Outside Influences Dilute Okinawan Culture As Glitz and Glitter Mask Problems

Recent articles in the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo newspapers in Okinawa have been reporting continual clashes with surrounding communities of U.S. military bases, and military personnel. Another recent problem is the lack of monies to fund education and other vital community projects in the provinces, due to the consolidation of provinces to a larger “city” status.  Recently, it was again reported that more and more seinenkai in the chubu area of Okinawa Island, perform eisa to mainly drink and get intoxicated, not respecting the purpose of the celebration.  For the performing arts, dance studios are attracting less students as teachers are charging higher tuition and fees.

These are only some of the many problems Okinawa is now experiencing due to outside influences changing tradition and culture to accommodate commercialism, modernization, and self centered politics.  The government and military have been pacifying landowners of property on base and of apartments near the bases, with higher payments.  Also, promise of more jobs and support to build and repair roads have been given to surrounding communities.  This tactic has brought animosity between residents who neighbor the bases, and those prospering or have nothing to do with the base problems.  Okinawans are now fighting each other with a problem that has been brought on by the outside, as the initiators watch idly, at what once was a bonded community, deteriorate.  The same goes true with the new “cities” such as Uruma and Nanjo, which were created by combining various neighboring provinces.  The Japanese govenment stands by and watches as they make monies off the new cities, but local communication, cooperation,traditions, towns, ceremonies, and culture disappear and their identity unique to each begin to disappear.  Created with the promise of helping the smaller provinces financially, the “gappe”, combining of provinces, has almost emptied the coffers of many, and areas like Gushikawa, that did have monies to support community projects, senior citizen and youth activities, and education, have basically been sucked almost dry, leaving many schools in disrepair.  The “kouminkan” or community centers which were once the center of community cultural events and projects, have become almost empty.  Villages and towns had many events, clubs and cultural awareness activities which brought the community together and passed on values and traditions, especially with the younger ones.  The Japanese Government has basically succeeded in disbanning the adhesiveness of the typical Okinawan community, as they head towards becoming more Japanese.  Can we call this a kind of genocide?  I say “YES”.

The commercialization and hype over Okinawan performing arts has focused the once ancestral, and culturally centered tradition, to money, fad, fame, and what’s popular.  Some seinenkai in the Chubu districts of Okinawa have been sent away and refused entrance to properties during the obon observances.  Responsible for the eisa in the villages, the youth have now been taking advantage of the eisa performances to drink and get intoxicated, not giving the events the respect it deserves.  This is in due to the “year round” eisa, being performed anywhere and anyplace at anytime during the year.  Its become a tourist entertainment attraction at places such a Ryukyu Mura, and can be seen at stage performances and festivals.  This “dance” once only done during the 3 day observance of obon, and for the dead, can now be seen anywhere, and outside the obon season.  The excitement and anticipation for the obon season when practices begin and drums can be heard in the distance, are slowly fading away with tradition.  Dance studios have seen a drop in student enrollment as the older generation is dying and the obligations to learn dance and music for the elders is becoming less important, and more parents opting to sending their children to “juku”, after school study.  Teachers, especially ones who have first hand experience with the sensei who passed down their knowledge from prior to the war, have forgotten the old ways, and obligations. The have embraced the Japanese iemoto system, and charge exhorbant fees for tuition, license, and performances.  They have also began to systemize the dance to dilute and possibly cut out less popular styles and schools which have traditional and unique identities of their own.  Dances and costumes are becoming less recognizable as Okinawan, as past teachers and founders of schools are less mentioned and referenced, to make room for their own names to be brought to the forefront.

In the meantime, if you were to look at Okinawa at its surface, it seems that it is prospering, and culture and traditions are flourishing.  In some ways, yes, but moreso, no.  If things continue in this path and eyes and voices remain closed to these changes and events, soon, there will be no real Okinawa to go to or experience.  Like the last Worlwide Uchinanchu Festival, the “grand” opening showed the hype, glitter and glamour of the new age of Okinawa, but when looking into the festival itself, there was no discussion on the problems Okinawans were facing, both in and out of the homeland. Here in Hawai`i, the annual Okinawa festival by the Hawai`i United Okinawa Association attempts to show the adhesiveness and strength of local Okinawans, by staging one of the largest cultural events in the state.  It has however, become less Okinawan, as non-Okinawan foods and entertainment have ben introduced.  This has not only been noticed by me, but I’ve heard many comments from non-okinawns who have gone to the festival expecting real Okinawan, but being served up Teresa Bright, hula, Hawaiian plate, Japanese dances, etc.  Also, behind all of this pomp, the organization has only recently attempted to face the financial problem which has been festering since the embezzlement by past president Wil Hokama. From that time, finances have been aloof, and unbalanced, with even auditing companies refusing to continue services due to missing, or mismanaged finances.  All the celebrating, dances, and music cannot cover up or fix the problems of the organization, but what has not been realized is the hard work, time, and monies of the people who really make up the Okinawan organization…its members.  The first and second generations gave all they could, even to mortgage their houses, to help build the center in Waipio.  Volunteers come out in the hundreds every year, spend money on hotel, food, donations, etc, only to be told that at this time, there hasn’t been proper management of finances.  Is that a way to care for a community or to preserve culture?  If things are going to work and become “pono” again, a great cleansing or purge needs to be done, along with rethinking what has ahppened and how personal gain had taken over, using leadership positions in the organization as a political stepping stone to personal gains in business or political positions.  As we continue in this fast paced, technological society, it is important to take time to sit back and reflect on who we are and what our ancestors had to face to preserve and pass down what they had.  It may not have been hand fed to us, but it is still our obligation to continue what they had.  To research what we don’t understand.  To keep our identity so that we don’t become cold or numb to other traditions or cultures, but mostly to understand who we are and look to our kupuna for guidance.  To listen to the voice that speaks through our hearts and fight to keep what little we have left.  I think we are intelligent enough to balance the modern world and our traditions, without having to lose out on our other everyday obligations.  Okinawans have been able to survive much.  It is in their traditions and culture that they have been able to endure, and it is by going back to these that we will continue to survive, even if it is only a small amount of us.  Take time to look at the old pictures of our ancestors.  Look into their eyes and see the answers.

“いったあんままかいが?星光いねらん。親ぬ歌ちきば、肝にかかて。Itta anma makaiga? Bushi hikai neran. Uya nu uta chikiba. Chimu ni kakati. Where has your Mother gone? The brightness of the stars have faded away. Listen to the songs of your parents. You will understand in your heart.”

2 thoughts on “Outside Influences Dilute Okinawan Culture As Glitz and Glitter Mask Problems

  1. Rob

    I think the term you are looking for is cultural genocide.

    From my perspective, what you are saying is not anything new. Okinawans in general always had problems maintaining their cultural identity. I remember when I was small, my family and I used to go to the Osato Doshi Kai gatherings in Mapunapuna when Gibson’s was still around.

    Interestingly enough, during one of the Osato gatherings, the president of the club wanted to toast the Showa Emperor because it was the Emperor’s birthday or something. I was still small so I did not understand at the time, but when I think about it, to do what we did was stupid because the Ryukyu Kingdom was never under the jurisdiction of Japan’s Imperial family prior to the emperor’s removal from power by the 1st shogunate. Furthermore, it was the Showa Emperor who encouraged the American military to move into Okinawa in order to expedite the U.S. military deoccupation of “mainland” Japan. So why toast someone who created Okinawa’s ongoing problems with the U.S. military bases?

    To be blunt, I can see why Okinawan culture is so diluted now than ever before because a whole lot Okinawans are clueless about their culture and history.

  2. Eric

    Rob, Thank you for your comments which are right on the nose and uplifting to hear that there are others who see what we see at his time, instead of “kachashi and andagi”. I used the term genocide in general because once our culture and language is gone, our whole identity as a people of Ryukyuan lineage will be gone also. It might be a bit exaggerated, but it emphasizes the spotlight on the issues to which the Japanese government silently puts the cheese out to lure to the trap and slowly takes away bit by bit. The situation can also be compared to a cancer which is eating away slowly at Okinawa, both in and out, first atacking the most vulnerable organs which give life to the identity. As more of us take a look at whats going on, we realize that we must do something positive to counter the damage being done. I hope you will share your knowledge with others to help bring a better understanding to others. Again, its nice to see that you have seen this happening also.

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