I’ve just returned from a staged reading of the play “The Cocktail Party,” a world premiere, a play that has never been fully staged yet. Written by Akutagawa Prize winning Okinawan novelist Ôshiro Tatsuhiro, based on the novel for which he won the Akutagawa Prize in 1967. If I understand correctly, this is the highest literary prize in Japan, and I am sure a lot could be said about the fact that it was awarded to an Okinawan during a time when Okinawa was under US control, and legally not at all a part of Japanese sovereign territory.
… The play addresses all the touchy subjects, all the controversies, that are by far my least favorite aspects of being associated with or involved in Okinawan society/issues/Studies/community. To my surprise, and my delight, the play ultimately ends with the idea that we are all of us both victims and victimizers. That forgetting and suppressing resentments only lets them build, and that while we (or others) may not welcome discussion of such tough subjects, such discussions must be had.
I am very glad that it ended in this way, as it might very well have ended with the idea – a theme I have seen/heard so many times – that Okinawans are the perpetual victims, and Americans the oppressors, plain and simple. But, of course, it is not so plain and simple.
But I’m putting thoughts and conclusions ahead of exposition and explanation. Ôshiro-san’s play, “The Cocktail Party,” takes place largely in 1971 Okinawa under American Occupation, and centers on a handful of characters: Yoko, the young Okinawan girl who is the victim of an attempted rape by an American GI; her father, Mr. Uehara, who served in the Japanese military in China during the war; Mr. Ogawa, a Japanese who, as neither Okinawan nor American, feels a little on the outside of the issues playing out, and who seems mostly interested on maintaining balance and harmony; Mr. Yang, a Chinese man now living in Okinawa who holds resentment against the Japanese for what happened in China during the war; and Mr. Miller, an American with the military occupation government. All of these people are friends, studying Chinese together casually, and gathering at Mr. Miller’s house on the US military base in Okinawa for a cocktail party.
Whether because of translation issues (it was performed in English, translated from the original Japanese by Prof. Yamazato Kazunori of Ryûdai), or because it was a staged reading and not a fully directed, rehearsed, choreographed, performance, the play played out less as a story of real characters, real individuals, and more as a contrivance of all the major cross-cultural, or cross-national resentments and issues that exist between the US and Okinawa, Okinawa and Japan, Japan and China, and the US and Japan, mainly revolving around WWII and the US Occupation of Okinawa. The questions of Pearl Harbor, and of the atomic bomb. Japanese war crimes in China. American extraterritoriality and injustices in Okinawa. Stated out bluntly and starkly, as if we are all just airing totally freely our deepest, darkest, hatreds and resentments. All the issues that should make anyone angry to feel accused simply because of their ethnic or national identity… And boy did I feel angry.
Ôshiro goes back and forth, and does allow his characters to express, and to toy with, many of the standard arguments or rationales that tend to come up in discussions of such subjects. Should we hold ourselves responsible – or allow others to hold us responsible – for wrongs committed by our country, or our people, however those affiliations might be defined (who are “my people”? Jews? Americans? Whites? For what am I to be held responsible?)? If the American policies in Okinawa are unfair or unjust, well, I guess we know where the Okinawan Mr. Uehara fits into that – he feels mistreated, oppressed; but where does Mr. Miller fit into this? It’s complicated, and I think, but I can’t be sure, that Ôshiro recognizes and acknowledges that complexity, and I think, he seeks to not represent Mr. Miller wholly in a negative light.
It is difficult to say who indeed is portrayed in a positive or negative light, given that, as a staged reading, the whole thing was not (as far as I know) really properly directed, and there certainly seemed many points where actors slipped on interpreting a line the right way, delivering it with the proper emotion. At times, it seemed like the play was contriving to present Mr. Uehara as wholly in the right, the helpless victim with whom we empathize, and Mr. Miller wholly negatively, as the ignorant American who can’t understand why what’s happening here is unjust. But then, there are moments when suddenly it seems like it is Mr. Uehara is in the wrong, turning what is essentially a matter between individuals (the wrong committed by the GI who tried to rape his daughter) into a matter between countries or peoples – as if he is the one polarizing this, and turning friends, individuals, human beings, into mere representatives of their race or nation – making it into a matter of Okinawans and Americans, rather than one of people, individuals. I suppose, in the end, when it comes to subject matter like this, one’s perceptions of the tone or depiction of certain characters or ideas is profoundly, inescapably, colored by one’s own opinions and identity. I identify strongly with Japan and with Okinawa, but ultimately I am an American, a white American, not an Okinawan or a Japanese, and ultimately, if we are to draw lines in the sand, and be forced to take a side, I’m afraid I find myself on the American side.
That being the case, I think there was one issue that I think Mr. Ôshiro, and indeed most or all who address the anti-base issues, fails to address in a more balanced, two-sided way: extraterritoriality. I understand how it looks and seems from the Okinawan point of view when US GIs are exempt from the jurisdiction of Okinawan or Japanese courts, and I sympathize. Really, I do. They argue that the US military courts – and indeed the law itself – are designed to benefit, i.e. to privilege, Americans, and they’re right. But I think that when people make this argument, they fail to consider how unsettling a prospect it is for anyone, of any identity or affiliation, to face the idea of being put on trial in a legal system not their own. In short, there are plenty of ways in which the Japanese laws and court system function to privilege Japanese, and I as an American genuinely fear the prospect of ever crossing the Japanese law. To name just one example, the incredible difficulty American dads have in trying to gain custody of their children, when the children have been essentially abducted by their Japanese mother. The mother flees with the children to Japan, where she knows Japanese law will protect her and will shut out the American father. Is that fair? Is that just? Is that not pretty much the same thing, the same privileging of one type of people, that the Okinawans complain remains at the core of the injustice of the Status of Forces Agreement under which US forces in Okinawa continue to operate? … I sympathize strongly with those living outside of these extraterritorial spaces, who, as Japanese, feel that their Japanese system is the most fair and just, because it’s their system. But, I’m afraid I also sympathize with those living within those extraterritorial spaces (the US military bases), who, as Americans, feel that their system is less fair and just, simply because it’s their system, designed with Japanese interests, attitudes, and values in mind, and not with treating Japanese and non-Japanese equally, or with protecting non-Japanese, as the core fundamental ideals it is based on. So, that’s my stance on extraterritoriality. Not so cut and dry, I think, as many Okinawan anti-base people would make it seem.
Returning to the matter of the play, I wish the issues were not addressed so bluntly. I wish they had come to the fore more subtly, more organically, somehow. I think my favorite part of the play was the one part that was a bit more metaphorical and poetic – the reference to cocktail parties as a metaphor for the wide variety of meetings, events, functions, that we have all the time in order to pretend at empty statements of friendship, when in fact deep-seated hatreds, resentments, or just issues or disagreements gnaw at those ties of supposed friendship. As a member of the audience brought up during the Q&A session with Mr. Ôshiro afterwards, organizations like APEC, and events like the big APEC meeting coming up in a week or two here in Honolulu, might be termed “cocktail parties” in precisely the sort of meaning Mr. Ôshiro highlights in the play.
I do not know that much about the American Occupation of Okinawa, but I would not be at all surprised if Mr. Ôshiro’s characterization of Mr. Miller’s somewhat empty and false attitudes about “friendships” between the US and Okinawa held true. Mr. Miller seems determined to focus on this idea of “friendship” between the US and Okinawa, between Americans and Okinawans, but Mr. Uehara does not see it as true friendship, borne out of true human, social connection, accusing it instead of being all platitudes and pretend, for political purposes of putting a nice veneer on what’s actually a very difficult, trying relationship, and in the case of Occupied Okinawa, a rather unbalanced and unjust one. The Japanese seem especially good at this. Lots of talk about friendship, and building ties, but with little real meaning behind it. This is part of what frustrates me often about applying for scholarships or other programs in Japan; it so often comes back to, “how are your activities, that we are going to fund, going to benefit US-Japan relations?” Bullshit. They’re not. You don’t organize huge study abroad / exchange programs, or fund scholarly research, just to look good, for the sake of the photo ops and press releases about your work to benefit the US-Japanese “friendship.” I mean, you do do that. But you shouldn’t. It’s stupid.
I do think that to some extent it really is time to put these 60+ years old issues behind us, and to stop digging them up again and again – which only serves to bolden rather than weaken the lines between Americans and Okinawans, Okinawans and Japanese, Japanese and Chinese, etc. – in this respect, speaking metaphorically of “cocktail parties,” there definitely is still relevance for today. As the observant audience member argued, these kinds of “cocktail parties” continue to go on all the time, with countries pretending at “friendship” for the sake of photo ops and press conferences, international forums and handshakes, while in fact very serious, very difficult problems continue to go unresolved.
All told, though I had my issues with it, I am very glad that I went to see this play, and feel privileged to have gotten to attend a world premiere of a play by an Akutagawa Prize winning writer, and an Okinawan one at that.
Now maybe next time we can have a performance of an Okinawan play that addresses some other aspect of Okinawan identity. Because, and I know this will come as a shock to some people, but there is more to Okinawan history, culture, and identity than the anti-American or anti-Japanese political issues of the last 60 or so years. Maybe a kumi udui performance. A love story. Or a story of warriors, or lords. Something celebrating, or representing, the deep, colorful, traditional culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom without directly commenting on its fall, or the perceived (or actual) injustices and oppression which followed.
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