Dreamtime for the Ryukyus

I read a news report this week about the Marshall Islands, a nation comprising more than a thousand islands in the north Pacific. Because of rising sea levels, some of the islands are likely to disappear completely as they go underwater. Majuro, the islands’ capital is projected to find 40% of its buildings permanently flooded. Marshall Islands’ status as a nation would even come under threat.

It’s not such a stretch to imagine a similar scenario eventually arising in parts of the Ryukyus. As if there wasn’t already enough for the islanders to contend with along with colonisation by Japan and land taken without the people’s consent for American military bases.

Dreamtime…with shisa

This is all a far cry from the tropical tourist paradise frequently portrayed, or the ‘healing islands’ image of mainland Japanese: an image that never fails to annoy me. Apathy among the electorate in Japan also means this month’s election won’t change anything for Okinawa. Those who do vote will return a government that has no interest in democracy or the will of the Okinawan people. Sadly, many Okinawans are disillusioned with politics too and see resistance as futile.  

Outside these islands (and even within Japan) there is little or no awareness of the history of the Ryukyus and of their ongoing problems. However, there have been several books recently published in English by ‘outsiders’ who through their writings have tried to draw attention to what goes on here.

Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell has done painstaking work, in the face of much opposition, to uncover secrets the American military would rather we hadn’t found out. Akemi Johnson has written an excellent book drawing on the stories of women connected in various ways with the bases; and Elizabeth Miki Brina’s superb memoir Speak, Okinawa seamlessly blends a summary of Ryukyu history with her own experiences of coming to terms with her Okinawan heritage.

All these books have been mentioned before on the Power of Okinawa, but now there’s a new addition to this small but distinguished group of publications that in their different ways have all focussed on the predicament facing Okinawa. This time it comes in the form of a novel by English author Venetia Welby whose new book Dreamtime is set largely in the Ryukyu Islands. 

This is Welby’s second novel and she spent considerable time travelling in the Ryukyus while researching the background for her book. The story is set in a dystopian near future and its protagonist is Sol, a young American woman who emerges from rehab in Arizona to embark on a journey, together with friend Kit, that takes her to Okinawa in search of her absentee father who was stationed on the island as a marine. All of this takes place against a backdrop of global climate meltdown.

In what is also something of a road novel, there are scenes in Naha, Chatan, and Yomitan, as well as the outer islands of Ishigaki and Iriomote. These locations along with the characters and cultural depictions from the Ryukyus are convincingly represented and it’s clear that Welby has done her research thoroughly.

But this is a novel, not a factual account, and is all the better for it. It should first be appreciated as literature and as such is a very satisfying read. The story is fast-paced, and the genre defies categorisation. It’s science fiction set in a near future (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a relative). At the same time, it looks back to the history of the Ryukyu Islands. Important issues are addressed such as climate change, the evils of colonisation, and the continual dangers arising from hosting military bases. There’s also a love story at its heart.  

Welby has done a fine job of creating an unusually compelling and prescient novel that should be of great interest to all readers, not just those with a particular interest in Okinawa. Perhaps it will also help to awaken the outside world to what is happening in the Ryukyus now and what might happen in the future.

Explore posts in the same categories: Notes from the Ryukyus

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