View Full Version : Identity and Resistance in Okinawa

Troll Basher
8th September 2003, 10:14
Published by H-US-Japan@h-net.msu.edu (September 2003)

Matthew Allen. _Identity and Resistance in Okinawa_. Asian Voices
Series. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. xii + 265 pp. Tables, maps,
notes, bibliography and index. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-7425-1714-4;
$29.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7425-1715-2.

Reviewed by Stanislaw Meyer <smeyer@hkusua.hku.hk, Department of
Japanese Studies, University of Hong Kong
Searching for Okinawan Identities

For the past two decades scholars have successfully accustomed us to
the idea that Japan is by no means a homogeneous nation. The center of
gravity in Japanese studies has shifted remarkably towards the spatial
and social margins of Japan, namely the Ainu, Okinawans, Koreans and
_burakumin_. Studies of Okinawan identity have contributed profoundly to
the deconstruction of the Japanese myth of homogeneity. _Identity and
Resistance in Okinawa_ follows the "deconstructionalist" pattern that
has already proven to work in the case of Japan and shows that Okinawa
is not homogenous either. The book questions the identity of Okinawa
from her very margins--the remote, tiny island of Kume. First of all I
need to say that _Identity and Resistance in Okinawa_ is a pleasure to

The author writes in a reader-friendly style and does not bother with
sophisticated theories that might be too heavy to digest. Rather than
discussing Okinawa, Allen prefers to narrate it. The text is variegated
by vivid descriptions of situations and people interviewed by the
author. Allen shares many of his personal observations and comments on the
life on Kume, which he seems to have enjoyed. Photographs from the
author's personal collection help to catch the image of Kume. Every
chapter begins with a detailed description of a selected event, such as the
dragon boat festival in chapter 2 or the dialect rally in chapter 3,
which creates a starting point for the author's arguments.

The book consists of an introduction and nine chapters organized into
three parts. In the introduction the author briefly introduces the
history of Okinawa, provides an exhaustive description of his fieldwork
location, namely Kume island, and addresses the problem of identity. In
the manner of a postmodernist, Allen emphasizes the complex,
multifaceted, and endlessly negotiable nature of identity. The argument he
develops throughout the book is that local identities are what matters
primarily in the case of Okinawa.

"Okinawan" identity is a relatively modern construct, formed vis-a-vis
"Japan proper" and American military bases. On the local level Okinawa,
as an "imagined community," has such ambiguous boundaries that it casts
doubts on whether there are any essential representations of being
"Okinawan." This question in not new and has been addressed by such
authors as Glenn Hook and Richard Siddle.[1] Allen, however, goes much
further, presenting a claim for the ambiguity and novelty of "Kume" identity.
First of all he recognizes the multivocality of Kume, where numerous
identities cross and overlap at all levels of the society. The essays in
part 1 serve to emphasize the ambiguity, locality and diversity of
Okinawan and Kume identities.

Chapter 1 tackles the problem of the "Japanese-ness" of Okinawa. Allen
develops the argument around the history of a massacre of civilians,
committed by the Japanese troops on Kume island in the wake of the
Okinawa Battle in 1945.

Chapter 2 narrates the history of the local community of Torishima
village. People from Torishima originally migrated to Kume from a volcanic
island called Yuo Torishima at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In spite of successful assimilation, they have preserved their own
distinctive identity and traditions, even though these have been given new
meanings or have been completely reinvented.

In chapter 3 Allen writes about a dialect rally, in which children from
each hamlet gather for a speech contest in their local dialects. This
event, Allen notes, serves to bring a wider community together, but at
the same reinforces the fragmented and diverse character of Kume (p.

In chapter 4, Allen shifts his attention to the local Board of
Education which plays an extremely important role in the life of Kume. The
Board of Education is a source of knowledge about local culture and
traditions. It helps organize festivals and takes responsibility for the
cultural and social education of children in the community. At times, it
has even assisted an inexperienced priestess _noro_ to perform her
religious duties. Allen stresses that the Board, despite being an official
agent of the Ministry of Education, challenges the education policies.
In other words, it is a source of resistance against centralized and
homogeneous Japan. Allen emphasizes the influence of the Board over the
life and identities of Kume people.

Part 2 is the most original section of the book as it examines the
identity issue from the perspective of mental health problems. In Okinawa,
the ratio of people suffering from mental disorder is much higher than
in any other prefecture in Japan. Many patients, in spite of having
access to the modern health services, prefer to seek help from shamans
(_yuta_) who, as persons of "high spirit birth" (_saadaka unmari_), are
believed to possess supernatural skills to heal people. As Allen
argues, _yuta_ "embody 'traditional Okinawa' in contrast to 'modern Japan'"
(p. 161).

For patients, the decision about whether to rely on _yuta_ or modern
medicine always involves the identity issue. There is a profound
difference between being diagnosed by a _yuta_ as being afflicted by the
condition of _kami daari_ (or "god's revenge"), a socially "acceptable"
problem, and being diagnosed by modern psychiatry as mentally ill, which
may result in social stigmatization. As Allen demonstrates in chapters 5
and 6, _yuta_ themselves often meet the criteria for being defined as
schizophrenic, yet they are able to find their proper place and an
approved role in society.

Allen continues the discussion on psychiatry and identity in chapter 7,
where he examines the situation of people on Kume island with mental
disorders. Due to the lack of appropriate health care facilities,
patients diagnosed with schizophrenia and their families have established an
organization, Akebono-kai, whose main function is to help them re-enter

Akebono-kai provides its members with occupations and opportunities to
socialize. Allen notes that the mentally ill people cannot escape from
stigmatization within their local communities, yet the Akebono-kai,
through a constant reference to a set of social and cultural values,
affords them a sense of being a member of a wider community and provides
them with an alternative "pan-Kume" identity.

In part 3 Allen examines how the tourism industry affects Okinawan
identity. After the reversion to Japan in 1972, Okinawa experienced a
tourist boom. The tourism business, controlled by Japanese companies from
the mainland, has successfully depicted Okinawa as a tropical paradise
and an exotic place inhabited by easy-going people. Kume island, too,
has been turned into a resort center and sold to the tourists as

As Allen notes, Japan has embodied in Kume an identity over which local
people have little control. Put radically, Kume has been colonized by
knowledge (p. 226). Yet, the people of Kume resist and try to promote
independently an alternative kind of tourism, based not only on the
attractiveness of the beautiful sea and the coral reefs, but also on the
cultural heritage.

This, as Allen argues, contributes to the emergence of a new image of
Kume and, consequently, a new "pan-Kume" identity. Allen's book,
however interesting and informative, does not answer all the questions a
reader might wish. For example, are the Okinawans "ethnic" and thus an
ethnic minority? If yes, what accounts for ethnicity and ethnic identity?
In a broader sense the book raises the problem of the extent to which
one can apply the "deconstructionalist" rhetoric to minority identities.

Allen notes, for instance, that the Akebono-kai provides its members
with a sort of "pan-Kume" identity. But what is the significance of this
fact? How does it differ, let us say, from the case of members of the
Alcoholics Anonymous in Japan or any other country, who also share a
sort of common identity? Allen does not convince the reader that going
into that level of analysis is necessarily relevant to the overall
discussion of Okinawan identity.

Secondly, I cannot refrain from citing the common accusation against
social anthropologists, namely that they focus on the social margins,
such as gangs and prostitutes, instead of studying the social mainstream
and, thus, they have little to say about the society as a whole. How
much does the study of _yuta_ or, depending on the definition, a mentally
disordered women tell us about the Okinawan identity? Is it really so
important that the author needs to devote nearly one third of the book
to this subject?

I disagree with Allen on several points. For instance, I find Allen's
suggetion that "Okinawan" identity is a mere response to the Japanese
colonialism and that it is limited to political and economic discourses
problematic. I would argue that there are essential representations of
Okinawan identity, let alone Okinawan beliefs, that are not necessarily
products of resistance against colonialism. The people of Kume and
other remote islands may identify with Okinawa because, for various
reasons, they find its cultural and historical heritage attractive.

In Ernest Gellner's terms, Okinawa plays the role of a dominant
"cultural pool," which people have joined out of their own free will; they
have received certain benefits in exchange for "becoming Okinawan,"
although citizenship was not one of them.[2] Allen's book, nonetheless, is
an important voice in the discourse on Okinawa. The author deserves
special credit for his original and innovative approach towards Okinawan
studies. His writing style suggests that he intended to address the
book to a wide audience. I ask myself, however, whether the approach from
Kume is the most appropriate for readers unfamiliar with Okinawa.


[1]. Glenn D. Hook and Richard Siddle, eds., _Japan and Okinawa:
Structure and Subjectivity_ (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

[2]. Ernest Gellner, _Nations and Nationalism_ (Oxford: Basil

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