Archive for August 2021

Forever Chemicals & Okinawan Spirit

August 18, 2021

“A situation is arising in which people from outside the islands, such as yourself, can inspire Okinawans to understand their own culture and identity.” These words were spoken to me by iconic Okinawan singer and activist Shoukichi Kina several years ago during an interview included in The Power of Okinawa book. (Well, he said it in Japanese, and this is the English translation).

We were talking about independence for the Ryukyu Islands and how the younger generation of Okinawans were too influenced by Japan nowadays to give much thought to such matters. Years later not a great deal has changed regarding independence which is still not a vital issue in most people’s minds. Equally though, not much has changed (or is ever likely to) while the islands remain under the colonial rule of Japan, with the use and misuse of large swathes of stolen land by US occupation forces and their military bases.

Accidents and incidents, crimes, and environmental degradation, all continue with the tacit approval of a Japanese government that has no intention of doing anything to seriously relieve Okinawans of their burden, let alone grant more autonomy. Prime Minister Suga follows the same path trodden by his predecessor Abe and is only remarkable for his self-professed ignorance of Okinawan history, his disregard and lack of empathy for the sufferings of the Ryukyu people then and now.

Kina surprised me a bit by his optimism and belief that change – or at least more awareness – could come from the outside. This might come from non-Okinawan ‘allies’ interested and concerned about these islands, and equally from those in the large Okinawan diaspora who have family roots back in the Ryukyus. 

Maybe Kina had a point. Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell is one ‘outsider’ who has worked tirelessly on Okinawan issues. His book Poisoning the Pacific was a thoroughly researched, eye-opening record of the US military’s secret dumping of chemical weapons. He has also co-directed a 24-minute video report with an Okinawan TV station which is essential viewing. (The video now has English subtitles). Forever Chemicals is a shocking look into how the US military contaminated the water for 450,000 Okinawans:

Watching the video (as I hope you will too), it was most disappointing to see the indignation of local people met with such apparent indifference from their own government officials all too keen to avoid making a fuss or fighting for their rights.

The American-Uchinanchu activist Byron Fija has written of Okinawans being the victims of Stockholm syndrome, unwilling to free themselves from attachment to their Japanese and American oppressors and even sympathising with them. This term came to mind again when I read the short story ‘Gubeikou Spirit’ by Te-Ping Chen from her book Land of Big Numbers published earlier this year.

In the story a group of passengers are delayed on the Gubeikou station platform by a late train. They are told to stay in the station until the problem is fixed. However, the delay goes on for hours, then days, then weeks. Food, drinks, and other supplies are delivered to them by station employees. They are even given t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Gubeikou Spirit’ and praised for their patience and resilience. Gradually the stranded passengers come to accept their predicament, and they begin to prefer it to life outside. It’s an allegory that could well have been written about Okinawa.

The logo for the Ichariba Choodee podcast

But to return to those engaged in discussions about the Ryukyus, there is an entertaining and informative new monthly podcast named Ichariba Choodee. Subtitled ‘Okinawan Voices and Stories’ its purpose is to explore various topics, from identity to language revitalisation. Episodes feature guest speakers who are usually involved in a specific subject connected to Okinawa. In the latest episode there is a discussion of hajichi, the traditional tattooing that was eventually banned after Japan took control of the islands. A second part on this topic is coming soon.  

The hosts are Mariko Middleton, Erica Kunihasa, and Tori Toguchi who are all based in the USA but with Uchinanchu family roots in Okinawa. What is so engaging about the discussions up to now is that the three bring such a lightness of touch to the proceedings as they chat freely about their own heritage.

They are concerned, in their own words, with “celebrating and preserving our culture, connecting the diaspora, and both proudly and humbly educating and learning along the way”. The title of their podcast, available in all the usual places (website link below), is the Ryukyu saying sometimes translated as: ‘When we meet, we become brothers, sisters, family’.

There are others outside the islands who have done important work recently in drawing attention, in their own different ways, to Okinawa and its issues through their writing. Among them are the authors Akemi Johnson (Night in the American Village) and Elizabeth Miki Brina (Speak, Okinawa) whose books have already been discussed elsewhere on this blog. 

Shoukichi Kina has always been fond of talking about the need for great ‘Okinawan spirit’. It’s become almost his mantra. Perhaps his idea that those outside the islands can help inspire Okinawans to a greater understanding of their own spirit, culture, identity, and indeed rights, will come true after all. I hope so.

Chihiro Kamiya: Utayui

August 10, 2021

In 2003 I interviewed Chihiro Kamiya for an article on young women singers. ‘Young Okinawa’ was published the following year in the UK’s fRoots magazine. (You can still read it in the ‘Features Archive’ here). Since then, a lot has happened. The singer from tiny Tsuken Island, off Okinawa’s east coast, went on to make a couple of albums in the pop and rock field. Then in 2012 she came up with Utaui, her best work yet, in which she found her own style mixing both old and new.

All then became silent as far as recording was concerned and she became busy with a new life as a mother bringing up a young family of her own. Now, after a nine-year hiatus, she has been back in the studio and the result is the similarly titled album Utayui which is another mix of original and traditional songs.

The new album begins quietly with piano on ‘Hanagasa Bushi’ a traditional Okinawan song. As soon as Kamiya starts to sing it’s apparent that she is back on top form and the arrangement gradually adds her sanshin in a lovely opener. It’s followed by ‘Anmaakutu’ a song she wrote in the familiar shimauta style. This mix continues, and the songs are sung sometimes in Uchinaguchi, sometimes in Japanese, and occasionally in a hybrid of the two languages.

There are two tracks that go under the name ‘medley’ – something both Japanese and Okinawans are fond of, but that often ring the alarm bells for me. However, all fears are blown away on listening. The ‘Warabi Uta Medley’ of four children’s songs recalls the classic Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman collaboration but this is just as good in its own way. (We also get to hear Kamiya playing a bit of Ryukyu kalimba). Later, there’s an eight minute ‘Eisa Medley’ but this too is so well conceived and executed that it slots in perfectly with the rest of the album.

‘Shirakumu Bushi’ and ‘Nakuni~Hantabaru’ are two very familiar traditional tracks given the Kamiya treatment and for these she is joined by her father Yukihiro and brother Yukitaka to make it a real family affair. Of the other original compositions, ‘Human Song’ is a waltz that comes close to emulating the excellent ‘Coral Song’ from the previous album, while ‘Awatiina’ has a fast tempo and an arrangement not unlike Nenes at their best.

Even the most accomplished Okinawan singers and musicians sometimes make substandard recordings, either because the songs are watered down in attempting to appeal to a wider audience or the albums are simply churned out without enough thought or regard for quality control. So, it comes as a real delight to discover a new album such as this which has a carefully considered balance of old and new, and of tone and variation. And all recorded with thoughtful arrangements and obvious care by Kamiya who produced and directed.

Above all, it is Chihiro Kamiya’s superb singing and phrasing that stands out and ultimately makes Utayui an album of such quality. Now in her late 30s, she is surely one of the greatest singers to come from these islands.

Utayui is released tomorrow (11th August) by Sinpil Records.