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  • Editor’s Note
  • Katsunori Yamazato (bio)

Living Spirit: Literature and Resurgence in Okinawa is a collection of extra-ordinary literary works from the Ryūkyūs, most of which have never been translated into English, or are newly translated for this volume. The selections range from the oldest poetry born in the islands to contemporary prose and poetry.

The publication of Living Spirit is another important step in the resurgence of Okinawan literature that began in the 1960s. Together with the book’s 2009 sister volume, Voices from Okinawa—a collection of plays and essays by Okinawan Americans—Living Spirit displays the richness and beauty of a literature that has been relatively unnoticed for far too long. For example, despite the fact that Okinawan authors have been awarded Japan’s highest literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, Okinawan writing has been largely marginalized or subsumed in the larger category of Japanese literature. Okinawan literature, however, is not a subordinate category but a literature with its own history, traditions, and sensibilities. It stands on an equal basis with Japanese and other world literatures. Living Spirit is an invitation for English-speaking readers to experience the many strengths and surprises of Okinawan writing in several genres.

In addition to Okinawan prose and poetry, Living Spirit offers another treasure from the Ryūkyūs: a series of remarkable photographs by Higa Yasuo. For over three decades, Higa studied the ancient and sacred religious festivals of Okinawa and was able to record cultural practices that, unfortunately, are rapidly disappearing. These foundational rituals preserve the essence of Okinawan culture, temperament, and ways of being in the world, and Higa’s images are therefore a vital complement to the work of Okinawan authors.

The importance of the resurgence of Okinawan literature and culture today can be best appreciated by knowing something of Okinawa’s history. By the twelfth century, an independent, centralized kingdom had emerged in the islands of the Ryūkyūan Archipelago. The Ryūkyū Kingdom flourished until 1609, when the Satsuma (Shimazu) clan of southern Kyūshū invaded the kingdom and took control. According to the “father of Okinawan studies,” Iha Fuyū, the invasion transformed the kingdom into “an ingenious [End Page vii]

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Higa Yasuo: Maternal Deities

Inviting and Greeting the Gods (Kami-nkē)

Aguni Island, Yagan Utaki


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organ” of exploitation, and for the next 270 years Satsuma plundered the resources of the Ryūkyūs and used the kingdom for organized smuggling while other parts of Japan were closed to foreign countries. An exception was the Dutch trading depot on the island of Dejima, in Nagasaki harbor, which the Tokugwa shogunate in Edo used for trade and for gathering information on foreign countries. The clan also imposed a heavy tribute-tax on the people. Under the severe and uncompromising control of Satsuma, the Okinawan people became, to use Iha’s word, “slaves.”

It is not surprising, then, that during the Satsuma era, Okinawan culture lost its vigor and liveliness, and the arts declined rapidly. The invasion and domination by Satsuma, Iha wrote, were the greatest tragedies in Okinawan history, and he believed that even in the twentieth century, the people were still suffering from the trauma of three centuries of Satsuma “enslavement.” The 1879 annexation of the Ryūkyūs by Japan—though another act of colonization—ended the islands’ economic ruin; Iha called it an “emancipation” of the people from a bitter period of “slavery.” In using such terms, Iha was of course aware of the parallel he was drawing with the history of slavery in America. But he was equally aware, of course, that annexation by Japan further suppressed Okinawan culture and language.

Iha made these observations in his 1947 essay, “Okinawa rekishi monogatari” (A Story of Okinawan History). At the time, Okinawa was occupied by the American military, as it had been since the end of World War II. Iha concluded his essay with these words:

I will not ask under what political system Okinawans should live to become happy because this question is outside Okinawan history. But I will add that when imperialism comes to an end on...


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