The Dark Side of Japan’s “Okinawa Boom”

There is probably some hypocrisy in discussing the appropriation of Okinawan culture from an Okinawan restaurant that has recently opened in a particularly gentrified neighborhood in Tokyo. I haven’t asked about the establishment’s ultimate proprietorship, but the vibe is a little too corporate and prefabricated to suggest anything other than enterprising Tokyoite restaurateurs capitalizing on the nation’s growing love affair with Okinawan cuisine.

The phenomenon is not confined to food. This month saw Shinjuku’s annual eisā festival, during which a small army of young Tokyo residents don Okinawan traditional costume and entertain enormous crowds with impressively coordinated performances of Ryūkyūan (indigenous Okinawan) music and dance. The event boasts a staggering one million observers each year – almost the entire population of Okinawa Prefecture. It is reliably photographed by legions of foreign tourists, who presumably flood their social media accounts with pictures of the energy and color of “Japanese” culture.

This appropriative turn is the latest phase in mainland Japan’s problematic relationship with Okinawan culture. The Japanese media has long presented the archipelagic prefecture as a paradisal retreat for mainlanders wearied by their quotidian modern existence: a “lost world” to be rediscovered by sharing its inhabitants’ quaint contentedness, joie de vivre, and coexistence with nature.

Critics have analyzed this narrative as a projection of “Japanese nostalgia for a utopian vision of its own premodernity”, and such a superficial and saccharine impression of Okinawan life would be frustrating under any circumstances. However, it is particularly troubling in light of the material reality in Okinawa, which has long suffered from Japanese exploitation, repression, and neglect. Indeed, Okinawa seems far more like a colony than a prefecture equal with those of the Japanese home islands.

A tributary kingdom of the Satsuma domain since the seventeenth century, the Ryūkyū archipelago was annexed by Japan in 1879, ending its centuries of sovereignty as an independent nation, as an early step in Japan’s construction of a regional sphere of influence in emulation of the Western colonial powers. As in its later colonialism on the Asian continent, Japan repressed the indigenous language and culture of its new territory under a policy of forced Japanization. Okinawa was heavily militarized during the Pacific War and became the bloody battleground for the Allied invasion of the Japanese islands. The prolonged Battle of Okinawa saw the deaths of approximately 150,000 Okinawans – comparable to conservative estimates of the combined death toll of the two atomic bombings, and representing around half of the Okinawan population. Many deaths were those of civilians forced into combat – or even into mass suicide – by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Japanese surrender began Okinawa’s status as the shared colony of Japan and the U.S. military. The Americans appropriated vast amounts of Okinawan land to construct extensive military installations. In negotiating the return of Japanese sovereignty, the Japanese government was content to abandon Okinawa to the unilateral control of the U.S. military – which continued until 1972 – if this meant a swift end to the occupation of the home islands. Today, Okinawa Prefecture accommodates two thirds of the U.S. military presence in Japan despite representing less than 1 percent of Japan’s land mass. Altogether, approximately 30 bases collectively occupy a quarter of Okinawan land.

There is no better symbol of economic atrophy than the repellent Kokusaidori (“International Avenue”) bisecting Naha; a mile-long stretch of souvenir trinketry and cheap alcohol for tourists and soldiers.

Japan nonetheless aggressively promotes Okinawa to domestic and foreign tourists, emphasizing its stunning natural beauty and biological diversity even as the U.S. military apparatus puts both these things in increasingly obvious jeopardy. Tourist money barely conceals the absence of a productive local economy – the result of prolonged militarization and underinvestment by the Japanese state. Okinawa is the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, with the lowest average income and the highest levels of unemployment. There is no better symbol of its economic atrophy than the repellent Kokusaidori (“International Avenue”) bisecting the prefectural capital of Naha, a mile-long stretch of indistinguishable establishments selling souvenir trinketry and cheap alcohol to tourists and soldiers.

The Okinawan people know that they are the sacrificial lambs that allow the Japanese home islands to externalize the social costs of the U.S.-Japan security alliance. They also know that, if a major Pacific war did occur, their islands and their lives would once again be on the front lines of a catastrophic conflict. In response to mounting Okinawan discontent, in 2012 the United States and Japan agreed to reduce the U.S. military presence and relocate it away from urban areas. Many Okinawans have nonetheless proved unyielding in their opposition to the construction of any new military bases. The Japanese authorities – unnerved by the Okinawans’ refusal to gratefully to accept the compromise the great powers handed down to them – embarked on a systematic campaign of oppression, involving sustained violence against peaceful protesters, most of whom are of advanced age, and arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention of their leaders. It is in light of these historic and continuing injustices against the people of Okinawa that the enthusiasm for Okinawan culture falls to be criticized.

Cultural appropriation describes the usurpation of a cultural group’s traditions or practices by another, privileged, cultural group, frequently occurring between groups in an historical colonial or quasi-colonial relationship. It differs from ordinary cultural exchange or influence because of the imbalance in power between the relevant cultural groups, and by the way in which the appropriated cultural practices become fetishized, existing in their new environment principally as fashionable “exotic” diversions, stripped of the cultural context that gave these practices meaning in their original environment. The phenomenon has gained increasing prominence in public discourse in recent years, unsurprisingly causing discomfort and defensiveness among those of us forced – entirely appropriately – to consider the ethics of our participation in practices and traditions originating in less privileged cultural groups.

It is hard to deny that Japan’s adoption of Okinawan culture is a textbook example of cultural appropriation. The “Okinawa boom” in Japanese popular media – and the cultural appropriation into which it has matured – fills the popular imagination with a particularly Japanese understanding of Okinawa and its relationship to the Japanese nation, an understanding often at odds with that of Okinawan people themselves, as reflected in their literature, political movements, and brave defiance of the combined interests of the Japanese government and U.S. military. In other words, it tells a story of Okinawa that Japan enjoys hearing, rather than the story that needs to be told.


Further reading

Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012) and Gavan McCormack, “Japan’s Problematic Prefecture – Okinawa and the US-Japan Relationship” (2016) The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

Davinder L. Bhowmik and Steve Rabson (eds), Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa (University of Hawaii Press, 2016) (summarized and reviewed here).

Sumi Cho, The Politics of Difference and Authenticity in the Practice of Okinawan Dance and Music in Osaka.

Mika Ko, Japanese Cinema and Otherness: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and the Problem of Japaneseness (Routledge 2010).

Yasuhiro Tanaka, Joachim Bergstrom & Olga Shmyglo, “The media representation of ‘Okinawa’ and US/Japan hegemony” (2003) 4 Inter-Asian Cultural Studies 419

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James is an associate professor at Sophia University Faculty of Law, where he teaches and writes on English and Japanese private law, as well as constitutional law and legal theory. He has previously taught at the University of Tokyo and Meiji University. Most of his free time is spent in pain after training in three martial arts

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