Unpacking Okinawa’s complexities



Edited by Pedro Iacobelli and Hiroko Matsuda (Latham, Md: Lexington Books, 2017, 212 pp., $90, hardcover)

If you remember the movies “Teahouse of the August Moon” or “The Karate Kid Part II,” then be prepared for a very different “Okinawa” in “Okinawa in Rethinking Postwar Okinawa: Beyond American Occupation.” Those movies burned into the minds Americans images of Okinawa as a combination of an Oriental Shangri-La and idyllic South Pacific paradise. I would argue that, by design, such a portrayal hid the huge elephant in the room: the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa.

“Teahouse” was actually filmed in Okinawa with local Okinawans as extras for many scenes. “Karate Kid Part II” was filmed in Hawai‘i with local Okinawan Americans (including several of my friends) as extras. In both cases, Okinawans were depicted as quaint, easygoing and ignorantly stuck in time. And, as usual with perhaps 99 percent of Hollywood movies about Asia, a white male wins over the Asian female. “Rethinking Postwar Okinawa” is certainly not in the same vein as those movies, and true to its title, it does lead to a rethinking of “Okinawa.”

Both editors of the anthology did graduate work in Australia, but Hiroko Matsuda is in Japan while Pedro Iacobelli is in Chile. The writers they include are also diverse in terms of geographical and academic positions and I think this is what makes this book worth reading — unless you hope to hold on to the Hollywood version of Okinawa.

It would take me too long to give details of every chapter, so I can only give you some teasers. All the chapters are useful critiques of how the history of postwar Okinawa is told. They are important in understanding the not-so-benign context in which the aforementioned movies about Okinawa were produced. Each chapter shows specific ways that America’s occupation of Okinawa contradicts its purported role as a leader in peace, freedom, and democracy as the occupation includes the same kind of violent displacement, disenfranchisement, denial of human rights, and degradation of culture that is similar to other colonial situations in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawai‘i, and so on. Not what you find in the movies.

However, as all the chapters show to some extent, Okinawans were not passive victims of American occupation (and Japanese government acquiescence of it). Okinawans have been actively resisting their oppression by different means that include mass protests, cultural production, political participation, and, very importantly, active linking with similarly oppressed people in other parts of the world.

A final teaser: Of special interest for me as a Sansei who is creating my “Okinawan” identity, was how the book makes it even harder to conceive of “Okinawa” as stuck in the racially and culturally static Orient and Oceania that Hollywood places it in. In this book, you will find that there was quite an active mixing of cultural practices, political ideas, and even genes especially because Okinawa has been home to millions of people connected to the American military presence, which includes American military personnel and particularly African Americans, and civilian workers, which includes Filipinos and other nearby Asian countries.

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