Representation and Responsibility

I had a long discussion the other week with a good friend who is also a die-hard supporter of Ukwanshin’s work. As she listened to me criticize new artists representing Okinawa and the Okinawan culture, she stopped me and asked, “Why do you have to be so negative? Why can’t you just be happy with what they’re doing?” Unfortunately for her, I had thought about these question for several years. Why am I so critical? Why can’t I just be happy that Okinawan culture is becoming more popular and more noticeable? Here’s why.

Over the past few years, Okinawa has become a focal point in the media on several different fronts. Yet another “Okinawa boom” has hit mainland Japan, making the coral islands seem like a dreamy paradise where all the people are friendly, and life is simple and untarnished by the fast-paced lifestyle of the “big city.” The yamatunchu ( Okinawan for Japanese people) have created this virtual paradise in their minds via a hit drama series (produced, written, and casted largely by yamatunchu), and a new wave of recording artists out of Okinawa who have included sanshin and other Okinawan elements into their music. In other words, media depictions of the islands. Hawaii locals, does this sound familiar?On another front, a few years back, a scientific study showed that Okinawans were the “healthiest people in the world,” boasting the longest lifespans of any other ethnic group. This created quite a stir across the world, and also created a new layer of the “paradise myth” where not only are these people carefree and happy, but they live long because of it. All of a sudden, Okinawan foods became like golden exlixers, especially in, yes you guessed it, mainland Japan. Now goya (bittemelon) is supposedly the staple food of all Okinawans and the most beloved ingredient in all of their recipes. Tell me, of all the Okinawans you know, how many of them LOVE goya?I might have digressed a bit, but my point is that the outside world’s media depiction of Okinawa is that of a true paradise. I still remember one of my yamatunchu sanshin students defining Okinawan music as an “expression of the people’s love for the mountains and the ocean and their reverence of the gods.” Interesting, but to me, very simplistic. Too simplistic. And that’s what I feel the depiction of Okinawan arts is — simple. Easy to pick out, and easy to define. Throw some goya in there and its Okinawan cooking; jam a sanshin somewhere in the mix and you have Okinawan music. And why shouldn’t it be simple; after all, Okinawans are “simple people,” right?

Wrong. Okinawan culture is a prime example of complexity in simplicity. As many island people will agree, face value really counts for nothing. The true value is found beneath the surface in the multiple layers of meaning and emotion. The idea of “loose” and “carefree” can be very deceiving because while they appear as such on the surface, they are actually tightly bound by protocols, understandings, and cultural agreements that have been forged over generations. Okinawan culture is no different. People can be “carefree” because there is a sense of agreement and understanding — they “get it.” Because of these tightly-bound fibers of understanding and agreement, a simple gesture or a simple melody will instantly bind them and connect them on a level that cannot be explained in words. Because these feelings are so deep and cannot be expressed with words anyways, Okinawans often simply don’t bother. Why should they? They get it anyways. I think people who do not have this kind of connection often want to tap into these cultures. They want to belong to something deeper and have something that will touch their soul. But often times, they don’t want to work for it either.  I’m not saying that being a descendant or a member of a cultural group is a lifetime membership card, and I’m not saying that people cannot tap into this spring of wealth. However, like any group, the newcomer needs a lot of catching up to do to be on the same page as everyone else. And this has nothing to do with race or genetics, either. Even those of us whose blood relatives live and breathe Okinawa, need tons of connecting to do to tap into the magic of their lifestyles and view of the world since we literally come from a world away. Nonetheless, when you go through that process and look at all the loose ends that need tying, you realize and appreciate just how complex the whole system is. And you realize the true magic of it all and just how imperative it is to keep it going. You come to realize that connection is not about items and gestures, but about real living and real understanding…and real love. You come to see that the wonderful things the world has to offer often comes with a heavy price and that the people who are the most willing to give it away for free are often the ones who suffered and lost the most to keep it safe and alive for us all.

In my previous entry Okinawan Performing Arts Exhibit at UH Manoa, I discuss the importance of Okinawan music and dance in the lives and identity of the people. A simple discussion as that is merely the tip of the iceberg. As many years as it takes to learn the mechanics of playing an instrument or dancing, it takes many more times that to really understand what these songs and dances represent and the stories they tell. And not just an understanding with the mind, but with your entire being, an accumulation of your life experiences, of stories you’ve heard and felt, and of dreams you hold for the future. These are what are expressed in the arts of Okinawa, performing or otherwise. It is a representation of the people and their spirit. The life and vibrancy in the arts shows the spirit to overcome hardships both at the hands of nature or at the hands of other people and nations; it shows the spirit to laugh, sing, and smile even when the wounds of war are still healing; and, it shows the spirit to love peace and love life.

Believe it or not, I can go on some more, but I think you get the point (or I lost you several minutes ago). Anyways,  just a few thoughts I wanted to share with you in case you ever think of asking me about Okinawa’s cultural representation. Either someone else will ask me the same question and I’ll dream up more stuff to say and write, or everyone will read this and make it a point to never ask me again. Thanks for reading anyways.