Thursday, November 24, 2011

Okinawa Dreams #1: The Fadang Between Us

I am in Okinawa for the next four days for two conferences dealing with peace and demilitarization in the Asia-Pacific region. I am in my hotel room right now, and have great internet access and so that means that I'll be blogging while I'm here. The name of my blog posts about my experiences in Okinawa will be "Okinawa Dreams." In the coming days keep returning to my blog to learn more.

I spent yesterday and the day before reading up on Okinawan history, trying to find any possible historical connections between our islands. By now, everyone knows that we have been connected in terms of force realignment and that Marines are supposed to be transferred from Okinawa to Guam at some point in future, but this connection is relatively recent and is a result of the regional interests of the US military. What other connections could there be?

In my cursory research, I found references to Okinawans coming to Guam in the 1800's as farmers, and other references to people of Okinawan ancestry coming to Guam after World War II. Okinawa and Guam have both had long experiences of colonialism, under Japan and the United States, and have felt the pressures of being strategically important to the US, and thus shouldering a heavy amount of military presence. This connection is further tied to their history as both being sites of battle between Japan and the US in World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was far more bloody and brutal, but they are nonetheless linked in history as being places where US soldiers fought and died in distant sands.

While reading the article "Rising Up from a Sea of Discontent: The 1970 Koza Uprising in U.S. Occupied Okinawa" by Wesley Iwao Ueuten from the anthology Militarized Currents, I came across another interesting and unexpected connection. I thought I'd share it below, since while it has become common to see ourselves and our neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region through the gaze of the US, and define ourselves and how we relate to each other through or against US interests, it is important to also think of ourselves as distinct. It is important to imagine that we could be connected in other ways, through which the US doesn't sit at the center of how we might exist in solidarity.

For those of you familiar with World War II history on Guam, you will remember the role that the fadang played in sustaining Chamorros in a time of terrible crisis. Food was scarce during the war, and so Chamorros increasingly turned to the fanda or Frederico Palm in order to create tatiyas to eat. The fruit of the fadang is poisonous and has to be boiled properly before it can be made into a starch. Chamorros have been using the fandang as a staple for thousands of years, but it became less frequently used when corn and other crops were introduced by the Spanish. With little food on the island, Chamorros turned to gathering food in the jungles, fandang at the top of the list of finds.

In the article "Rising Up from a Sea of Discontent" there is a section where the author is recounting a short history of Okinawan suffering under the Japanese. He makes a references to the fandang and how it also came into play in Okinawan history in a time when they were undergoing a crisis of their own. Their crisis isn't from World War II, but from the years earlier after Okinawa was annexed into Japan in the late 1800s. The Japanese were able to exploit Okinawa economically, part of their policies of exploitation leading to the Okinawan people turning to the fandang in order to survive.

Here is a passage from the article:
Okinawa's sudden inclusion into Japan's capitalistic system created conditions for widespread poverty and suffering. Since sugarcane became a cash crop, much land was appropriated for its cultivation, while less land was used to grow food. Consequently, the Okinawans were forced into an increasingly dependent situation where they grew sugarcane for cash to buy foodstuff from Japan. When world sugarcane prices dropped after World War I, Okinawans experienced what they call sotetsu jigoku, literally translated as "cycad hell," where many people were forced to eat the sotetsu, or cycad, to survive. Since sotetsu is poisonous if not prepared correctly, many people died from eating it.

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