Saturday, May 26, 2012

Occupied Okinawa #10: Hajichi Decolonization

Most of my trip to Okinawa dealt with explicitly political matters; militarism, base issues, peace, decolonization, independence, self-determination. But this wasn't all I wanted to learn about on my trip, I also had a lot of conversations about Okinawan culture, trying to learn as much as I could about it and how there might be similarities to Chamorro culture and also differences between it and mainland Japanese culture. One of the difficulties in learning about this by simply driving around and seeing things is that the Japanese government attacked many aspects of Okinawan culture long ago, and even if Okinawans kept much of their identity, the practices and symbols disappeared.

For example, most people in Okinawa as well as mainland Japan were intrigued by the tattoos on my arms. Although there is a tradition of tattooing in both cultures, this is something that is done primarily by "low" or "suspect" people, such as gangsters, gangstas and hoods. It is more acceptable for younger Japanese people, but not necessarily for older folks. While looking through a book on Okinawan history I came across pictures of elderly women with simple geometric tattoos on the tops of their hands. I asked some of the people I was meeting with what this tattoos were. There were some stories about them initially being used with poison to prevent Japanese men from kidnapping Okinawan women. The designs were reminiscent of natural things such as islands, birds, animals and some families had their own distinct design that they would use. Others said the tattoos were magical spells to increase fertility or happiness. For some the tattoos were sexist, a way of marking women in the same way in which you might brand your cattle.

After the annexation of Okinawa by Japan in the late 19th century this practice was banned as barbaric. Most women I spoke to recalled their grandmothers or great grandmothers having tattoos, but could not think of anyone who was still alive who had them. They all agreed however that the tattoos were symbol of the strength and status of women in Okinawan life. Okinawa while it was a patriarchy, women held more spiritual and cultural power there than compared to life in mainland Japan. The attack on the hajichi tattoos was only one aspect of an overall assault on the place of women in Okinawan society. Women were religious leaders and healers who found the new government trying to strip them of their power. They also found themselves being told not to wear Okinawan clothes or perform Okinawan dances.

I asked several of the female activists I met if they have ever considered trying to bring back these tattoos that were once prohibited. I saw people using other things that Japan tried to destroy, from language to clothes for example, why not this one. The marking of the flesh in this way could be considered a very strong symbol of one's commitment to a cause and also a determination to not be defined by another. The tattoos were once considered barbaric, but in the way that some accept the once negative and diminutive labels of hate, couldn't Okinawan women try to bring back this tattoo style?

Cultural decolonization sometimes appears to be the easiest since culture in many ways takes the form of just artifacts, clothes, jewelry, and so decolonizing yourself culturally can be as simple as putting on a shell necklace or getting a tattoo with a Chamorro word. But it is never really this easy. Even though we could feel at one moment that our identity is ours to decide or determine, this is never really true. In terms of colonization and decolonization the cultural ways you seek to define or redefine yourself will come in two basic ways. The first form is very non-threatening, harmless, fun, exotic and perhaps even something that you can make money off of. The first form of cultural decolonization can simply be about cultural pride, and embodying some simple thing that doesn't really offend anyone, doesn't get in anyone's way, but is just you filling out some of the space around you, with something that comes from your culture. Food is the most significant, harmless artifact that fits this type. Food is something that everyone likes to share and everyone can enjoy, but comes with very little overtly political charge or productive meaning. Food is after all the ideal multicultural metaphor. In a multicultural space everyone can bring their own ethnic food and have a spot at the table.

A second form is defined through the discomfort it creates, either in others or in the decolonizing person themselves. It is something that doesn't fit neatly into the present, but will chafe against the existing ideological structure, and either be rudely rejected or snap the boundaries and create new meaning. These are usually things that might have once been an intimate natural part of a culture, but now appear to be disgusting, foreign or useless. They are things where there is no place for them today. They were prohibited or attacked long ago and the value was stripped of them, or their meaning was so totally reversed by colonization that they appear to be the opposite of who and what the colonized person is today.

Both Okinawan and Chamorro culture held ancestral worship as the center to their religion and worldview. Prior to Spanish colonization Ancient Chamorros took this to the extent where they would not only pray to and respect the spirits of their ancestors, but they would take mementos, such as the shin bones, the hands and most importantly the skull and keep them in their home as signifiers of that ancestor's spirit. Chamorros would even go so far as to treat these bones as parts of the family, talking to them, offering them food and speaking to them in reverent tones.

Although the idea of ancestral veneration remains in Chamorro culture today, that specific practice of taking the bones of your ancestors into your home and then treating them like members of the family is considered crazy. If you were to conduct yourself in such a manner today people would report you to the police, report you to mental health, and most importantly report you to the Catholic church. In the centuries since the early days of Spanish colonization, an incredible variety of discursive barriers have been placed between you and that practice, to disconnect you from it and to make you unable to see it in any objective sense. Your sense of what is normal and what is abnormal has been so shaped in the centuries since that you cannot see that practice in the way Ancient Chamorros did, and therefore have trouble integrated it into today's world.

When I asked about Okinawan women today tattooing themselves, I received a response similar to that of Chamorros if asked about keeping the skulls of their relatives who have died recently. It was interesting to think about, very creative in away, but ultimately the way the present works makes it impossible or too much. The stigma for women with tattoos was too much, as is the stigma of "grave robbing" for Chamorros.

You cannot fault people for feeling this discomfort, it is natural. History is not a straight line, even if we attempt to arrange our perceptions of it in such a way, it is still twisting, contradictory and painful. But the larger lesson for decolonization is the need to take on these chunks of your history that do not fit in the present, and insist that they be brought into today. It is this insistence that can provide an incredible strength, because of its impracticality. If you already speak English, why bother learning Chamorro? If you already live a capitalist consumerist lifestyle why change to something else? The answer is that there is no strength, no self-strength, no chance for self-determination if you just accept the flow of history that flows against you. You just get carried away by history's currents. You eventually cease to exist and only find form in museum exhibits on lost cultures. But if you push back against that flow, and if you insist that something that was lost or taken from you should continue to exist today, you provide the possibility for decolonial strength. It is the kind of strength that has the power to define what is normal today, what is acceptable, where the limits of your culture and your political power are.

1 comment:

meow meow said...

Nice thoughtful commentary on the state of modern Okinawa, post-colonization by both Japan and America. Yes, there is a huge stigma and lots of rumors regarding hajichi in the modern mind and as a half-Okinawa, this is saddening and maddening. Everyone who had it is dead so we can only hope to talk to people who remember what the elders said about it. I don't visit often enough but I want to uncover more and get at some truths. The Maori have won impressive gains in rights so they may sport their markings without discrimination legally, but Okinawans cannot tattoo their hands due to the social stigma and it would make them undesirable candidates for work. This is why the language is not kept up by younger folks. There's no monetary value, only cultural value.

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