- A Living Legacy: The Development of Modern Okinawan Poetry
For a long time I’ve thought about what is meant by the term “the literature of Okinawa” or “Okinawan literature.” Is this category the same as, for example, “the literature of Fukuoka” or “the literature of Tokyo”? That is, does it refer merely to writing that has emerged from a particular prefecture or geographical region of Japan?
Not everyone would agree that the best way to categorize what we call Japanese literature is by geographical divisions. For me, this kind of categorization is even more insupportable when we refer to “the literature of Okinawa.” There is more to Okinawan writing than the fact that the prefecture is one of many where writing is produced.
The difficulty I have with Okinawan literature being regarded as merely a subcategory of Japanese literature arises from the tumultuous history of Okinawa vis-à-vis the rest of Japan—and the number of cultural, linguistic, and environmental differences that set Okinawa apart.
For almost five hundred years beginning around the fourteenth century, Okinawa was not part of Japan. It was the Kingdom of the Ryūkyūs. At the end of this period, during the Meiji Era, Okinawa went through a humiliating process known as Ryūkyū shobun (the annexation of the Ryūkyūs to Japan) and the kingdom lost its sovereign status. The people and government of mainland Japan regarded the Ryūkyūan language as an inferior dialect of Japanese and systematically set out to eradicate it. Nearly a century later, in the years leading up to and including World War II, Okinawa was still regarded by the Japanese as a remote frontier, an area to be cleansed of its old languages and ways. Okinawa was the only part of Japan where a ground battle was fought with the United States. Some people believe that Okinawa was sacrificed by the central Japanese government and regarded as a mere “throw-away stone” between the American invaders and the homeland: that is, the main islands to the north.
At the end of the war, Okinawa was separated from Japan, and for the next twenty-seven years it was under American military rule. Okinawa’s reversion to the Japanese nation in 1972 did little to assure Okinawans that they were being put under the protection of Japan. Huge U.S. military bases [End Page 135] remained on Okinawa, along with a justice system that gave special legal status to American military personnel.
From ancient times, the history and experiences of Okinawans have thus been distinct from the experiences of mainland Japanese. Authors who live and work in Okinawa have often written about their situation of repeatedly losing and regaining their sovereignty, language, and culture.
This is a major reason why “Okinawan literature” must be placed in a category neither within nor alongside “Japanese literature.” If we take into account Okinawa’s special characteristics and historical development, we might understand that Okinawan writing should be regarded as existing in opposition to the literature of Japan. It may sound a bit radical, but I believe this perspective will prove more valuable and meaningful than other approaches and will enrich our understanding not only of Okinawan literature but also of the literature of mainland Japan.
In this brief essay, I have space to speak only about the development of poetry and I will further limit my remarks to the modern period.
Early Modern Era (Meiji, Taisho, Early Shōwa)
The modern literature of Okinawa dates from about 1897. Around this time, Japan’s central government rushed to modernize the nation and standardize the language. Okinawans were naturally preoccupied with such efforts to erase their native culture. While the Satsuma clan—a feudal barony empowered by the government in Edo—had ruled Okinawa since about 1609, it wished to maintain the appearance that the kingdom was independent. Thus, Okinawan language and cultural practices had remained largely intact. However, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Okinawa in 1853, the central government felt compelled to review the tenuousness of its hold on Okinawa. Between 1872 and 1875, the Japanese emperor formally took control of...