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Okinawans’

life practices and abilities were measured against “Yamato” standards.


When Okinawan conduct did not fit these standards, the mainland’s sense of that
difference mutated into discrimination, while the Okinawans’ sense of that difference
changed into a sense of inferiority.[44] The cultural problem had, according to Ōshiro,
another dimension: it produced a constitutive uncertainty and ambiguity in both
Okinawans and mainland Japanese about their relations with the other. As a result of
a “fateful antinomy” (shukumei teki niritsu haihan) that was produced by culture and
history, Ōshiro suggested that Okinawans held inside themselves competing desires
of wanting to be Japanese, but also not. Similarly, mainland Japanese people were
persuaded that Okinawans were their compatriots and at the same time not. Ōshiro
saw this antinomy as lying at the heart of Okinawa’s tragic and complicated
consciousness towards the mainland, and it also explained—by extension—the
mainland’s asymmetrical and conflicted treatment of Okinawa.[45]
Thus from the prefecture’s beginning, Okinawa’s culture and its cultural
differences were regarded as a problem of government and political power. One site
of the Japanese state’s attempt to discipline and manage these differences took
place under the rubric to reform the prefecture’s customs and life practices (fuzoku
kairyō undō), a wide-ranging effort to assimilate Okinawans that accelerated after
the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. These included reforms in education, as well
as attempts to eradicate or suppress elements of Okinawan culture: to do away with
Ryūkyūan dress and hairstyles, the implementation of standard Japanese over
Okinawan language, the suppression of indigenous religious practices that especially
targeted female priestesses, tattooing, and the simplification of local cultural rituals.
Because of this history, the oppression of Okinawa’s cultural forms is a theme that
dominates narratives of the prewar Japanese state’s relationship with Okinawa,
where it is taken as both indicative of the Japanese state’s attitude towards
Okinawans and as evidence of the actual practice of a strategy of assimilation.
Maehira Bōkei gives a sense of what this narrative mode entails:

Within the strengthening of the Meiji government’s national policy of unification,


they not only considered Okinawa to be a colony, they also rejected Okinawa’s
characteristic (koyū) culture. For instance, [they thought of] Ryūkyū dress, which
was born of history and the environment, as barbaric. They also proclaimed
(fuichō) Ryūkyū music and traditional performing arts to be inferior culture.
Coupled with school and social education that was in line with a unified national
policy, Ryūkyū history was excluded, and leaned heavily towards emperor-
centered history. This produced the situation where Okinawans looked down on
their own culture and traditional culture fell into a crises.[46]

According to Maehira, the demand for Okinawan assimilation resulted not only in
the denial of Okinawa’s cultural forms but also in the more insidious production of an
inferiority complex among Okinawans about their culture that led them to discriminate
against their own cultural heritage. The sense that Okinawa’s culture suffered heavy
repression from within and without is widespread and entrenched. Richard Siddle
suggests that the master narrative of Okinawan history is one in which Okinawa is “a
victim of, alternately, Japanese aggression and neglect,” and it finds expression in the
standard histories of Okinawa Prefecture, as well as in popular accounts, like the
writings of Okamoto Taro.[47] The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an increasing
complexity in analyses of Okinawa’s history, but the motif of cultural repression
continues to enjoy significant staying power in narratives of Okinawa’s prewar history.
[48]
However, the oppression of certain elements of Okinawa’s culture is only one
part of how the Japanese state dealt with Okinawa’s cultural differences. In its
attempts to control and discipline these differences, the Japanese state also
preserved and appropriated Okinawa’s cultural heritage and cultural forms—which
included architecture, pottery, and textiles—into the service of the Japanese nation-
state. The valorization of Okinawa’s cultural heritage as a technique of government
was not entirely unexpected. The modern Japanese state was, from very soon after
its inception in 1868, concerned with the preservation of its own cultural heritage.
From their participation at world’s fairs and official sojourns to the various Western
nations, Japanese officials learned that “art” and “culture” were important currencies
for performing national power on the international stage. They became keen to show
that like the European powers at the time, Japan too was a country with a long and
illustrious cultural history, and moved quickly to establish a system that could survey,
inventory, collect, and protect cultural objects.[49]
The Japanese state quickly realized that heritage preservation was useful as a
mechanism to produce a rich cultural history that could serve as a pillar of a narrative
of civilization superiority that befitted the strong modern nation-state that Japan
desired to become.[50] Cultural heritage was thus conceptualized as a way of writing
national history and the Japanese state began in 1897 to designate art objects and
architecture as “national treasures” (kokuhō).[51] These national treasures were texts
of—and for—a nationalist master narrative of modern Japan. Working at the
intersection of representation, seeing, and material culture that Tony Bennett called
the “distinct power” of museum technologies, the cultural narrative of national
treasures deployed objects and spaces, in whose physical materiality the particular
power of representation lay.[52] In their designations, valuations, descriptions, objects
and spaces that were national treasures become nodes of Japanese cultural history
that testified to the reality of a civilizationally accomplished present. While the first
designations of national treasures after the promulgation of the 1897 law were
concentrated in the Kansai region, objects and sites from every prefecture were soon
recognized and received state protection.[53] The geographical dispersion of sites and
objects did the important work of ensuring that every part of the Japanese nation-
state was physically included in this narrative. Okinawa was no exception: beginning
with Shuri Castle’s main hall in 1925, the Japanese state designated 23 national
treasures in Okinawa by the end of WWII.
These designations as national treasures not only wrote Okinawa’s cultural
heritage into an archive of Japanese cultural history, they also performed a mastery
over Okinawa’s cultural forms through the production of knowledge about them. The
“discovery” of Okinawa’s cultural forms by the eminent prewar Japanese architect Itō
Chūta, or by the intellectuals and artists associated with the Mingei (Folk Craft)
movement, bore the marks of domination through Orientalist practices of
representation and productions of knowledge that Edward Said described.[54] In so
doing, however, the Japanese state and its agents (both official and unofficial)
preserved and protected Okinawa’s cultural heritage, even though they did so with
the intention of disciplining Okinawa.[55] The Japanese government’s treatment of
Okinawan culture was therefore more than repression, comprising also strategies to
valorize and celebrate specific Okinawan cultural objects that not only produced many
of the categories of knowledge by which Okinawa’s cultural heritage is known today,
but ensured in some cases the continued physical existence of the objects
themselves.
However, the Japanese state’s appropriation of Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s
cultural heritage was not without risks to its agendas. Despite attempts by the
Japanese state to define Okinawa’s cultural heritage as “Japanese,” valorizations of
Okinawa’s cultural heritage necessarily celebrated the particularity of the prefecture’s
cultural heritage, which made it a potentially powerful tool for Okinawan people to
challenge the Japanese state’s attempts to dictate the conditions of their
incorporation into Japan. This is because Shuri Castle and the other pieces of cultural
heritage that the Japanese state celebrated as national treasures were cultural
properties from the Ryūkyū Kingdom before the period of Japanese domination of the
islands, and they necessarily gestured at the larger context from which they were
produced. Because of this, Shuri Castle, even after Shō Tai’s removal and its physical
deterioration, functioned as a node in which Okinawans could anchor a memory of
political and cultural uniqueness and autonomy that had the potential to counter the
Japanese state’s claims that Okinawa had always been a part of Japan and to call
mainland impositions of power into question.
That the Japanese state’s very attempts to appropriate Okinawa’s cultural
heritage were at least partially responsible for its preservation in turn raises an
interesting issue. If we take seriously Edward Said’s point that bodies of knowledge
and representations have the power to produce political effects like Othering, then we
must also consider the possibility that the Japanese state’s preservation and
representation of Okinawa’s cultural heritage can accrue discursive power of its own
and serve agendas other than the ones that the Japanese state intended.[56] Indeed,
Okinawans in the prewar period made use of the mainland’s attempts to preserve
Okinawan cultural heritage whenever they could, and succeeded in protecting their
cultural history to a degree that prevented the Japanese state from achieving
hegemony over definitions of Okinawa’s cultural past.
In the postwar period, Okinawans’ use of their cultural heritage as a basis for a
political identity of opposition gathered traction and the American military colonial
occupation of Okinawa (1945–1972) was important to this process. Hoping to
persuade Okinawan people to embrace U.S. rule, American authorities emphasized
the islands’ pre-1879 cultural and political autonomy and supported the preservation
of the islands’ cultural artifacts as part of the attempt to cultivate a “Ryukyuan
identity” in opposition to a Japanese one. One result was that even as they became
increasingly galvanized against the excesses of American military rule and agitated
for reincorporation into Japan, Okinawans learned important lessons about the
usefulness of their cultural heritage in crafting a political identity that empowered
themselves. When reversion to Japanese rule in 1972 brought neither the anticipated
nor promised improvements, Okinawans responded to this configuration of
asymmetrical relations that was both old (Japan) and new (Japan complicit with
American power) by using their cultural heritage and cultural history as the basis of a
narrative of Okinawan strength in the face of unjust treatment by powers larger than
themselves. Cast as resilient, original, cosmopolitan, and peaceful, Okinawans
represented their cultural heritage as the real measure of their prefecture’s worth.
Shuri Castle was defined as the embodiment of this narrative, and it was deployed as
the basis from which to articulate a more equitable position for their prefecture within
the Japanese nation-state. Importantly, however, the narrative of Okinawa’s cultural
heritage as a narrative of strength depended to some extent on being silent about
Japanese and American authorities’ contributions to treasuring Okinawa’s cultural
heritage, but this is not a point that is often acknowledged by the narratives
themselves.
Okinawan attempts to use their cultural heritage to calibrate their position within
the Japanese national imaginary—whether in contesting or accepting mainland
representations, or producing representations of their own—demonstrated that
Okinawan life under Japanese rule was a nuanced process of negotiation. Okinawan
people did not face clear-cut choices to protest or assimilate, but rather navigated a
nuanced and complicated reality regarding their relationship to Japan in which they
were active political subjects who tried, when they could, to make the optimal choices
about the conditions of their incorporation into Japan.
***
Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book in two ways. It begins with a
discussion of how the Ryūkyū Shobun of 1879 that abolished the Ryūkyū Kingdom
and incorporated the islands into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture was made invisible as
a moment of imperialism through a series of historiographical interventions that cast
their incorporation as a “return” to a “natural” state of affairs. In particular, this
chapter examines three elements of this narrative—the legend of Yoritomo no
Tametomo’s fathering of the first Ryūkyūan king, the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s tributary-
trade and cultural relationship with China, and Satsuma’s domination of the kingdom
from 1609—as the main issues that the Japanese state had to deal with in order to
disavow the imperial nature of Okinawa’s incorporation and to assert its legitimacy.
Secondly, this chapter discusses Shuri Castle’s history from the early 1870s to the
1920s. As the symbol of the Ryūkyūan kingship, the castle had the potential to
become a rallying point that could call Japanese rule into question and the Japanses
state attempted to break that significance. Against Japanese state actions to erase
Shuri Castle from Okinawa’s physical and symbolic landscape, Okinawan people
sought to regain control of the castle site at the first opportunity they had in the late
1890s, demanding its protection as a treasure of Ryūkyūan cultural heritage.
Chapter 2 examines the eminent prewar Japanese architect Itō Chūta’s
discovery of Okinawa’s cultural forms in the mid-1920s. This chapter traces Itō’s
advocacy of the value of Okinawa’s cultural heritage through a close reading of his
account of his travels to Okinawa, Ryūkyū kikō (Ryūkyū Journey), his published
essays, and lectures in Okinawa and the mainland. In providing one of the earliest,
formal theorizations of Ryūkyūan cultural heritage, Itō helped secure the physical
survival of Shuri Castle’s main hall and countered the Japanese state’s inattention to
Okinawa’s cultural history. Yet, Itō’s discoveries were also deeply doubled in nature,
since they opened Okinawa’s cultural forms to appropriation, transformation, and
deployment by the Japanese state. While celebrating Okinawa’s culture as unique,
Itō’s theorizations made it possible to read Okinawa’s culture as, at least partly,
Japanese, and in so doing inserted Okinawa and its cultural heritage into a Japanese
cultural universe. Itō also enabled the appropriation of Shuri Castle in another
important way: by proposing that the castle’s main hall be used as the worshipper’s
hall of Okinawa Shrine, Itō wrote Shuri Castle into the universe of State Shinto.
Chapter 3 explores Shuri Castle’s tenure as Okinawa Shrine, a history that
remains largely unknown today. Okinawa Prefecture regained ownership of the castle
site in the early 1900s, but could not afford to undertake the substantial repairs
necessary for the castle’s restoration. While the prefecture attempted to raise money
for the castle’s repairs, a decision was made to locate a new prefectural shrine,
Okinawa Shrine, in the center of Shuri Castle’s grounds. The plans included the
demolition of the castle’s main hall, but the main hall was preserved, as the
worshipper’s hall of Okinawa Shrine, thanks to Itō Chūta’s interventions. This chapter
looks at how Okinawa Shrine not only gave a new authority to the Tametomo legend
but also transformed a symbol of the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s political and cultural
autonomy into a functioning node of Japanese nationalism. This use of Shuri Castle
was also part of the larger effort by the Japanese state to appropriate Okinawa’s
indigenous utaki-centered religion to consolidate Japanese rule of the islands.
Despite the Mingei intellectuals’ impact on understandings of Okinawan cultural
heritage, there is as yet no comprehensive analysis of their encounter with Okinawa.
Chapter 4 explores the Mingei movement’s brief but deep infatuation with Okinawa’s
cultural forms in the late 1930s and examines their representations of Okinawa’s
culture. The Mingei group initiated a new and influential way of talking about Okinawa
that privileged its cultural heritage as the basis of Okinawa’s spiritual and civilizational
—as opposed to monetary—wealth. These representations elevated cultural heritage
as the primary lens through which to understand Okinawa and were adopted by
Okinawan people in the postwar period. This chapter also revisits the “language
controversy” (gengō ronsō), in which the Mingei intellectuals defended Ryūkyūan

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