Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

Home thoughts from abroad

June 6, 2017

I am a stranger to the ballot box. Not through choice but because I’m not entitled to vote in elections either in the UK or in Japan the country where I have permanent residency. And although I have no plans to take it up, it would also be nice to have the right to return with my family to live in my native country if we ever wanted to but under current British government laws this is apparently forbidden to us on economic grounds.

Over the past decade or so I haven’t much cared about never being able to take part in the democratic process, especially since the available options through the UK ballot box always seemed so unappealing and lacking in real diversity. However, for the first time in ages it appears that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party offers a glimmer of hope for a better and more inclusive society for everyone and not just for the few.

To my surprise I found myself actually being impressed with the answers of a political leader last week when I watched Corbyn on BBC TV’s Question Time. What was disappointing was the reaction of some, mostly older, members of the audience who expressed indignation that he prefers to talk with dangerous people he doesn’t like such as ‘terrorists’; he is very reluctant to use nuclear weapons; and is wholeheartedly in favour of multiculturalism.

It is encouraging that most of the younger people I’ve listened to have been more positive and open-minded about many issues and some of them are puzzled as to why their elders are so keen to have the nuclear option at all. Young people are often portrayed as naive or irresponsible but many of those I’ve heard have talked more sense than some of their seniors who are more concerned with retaliation and blowing everyone up than with reasoning and understanding.

In Okinawa, where people have suffered invasion and occupation, innumerable deaths and destruction, attitudes are different and it is usually the elderly who are the most vociferous in condemning all forms of violence. They must know from bitter experience that killing people doesn’t make things better and there are only losers in war. Despite this sad history – which continues to this day with American military bases forcibly imposed on Okinawa by Japan – Okinawan people have generally welcomed outsiders and taken pride in their mixed champloo culture. While most Okinawans happily embrace pacifism, the macho British see nothing incongruous about holding military parades at football matches and using any opportunity to celebrate the armed forces.

So I won’t be voting this week and am not optimistic about the outcome of the UK general election, given some of the attitudes I’ve seen among the British public and the reluctance of people to change their ways. Too many also would rather close borders and pull up the drawbridge. But stranger things have happened in the world, not least with the election of the terrible Trump, so I don’t expect, but cautiously hope for a Labour victory.


45 Years and counting

May 16, 2017

The excellent British film 45 Years is set in my home county of Norfolk and features scenes in the city of Norwich where I grew up. The title refers to plans for a 45th wedding anniversary party that are overshadowed in unexpected ways by events from the past. Watching it again in Okinawa last week I was reminded of another anniversary that in very different ways is also haunted by past events. For it was 45 years yesterday since these islands were returned to Japan from rule by America.

The Japan-based award-winning investigative journalist Jon Mitchell wrote an article for the Japan Times five years ago on the 40th anniversary of the reversion. The article ‘What awaits Okinawa 40 years after reversion?’ was recently retweeted by Mitchell and it makes depressing reading as everything he wrote then is just as relevant today while Japan continues to discriminate against Okinawa.

In the article he outlines how the invasion by Japan and abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom played out:

“Thereafter, Tokyo set about bringing the islands into the homogeneous embrace of the homeland. To do so, over the next decades it suppressed Okinawa’s culture, degraded its native languages as mere dialects of Japanese and disproportionately taxed the population — contributing to a famine in the 1920s that killed thousands and forced still more to seek survival as far afield as Hawaii, Peru and Brazil.”

Keep out: A fence topped with razor-wire separates the U.S. Iejima Auxiliary Airfield (right) from Japan.
(Photo: Jon Mitchell)

He continues: “Japanese disdain for Okinawa reached a climax in the final months of World War II, when the Imperial Army sacrificed it as a suteishi — a throwaway pawn — to bog down the Allies and make them think twice about invading the main islands….During the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, more than a quarter of the civilian population died — including many in military-enforced mass suicides, and those shot by Japanese soldiers as suspected spies for speaking Okinawan languages….Then in July 1945, the U.S. military declared Okinawa under its control — and since then it has never left.”

Given the ongoing situation regarding the disproportionate number of US bases still on Okinawa more than 70 years after the war ended, it might be surprising that there hasn’t been a more vociferous campaign for independence for Okinawa up to now, but until recently this has been virtually a taboo subject. However, representatives from Okinawa went to Scotland to observe and learn from the independence referendum held there and the topic is no longer something only debated by ‘extremists’.

As the article points out: “Four centuries of Japanese and American misrule have foisted an endless series of tragedies and misfortunes on these tiny islands, leaving them economically, environmentally and emotionally despoiled. In spite of this, Okinawan people have stood up to these injustices with compassion, resilience and nonviolence — three principles upon which any fledgling nation state could be proud to found its future.”

“Critics are quick to predict that an independent Okinawa would be a failure as a state. But it is difficult to see how a self-ruled Okinawa could make a bigger mess of things than the U.S. and Japan have done. And even if its initial steps were faltering, at least for once any failures would be its own.”

I agree with Mitchell that “the time is way overdue to allow Okinawa to decide its future for itself.”

Here is a link to the complete article at the Japan Times website:


Goodbye 2016 – A Year in Music

December 29, 2016

Another year is almost over. I was asked to vote again in the 2016 Critics Poll by the UK’s fRoots magazine, and also in the annual music awards for another UK magazine Songlines. For the best album category fRoots voting is open to all albums released anywhere in the world over the past year and so I was able to slip in a couple of my Okinawan favourites, but the Songlines awards are only for albums that have been reviewed in the magazine. Sadly, that rules out music from Okinawa this year.

It hasn’t really been a great year for Okinawan releases but two of the best albums among the six choices I made for fRoots were the debut record Minishi by Yaeyama singer Mayuko Higa and Ten by Okinawa’s Hajime Nakasone. But in fact, my number one favourite roots album from Okinawa this year came just too late for inclusion and that was Takashi Hirayasu’s first solo album for 18 years, the subtly subversive set of traditional Okinawan songs, Yuu.


The roots albums from ‘out there’ that I liked best this year were the big and magnificent Upcetera by England’s Jim Moray – quite possibly his best yet – and the remarkable second album Nine Pin from Toronto-based Kaia Kater, a superb album of originals and North American traditional songs with an underlying theme of racial issues. Incredibly, it was recorded all in one day. Both these and the Okinawan albums above were reviewed on this blog as was the album Lodestar by Shirley Collins which was the overall winner in the fRoots best album category.

If Okinawa wasn’t exactly bursting with bright new albums there was plenty of music being made elsewhere that I listened to with great pleasure – in both roots and other genres. A real find for me late in the year was the album True Born Irishman by Dublin’s Daoiri Farrell who sings and plays bouzouki and is a unique talent obviously inspired by the likes of Irish masters Donal Lunny and Christy Moore.

kaia kater

The debut album Nothing’s Real by Shura was also one of the best things I listened to and was a glorious throwback to the synth-pop of the 80s but with a very new twist. Then there was This Unruly Mess I’ve Made the second album from Seattle hip-hoppers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: only a broken leg stopped me from attending their concert in Osaka. Meanwhile Basque singer Ruper Ordorika went to New York to make another fine album and I enjoyed New Yorker Paul Simon’s inventive return to form at the age of 75 with Stranger to Stranger.

Better still was Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker. Cohen’s death along with the untimely demise of other hugely popular and influential musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, and now George Michael has made it a rather sombre year to say the least and that’s without mentioning all the craziness of the political world and the ongoing colonial treatment of Okinawa by Japan and the USA. Don’t get me started on that one. Instead I will just mention one more thing that came to mind following this week’s news of the loss of George Michael at the age of 53.

On an evening in January 1985 I found myself sitting on the front row of a massive hall in Osaka. I was there to see the pop duo Wham! I had only just arrived in Japan and had somehow (through a Japanese friend with connections) obtained the best seat in the house. I wasn’t even really a fan of Wham! – I was more of a Bob Dylan man and saw him too in Osaka the next year. Okinawa and its music were still a few years in the future.

As George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley came on stage that night the entire audience rose to its feet as one to leave me standing head and shoulders above the excited crowd of mostly teenage girls. Even then I was the oldest for as far as I dared to look. I tried crouching down, as tall people tend to do, but that only made me more conspicuous especially to the musicians on stage. I can’t remember much of the music now but can confirm that it did not disappoint and left everyone feeling very happy including me.

The years since have, I hope, enabled me to open my ears more than ever to all the diverse and wonderful music that is being made in so many different places. Let’s hope 2017 is a good year for music in Okinawa and all around the world.


Congratulations Bob!

October 14, 2016

When Bob Dylan makes the front page of the Okinawa Times newspaper you know the times they really are a-changing. That’s what happened this morning with his unusually smiling face adorning the front page and with another lengthier feature on an inside page on the occasion of his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

There isn’t really any point in trying to summarize his career – even if it could be done succinctly here. But to let this news go unremarked would be wrong so here’s a little something just to congratulate Bob on his great achievement. Without him roots music would not have achieved the attention it has now but, of course, his songs and music go way beyond that and have crossed all sorts of boundaries over the 54 years since the release of his debut album.


I first listened to Dylan back in 1965 when I was pointed in the direction of his Bringing It All Back Home album (probably by my friend Derek in Norwich) so I was already a bit late to the party as he had begun astonishing and outraging people in equal measure by his experiments with rock and electric guitars at that time. So I rapidly went back and listened to everything from the start and then to everything from there onwards.

Blonde on Blonde and its surreal images was a revelation to me and remains perhaps the greatest album of all. It also seemed to be the soundtrack to every party I went to for ages after its release. In the mid 70s there was another creative peak with the superb Blood on the Tracks. I’ve also seen him on stage at least ten times both in England and Japan, perhaps most memorably at the Blackbushe Aerodrome festival in 1978 when he played for nearly three hours to a crowd of more than 200,000.

By the 21st century he had reinvented himself yet again, this time soaked in roots references with Love and Theft and Modern Times. There was also the surprise publication of an excellent memoir Chronicles (Volume One) which finally managed to erase the memory of the impenetrable novel Tarantula.

If the Nobel Prize for Literature had been given to a pop singer even 30 years ago it would very likely have provoked anger and gasps of disbelief or worse. No doubt there will be some today who still won’t like it. That the Nobel Prize has gone to Bob Dylan should on the contrary be a cause for celebration and not only from his fans. Of course, Dylan himself is known for wayward and eccentric behaviour so there’s no guarantee he will accept it…

Pride before the fall

August 25, 2016

One of the deciding factors in buying our house in Okinawa was the deep spacious balcony with a view of the Pacific Ocean that runs around two sides of the building. These large balconies are common features in the concrete houses built all around the island as people began to rebuild their homes and lives following the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa.

Our balcony has become an important place for us to relax, to eat al fresco, and to sit with a glass of awamori while listening to music in the evenings. However, the way I shall think in future about my prized balcony has changed forever following the events of the afternoon of the 10th August.

I was visited that day by an old friend from Kobe who used to edit Kansai Time Out magazine many years ago when I first began writing about Okinawan music. I hadn’t seen him for at least 18 years and had never met his wife who was with him on a rare trip to Okinawa where they decided to look me up.

It had been raining heavily that morning but I was eager to proudly show off the balcony so it wasn’t long before we went up there. Foolishly, I chose to wear a pair of worn out old slippers. The accident waiting to happen soon did as I slipped, skidded across the wet balcony and crashed unceremoniously onto the concrete gashing my head and cutting my fingers and elbow, but this was almost nothing compared to the excruciating pain coming from my left leg. Soon an ambulance was called and I made the half hour journey to Tomishiro Chuo Hospital where after an examination and x-ray (and more excruciating pain) it was determined I had a bad fracture of my thigh bone close to the hip.

Tomishiro Chuo Hospital

Tomishiro Chuo Hospital

So I have gone from complete helplessness: having to suffer the indignity of painkillers being shot up my backside, and of being taken to the toilet by nurses and then washed all over by them, to a position where my progress is apparently better than expected. I have graduated from a wheelchair to a walking frame to crutches, and now I’m hobbling around at home with a rather elegant cane.

During my two week stay in Tomishiro Chuo Hospital I soon discovered that the amiable Head of the hospital Dr Arakaki is a keen student of English and he paid me regular visits most mornings for no other reason than to practice his English conversation at my bedside, much, I suspect, to the amusement of other doctors and nurses. This culminated in a more than one hour evening session when he asked me to go to his room and correct the English for his Power Point presentation lecture in Tokyo next month. I now know more about knee replacement surgery than I will surely ever need.

My hospital stay was originally predicted to be three weeks so I am lucky to be out early. The process of rehabilitation will continue for a long time with visits to another hospital and there is a lot to be done before I can hope to be back to anything like normal. At the moment just a good night’s sleep would be very welcome but I’m not allowed to sleep in certain positions for fear of dislocating the new bone. While I hated being hospitalized I have to admit that the doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital were without exception extremely kind, hard-working and attentive.

Despite the progress made it’s very unlikely that I will be fit enough to travel to Kansai for our 30th wedding anniversary trip next month. (And I’d already bought the tickets for the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis concert in Osaka!). I suppose everyone in this situation thinks of what might have been. None of this would have happened if my friend had chosen a sunny day for his visit; or if I had ignored Midori’s advice to put those old slippers on the balcony and had just thrown them out instead. But in the end it’s my own fault for being too proud of my balcony and too eager to show it off. It has made me think about all kinds of things to do with my life and the future…but for now I just want to get better.

Islands of Protest

July 19, 2016

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.”

Trouble in Paradise

June 2, 2016

So far it’s been a difficult year on the island of Okinawa. Not because of typhoons or the ever-present traffic jams in Naha but because the burden of hosting so many US military bases has raised its ugly head yet again. In March there was the alleged rape of a Japanese tourist by a US sailor. Then last month came news of the alleged rape and murder of a 20 year old local office worker and the arrest of a former US marine employed at one of the military bases. There are continuing protests against the proposed construction of the Henoko base with all the danger and damage to the environment that will inevitably occur if it goes ahead.

And now there is news of the release of internal US Marine Corps documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. These documents show that lectures supposed to improve US marines’ understanding of Okinawa instead downplay military crimes and disparage residents. To those living in Okinawa under what amounts to a partial military occupation of the island this should come as no surprise.

Top marks to investigative journalist Jon Mitchell for revealing the content of these lectures and for his sterling work over the past few years in reporting on human rights issues in Okinawa. It took a Welshman living in mainland Japan to do this and for his efforts he was awarded the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan’s Freedom of the Press Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. If only the Japanese would follow suit with some tough investigative reporting of their own but this isn’t likely in the current political climate where the media censor themselves for fear of upsetting the government.

One of the Okinawa Cultural Awareness Training slides

One of the Okinawa Cultural Awareness Training slides

In contrast, the media and specifically the two newspapers in Okinawa are frequently outspoken in reporting and condemning the situation as faced by people here but according to the lectures given to the US marines this is only because we are: “more emotional than logical”. According to these scripts and slides which are shown to marines, the media in mainland Japan “is relatively less biased than the media in Okinawa”.

Newly arrived marines are also told: “You will find that the media and local politics will eagerly report on half-truths and unconfirmed allegations in order to continue to underscore their burden and extract political mileage to further certain agendas, some are widely accepted some are more selfish and some are potentially more destructive but all undermines our presence and the alliance.”

Okinawans are described under the mandatory ‘Okinawa Cultural Awareness Training’ for new arrivals, as having “limited sources of information and do not usually go out of their way to find information”. Oh yes, and: “It pays to complain. Anywhere offense can be taken, it will be used”.

As one who has lived in Okinawa for seven years I now, of course, have “limited sources of information” and am “more emotional than logical” but it seems obvious to me that the US military is not here to protect the people of Okinawa – even if such an aim is possible through the contradictory use of violence. Instead they are here to enforce and expand their own interests around the world as they have always done. They are the ones with the “agenda” and the presence of military bases only makes the island a target. More surprising is that Okinawans who suffered unbelievable hardship and countless thousands of deaths in the Battle of Okinawa are not even more vocal in their protests against an occupation of much of their land which has gone on for over 70 years.

It’s hard to see how the situation can ever be resolved satisfactorily while Okinawa remains part of a Japan whose government continually ignores the wishes of the people and has a colonial attitude towards Okinawa. Many Japanese too prefer to think of Okinawa only as a subtropical paradise holiday destination. On the other hand, until 1989 no-one thought the Berlin Wall would come down so maybe any change is possible. For now Okinawans should be proud of their pacifism and of their much quoted saying “nuchi du takara” (life is the treasure).