Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Miyume Tanji

Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa

London: Routledge, 2006,
pp. 234; ISBN 0-415-36500-7 (hbk)

Reviewed by Darryl Flaherty

  1. Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa explores marginalisation and victimisation as the central themes in Okinawan politics and history. In the title, 'myth' refers to the idea that one ongoing struggle has unified all Okinawans against nearly a century and a half of 'oppression, domination, dispossession, discrimination, and episodic violence.' Miyume Tanji explores the diversity within a 'uniquely and distinctively Okinawan' protest community that began with the archipelago's annexation and assimilation by Japan during the late nineteenth century.
  2. After briefly framing the theories in political science that speak to questions of identity, mythic history, and the political activism of new social movements, the book turns to Okinawa's 'historical narrative of marginalization.' Tanji shows how from the beginning the Japanese government divided Okinawans by class in order to conquer them. Even Jahana Noboru, the Okinawan activist who sought freedom and popular rights, contributed to a process that formed an 'Okinawan identity as "Japanese" …from above, but also voluntarily from "below"' (p. 27). At mid-twentieth century, the Battle of Okinawa and its consequences brought an already eventful history of marginalisation at the hands of the modern Japanese state into even sharper relief. It also brought a new hegemon, the US military, and a new form of anti-militarism, 'absolute pacificism.' After World War II, political party members and labour unionists took up various causes during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this was no unified fight. The first wave of postwar struggle highlighted differences more than similarities. On the question of Okinawa's sovereignty, political parties emerged to represent every position from reversion to independence. The schoolteacher's union eyed education on the main islands with envy and sought early reversion…and so on. The diversity of views laid a foundation for more conflict than cooperation in reaction to the US and its military bases.
  3. The second wave of political activism during the 1960s was as fraught, with reversion promised at the end of 1969, but reversion to a Japan closely allied with the US. As the promised return to the Japanese fold neared, the contradictions of dissolving into a polity that backed the US war in Vietnam troubled many Okinawans. For absolute pacifists, anti-militarists, and anti-base activists reversion was a pyrrhic victory. Chapters 7 and 8 explore cases of opposition and struggle that yielded mixed results during the trough between the protest wave of the 1960s and the 1990s: the 'constitutional framing of protest' by anti-war landowners, the failure to block the construction of an oil processing station, and the successful termination of a planned airport. Missing in the work is attention to the post-reversion obstacles to the formation of civil society groups in Japan, as discussed by political scientists such as Robert Pekkanen. In the absence of an overarching, coordinating organisation for opponents of bases and militarism, new social movements succeeded political parties and unions as protagonists during the 1990s. Women engaged in unai activism. Hearkening back to a nostalgic feminine identity of Okinawan guardian sisterhood, they petitioned against US military base relocation. The final chapter also identifies environmentalists as another actor in the reconfigured Okinawan protest community.
  4. Tanji contributes to the robust literature on Okinawa's political struggles with both Japan and the United States by focusing on the evolving perspectives that emerged from the Okinawan activist experience itself. While English language examinations of Okinawan politics abound, many take the US (or US-Japan relations) as their starting point. Tanji provides an activist's eye view of the history of Okinawa's modern struggles while examining the language and actions of the activists themselves. By doing so, she highlights the distance between local sensibilities and national security concerns.
  5. One of the greatest challenges for the activists in Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa has been the formation of an identity in a world of nations. The Ryukyu's have been a kingdom, a subsidiary state in a Sino-centric world, something of a vassal state to a Japanese domain, a prefecture, a trusteeship with residual Japanese sovereignty, and most recently, a 'Ryukyuan arc.' The Ryukyu archipelago and its people have never been a nation. Even so, the colonial experience of Okinawans at the hands of first the Japanese and then American colonisers called forth a search for an Okinawan identity in an age of nations. This identity would serve as an antidote to Okinawa's history of marginalisation and oppression. To this end, Frantz Fanon is as relevant here as are theories of new social movements. A thoughtful application of postcolonial theory to the political activism Tanji describes might have revealed even more about myth, protest, and struggle. Like the peoples that populated Fanon's postcolonial landscape, history has rendered Okinawans alien in their own land. To overcome this alienation, activists-through their embrace of the 'myth' of a unified and uniform struggle-and local Okinawan governments-through countless museums and memorials across the archipelago- have tied the past to the present.
  6. While Okinawan's have busily remembered their past, Japan's main islands have been in the grip of postwar forgetting. One might counter that Okinawan history lapped at the shores of the main islands in the form of the Okinawa Boom, the nearly decade-long, pop cultural fascination with Okinawa that was winding down as Myth, Protest and Struggle went to press. Yet this was a different kind of historical memory. The Okinawa Boom denatured the struggle and protest elements of the southern archipelago's past and replaced it with a focus on culture. While the Boom can be read in many ways, it ultimately produced a non-threatening, cultural Okinawa out of the prefecture's highly conflictual past. The mainstream main-island fascination with Okinawan culture affirmed Okinawa's place in an increasingly nationalistic Japan, without exploring Japan's domination of the Okinawan periphery. A related and somewhat complicit cultural construction of the prefecture's past finds expression in an Okinawan nostalgia for the Ryukyu Kingdom, as a time when the archipelago served as a neutral crossroads for regional traders. From the perspective of an Okinawan ambivalence about reversion and in the face of the relentless presence of the US military, reminiscence about a time before dual colonisation/imperialism has its own appeal. Nostalgia for a pre-colonial moment competes with the narrative of struggle as a potential refuge or resource for Okinawan survivors of the reversals and defeats of the last century and a half.
  7. Such nostalgia while naïve can also be political. Rather than becoming trapped by narratives of the nation state, nostalgia for a premodern Okinawa invokes a prenational moment in history. Combined with the absolute pacificism described by Tanji, it has the potential to produce an optimistic and all encompassing humanism. While much of the framing of the activists and the book itself remains ensnared in a national frame, a humanism grounded in an earlier Okinawan past that connects to the present reveals possibilities for escape from the dialectic of victim and victimiser. If one takes the Okinawan experience as a kind of warning about the state of humanity, a la social critic Arakawa Akira, this might open up space for understanding not just the suffering of Okinawans at the hands of the US military, but also the suffering of others in this story. Okinawa's grass roots are central to Tanji's account but what of the nameless and faceless members of the US conscript army, sent to kill, die, and suffer during the Vietnam War? As many of Tanji's informants noted, the Okinawa struggle is not simply a contest between Okinawans and Japan/the US but a struggle against the ills of nationalism and militarism in the modern world.
  8. Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa allows one to piece together a picture of the gendered nature of political activism and the place of gender in Okinawa's struggles. Girls and women appear as victims, supporters, and protagonists. During wartime, the Japanese Imperial Army forced women and girls to serve as prostitutes and members of the Himeyuri Nurse Corps. Sexual violence at the hands of the US military against children sparked public demonstrations in the Yumiko-chan Incident of 1955 and again forty years later. Women and girls have also suffered random violence, as when a truck fell from a transport killing a girl in the village of Yomitan during the 1950s. Women have worked in the background as supporters of the Okinawan community of protest. This was the hidden story of the first two waves of protest that Tanji describes, and she alludes to the subordination of women to local men and party and labor organisers from the mainland. Even so, she does not go as far as Doug McAdam did in his Freedom Summer to expose the gender inequalities in protest movement politics. From the 1950s through the 1970s, women supported the Okinawan economy as prostitutes. While conducted in the shadows, prostitution was more than a marginal pursuit. In 1970, prostitution was the 'largest industry with earnings of some $50.4 million.' Sugar occupied second place. Beginning in the 1980s, women took on a new role as protagonists on their own terms with the emergence of unai activism, in activist groups by and for woman only. In 2004, women's social movements found expression in old school politics when anti-base activist Itokazu Keiko won a seat in the upper house of the Diet. This parallel history of gendered discrimination, at the hands of the US, mainland Japanese, and local patriarchs, leads one to wonder, did women share in the same myth of uniform and unified struggle that was typical of political activism by men?
  9. Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa is an ambitious project and a must read for anyone interested in the challenges of politics in a liminal space, neither colonial nor postcolonial, neither nation nor full member of a nation-a site where the politics of gender both corresponds to and confounds narratives of modern (Japanese) womanhood.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
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