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  • Literature of the Concealed Home:Passing and Imperial Periphery in Yamanokuchi Baku's Prose Fiction
  • Cindi Textor (bio)

"A Conversation" (Kaiwa, 1938), arguably the single most renowned poem by the Ryukyu-born Yamanokuchi Baku (1903–1963), takes the form of a dialogue in which an unnamed woman asks the narrator where he is from—more specifically, what country he is from (okuni wa?).

"What country are you from?" she asked.I thought about my country and lit a cigarette.That place colored by associations with tattoos, the jabisen,and ways as strange as ornamental designs."Way out there," I answered."In what direction?" she asked.1

The poem gives no indication of why this woman is asking about the narrator's country of origin, though it stands to reason that she assumes his country is not Japan, else the entire line of questioning would be trivial. The first answer "I" gives, "Way out there," confirms her suspicion, but evidently does little to [End Page 301] satisfy her initial curiosity. The poem then alternates between the narrator's interior monologue, full of stock images and tourist stereotypes of the Ryukyus, and his ambiguous answers as he avoids explicitly naming his Okinawan origins:

"Where in the South?" she asked.In the south, that zone of indigo seas where it's alwayssummer and dragonorchids, sultan umbrellas, octopus pines, and papayas allnestle togetherunder the bright sunlight. That place shrouded inmisconceptionswhere, it is said, the people aren't Japanese and can'tunderstand the Japanese language."The subtropics," I answered.2

Here the narrator suggests that the entire premise of the conversation—that Ryukyuan people are not Japanese—is a misconception, but stops short of saying so aloud. Meanwhile, as the conversation progresses, the images of Okinawa conjured in the narrator's mind grow more detailed and vivid, evoking a vague sense of nostalgia for his homeland interwoven with associations he hopes to avoid. The irony of the poem turns on the contradiction between the actual spoken dialogue and the inner "conversation" he has with himself. The woman's interrogation and the narrator's evasions seem to negotiate a gap in knowledge: the woman demands that he name his place of origin, ostensibly because she does not know. At the same time, the narrator conceals his inner monologue and refuses to name his native place, not because the woman is unaware, but precisely because he fears the same images he pictures have already occurred to her. The narrator and interlocutor share all the same assumptions, but must perform otherwise. [End Page 302]

In this way, "A Conversation" succinctly captures the conundrum of passing in the Japanese empire, as it pertains not only to Okinawans like Baku, but also to Koreans and other colonial subjects. Although the poem proceeds from the woman's knowledge that the narrator is not Japanese, she continually probes for confirmation of her suspicion, as if to suggest that she does not, in fact, know. However, her relentless questions cause the narrator himself to parrot, if only within his own mind, the very "associations" and "misconceptions" that establish his ethnic or cultural difference from Japan. Within the circular logic of passing, his effort to hide his identity becomes the proof thereof, since if he were Japanese he would not need to pass. Thus, the difference that the passer hopes to conceal is an effect, rather than the cause, of the inevitable failure to pass.3 Furthermore, the paradoxical assimilation policies of the Japanese empire could be seen as a kind of institutionalized passing. That is, passing was (and still is) a response to the imperialist demand that the colonized become Japanese subjects, loyal to the emperor, while not becoming so perfectly Japanese that ethnic hierarchies cannot be maintained.

One question worth raising here is whether Okinawans can reasonably be considered colonial subjects in this context. While the difference in legal status between Okinawa as a prefecture and colonies like Korea overseen by a governor-general (sōtokufu) should not be overlooked, as Alan Christy notes, "the military invasion and occupation, political annexation, paternalistic enforcement of modernization, and compulsory cultural (especially linguistic) assimilation to Japan that were...