Tag Archives: Okinawa

An Okinawan Holden Caulfield

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).

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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.

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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

 

 

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Stress at a multinational cocktail party in occupied Okinawa

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).

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IMHO, Ōshiro stuffed too much into “Cocktail Party.” It begins on a base near Naha with a cocktail party for a mix of Americans and Okinawans with one Chinese thrown into the mix. The nucleus of the party, hosted by a Mr. Miller (who has hidden that his position is in military counterintelligence), is a group that is practicing/learning Chinese. The party breaks up when the Morgan’s son is discovered to be missing and everyone goes in search of him (it turns out that the Morgan’s Okinawan maid took him home without telling anyone; they eventually charge her with kidnapping).

The solidarity in facing possible harm to an American child completely breaks down when the daughter of one of the Okinawan guests, City Hall employee, Ogawa, is raped by an American serviceman, Robert Harris, who has been renting a room in the Ogawa house to copulate with his Okinawan girlfriend.

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Mr. Miller is not willing to intervene on behalf of his Okinawan “friend.” Mr. Sun, the Chinese refugee attorney, is very reluctant to bring charges of rape against a G.I., knowing that the Okinawan court has no authority to punish an American (and that a court-martial will cover-up rape by servicemen of locals). Adding insult to injury, the raped girl is charged with assaulting Harris (she pushed him off a cliff after he finished with her, so it doesn’t count as “self-defense”).

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Mr. Sun points out to Mr. Ogawa the latter’s acquiescence through silence of atrocities Japanese committed in China, including some of which Ogawa was aware. Moreover, Japanese soldiers had raped Mr. Sun’s wife. And Japanese had mistreated Okinawans both before and during the war when they were in authority there. Mr. Sun also acknowledges Chinese mistreatment of Japanese after Japan’s surrender. No group has clean hands, and justice is but a dream. Nonetheless, Mr. Ogawa brings charges in a court that cannot compel Harris to appear. The real victim of the story’s present (some time during the 1960s), the daughter, is not even given a name by Ōshiro.

(Rabson writes that Robert Harris is a catalyst rather than the villain. I think he Mr. Miller are villains and that Mr. Sun is the catalyst of recognizing that others occupying armies —most particulary Japan’s—mistreted the conquered peoples, not that this justifies Americans in raping Okinawans and jettisoning “international friendship” when something is asked of them.)

Alse see Medoruma Shun’s In the Woods of Memory, also centered on the rape of an Okinawan girl by US militart personnel.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

A genial tale of self-assertion by an Okinawan house-husband

Most of the fiction from Okinawa I have read deals either with relations with US military personnel or with discrimination against Okinawans by Japanese from the northern archipelago. “Fortunes by the Sea” (Kahô wa umi kara), the 1998 novella by Eiki Matayoshi, the 1995 winner of the Akutagawa Prize has an entirely intraethnic focus. The protagonist Kazuhisa is a fifth son who is married out, that is takes on the patronym of his wife and is responsible with carrying on the line of his wife(‘s father).

As on Taiwan, there is something humiliating about being annexed by another lineage. This is exacerbated in Kazuhisa’s case in that despite the substantial income the family receives from renting land to the US, both his wife and her father continue to work, while Kazuhisa, a college graduate, performs domestic labor (cooking, laundry) and is a literal lay-about, dreaming under an oracle tree.

He takes to going fishing after his wife and father are asleep and meets a pair of sisters from the Okinawan mainland. They run a tavern and are professionals at drawing out and making men comfortable. Their pleasant encounter (consuming a taman [snakehead] he caught) inspires him to go visit them. Having no money beyond the household allowance doled out to him and for which he must account, he decides to steal a goat to take and exchange for drinks.

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He is prone to seasickness, so the voyage across the straits is a major undertaking beyond his theft and staying out all night. The expedition surprises his father-in-law and increases Kazuhisa’s status at home. Whether he will sire an heir on his skititsh, sex-phobic wife (who arranges to spend every night at meetings of voluntary associations, some of which she heads) remains to be seen at the end of the genial, mock-heroic tale.

The translation by David Fahy occupies the last 71 pages of Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Medoruma Shun’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novella “Droplets”

Medoruma Shun won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for Suiteki (水滴 A Drop Of Water, translated by Michael Molasky as “Droplets“). Owing perhaps a little to Kafkza’s “Metamorphosis,” it is a work of Okinawan “magical realism.” Fifty years after the epic carnage of the Battle of Okinawa, a veteran named Tokushô wakes up one morning unable to move or speak with his right shin grotesquely bloated, resembling a gourd melon (tôgan). His hard-working wife Ushi is frustrated that she will have to do all the work in the fields. Convinced that villagers are experimented on in university hospitals, she refuses to allow their physician to have Tokushô admitted to one.

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The liquid that drips out between the big toe and its neighbor is analyzed as ordinary water. Every night ghosts (I use the word since they can go through walls, they are not labeled anything in the English translation) who were left to die in a cave by Tokushô and other wounded but ambulatory soldiers come and drink the droplets from his foot. His generalized survivor guilt it concentrated on Ishimine, a comrade from the same area of Okinawa to whom Tokushô promised to bring water, but didn’t. Ishimine’s ghost does not speak, but Tokushô feels forgiven before the swelling subsides and he is able to move and speak again.

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POW on Okinawa, 1945 (in public domain)

Tokushô’s cousin, Seiyû, who strikes me as a sort of minor league Milo Minderbender, discovers that the drippings can stimulate the growth of hair and also cure impotency and, unbeknownst to Tokushô or Ushi, makes a small fortune selling bottles of the drippings. The effects prove to be only temporary and the hustler is set upon by those who bought “miracle water” from him.

 

In common with Medoruma’s masterful novel In the Woods of Memory (first published in Japanese in 2009, just published in English), “Droplets” shows the agonies of 1945 still festering half a century later and also shows rural Okinawans as being far from noble or innocent (though those in “Droplets” do not behave as badly as the bullies and serial rapists of Woods). I find the characters less developed (though taking up equivalent space on pages) in “Droplets,” and the novella more interesting as phenomenon than as literature. I did not find it “engaging,” as Akutagawa jude Kôno Taeko did.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Blaming the victim magnifies the trauma of gang rape

The first novel by Okinawan writer and activist Medoruma Shun, In the Woods of Memory (Me no okay no mori, more literally “I’m not OK, nor dead”, 2009) to be translated into English, is a masterpiece, albeit one to make Okinawan or American readers (or probably any kind!) uncomfortable. It has some resonances with Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece “Rashômon” and its source “Yabu no naka” (In a Grove) by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. (Medoruma won the 1997 Akutagawa prize, btw) in that the work centers on a rape in a woods and multiple perspectives.

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Medoruma’s novel (based on a story his grandmother told him about a rape by US soldiers of an Okinawan girl in northern Okinawa) is more a mosaic with nine different protagonists (not all narrators) from 1945 and 2005, rather than the puzzle of accounts by unreliable, self-serving narrators of “Rashômon.” It also differs in that there are rapists (plural, and they also raped other villagers) and that they are alien (American). There is indirect testimony from one of the rapists, but not from the victim (the raped woman in “Rashômon” presents her account), Sayoko.

Sayoko was with some younger girls gathering food on a beach across from a recently constructed US pier. Such soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army who had not retreated to the south of Okinawa were prisoners, and there was not yet a US occupation regime in place on Yagaji Island.

Having finished their tasks, four GIs stripped down to their underwear and swam across, planning to return immediately a distance of only about a hundred yards. The terror of the girls on the beach stimulated sadism in the GIs who took the oldest girl, the village beauty, the very good-hearted Sayoko into the woods and gang-raped her.

On a later day, four GIs (it is not clear until later whether it was the same four) were again swimming over. Sayoko’s neighbor, Seiji, how had long had a crush on Sayoko and more or less lived in the water took his harpoon and swam toward the Americans (the harpoon tied to his wrist and not visible). He swam under one of the Americans and stabbed him in the gut (aiming for the liver). Two of the Americans pursued him, and Seiji stabbed one of them in the shoulder (the harpoon lodged there).

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(a grove by the beach on Yagaji Island, from WIkimedia Commons)

 

Later, Seiji hid in a cave. The village headman, who was eager to curry favor with the occupying Americans, betrayed his whereabouts. Seiji was smoked out with tear gas and shot several times. The villagers, who had been surprised that Seiji had not been slain with poison gas, assumed he would be executed, and were eager to tell the Americans that Seiji had acted alone, though many were ashamed at their failure to do anything to protect or avenge their women who were violated.

Only three of the eleven chapters are set in 1945. The events still reverberate on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, and the traumas (including ongoing mistreatment of Sayoko, who was unhinged in part by her father’s rejection of her following the traumas of the gang rape) linger.

Although the prime villains are obviously the four American rapists (three of whom died soon thereafter in the Battle of Okinawa without being court-martialed for the rape), the Okinawans both of the 1940s and 2000s do not come off well, bullying Seiji before and after the “incident” and Sayoko after it (including more rapes), along with a young Okinawan middle-school student (a first-person female narrator whose name is not mentioned).

Several of the characters in the 2005 chapters also recall the 1995 instance of three American servicemen raping an Okinawan elementary-school student. 9-11 also crops up. Much more than the rape and stab at revenge are remembered—and festering not only for those who were alive in 1945 but for those who were not then yet born — in Medoruma’s powerful book.

Despite the accretion of information about various individuals with a wide range of connections to the 1945 events on Yagaji Island, the book is not a difficult read, though the stream of consciousness Seiji chapters were more difficult (but not comparable in disorientation to Benjy’s in The Sound and the Fury, for instance). The original Japanese was mixed with Okinawan (the languages are not mutually intelligible and the Japanese have attempted to eliminate Okinawan (Ruykuan) since annexing the Ryuku Islands in 1879) in Medoruma’s book, a disorienting effect not available in English translation. Translator Takuma (né Paul) Sminkey (who teaches at Okinawa International University) made the reader-friendly addition of chapter titles (the name of the main character in each one) with the date (1945 or 2005) and also a preface providing context about Medoruma and the language (Japanese/Okinawan code-shifting) issue. The book was beautifully produced by Stone Bridge Press with a map, a character table, and an illuminated afterword by Kyle Ikeda.

Some of Medoruma’s short fiction has been translated into and included in anthologies. I hope that his other two (earlier) novels, The Crying Wind (2004) and The Rainbow Bird (2006) will follow in English translation.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray