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Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2001

Okinawa's fate through women's eyes

WOMEN OF OKINAWA: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island, by Ruth Ann Keyso. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, 168 pp., $16.95 (cloth).

Ruth Ann Keyso traveled to Okinawa in 1997 to write a history of the island's postwar past. Following conversations with various people on the island, she decided to write this history through the eyes of nine women who represented three periods of Okinawan history. Three of the women Keyso interviewed survived the Battle of Okinawa, three grew up during the U.S. Occupation (1945-1972), and three were born shortly before or after the island's reversion to Japan in 1972. The war, she discovered, does not hold the same significance for each generation.

In a historiographic context, it is significant that Keyso elects to write her history of Okinawa from the perspective of oral accounts provided by women, but there are a number of reasons why her approach should be considered valid.

First and foremost, many Okinawan men died in the Battle of Okinawa, and women were responsible for rebuilding the island in the postwar years and restoring normalcy to people's lives. Women also played a crucial role in wartime, supporting their families while their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were fighting. In the wake of Japan's defeat, women enjoyed more status and power on the island because of the democratic reforms that were introduced by U.S. forces.

In her interviews, Keyso solicits the women's views on a number of issues: their attitudes toward the U.S. presence on the island, the relationship between Okinawa and mainland Japan, and the conditions and status of Okinawan women.

For the women who survived the Battle of Okinawa, the war holds significant memories of loss and suffering. Junko Isa, 67, lost almost her entire family during the war; Mitsuko Inafuku, also 67, recollects the postwar years when she worked on a U.S. military base; while Fumiko Nakamura, 84, remembers life on the island before the war, when Okinawa was, she says, "a peaceful place." She resents the U.S. presence, which she considers to be a daily reminder of the pain the islanders were forced to endure.

Despite the heavy losses these women suffered and witnessed, they are surprisingly balanced in their judgment of the wartime activities of American and Japanese soldiers. They see grave mistakes made on both sides.

As for those women who were born during wartime, with no recollection of the battle, Keyso finds they have no perception of the Americans as enemy, and their attitude toward the U.S. presence on the island is quite different. She finds that "they [have] powerful memories of Americans as occupiers, people in authority whose presence radically changed the Okinawa that their parents and grandparents recalled."

Their stories center on life in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, their personal involvement in the social, political and artistic changes that swept the island, and how this involvement shaped their character and defined their existence. They talk about the struggle of Okinawans to be considered equal to people on mainland Japan, the feelings of trivialization and neglect they experienced in the aftermath of reversion to Japan in 1972, and their subsequent effort to emphasize the unique elements of their lives as Okinawans.

The youngest generation of women interviewed by Keyso range from 21 to 35 years old, and the concerns and attitudes they express are correspondingly different. They have grown up on an island of U.S. bases, and have matured into adults under the heavy influence of American culture. The results of that influence, according to Keyso, are apparent in their style, language and choice of careers. They also accept the presence of the bases with a sense of inevitability, and feel less resentment toward the heavy burden Okinawa bears as a result of the U.S. presence.

Each interviewee has a similar sense of anger and resentment when asked about the September 1995 rape by three U.S. servicemen of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. This incident provoked outrage among the native population of Okinawa and toward the U.S. military presence. It led to rallies and a demand for a revision of the legal basis for the U.S. presence on the island. "More than any other event," Keyso tells us, "the rape incident crystallized Okinawans' fears and apprehensions about the large U.S. military contingent on the island . . . it lessened confidence in the American military as a protective force and heightened suspicions of U.S. troops as uncivilized and inhumane." Particularly for the younger generation of Okinawans, the incident was a sharp reminder of their potential (and realized) exploitation and/or abuse by the powerful foreigners in their midst.

The relationship between Okinawa and mainland Japan is treated with varying degrees of anger and resentment by the women. For the women who survived the Battle of Okinawa, the war destroyed their faith in the Japanese military and the national government. "By staging a battle on Okinawa to forestall an American advance on the main islands, Japanese troops willingly sacrificed the serenity of the island and permanently altered its landscape."

Japanese treachery during wartime further complicated the relationship, and the reversion in 1972 provided even more grounds for disappointment. It was, according to Keyso's interviewees, an artificial victory for Okinawans. U.S. bases were not removed, nor were Okinawans accepted as Japanese on an equal footing with their mainland counterparts. Discrimination continued, and economic and social disparities between the mainland and Okinawa persisted.

On the positive side, many of the women feel that the failures of reversion led to a heightened sense of pride in their identity as Okinawans. In particular, they emphasize their sense of independence and determination to change elements of their own society, to speak out against tradition and strive to create a more egalitarian society.

Keyso's book emphasizes the many positive features of Okinawan women's postwar experience without disguising the hardship and discrimination they have variously experienced. Furthermore, the way in which she has chosen her interviewees -- to cover three quite distinct periods in Okinawan history -- only serves to deepen our understanding of the complex problems raised by the U.S. presence on Okinawa.

We are also given an important insight into the feelings of neglect and inferiority that mark the relationship between Okinawans and mainland Japan. In short, Keyso provides us with a fascinating perspective on Okinawan history and women's place within it.

Fiona Webster is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.

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