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The Emergence of Women Who Read and Write—Conflicts of Women in Ryukyu/Okinawa Lasting over Three Generations

Keiko Katsukata-Inafuku
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Publication of History of Okinawan Women

The Okinawa prefectural government in southwestern Japan, which has worked on a project compiling the recent history of the Prefecture since 1994, published History of Women as Part 8 of History of Okinawa Prefecture in 2016. The first of its kind to be published by a prefectural government, one of the characteristics of the publication is a triple transformation brought about by modern education: (1) the transition from an oral culture to a written culture, (2) the assimilation with Japanese modernity, and (3) the shift to standard Japanese. These also represent the cultural conflicts between the generations which Okinawan women have been dealing with as the three transformations took place simultaneously.

From an oral culture to a written culture

The first transformation came after the Meiji period (1868–1912), when women in Okinawa started to learn how to read and write through modern education. Okinawan women, who had maintained an oral tradition since the dawn of history, were released from their yoke and allowed to learn the Japanese writing system for the first time. While other Japanese women, who had already been able to read and write, left behind magnificent literature during the Heian (764–1185) and other historical periods, not a single diary or literary work was produced by Okinawan women.

However, until only recently, Okinawan women continued to hand down Omoro (divine hymns) from generation to generation, thus creating a rich oral culture. Even the queens of the Ryukyu Kingdom, their Kikoe ookimi (the highest priestess) and Noro (priestesses) were illiterate, and it was out of the question to expect them to read Japanese and Chinese literature. Nevertheless, all of their knowledge was kept through collected memory.

The intelligence of women was not expressed in script, but was measured by their ability as a monoshiri (person of breadth of knowledge) who demonstrated the extensiveness of their memory as a story teller or someone who was familiar with everything. For example, the great-grandmother of Fuyu Iha was so knowledgeable that she taught his grandfather the key points to the examination for government service, and his mother, who also had good memory, is said to have been able to remember the date and time of when someone was born, even if it was 20 to 30 years in the past. Supposedly, she was able to quickly multiply or divide prices around 300 to 400 yen, despite not having studied arithmetic.

While an oral culture brings together the teller and the listener and gives priority to the "place" where this harmony is created, written culture creates "individuals" who are classified and analyzed, borne from the reading and analysis of the content on the page. In fact, the clash between these two forms of culture in modern times has taken the form of conflicts between generations and values, dividing Okinawan women and causing a rift in the minds of individuals.

Assimilation with Japanese modernity

The second transformation was the government's policy for Okinawa to assimilate with Japanese modernity, or in other words, “improving” Okinawa's manners and customs. The assimilation policy turned the traditional religious rites and etiquette, which Ryukyu women relied on and took initiative, into something that was outdated and uncivilized, letting the unique female culture rooted in Okinawa's climate be abandoned. This led to drastic reforms and orders, such as the way people dressed from Ryukyu style to a Japanese one and the ban on hajichi (hand tattoos), changing the standards of female beauty.

Men and women of the Ryukyuan society lived in two separate cultures on different dimensions. But, the disparities between the two sexes, which had persisted from feudal times, were removed through modernization. This is exemplified by the concept of ryosai kembo (good wife and wise mother), where both men and women came to share unified Japanese culture and values.

Shift to standard Japanese

The third transformation was the shift in language from Ryukyuan to standard Japanese. This standardization was a completely new experience for the Okinawan people, women in particular. Even during the time of the Ryukyuan Kingdom (1429–1879), mastering Japanese was essential to the social class of former samurais who interacted closely with their counterparts in Yamato (old Japan) as part of their education. As a result, many tanka (31-syllable Japanese poems) were composed and documents were written in the pseudo-classical style. Yet, this was limited to men, and until modern education spread during the Meiji period, women and peasants kept away from Japanese and any other written languages, whether it was Chinese characters or kana (Japanese syllabaries).

Thus, the triple transformation of literacy, Japanese modernity and standard Japanese brought unprecedented cultural changes, comparable to a cultural revolution, of the emergence of women who could read and write for the first time in Ryukyuan history. Though at the same time, these women started to agonize over how these changes conflicted with the uninterrupted and undisclosed tradition of oral culture.

A chronicle of Okinawan women over three generations

The generational cultural clash during the transition to modern times must have left a mark in Okinawan society, but it remains unrecorded in history. Still, I believe that there were intense conflicts between the various generations, even within families. In my case, the quarrels between my grandmother, the first generation, and my mother, the second, could not simply be described as a family feud between a mother and daughter-in-law. Instead, it looked like a proxy war between the pre-modern and modern cultures.

Mainland Japan was no exception in terms of the shift from pre-modern to modern times during the Meiji period being a violent one. Kikue Yamakawa's autobiography Onna Nidai no Ki (A Chronicle of Two Generations of Women) vividly illustrates how a mother and her daughter went through the transition. As the country was modernizing, Kikue and her mother, the latter who wished to study abroad for new knowledge, lived in a different world from her grandmother’s, who remained in the city of Mito. Nonetheless, generational conflicts similar to that of Okinawan women were not seen.

Still, two differently oriented cultures coexisted without either being dismissed in Okinawa. Literate women of the transitional period retained both cultures (oral and written) and languages (Japanese and Ryukyuan), and lived through the diverse yet contradictory aspects of the two cultures. However, they handed the conflicts between the two cultures down to posterity without resolving them. Third-generation women who have already lost their grandmothers and mothers are at a loss as to how they should take over these conflicts and pass them down to the next generation.

Keiko Katsukata-Inafuku
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Keiko Katsukata-Inafuku graduated from Waseda University with a bachelor’s degree in literature and completed the doctoral program in contemporary American literature at the University’s Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Science. She became full-time lecturer at Waseda University’s School of Law in 1991 and later professor in 1998. Professor Katsukata-Inafuku was a visiting researcher at the City University of New York’s graduate school in 1996 and received the Okinawa Bunka Kyokai Award (Zenchu Nakahara Award) in 2002. In 2004, she was appointed professor at Waseda University School of International Liberal Arts then professor at the Graduate School of International Culture and Communication Studies in 2013. Professor Katsukata-Inafuku founded and served as the director of the Institute for Ryukyuan and Okinawan Studies, a 2006-2015 project research institute. She obtained her doctorate degree from Waseda University in 2012.

Professor Katsukata-Inafuku specializes in Okinawan studies, gender studies and cultural studies, whose major publication is Introduction to Studies of Okinawan Women (Shinjuku Shobo). Her coauthored works include: Concise Dictionary of American Female Writers (Yushodo), Introduction to Okinawan Studies (Showado), and History of Okinawa Prefecture Part 8: History of Okinawan Women (Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education).