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Sunday, April 22, 2001

Okinawan writers provide a breath of fresh air

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 362 pp., $27.95 (paper).

Okinawa consists of just .6 percent of the total landmass of Japan and contributes 1 percent to the population, according to the introduction in "Southern Exposure." Yet its size is disproportionate to its role in recent Japanese history.

Okinawa is Japan's beautiful stepchild, handed over by the United States in 1972. A Cinderella of sorts, this prefecture has been given the not-so-pretty job of accommodating 75 percent of the U.S. military presence in Japan. As an ethnic minority, Okinawans have also felt the indignity of second-class citizenship thrust upon them by both countries. But as in fairy tales, it is the abused and devalued who often develop the moral authority and integrity necessary to demonstrate truth and justice.

In the "manga"-saturated nation of Japan, Okinawan writers are revealing their truths and taking home a number of prestigious literary awards in the process, including the Akutagawa Prize for fiction in both 1996 and 1997. Moreover, unlike major mainland writers, Okinawan writers have not had the luxury of quitting their day jobs to devote full energy to developing literary careers. But until now, no translations of Okinawan literature have even existed for the interested English-language reader.

The wait is finally over. "Southern Exposure," published by the University of Hawai'i Press, presents a varied and distinctive anthology of short stories and poems that are uniquely Okinawan. Yet the success of this book is not dependent upon an exotic regionalism. Directness, honesty and inclusiveness are the winning qualities that mark this compilation.

The work in "Southern Exposure" was published over eight decades of recent Okinawan history, beginning with Japanese domination and continuing throughout World War II to the subsequent U.S. occupation and finally, reversion to Japan. During that time, Okinawans shouldered a heavy burden of loss and deprivation. However, these finely rendered stories exhibit no trace of self-pity or victimization. Instead, they exhibit a rhythm and vivacity that brings to mind blues music. In fact, in the story "Dark Flowers" (by Jun Kishaba), a prostitute alludes to the blues, which provides anthems for difficult lives such as the kind lived by her and her African-American military clients. Like the prototypical blues artist, she admits her disappointments but refuses to let them get the better of her.

Social and historical circumstances are the filters that unavoidably color everyday life and therefore literature. How the writers deal with these givens evolves over time. For example, early stories such as "Officer Ukuma" (Sekiho Ikemiyagi), written in 1922, grapple with identity issues. Officer Ukuma rejects his Okinawan family and friends only to realize that his coworkers from the mainland will never recognize him as an equal. Likewise, characters in "Memoirs of a Declining Ryukyuan Woman" (Fusako Kushi) learn that they must hide their ethnicity to be successful in the dominant homogenous society of Japan. Later stories, such as "Love Letter from L.A." (Hiroshi Shimokawa), "The Silver Motorcycle" (Shin Nakahara) and "Love Suicide at Kamaara" (Sueko Yoshida) address cross-cultural relationships between Okinawan women and American servicemen.

The war, of course, is a major historical event that affects Okinawa even today. Two powerful stories, "Bones" (Shima Tsuyoshi) and "Droplets" (written by Akutagawa Prize-winning author Shun Medoruma) address the war's legacy. In "Bones," a mass grave dating from the Battle of Okinawa is unearthed at a construction site for a luxury resort. An aged woman with shaman-like demeanor demands appeasement of the spirits. Even decades later, the past returns to vex those who would ignore it. Similarly, in "Droplets" -- a wonderfully constructed masterpiece of surrealistic writing -- a war veteran is haunted by survivor's guilt and a mysterious, debilitating condition.

Other stories such as "Bones" and "Will o' the Wisp" (by Nobuko Yamanoha) and the poem "My Last Letter" (Kare Nakamura) also use elements of surrealism and magical realism, yet never exploit the supernatural elements for the sake of making an impression. Exploitation and gratuitousness are also absent in "The Silver Motorcycle" and "Fortunes by the Sea" (written by Akutagawa Prizewinner Eiki Matayoshi). I was absolutely certain that these two stories with underlying sexual tensions would soon disintegrate into egocentric male fantasies. Guess what? It never happened; as a result, these two works are all the more compelling.

Poetry lovers are surely going to be disappointed by the paucity of work presented here -- only seven poems. My favorite, by far, is "My Last Letter," by Kare Nakamura, an enigmatic poet who was active in the Tokyo poetry scene for two years before disappearing forever like the man in his poem. Whimsy and desperation co-mingle in this colloquial poem that could easily have been written in 2001 instead of 1927.

Editors Molasky and Rabson have included an informative introduction that provides environmental, historical and social perspective for the poetry and stories that follow. In it, they write of their hope that "Southern Exposure" will whet the reader's appetite for more translated work by Okinawan writers. If they promise to translate it, I promise to read it.

Margaret Stawowy, poet, critic, librarian and community volunteer is a former Yokohama resident who has relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area.

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