japanese-American National Museum in LA. One of the later rooms of the exhibition feels like a chapel, or a schoolroom, with rows of desks, each of which bears a book filled with firsthand accounts. Towards the end of the exhibits, the narrative switches to the post-war story. The United States continued to occupy Okinawa, the entire string of islands under US control, until 1972, twenty years after the Occupation had ended in the remainder of Japan. A photo of Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, is from his 1959 trip to Okinawa, during which he heavily criticized the US Occupation. It was only after much protest, and indeed some rather violent riots, that the US finally released its grip upon Okinawa, returning it to Japanese sovereignty (as demanded by the Okinawan people; relatively few pushed or voted for independence) in 1972, but continuing even today to hold roughly 20% of the land area of this tiny island as military bases.

We did not get a chance that day, during our far too short visit, to see anything of the park itself which surrounds the museum. I understand it is filled with numerous memorials to all those killed in the battle, regardless of their nationality. Now that I have been there once, and have some better sense of what the site is, I look forward to going back some day to see it again more fully.

In my next post, Shuri castle.

EDIT: In 2017, I finally did return to the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and write a little something about it.

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While investigating something over the winter break, I came upon a question, or should I say a conundrum. I had thought, or assumed, or believed that I had read somewhere, that when the Kingdom of Ryukyu fell and the royal family and their entourage all moved to Tokyo at the end of the 1870s, they had taken just about all their royal treasures with them. Robes, lacquerware platters, whathaveyou. The royal family, the Shô family, though stripped at that time of their kingdom and “royal” status, were incorporated into a new Japanese aristocracy on the European model, alongside many former daimyô (samurai lords) and the like; they were no longer royals, but they were by no means commoners, and so I assumed that they continued to live a relatively lavish lifestyle, and kept much of their treasures with them, in Tokyo. The royal palace back on Okinawa had been transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army garrison even before the royal family left, and by 1883, a British visitor to the island noted in his diary how gutted and abandoned the whole palace looked. So, if the palace was more or less empty, and if the Shô brought so much to Tokyo, how come we’re always hearing about so many Ryukyuan treasures having been lost in the Battle of Okinawa?

As I began to investigate this question, I began to come across some very interesting stories. As it turns out, yes, a great many treasures were brought to Tokyo, but a great many others remained in Okinawa, housed (at least in part) at the former residence of the Crown Prince, the now no longer extant Nakagusuku udun, or Nakagusuku palace,1 and cared for by a team of (in 1945) eight stewards. In 1945, as the battle loomed, the stewards hid a number of these objects in a drainage ditch just outside the palace, hoping to come back for them after the battle was over. When they returned, however, they found the treasures gone. I do not know how many objects were in that ditch, what they all were, or how many have been recovered, but I have in the last couple weeks learned a little about two of them.

A photo of the Nakagusuku palace by Kamakura Yoshitarô, taken sometime in the 1920s. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One was a copy of the Omoro sôshi, said to have been at that time the last extant copy2 of the earliest known Okinawan text, a collection of poems which like Japan’s Kojiki and Man’yôshû reveal hints about Okinawa’s history, making the Omoro sôshi at the same time Okinawa’s earliest history. It turned up shortly afterwards, when a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt (d. 1976) brought his war loot to Langdon Warner, curator at the Harvard Museums, to see if Warner could help identify them. Warner is himself a rather interesting figure – I’ve begun a humble bio of him on the Samurai Archives Wiki. He figured out what these documents were, and it is said that Sternfelt, upon hearing just how important they were, agreed to relinquish them. The Omoro sôshi was returned to Okinawa in 1953, as part of exchanges relating to the 100th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to the islands. A number of other objects taken from Okinawa at one time or another have also been returned in recent decades. A Buddhist temple bell from Okinawa’s Gokoku-ji, taken by Perry in 1853 and hung at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until its return in 1987 may be among the most famous; a bell taken from the temple of Daishôzen-ji and hung for many years at Virginia’s Military Institute was likewise returned to Okinawa in 1991. But, I was interested to learn, there are those who believe that Commander Sternfelt, or someone else, had also taken from that drainage ditch a royal crown. Known in Japanese as a hibenkan, this crown, made of strips of gold ornamented with jewels and affixed to a cloth headpiece pierced by a massive golden hairpin, was used in investiture ceremonies, in which representatives of the Chinese Emperor came to Okinawa and formally “invested” the king, formally recognizing him as King, on behalf of the Emperor of China. A second such crown, which had been taken by the family to Tokyo, is the only such crown known to be extant. Today housed at the Naha City Museum of History in Okinawa, it has been designated as a National Treasure, alongside a considerable number of other objects as a single group, the so-called Historical Documents of the Shô Family Kings of Ryûkyû (Ryûkyû kokuô shô ke kankei shiryô).

Above: The one known extant crown, on display at the Naha City Museum of History. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finding all of this terribly interesting, I began to poke through the New York Times archives, among other places, and came across an article on the website of the US consulate in Naha, which discusses much of these issues. Entitled “Provenance of Okinawan Artifacts in the United States,” it was written by Ms. TAKAYASU Fuji,3 who has also written an MA thesis on the subject, based on an extensive survey she conducted of collections of Okinawan objects in US museums. She catalogued 1,984 Okinawan objects in 37 US museums, including “569 ceramics, 501 written documents, 420 dyed fabrics, 289 pieces of lacquerware, 10 paintings, and 194 other pieces, including old coins.” I am not at all surprised to learn that these collections include so many ceramics, textiles, and lacquerwares – the kinds of works we see so often in exhibits or other discussions of Okinawan art. I am terribly curious, though, about the written documents, and especially the paintings. I would so love to see these objects someday, maybe even get to exhibit them myself, if/when I get to be a curator. I wonder how many more objects in private and museum collections across the country, and around the world, are not recognized as Ryukyuan, and are mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or just unknown unusual East Asian because, of course, we cannot reasonably expect all East Asia curators to have the sort of specialized expertise to recognize Okinawan works. Many may be lacquerwares, pottery, and the like, but what if there were some paintings, royal portraits even, or important historical documents, or even royal artifacts, just hiding in a museum collection somewhere, their true identity and significance unknown?

Skipping back to the issue of stolen, looted, artifacts for a moment, when President Clinton visited Okinawa in 2000 as part of the G-8 summit, it was hoped that some Ryukyuan object(s) might be able to be returned, as the Omoro sôshi was in 1953, as a display of friendship, reconciliation, and the like. In the end, no such arrangements were made, or at least not in time. However, we are told, eleven Ryukyuan royal treasures were added to the FBI’s official National Stolen Art File. I’m not sure exactly what search terms to use to find them all, or if all 11 remain on the list today, nearly 14 years later, but I was able to find two: the missing royal investiture crown which had been hidden in that drainage ditch in 1945, and an investiture robe which would have gone along with it.

Given such high-profile news stories, from Pres. Clinton adding objects to the FBI Stolen Art File, to the repatriation of the Omoro sôshi and Gokoku-ji and Daishôzen-ji temple bells, combined with various other sources of influence, it comes as no surprise that many people in Okinawa (and, I’d imagine, among the Okinawan community in Hawaii) imagine collections of Okinawan artifacts in the United States to derive chiefly from war booty. Takayasu’s research reveals, however, that the majority of these nearly 2,000 works in 37 museums were legally purchased either before or after the war, with roughly 400 obtained before World War II, 1200 during the extended US Occupation (1945-1972), and the remaining 400 or so acquired more recently. This is good news, of course, for those of us who wish to visit museums, work with museums, and/or work at museums with a relatively clear conscience. But, we must remember that much of what was taken from Okinawa during the war most likely never made it into any museum or other publicly visible collection, and instead remains hidden away in private homes and storage lockers. How many objects that might include, of what sort, and of what historical significance, remains unknown.

But, serious as the issue of missing, stolen, looted, or destroyed objects is, I find the stories themselves quite interesting and enjoyable, and am interested to learn more about the legal collections of Okinawan art in the United States – which objects exist, in which collections, and to hopefully eventually get to see some of them.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about these works and their stories, and I expect I will either come back and edit this post, or create new posts on the subject and I continue to read about it. But, for now, I suppose I shall just leave it here.

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1) Located just across the way from Shuri Castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku gusuku), located elsewhere on the island.
2) William Honan, “Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 13 July 1997. I find it hard to believe that this was the only surviving copy, since it was surely copied numerous times in both manuscript, and later in cyanotype or the like. But, perhaps this was the only extant original copy?
3) 高安藤 Normally, I don’t follow the practice of putting surnames in all caps like this, but after myself mistaking Fuji for being the surname and struggling to find anything more about this “Ms. Fuji” (when I should have been looking for Ms. Takayasu), I figure I might as well try to be a little clearer here.

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The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II in DC, which I visited a few years ago. Not precisely related to this exhibit in NYC, but…

*Up through October 11, an exhibit of works relating to the Japanese-American internment, entitled “The Japanese American Internment Project, If They Came for Me Today: East Coast Stories, is showing at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr, in New York City. The show was supposed to open on Sept 9, and I went on Sept 10, but it wasn’t yet open, unfortunately. So, I have not seen the show myself, and can’t really say much at all about what it contains. Still, it sounds like an important and powerful event – growing up white & Jewish on the East Coast, the Japanese-American internment was something I barely learned or heard anything about. Since moving to Hawaii, and then to the West Coast, I’ve seen how it has so much more of a presence here, and rightfully so.

*While in Okinawa last month, to my surprise, I came across the Battle of Okinawa / Holocaust Photo Exhibition Hall, in Naha’s Nishi neighborhood. Sadly, they were closed by the time I got there (around 6pm, though still plenty of hours of daylight left), so I didn’t get to visit inside. I wish I might have made sure to go back later in the week. But their website is quite extensive (though, mostly in Japanese), so one of these days I might read through some more of it.

I won’t pretend like I really know, deeply, about the full depth of Okinawan(-American) identity; I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist, or expert in contemporary Asian-American diaspora studies or anything like that. But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, based on my own upbringing and identity, and having heard and seen what I have of Okinawan & Okinawan-American identity, I feel that there are some powerful similarities, in terms of the role of past tragedies, past atrocities, in our cultural memory, that are quite central to our contemporary identity. The incredible losses of the 1940s for both our peoples, not only in terms of the number of human lives so tragically, so horrifically, terminated, but also in terms of the great losses of culture, and land, at that time, I think we share a lot in terms of our struggles, today, as a Jewish community, and as Okinawan and Okinawan-American communities, to retain or revive cultural traditions and identity. Since I began studying Okinawan history, I’ve begun to see parallels, and to feel a connection; to see this idea, this connection, validated by the existence of this institution is quite encouraging.

*Moving on to the world of contemporary art, I’ve come across a site recently called ART PAPERS. It features, as you might expect, various essays on contemporary art. To be honest, I can’t quite make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, haha. But, I eagerly look forward to other posts in the future, to see what insights or ideas they might present.

*One of two contemporary Japanese artists I’ve learned about recently, Morita Rieko produces stunning, brightly boldly colorful images of birds & flowers, and of beautiful women (bijinga), in a neo-traditional, Nihonga style. Sadly, I don’t see anything on her website explicitly describing what media she uses – whether it’s ink & mineral colors in the truly traditional manner, or whether it’s oils or acrylics or digital or something – but, in any case, the works are truly beautiful.

*Gajin Fujita is a rather different kind of neo-traditional artist, not recreating or maintaining the tradition, but remixing it into graffiti / hip-hop / street art styles. I don’t normally go for the graffiti/hip-hop aesthetics, but the way he incorporates ukiyo-e figures, kabuki characters, in the style of ukiyo-e imagery, into these contexts, is really wonderful. You can see more about Fujita at LA Louver gallery’s website.

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Everywhere we travel, if we are mindful, we will find hints of history. Down the street from my university there was a stone on the street corner with a plaque saying that General Washington had passed by there on such-and-such a date in 1770-something. Houses throughout the UK have little blue plaques on them saying which famous person used to live there.

I am ever mindful of this when I am in Japan, as Japanese history is one of my great loves, and there is so much to find around each and every corner. Once, while exploring Kamakura with my friends, got a tad lost and came upon a temple I’d never been to before; reading the sign, we discovered that the great swordsmith Masamune – famous enough that all my friends had heard of him – was buried in that very temple’s grounds.

But when I went to Okinawa, seeking out traditional culture and sites relevant to the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, even as I visited Shuri Castle and numerous other sites destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa, I failed to recognize or realize that the black and white photos and videos we see of that battle took place on those very streets. As I stayed within Naha, and did not seek out any war memorials or the like, the battlesites were far from my mind, even as the horrible losses and destruction suffered by Okinawa during that war were very much on my thoughts.

The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill was a central part of the Battle of Okinawa, and even as I knew that Shuri Castle was the Japanese military command center for the island, and that the battle centered on control of Shuri, I never gave any thought to just where in Naha/Shuri these battles took place.

Well, the Japanese Wikipedia article for the Battle of Sugar Loaf gives the exact GPS coordinates of Sugar Loaf. I was surprised to discover that I’d been there.


Located just west of Omoromachi Station on the Okinawa Monorail, a water tower today sits atop Sugar Loaf. I wonder if any marker or plaque indicates the significance of the site or the immense number of people whose blood was spilled fighting over control of this hill. A plaque giving the history of the battle is located up on the hill.

Omoromachi is today the new metropolitan center (新都心) and the station is attached to a series of major shopping centers, including Fendi and Bulgari shops, and a movie theatre. It’s beyond strange for me to imagine this place, today overrun with an army of teenagers and stroller-pushing moms, as the site of a major battle between the Imperial Japanese Army and US forces.

Nambu World includes a photo-filled tour of WWII sites around southern Okinawa, including Sugar Loaf. Thanks to Flickr member Carol.Okinawa for pointing out this site to me, and to Teri of the Nambu World website for writing it and sharing her photos.

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EDIT (Sept 3 2013): On my trip to Okinawa this summer, I made sure to take a few minutes to check out Sugar Loaf Hill, which I had missed last time. Sadly, I realized afterwards, I failed to take any pictures of what it looks like up there, or of the view from the top of the hill, but, basically, what I found was a single plaque, and a fair bit of green-grassed empty space, where one can walk full around the water tower, and see the view of the city from atop the hill. There were a few benches, and a little lookout tower sort of thing, like one might find in a public park or playground. From up there you can really get a good view out over the city – and so it’s easy to appreciate why this tiny hill would have been of such incredible tactical importance.

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