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The Okinawan Diaspora in Japan: Crossing the Borders Within by Steve Rabson (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 136-140 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0016

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Steve Rabson’s new book, The Okinawan Diaspora in Japan, could not have been published at a better time: the year 2012 marked the fortieth anniversary of the so-called reversion of Okinawa to Japan. In May 1972, 27 years of U.S. military and later civilian administration of the island groups of Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama came to an end. Since then, the islands have constituted Okinawa Prefecture as an administrative district of the Japanese state. In light of this anniversary, the strategic and symbolic role that Okinawa has played and continues to play within the Japanese nation-state has once again reemerged as an issue of contentious public and political debate in Okinawa and in Japan. This highly emotionalized debate centers on how to understand Okinawan and Japanese history, whether as a history of shared paths and mutual interdependencies or as a history of oppression of the once independent and wealthy Ryūkyū Kingdom by a militarist Japanese state. Conflict in interpreting Okinawan history and identity is prevalent to this day and continues to shape Okinawan politics, in particular Okinawa’s positioning as a partner to or opponent of Japan’s national government.

On this puzzle of Okinawa’s quest for identity and its positioning within Japan, Rabson’s book contributes much insight into contemporary Okinawan and Japanese studies. It tells the story of Okinawans living in mainland Japan and highlights their networks within the community itself and with those who remained in Okinawa despite a bleak economic outlook in comparison to opportunities in the new hometowns on the mainland. Other scholars before Rabson have addressed this puzzle but have either focused on Okinawa’s continuing role as a victim of Japanese and U.S. geopolitical strategy or have highlighted aspects of Okinawan culture as a means of identity formation. Those who study mainland Japan have come to address Okinawans as a minority group along with the Ainu, burakumin, and foreigners in order to make an argument for the existence of a multi-ethnic Japan. Rabson’s book manages to bring together all three story lines. He shows how Okinawa’s geopolitical value works to its detriment and how a people’s identity is constantly challenged by struggles over the islands’ history and by despair with its economic hardships and day-to-day politics. Finally, and above all, he shows how Okinawans on the mainland have emerged as actors in shaping Okinawa-Japan relations despite the distress diaspora communities often face—most prominently discrimination—and which often leads to withdrawal from public life altogether.

The Okinawan diaspora community on mainland Japan, however, did not withdraw from public life. This community dates from the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. It emerged, as many migrant communities do, in the wake of economic developments, such as intensifying trade relations and increasing mobility of workers, oftentimes triggered by a dour labor market situation. In 1879, when the Meiji state abolished the Ryūkyū Kingdom and established Okinawa as a prefecture of Japan, ship service began between the Okinawan port of Naha and mainland Japan. These ships transported agricultural products, such as sugar and cabbages, from Okinawa to mostly Osaka and carried manufactured goods back to Okinawa. In order to expand this trade, more Okinawans began to settle in Osaka and operate their businesses on the mainland. In 1903, the year of the Fifth World Trade and Industrial Exhibition held in Osaka, the owner of the Naha-based Senaga Clothing Store opened a store selling Okinawan products in Osaka. Unsold merchandise was later brought to Tokyo where he opened another store. Not only did Okinawan trade expand geographically on the mainland, the growing economy was attractive to many trading companies in Osaka that took control of the market and soon had Okinawan merchants working as subcontractors for them. Okinawan businessmen lost their autonomy, and trade profits increasingly accumulated on mainland traders’ accounts. As Rabson quite correctly remarks: “This asymmetrical economic paradigm persists to this day in business relations between Okinawa and the mainland” (p. 44).

Similarly, the story of laborers moving to the mainland in search of work is one of unequal power relations and exploitation. While in the early...



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