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Top>Research>"Everyone in Japan," and Okinawa


Ryota Nishi

Ryota Nishi [profile]

"Everyone in Japan," and Okinawa

Ryota Nishi
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Literature of English-speaking countries and critical theory

Anyone who has a certain interest in either the election itself or in Okinawa would have been fascinated by the results of the House of Representatives election that took place in December 2014. In a turn of events that hint at a complete departure in Okinawan politics from the previous situation, which had tended to be interpreted as conservative conflict between left and right, candidates rallying together under the words “All (better translated as `One`) Okinawa” won victories in every single-seat constituency after forming an alliance with Mr. Takeshi Onaga, who won the preceding gubernatorial election with the slogan “Identity Before Ideology.” However, what is “Okinawan identity” in the first place, and what does it mean to exalt it? And how are we to approach present-day Okinawa?

Hovering in between Ryukyu people and Okinawa people:
The Anthropological Hall Incident (1903) and the play “Anthropology Hall” (1975)

I would like to read a particular play as a foothold from which we can attempt to understand present-day Okinawa. The play, “Anthropology Hall,” was written by Seishin Chinen and first performed in 1975, three years after the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control. It takes its title from the “Anthropological Hall Incident” which arose in 1903 when real people from the territory of the Japanese Empire and neighboring countries were put on display as “primitive people” in an outdoor pavilion at the National Industrial Exhibition in Osaka. Before examining the play itself, let’s take a brief look at that incident. The pavilion, which was called the “Science Anthropology Hall,” was conceived of and directed by anthropologist Shogoro Tsuboi who had been deeply impressed after seeing the same kind of exhibition at the Paris Expo. The very successful exhibit “displayed” people who were supposedly Koreans, Ryukyuans, Taiwanese, Ainu, and Javanese. It developed into a major incident, giving rise to outcry among Okinawans (Okinawa being the Ryukyu islands), who protested that it was a great insult to select people of their prefecture for exhibit alongside people like the Ainu from Hokkaido. We must first condemn the inhumanity of a racist act such as placing people on exhibit. Having said that, we cannot ignore the discriminatory attitude shown by the Okinawans in objecting to the fact that people of their own prefecture were being displayed alongside Ainu people. However, we should also be careful about putting the racism demonstrated by Okinawans on par with that of Tsuboi and his fellow mainlanders. Thirty years after the forced assimilation of Okinawa into Japan, as many Okinawans searched for their own identity amid pressures to modernize and assimilate into imperial Japan, their attempt to identify themselves as Japanese and fight back against discrimination even while degrading the Ainu could be seen as a product of the very complex state of affairs in which they found themselves: being at once Ryukyuans while at the same time citizens of a Japanese prefecture under Japan’s administrative control.

The play that got its title from this incident was a minimalist one, performed by a cast of just three: a man who is a kind of trainer, and one man and woman who are on display. It starts with a greeting from the trainer, who says, “Good evening, everyone! Thank you for joining us today at the Anthropological Hall!,” and the curtain opens to an explanation about the man and woman who are on exhibit. The trainer seems to be outraged that the man and woman are unable to communicate properly in the Japanese language known to be the “soul” of Japan, and can only speak in their own Okinawa dialect, so he makes persistent efforts to “train” them. This persistence may arise from a personal grudge he bears after having once had a promotion revoked because he was mistaken for an Ryukyuan (people of the Ryukyu islands). As the trainer continues in his severe and at the same time somewhat comical behavior, the stage transforms rapidly from an elementary school classroom into an interrogation room, a psychiatric hospital, and then a cave, with the roles of the three characters also changing to fit each setting. In the last scene, where the stage has been turned into a cave, the trainer takes on the role of a squadron commander, who appears to have come from the mainland, and who relentlessly beats the man and woman who are now playing civilians taking refuge in the cave. When the civilian man suddenly addresses the hysterical commander in his local dialect, saying, “Kama? It’s me, it’s Kami,” the commander, who had until this point been ranting uncontrollably, starts to shout out in the local dialect as if he could no longer bear to keep it in, and the three characters start embracing each other enthusiastically and tearfully celebrating their reunion. The commander/trainer who we had assumed came from the mainland turns out to be an Okinawan just like the civilians/the people on exhibit. If we assume that until this juncture the trainer had been using language to fix the non-Japanese speaking Ryukyuan in a position subordinate to the Japanese while at the same time attempting to Japanize them, then in this scene dialect is used to demolish the structure of that training. While the audience is expecting the play to end with this sudden reunion, the commander suddenly reverts back to the role of trainer and becomes “abnormally upset” at hearing “an American voice calling for surrender in faltering Japanese,” before being killed by an explosion of a hand grenade. The civilian man hurriedly produces a hat and whip from somewhere, sits the woman and the dead trainer up in a line, and lashes the whip sharply as he says the line, “Good evening, everyone ! Thank you for joining us today at the Anthropological Hall.”

Interpretation of the play

Let’s interpret this play based on the description so far. The human relations portrayed in this work appear to parallel real life patterns of discrimination in that they pit the trainer/mainland (Japan) against the exhibited man and woman/Okinawa. However, as we have already seen, as the drama unfolds and enters its final stages, this opposition collapses and the death of the character on one side of the conflict leads to a reversal of roles. A work that had appeared to portray a confrontation between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland turns out to have been a tragedy of the Okinawan identity that is torn between a sense of being the Ryukyu Islands on the one hand and that of being another Japanese prefecture on the other. We can say that this reversal is the work’s biggest device.

But this interpretation does not go far enough. A number of major problems come to the surface when the Ryukyuans, who are the people on exhibit and the prefectural citizen/trainer ultimately become interchangeable. One major issue is that while the two male characters are able to switch roles in the end, the exhibited woman is not granted such an opportunity. Something seems to exist in the interchangeable, homogeneous identity of the two men that can only be called an ideology, one that is male-centered and secured by their bonding.

There is one more major problem. This is that, while the tearful reunion between the characters displays the tragedy of identity suffered by violence-stricken, uncertain Okinawa, it also serves to make clear that the mainland/Japanese people never appeared in the work at all from the beginning, and keeps any Japanese identity separate from that of Ryukyuans and Okinawans out of its scope. From my perspective as a “mainlander,” I identify myself with the violent trainer, but with the reversal of roles that takes place in the reunion I am stunned to realize that this identification was a mistake. However, what if we explore the idea that the mainland/Japanese people have actually been written into this work in a different form? That is “everyone” being addressed by the trainer/exhibited man. Although the trainer introduces his “exhibit” in academic and intellectual terms, he is clearly providing it for entertainment purposes. It is “everyone” from the mainland that is being provided with this intensely violent entertainment, and it is “everyone” from the mainland who has triggered this violence by visiting the Anthropological Hall for their own pleasure. However, if we think in terms of staging, then this absent character is also the audience itself that comes to watch this violence and death and exchange of roles from a safe position outside of the action. As the simple confrontational relationship collapses and all the characters on stage become Okinawans (“All Okinawa”), I, as a reader of this work, cannot deny my own position as another member of the audience that is watching this chain of violence unfold on stage.

A problem for "everyone in Japan" and "us"

It is possible that “everyone” that the trainer is addressing includes the audience in the Exposition’s Anthropological Hall, the theater audience, as well as those around us who look at Okinawa as a place that is still troubled by controversy over the military base, as if it is someone else’s problem, or even those who look on from the mainland from an academic or intellectual perspective. At this juncture, we need to recall the voice that provided the opportunity for the drama to unfold from the reunion, through the trainer’s death, and on to the switching of roles. This voice announced to the characters, “To everyone in Japan; the war is over.” While this call violently categorizes the three characters on stage as one identity “Japanese,” it is also targeted at “everyone” who are present in the wider sense described above: the audience in the Hall, in the theater and in front of TV screens.

We have to carefully question whether “all Okinawa” really is united as an “all.” However, to answer this question we must also rethink the mainland/Japan that “all Okinawa” is trying to confront, and we need to scrutinize all of history up to this point starting with that “voice” that announced Japan’s defeat. If we do not rethink this question, we will never be able to overcome the simplistic opposition of Okinawa vs. the mainland and address the problems Okinawa faces as our own.

  • Seishin Chinen, “Anthropological Hall,” A Selection of Okinawan Literature, edited by Keitoku Okamoto et al., (Bensei Publishing, 2003), pp. 244-275
  • Edition for groups wishing to perform the drama “Anthropological Hall”: Anthropological Hall: A Sealed Past (Atworx, 2015)
Ryota Nishi
AAssistant Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Literature of English-speaking countries and critical theory
Ryota Nishi was born in Tokyo in 1980. In 2005, he completed a degree in education for international understanding in the Faculty of Education, Tokyo Gakugei University. In 2008, he completed a Master's Program in the Graduate School of Language and Society, Hitotsubashi University. Then he finished a Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Language and Society, Hitotsubashi University in 2014. From the same year, he assumed his current position.
His current research focuses on tracing the genealogy of the area of critical theory known as postcolonial studies and revealing the theory’s continuity and meaning up until the present day. In particular, he is increasingly interested in examining developments in Japan’s post-war energy industry and society in the light of texts by writers such as Edward W. Said, G.C Spivak and R. Williams.
Other works include Returning to the End: History and the Task of Postcolonialstudies (Eihosha, 2012), and Labor and Thought (Horinouchi Shuppan, 2015) and others.