Speak, Okinawa

The English Football League Championship has just been won by the club I support. This means next season Norwich City will play in the Premier League. Naturally, I felt like shouting this news from the rooftops last Saturday night. But that would have upset my neighbours in Okinawa who have never heard of my team anyway.

Instead, I should have gone on social media to post, tweet, like, share, and emote all about it. However, while Norwich were being crowned champions, they and all other football clubs in England were boycotting social media platforms in a three-day protest about the abuse (racial and otherwise) footballers have suffered. This online abuse has gone unpunished by the social media companies. I supported the boycott so had to hold back my online celebrations.

A boycott alone won’t solve anything, but it is a gesture worth making. Despite its darker side, social media is frequently used as a power for good. Not least as a valuable source to enable people with similar interests to share ideas and information, to keep in touch, make useful contacts, and to promote campaigns for positive change.

I was reminded of this when reading the new book Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina. I had missed this memoir when it came out earlier this year but was then alerted to its existence by the author Akemi Johnson, who I follow, when she tweeted the link to her Washington Post review of Brina’s book.

Akemi Johnson has been mentioned here before. Her own book Night in the American Village (2019) is an enlightening account of the lives of women in relation to American bases on Okinawa. The new book by Elizabeth Miki Brina is also strongly connected with Okinawa but hers is a memoir and in some ways, it reminded me of Kyoko Mori’s The Dream of Water (1995) especially in its narrator’s search for an understanding of family, roots, culture, and heritage.

Brina’s parents met in a nightclub in Okinawa, her mother a local waitress, and her father a white American soldier from a wealthy family. Elizabeth was brought up mostly in America where she was embarrassed by her mother’s accent and Okinawan background. Siding with her father she writes of pushing her mother away and then, after years of rebellion and self-destruction, to the gradual realisation of Okinawa’s tragic history, and eventually towards a reconciliation of sorts with her mother.

The memoir is written in a series of short chapters with the cumulative effect of telling both the story of her life up to now, her relationship with her parents, and her time growing up as an Asian-American.

It does two important things. First, it tells the story of the tortured relationship with her mother that leads to the beginnings of a reconciliation and to an apology. This part of the book is at times heartrending. There are no epiphanies because the turning point is always much more gradual and imperceptible. But the book also does much more than this.  

Its second important achievement – also heartrending – is to tell in short, simple, straightforward prose, the history of Okinawa. These chapters are written in bite-sized pieces covering the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom and up to the present and the ongoing protests over the base construction at Henoko. Being told from the point of view of island people living through these times creates a sense of immediacy and realism that is quite remarkable.

In fact, this is a remarkable and moving book. There are a couple of very tiny mistakes with Japanese words and, not surprisingly, I found the description of the sanshin as a ‘sanshin guitar’ grating. (Nitpicking is a bad habit of mine, or so I’ve been told). But Speak, Okinawa also moved me to tears and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And to get back to where I started. The online abuse of footballers in England is bad enough. But what we are seeing now with Asian hate, not just in America but elsewhere in the world, is utterly despicable. Elizabeth Miki Brina’s book is infused with the sense of her being uncomfortably perceived by others as an Asian not wholly belonging to America. It shows the effects of colonialism and racism and offers ideas of how to fight back.

Closer to home, the ongoing abuse of Okinawa itself by Japan and America is something the outside world needs to know about.

Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

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