Many people who come to Japan discover a way into the culture through such diverse things as anime, Zen, martial arts, Japanese cuisine and the tea ceremony. In Okinawa it’s more likely to be music or marine sports. In my case, when I first arrived in mainland Japan, long before I moved to Okinawa, I was keen to read Japanese literature in English translation and devoured most of the novels that were available.
There wasn’t a huge choice at that time but there were a fair number of books by established authors and I was soon discovering novels by Tanizaki, Kawabata, Shiga, Mishima, Endo and others. I liked the comedy of Natsume Sōseki’s ‘Botchan’; was impressed by Abe Kōbō’s mysterious ‘The Woman in the Dunes’; and equally depressed by Dazai Osamu’s ‘No Longer Human’. And, of course, I read Murasaki Shikibu’s long classic ‘The Tale of Genji’.
In Okinawa, where the climate and culture is very different from Japan, the performing arts have been paramount and I hardly need mention again the importance of music. But there is also a unique and distinct tradition of Okinawan literature which grew rapidly in the late 20th century and is concerned with themes of memory and identity and with the aftermath of the Battle of Okinawa.
I’ve been reading the new book Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It’s an anthology published this year and it contains some of the best of this writing in the form of short stories but also a few poems and a play. The earliest story is from 1911 but most of the selections are much more recent. The newest is Toma Hiroko’s poem ‘Backbone’ (2005) which contrasts the white beaches and red hibiscus of Okinawa with “wire fence, fighter jets” and the man’s playground of “streets bright with neon”.
I was already familiar with the work of Okinawan writer and activist Medoruma Shun. His very short story ‘Hope’ (1999) opens this collection and is still as shocking today as when I first read it. Sadly, it is still all too relevant to the ongoing political situation. The ironically titled ‘Hope’ describes the murder of an American child by the story’s Okinawan narrator, the connection between the two, and the complexities of everyday life on an island still burdened by US military bases. It’s powerful and thought-provoking way beyond its slight length.
There are also two other stories by Medoruma in the anthology which concludes with ‘The Human Pavilion’ (1978) a drama by Chinen Seishin, This alludes to the infamous occasion when Okinawans were exhibited as primitive and exotic specimens dressed in their native costumes to paying audiences at the Fifth World Trade and Industrial Exhibition in Osaka in 1903. Chinen’s drama shows the dehumanizing prejudice and discrimination that Okinawans have had to endure from Japan.
There are many other good things in this anthology which is edited by Davinder L. Bhowmik and Steve Rabson and published by the University of Hawaii Press. As the blurb on the back cover rightly says, the book offers an entry into a culture “marked by wartime decimation, relentless discrimination, and fierce resistance, yet often overshadowed by the clichéd notion of a gentle Okinawa so ceaselessly depicted in Japan’s mass media.”