In 1989 Brown University Japan Studies professor (now emeritus) Steve Rabson translated and contextualized two Akutagawa Prize-winning novellas by Okinawan writers (in Japanese): “Cocktail Party” (Kakuteru pātī, 1966) by Ōshiro Tatsuhiro and “Child of Okinawa” (Okinawa no shonen, 1971) by Higashi Mineo (born—on Mindanao— in 1938). Both were published while Okinawa was occupied by the US (the US still has large military bases on the island whose people chose to return to being a part of the country of Japan, despite a history of discrimination by “mainland” (Honshu) Japanese against Okinawans). Both have been adapted to the screen, btw (in 2016 and 1983, respectively).
Higashi does not try to take on as much as Ōshiro did. Tsuneyoshi, the titular Okinawan boy, is a sort of Okinawan Holden Caulfield. He is a junior high student who lives in Koza. His parents run a small bar that provides prostitutes for American servicemen. There are two prostitutes and only one bedchamber for their tricking, so Tsuneyoshi is sometimes ejected from his bedroom for a quarter hour or so (and a change of sheets). Also a drunk solider urinates in the container of drinking water Tsuneyoshi draws each day.
Tsuneyoshi hates depending on the income from Okinawans prostituted to members of the occupying army. He quarrels with his parents and frequently skips school, gravitating to the beach. Tsuneyoshi has something of a crush on Chīko, who treats him as a younger brother. One of her customers is frustrated at her refusal to go with him again and tosses a grenade into the bar, burning her. Tsuneyoshi cannot strike back, and decides to steal a boat and escape. He does not think this through, even to choosing a destination (though he dreams of Saipan, where he was born), and neglects to pack drinking water. He has been reading Robinson Crusoe and fantasizing about living alone on an unpopulated island.
After a series of flashbacks and vignettes of his present (1950s or 60s) reveries and frustrations and a typhoon (or, perhaps only when its eye arrives) he cuts loose a yacht.
Neither novella has a real end with a possibly more interesting journey (in the Okinawan court system of Ryukuan waters) beyond the cessation of the account of frustrations of occupied Okinawans. Tsuneyoshi’s are more those of a sarcastic virginal adolescent condemning his elders than specifically about the injustices inflicted by occupying armies. It invokes the particular geography and botany of Okinawa in 38 short chapters. Also Tsuneyoshi learns how to masturbate and wonders why the GIs need to pay to get off.
In Japan the book was hailed for having the rhythm of the Okinawan language (in Japanese), something that is lost in translation. The aggrieved point of view of a boy struggling against colonial emasculinization and engaging almost necessarily in voyeurism, however, comes through clearly. He casts off clutching a knife, though there is no prospect of anyone for him to stab in his solitary expedition, but “a surge of violent excitement set my whole body quivering” is the last phrase of the novella.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray