Tag Archives: Ryukus

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

 

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Shimao stories

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The Sting of Death” and Other Stories that Kathryn Sparling’s selection of six stories by Shimao Toshio begins with the last nights of WWII, continues to the days after the unconditional surrender, includes the most famous of his “surrealist” stories, and three from the self-lacerating accounts of his wife (Miho) deranged by jealousy, then institutionalized (with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”), He stayed in the asylum to care for her. Fear that she would kill herself hangs over all three of the (byôsai-mono) sick-with-jealousy wife stories. Unlike his delusions in “Everyday Life in a Dream,” his wife had a basis for her increasingly paranoid jealousy: her husband had had a long-term relationship with another woman than her, the mother of their two children. Her jealousy, nonetheless, far exceeds any rational bounds, and the self-criticism already very salient in the earlier stories crests as he defies the stricken wife.

He met her back on Kakeroma island (in the Ryukus between Okinawa and Kyushu), where he commanded a base of torpedo (kamikaze) boats. She was a teacher and locally elite — and Roman Catholic, the Ryukus having been heavily missionized during the Meiji reign (and highly suspect for subscribing to an “enemy religion” during the Pacific War).

The brief accounts she wrote (included as an appendix in this only Shimao book in English) portray an officer who was very kind and solicitous of the fishing folk. He was much more self-critical, not only of his relations with the locals but his remoteness from the men under his command (often sleeping during the day after spending the night with the local woman based on Miho).

Orders came to man the boats, and Lt. Shimao chose himself to lead the contingent that would go out and try to ram US vessels (only one of the four was put on full readiness). The order did not come. Instead, the Emperor commanded that soldiers and sailors stop dying in his name (i.e., surrendered). Some of the men on the base wanted to go out to be killed, but their commander insisted that they follow the orders issued directly by the Emperor. He also went to the village to read the text of the imperial broadcast, since there were no radios there.

The shame of survival (shinisokonau—failing to die (for the Emperor)) persisted after Shimao’s return to Honshu. “Everyday Life in a Dream” is pretty self-lacerating, beginning with unease that having written about his war experience (failure), he had nothing about which to write. He was arranging participant observation with a gang, but was distracted by a former classmate who had developed leprosy, etc.

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The first of the “sick wife” stories, “The Sting of Death,” describes breaking up with his long-term mistress after his wife learns (from his diaries) of his adultery and desperately concerned that she will commit suicide. (I don’t understand the relevance of the title, which derives from First Corinthians 15:55 “O Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”—a couplet defying rather than venerating death in the Japanese manner, celebrating the grace of “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Granted, the “sting” is “sin” in the Pauline epistle)

“Out of the Depths” and “The Heart that Slips Away” are clinical descriptions of the guilty husband and the crazy wife. He converted to his wife’s Catholicism in 1956 and the quest for martyrdom for his sin (adultery) strikes me as based on guilt rather than shame (i.e., Christian rather than traditionally Japanese).

Prefiguring Oe Kenzaburo, Shimao relentlessly reworked the materials about his sin and penitence, including a novel also entitled The Sting of Death. Apparently, the Japanese reading public was fascinated with these self-lacerating accounts. I prefer the life of absurdity as the leader of a group of men waiting to die in torpedo boats who was reprieved (like Dostoevsky’s execution) and then had to cope with being in command of a unit of a navy that had been abolished, i.e., the first two stories, “The Farthest Edge of the Islands” (before surrender) and “This Time That Summer” (after it) and Miho’s alternate (local/native) perspective (in which he was more or less deified, as he would later deify her, albeit for her suffering rather than for his compassion). (I wish that Sparling had included Shimao’s most famous (in Japan) later and seemingly even more self-lacerating version of his end-of-war experience, “When We Never Left Port.” In his later years Shimao was a curator of the Amami Ôshima Museum wrote travel articles and articles about traditional Okinawan culture rather than more fiction.)

Sparling has rendered Shimao’s knotty style (hyper-long sentences, vague anaphora) into quite readable English. The obsessive self-criticism and self-abnegation comes through very clearly. I think only the first two stories have much appeal for American readers, though I realize there are Anglophone admirers of Dostoevsky (and Oe). As Sparling wrote: “There is no escapism in Shimao’s fiction. Even the dreams and the fantasy are intensified experiences of individual reality. These stories are painful to read; there is a[anacut1] masochism about them.”

Sparling analyzes the stories, particularly “Everyday Life in a Dream” (11 pages of discussion for a story that runs 13 pages), at length, as well as discussing stylistic attributes that defied translation.

(After moving back to the Ryukus, Miho functioned, becoming a feminist writer herself and living another twenty years after Toshio’s death. She and their daughter talk in one of Sokurov’s “Oriental Elegies,” “Dolce” (2000).)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

For an overview of Shimao’s writing and three of his contemporaries (the “third generation”) see Vann C. Gessel’s Sting of Death.

“The Sting of Death” and Other Stories that Kathryn Sparling’s selection of six stories by Shimao Toshio begins with the last nights of WWII, continues to the days after the unconditional surrender, includes the most famous of his “surrealist” stories, and three from the self-lacerating accounts of his wife (Miho) deranged by jealousy, then institutionalized (with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia”), He stayed in the asylum to care for her. Fear that she would kill herself hangs over all three of the (byôsai-mono)-with-jealousy wife stories. Unlike his delusions in “Everyday Life in a Dream,” his wife had a basis for her increasingly paranoid jealousy: her husband had had a long-term relationship with another woman than her, the mother of their two children. Her jealousy, nonetheless, far exceeds any rational bounds, and the self-criticism already very salient in the earlier stories crests as he defies the stricken wife.

He met her back on Kakeroma island (in the Ryukus between Okinawa and Kyushu), where he commanded a base of torpedo (kamikaze) boats. She was a teacher and locally elite — and Roman Catholic, the Ryukus having been heavily missionized during the Meiji reign (and highly suspect for subscribing to an “enemy religion” during the Pacific War).

The brief accounts she wrote (included as an appendix in this only Shimao book in English) portray an officer who was very kind and solicitous of the fishing folk. He was much more self-critical, not only of his relations with the locals but his remoteness from the men under his command (often sleeping during the day after spending the night with the local woman based on Miho).

Orders came to man the boats, and Lt. Shimao chose himself to lead the contingent that would go out and try to ram US vessels (only one of the four was put on full readiness). The order did not come. Instead, the Emperor commanded that soldiers and sailors stop dying in his name (i.e., surrendered). Some of the men on the base wanted to go out to be killed, but their commander insisted that they follow the orders issued directly by the Emperor. He also went to the village to read the text of the imperial broadcast, since there were no radios there.

The shame of survival (shinisokonau—failing to die (for the Emperor)) persisted after Shimao’s return to Honshu. “Everyday Life in a Dream” is pretty self-lacerating, beginning with unease that having written about his war experience (failure), he had nothing about which to write. He was arranging participant observation with a gang, but was distracted by a former classmate who had developed leprosy, etc.

The first of the “sick wife” stories, “The Sting of Death,” describes breaking up with his long-term mistress after his wife learns (from his diaries) of his adultery and desperately concerned that she will commit suicide. (I don’t understand the relevance of the title, which derives from Frist Corinthians 15:55 “O Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”—a couplet defying rather than venerating death in the Japanese manner, celebrating the grace of “victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Granted, the “sting” is “sin” in the Pauline epistle)

“Out of the Depths” and “The Heart that Slips Away” are clinical descriptions of the guilty husband and the crazy wife. He converted to his wife’s Catholicism in 1956 and the quest for martyrdom for his sin (adultery) strikes me as based on guilt rather than shame (i.e., Christian rather than traditionally Japanese).

Prefiguring Oe Kenzaburo, Shimao relentlessly reworked the materials about his sin and penitence, including a novel also entitled The Sting of Death. Apparently, the Japanese reading public was fascinated with these self-lacerating accounts. I prefer the life of absurdity as the leader of a group of men waiting to die in torpedo boats who was reprieved (like Dostoevsky’s execution) and then had to cope with being in command of a unit of a navy that had been abolished, i.e., the first two stories, “The Farthest Edge of the Islands” (before surrender) and “This Time That Summer” (after it) and Miho’s alternate (local/native) perspective (in which he was more or less deified, as he would later deify her, albeit for her suffering rather than for his compassion). (I wish that Sparling had included Shimao’s most famous (in Japan) later and seemingly even more self-lacerating version of his end-of-war experience, “When We Never Left Port.” In his later years Shimao was a curator of the Amami Ôshima Museum wrote travel articles and articles about traditional Okinawan culture rather than more fiction.)

Sparling has rendered Shimao’s knotty style (hyper-long sentences, vaguae anaphora) into quite readable English. The obsessive self-criticism and self-abnegation comes through very clearly. I think only the first two stories have much appeal for American readers, though I realize there are Anglophone admirers of Dostoevsky (and Oe). As Sparling wrote: “There is no escapism I Shimao’s fiction. Even the dreams and the fantasy are intensified experiences of individual reality. These stories are painful to read; there is a[anacut1] masochism about them.”

Sparling analyzes the stories, particularly “Everyday Life in a Dream” (11 pages of discussion for a story that runs 13 pages), at length, as well as discussing stylistic attributes that defied translation.

(After moving back to the Ryukus, Miho functioned, becoming a feminist writer herself and living another twenty years after Toshio’s death. She and their daughter talk in one of Sokurov’s “Oriental Elegies,” “Dolce” (2000).)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Imamura’s “Profound Desires of the Gods”

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I can see why “Profound Desires of the Gods” (Kamigami no fukaki yokubô, 1968, also known in English as “Tales from a Southern Island”) ended (if only for some time) Imamura’s career, much as the loathsome (if easier to follow) “Peeping Tom” ended Michael Powell’s… or, in nearly bankrupting Nikkatsu, as the just deceased Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” bankrupted United Artists (and was followed by a five-year hiatus from movie-making). (Also as with these two analog commercial debacles, there are some who regard the movies highly, even invoking the label “masterpiece.” Not me (for any of the three)!)

The only part I really like was the two canoe of masked paddlers closing in on the fleeing incestuous couple, Uma (Matsui Nasuko) and Nekichi (Mikuni Rentaro), though Nekichi tells his son that incest is only for the gods.

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It definitely does not help that the movie runs almost three hours with frequent animalistic sex, other animalistic human behavior, and lots of slithering snakes and other reptiles, including a gecko falling right on the mouth of the Japanese engineer (Kitamura Kazuo) on the (fictional) southern Ryuku island of Ishigaki, called Kurageijima (Jellyfish Island) in the movie, to fix machinery and ensure a water supply for a sugar processing plant, a project abhorred by most of the natives of the island, though pushed by what must be a hereditary chief. The chief assigns his grandson to assist the engineer, who rides roughshod over local sensibilitie (in particular, in cutting down a sacred tree). Meanwhile the boy’s father is chained, while given a Sisyphean taks to move a boulder, and his aunt Toriko is a deranged nymphomaniac. There is also a granddaughter (sister of the assistant) with the hots for the alien engineer.

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Though a part of the country of Japan since being conquered in the 17th century, ratified by a 1972 plebiscite, the Ryuku islands’ native population, particularly south of Okinawa, is not culturally Japanese (speaking languages not mutually intelligible with Japanese), so it seems a very odd place to find/observe the basic (aka “primitivist” and Shintoist) structure of patriarchy and female bawdiness that Imamura sought (in a very sensationalized “anthropology,” revealing “the true spirit of the Japanese,” an endeavor also claimed in the Japanese title Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku nyûmon” (An Introduction to Anthropology) of what is known in English as “The Pornographers.” And the equation of human females to resilient insect was old-hat from Imamura’s “The Insect Woman.” Still the opening of animals wriggling in drying up pools exceeds shots in earlier movies in bluntness about the difficulties of survival

What was new, besides shooting in color without his great black-and-white cinematographer, Himeda Shinsaku (replaced by Tochizawa Masao, who would later shoot Imamura’s version of “The Ballad of Narayama” in 1983), was frequent static-camera long shots (though they are also some very tight closeups, especially of the libidinous maniac Toriko). Also, the engineer from Tokyo nearly disappears in the second half of the movie. Whether Imamura meant to criticize modernization and despoiling the island’s nature is not clear. I think he intended to observe rather than to editorialize, though cooking up rather than finding extreme behavior (here and in his other movies).

In addition to abandoning belief in its traditional gods and goddesses, the natives have turned (/are turning) their rice fields (supplying subsistence food for them) to sugarcane (for industrial production and export).

An epilogue, set five years later than the time of the visiting eningeer, has the remnants of traditional culture/religion are amusement for tourists (like the Polynesian Culture Center on Oahu).

BTW, the cast had signed on for six months and the shoot ran eighteen. Imamura only made documentaries for the next eleven years (returning with the docudrama, “Vengeance Is Mine,” also not a favorite of mine).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray