Okinawan Identity and the Song of the Islands
Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom. For hundreds of years, this tiny island sat at the center of a massive East/Southeast Asian maritime trade network, playing a crucial role in facilitating both economic exchange, and cultural interactions across the region. The Ryukyu Kingdom, as it is also called, was a tributary to China, and later came under the control of the samurai lords of Japan's Satsuma han (today Kagoshima prefecture). Formally annexed into Japan in the 1870s, it saw some of the worst fighting of the Pacific War, and remained under American Occupation for twenty years longer than the rest of Japan.
Coming to Okinawa with this historical background in mind, I was eager to see firsthand the place I had read about and imagined for so long. I expected Okinawa to be a tropical, exotic place, and a place where identity issues and political attitudes could be felt in the air. The former was certainly true, in its ways, but to my surprise, the latter seemed absent entirely. Where were the protesters against the continued American military presence? (American military bases currently make up roughly 20% of this tiny island.) Where were the T-shirts and bumper stickers arguing for Okinawan independence? The angry glares of Okinawans tired of seeing Americans (read: American military) in their space? Where were the angry retorts whenever I referred to Okinawa as part of Japan or made a similar comment?
To be clear, I don't really have a stand on these issues. I am not a political traveler, visiting places in order to show solidarity with a cause. Even as I come to grow more and more interested in Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, I am a historian, and a cultural traveler, not a neo-hippie.
What I found surprising, and very interesting, about the Okinawan approach to these issues, to their identity, and to facing the past, was its passiveness. Okinawa certainly expresses its local/regional identity, its culture and history, as do other areas of Japan, and since Okinawa's history and culture are so starkly different, this could be seen as a stronger expression of an independent identity. But does expression of one's identity necessarily incorporate a political message?
Wandering the Heiwa-dôri (Peace Street) market, just an hour or so after arriving off my flight from Tokyo and chucking my bags in a coin locker at the monorail station, I picked an Okinawan soba restaurant at random, and truly lucked out. The tenchô-san (proprietor), Sakae Seizô, was amazingly friendly and welcoming, far moreso than anyone I ever encounter in the Kantô (the area in and around Tokyo). I explained that while I wanted to try traditional Okinawan food, there are a lot of things I can't eat, and he made up a special teishoku (set meal) for me - deviating from the menu in a way that, again, most places in Kantô would never dream of doing. After a lively and entertaining conversation about where I'm from, why I'm interested in Okinawa, and the like, he invited me to come back after closing time, to sing folk songs (minyo) and play sanshin (a three-stringed instrument akin to the Japanese shamisen or Chinese sanxian) with him and his friends.
More than anywhere else I have ever been, I feel that Okinawa thrives on its music. Sanshin shops and shima uta (island song) bars line Kokusai-dôri (International Street, the main shopping area), and even the pop music has its foundation in the traditional folk songs. This is in sharp contrast, I feel, to the situation in "mainland" Japan, where the folk music, though quite similar to what is heard in Okinawa I think, at least far more similar than to the music of anywhere else in the world, is reserved pretty much only for traditional settings, such as local community festivals.
Returning that night and following Sakae-san out the back of his small soba shop, and down a tiny alley, we came to a small house, inaccessible from the street as near as I could tell, and made of the same ugly corrugated tin siding as half the houses anywhere in Japan. But open the door, and it's quite nicely furnished inside, tatami lining the floors, sushi and sweets on the table, a true home, not a third world shack by any means. Sakae-san's friend is a sanshin maker, along with his son, and while we sat around singing folk songs late into the night, back in the soba-ya, Sakae-san's wife and a number of young women did the same, practicing sanshin as well.
Despite the corrugated tin of the house, the asphalt lining the alley, the concrete of the buildings all around us, holding the sanshin and singing folk songs with these people, I could really feel the song of the islands. I do not know where one can find this ideal, pristine, tropical paradise in real life -does it still exist somewhere outside Naha? Did it ever? But it surely does exist within the music, and within the minds and hearts of those who sing it.
The following night I went to a live house associated with Kina Shôkichi and Champloose, one of the most famous and influential acts in the Okinawan pop boom of the late 60s-70s. Shôkichi's music, based in the shimauta and minyo, gives the feeling of 60s political music, but without directly explicitly stating the political messages that Shôkichi, long an activist and now a member of the Diet, fights for. It is not angry music. It does not have a target, an enemy, and I think it is more powerful and more meaningful for it. Unlike some other Asian countries/regions I could name, Okinawa does not feel the need to express its identity, its nationalism, its greatness, through attacks on the other. Expressing Okinawan identity, heritage, and tradition, is not a denial of Japanese identity, nor a condemnation of the American presence.
Rather, it simply expresses the emotion and beauty of Okinawa, its traditional culture and its modern identity. Despite the urban atmosphere of the bar, the concrete, asphalt, and neon lights that await me just outside the door, here, I feel this is Okinawa, and I can imagine the island breezes, the blue-green water and white sand, and the tropical greenery of an idealised island paradise which may, for all I know, be waiting just outside the city limits.
Published on 3/27/08