The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 495-497
[Access article in PDF]
Modekngei: A New Religion in Belau, Micronesia, by Machiko Aoyagi. Tokyo: Shinsensha Press, 2002. ISBN 4-7877-0207-6; xi +378pages, tables, figures, photographs, maps, appendix, glossary, place names, notes, bibliography, index. ¥3500.
Originally published in Japanese in 1985, this is an ethnographic account about the Modekngei religion of Belau (the Republic of Palau) in western Micronesia. The religion was founded around 1914, during the Japanese occupation of the islands. Until now, most scholars who conducted research on Modekngei have characterized it asan anticolonial social movement, fromits beginning and throughout the Japanese administration period, which took on the guise of syncretic religion. In this book, Machiko Aoyagi challenges the prevalent notion by providing counterhistorical narratives collected from Belauan people, and detailed descriptions of Modekngei theology and religious practices among the followers. She argues that Modekngei was not an anti-Japanese movement, at least at the time of its rise and in the early developmental stage, and has been a religion of Belau.
The outstanding characteristic of this book is no doubt the amount of information about Modekngei religion that Aoyagi makes accessible to readers. Perhaps due to the nature of Modekngei, most former researchers reported difficulty in obtaining much information about it; thus, very little has been written, especially with regard to its religious aspects. In this sense, the 128 Modekngei kesekes (hymns) presented in the appendix in both Belauan and English are a collection of extremely important and rich oral accounts for exploring Modekngei history, cosmology, theology, teachings, rituals, symbols, and medical practices. Chapter VII of this book is devoted to a discussion of Modekngei theology, utilizing Aoyagi's analysis of the kesekes.
Many of her Belauan informants also provided Aoyagi with invaluable historical and cultural narratives, which had not previously been revealed to non-Modekngei people. Among them, and particularly interesting as to the rise of this movement, is the information given by Ramalii (Ngirameketii of Meketii lineage) in Chol village in Ngerard, where Modekngei religion was started by Tamadad (Kodep of Chomkuul lineage). When he was fifteen, Ramalii witnessed a series of unusual events surrounding the first establishment of Modekngei. His lively oral narratives concerned not only the rise of Modekngei itself but also the power struggles taking place around that time among clans in Chol and between Chol and nearby villages. The large number of kesekes and other oral accounts collected by Aoyagi attest that there is much room left to explore the Modekngei's religious nature and to trace the history of this movement.
The dominant discourse in the western Modekngei literature, which portrays it as an anticolonial movement, was first promulgated in a Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology (CIMA) report written by Arthur J Vidich, in which Vidich provides a precise and highly convincing analysis of this social movement (Political Factionalism in [End Page 495] Palau, Its Rise and Development, 1949). Aoyagi's encounter with this report more or less motivated her Modekngei research to provide the public with an alternative view on the movement. Although her intellectual skepticism toward the existing knowledge and the effort she poured into her extensive research to challenge the prevalent notion are noteworthy, Aoyagi's quite lenient assessment and representation of Japanese colonial history in Belau (in chapter IV) raise questions as to where this new discourse might be headed.
Aoyagi's counterargument to Vidich is largely based on the information given to her from Belauan people. What accounts for the discrepancies between Belauan testimonies given to Aoyagi and those given to Vidich? The book also presents an excellent case to critically analyze the relationship between an ethnographer and fieldwork setting as reflected in ethnographic representations. From 1973to 1984, Aoyagi conducted her fieldwork in Belau over seven visits ranging in time from one to four months. Considering the history of Belau during this time frame, her fieldwork almost completely overlaps with the period when Belau was struggling to adopt the nuclear-free constitution and was facing adamant opposition from the US government. Because the compact negotiation was hampered by Belau's...