Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Occupied Okinawa #12: Utaki

After several days of lecturing, presenting and meeting with people for our Okinawa trip, Ed Alvarez (the Director of Guam's Commission on Decolonization) and I were given a rest day. One of the organizers of our trip Yasukasu Matsuhima, a professor of economics at Ryukyu University in Kyoto took us on a tour of various parts of central Okinawa. One of the highlights of the day was when we were taken to a string of islands to the Eastern coast of Okinawa all connected by bridges. On one of the islands Hamahiga, we visited an utaki, a sacred place where one would pray to spirits for various things ranging from having a safe journey, to increasing the harvest for a season, to helping increase the chances of a woman getting pregnant. Women played a significant role in this aspect of Okinawan religion as often the chosen women alone, or uta would be able to visit these places. In the area around Shuri Castle in Naha, there was an utaki which eventually became a private sacred place for the King. Each time he would take a long journey he would stop there to pray. Throughout Okinawa and its surrounding islands you will find many utaki like this.

This utaki is a cave in a limestone cliff that looks so much like Guam, I swore for a moment I was lost in the Pagat area. Hamahiga, as I was told by many is considered to be a very sacred and mysterious place with many sacred places.

When you approach the utaki, whose name I unfortunately did not write down, you will notice immediately a long concrete staircase and two massive arches. The first is at the bottom of the steps, the second at the top. The utaki itself is no longer accessible by the public. A set of metal bars block entrance. Visitors bring shell pieces to lay on the limestone rocks next to the utaki.

You could feel the natural energy of the place as you walk up those steps and peer out at the mountains and forest surrounding the area. Although I couldn't see deep into the cave I imagined women coming here to offer prayers and commune with the spirits. As I was taking pictures, walking around the utaki cave entrance and into the jungle nearby I sometimes felt faint hints of some spiritual force tugging at me.

But the entire time I was there something felt amiss. It hit me the moment I was walking the trail and the stairs to the utaki first came into view. It was the arches, they didn't seem to fit. They were stone and aged looking, and so I don't mean that they were aesthetically out of place. They didn't fit religiously into the area. The arches were very reminiscent of the shinto religion of mainland Japan. They are gates known as torii that mark the entrance to a sacred place.

I was told that before there was just a jungle trail to this utaki, but after World War II a wealthy Okinawan living in Hawai'i had donated money to build the steps and the gates. It was a nice gesture to help preserve and honor such a sacred place. It definitely made the area more photogenic, but it still didn't quite fit. It added an extra layer of meaning, one which actually made things more complicated, by trying to make things look more natural. It was a quiet example of the erasure of Okinawa by the Japanese, one more example in more than a centuries of so many others. The occupation of Okinawa is not just physical with US bases and mainland Japanese interests politely dominating the island, it has since annexation in 1879 been cultural as well. With parts of Japanese culture not just being blended with Okinawan culture, but actually replacing them, taking over and engulfing them.

It reminded me of Robert Underwood's article "Red, Whitewash and Blue: Painting over the Chamorro Experience." In it he discusses the ways in which a site that you could consider sacred for Chamorros today, the Tayuyute' Ham Memorial in Malesso undergoes a similar transformation. The memorial was the first modern monument that Chamorros created for themselves, to celebrate themselves. The article was written in 1977 when Guam was somewhat different than today. Today there is a pride in being Chamorro and there is very little shame in celebrating it. Back them things were still transitioning into the identity politics of today. It was still not that great to be Chamorro, the language was still being strangled to death and decolonization was not just a dirty word, but a word never to be spoken or even uttered. Guam was littered with monuments and memorials that Chamorros made for others. The Tayuyute Ham Memorial was important because it was unique, a singular moment when Chamorros saw past the need to celebrate the US or everyone else and attempt to give commemorative and longstanding meaning to their experiences in and of themselves.

The point of Underwood's article though is that in the 20 + years since the memorial was built it has changed dramatically. The brown metal, bought, paid for and written by Chamorros is now surrounded every year by red, white and blue flags and streams. It is framed by US patriotism and in the eyes of some the initial Chamorro intent is lost, subsumed beneath a devotion to the US and celebration of its accomplishments in rescuing Chamorros.

In his article Underwood argues that this interpretation is overly simplistic and that there is far more at play in the hearts, minds and fiestas of Chamorros than what this superficial level would indicate. Underwood's argue is seminal in what we could call the development of "Chamorro Studies" and so I'm not taking direct issue with it here. I have written my own comments and critiques of "Red, Whitewash and Blue" elsewhere. But what struck me was the way in both the Tayuyute Ham Memorial and the Hamahiga Utaki, that the colonizer's presence didn't just seem to take over, but rather seemed to unfairly complete the space.

Without the arches and steps, the utaki wouldn't be a stereotypical mystical Asian space, and so the layering of Japanese elements over makes it feel more authentic even if it isn't. For Chamorros the drenching of their experiences in the red white and blue of American flags seems to natural. So many Chamorros in the military, so many bases on Guam, so much feeling of gratitude for "liberation" in World War II. Just as the US comes to save Guam, the Americanization of Chamorro things seems so natural, as if the Chamorro can't survive on its own but needs the US to complete it. Underwood's article makes a point similar to this, in that after World War II Chamorros lacked the symbols to represent their experiences in and of themselves, and so pragmatically sought to marry them to American patriotism in order to improve their position in the American empire.

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