Forever Chemicals & Okinawan Spirit

“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.

https://www.shimanchupodcast.com/

Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

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