Saturday, May 19, 2012

Occupied Okinawa #8: Naming Nationalism

Naming is necessary in life, but there is always a violence that accompanies is.

When you name something you cut it off from something. You give it an identity and also take away a multitude of other possible identities at the same time.

The most fundamental way in which we can feel this is through the simple assertion of “I.”

To speak, you must presuppose a self who can speak, from which the thoughts, the discourse, the words, the responsibility can originate. But when you do so, you create a barrier that implicitly disconnects you from the world. Language has the interesting quality of both making you feel part of something, but alienating you at the same time. When you speak, you reach out into the word and try to make sense of the person next to you, the things you see around you, but as you, you cannot help but feel as if you actually have no control over things. Language is a terrible lover. He or she can make you feel as if you are truly loved and he or she only serves you and will never leave you, but at any moment can turn on you. The crafting of your language does not determine how it will be interpreted, does not structure its potential meaning. Remember the saying that when the government tells you to calm down and not to panic, it is probably a good time to panic. You have membership in a collective that is language, but not ownership.

To assert yourself, to say “I” means to be alone. It means to accept that you are not connected to those around you, since your connection to them requires an act in other to tether you together.

Think of all the levels in which you identify yourself. All the ways that you connect and disconnect yourself from people, communities, cultures, subcultures, parts of the world. You are yourself, part of your family, part of a village a city, a country, a world. You are also part of subcultures, groups of people who share certain interests, priorities and thus you may sometimes speak on behalf of them. Then there are those you connect yourself to morally. Those who support abortion rights, those who are for the death penalty, those who are pro-war, anti-war.

Even if you argue from the position of blank humanity and attempt to include yourself with as many people as possible, you still exclude some. After all, how many people’s articulations of global humanity today exclude those from countries such as North Korea, Iran, Cuba and a few other places?

In Okinawa this trip these politics of belonging have manifested in an interesting way. Part of the conversation has always been the disconnect between Okinawa and Japan. People have shared stories about discrimination that Okinawa has received. Some of these stories were personal, about interactions they’ve had with Japanese people. Others were set at a much larger level about the way Japanese corporations and the central government treat the island. A common story for older Okinawans was how they reacted when their Japanification proved to be fake or tenuous. The Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed in 1879, but already subverted centuries earlier, and in order to overcome that seizure Japan promoted a Japanese identity for the people of the islands which met with some success. The problem, like so many colonial relationships is that while it appears to be symmetrical and equal, it is never actually supposed to be. They may tell you that you are one, that you are the same as them, but it’s not really true. While it may feel true in some contexts on a larger scale there is a difference that defines you and defines you as inferior or of a lower class.

Okinawans who accepted this gesture of colonial inclusion eventually realized its hollowness when they would interact with mainland Japanese people and find that even if they spoke the same language, even if they looked kind of the same and they were supposed to be the same, the Japanese would not accept a sameness, but always feel compelled to enjoy a feeling of superior difference. One Okinawan shared with me his experiences attending college in mainland Japan. He had grown up in an outer Okinawan island thinking he was Japanese. When he went to Tokyo however, everywhere he went people told him he was different. The way he spoke Japanese hurt their ears. The way he looked was funny. Even the hair on his arms made him seem like a barbarian to them and certainly not Japanese.

This discrimination is one of the reasons I am on this trip, it is because for some, the colonial difference is so strong that it demands not just a band-aid here or there, but it requires that you resolve this problem through separation. If they won’t treat us fairly and have invested so much time and energy in treating us differently and making us feel as if we are different, then who are we to want sameness or inclusion, when it is clear that they only accept us in a inferior capacity? To continue to wait for it or crave it would just be stupid.

There has always been a distinct cultural identity for Okinawans, despite Japanese attempts to stifle it. The political identity is growing as well and the anti-base movement has definitely helped give this shape and form. But as this movement is emerging another question of belonging arises as well. This movement for Okinawa places Okinawa at the center of its articulations, but what is encompassed in “Okinawa?” Clearly Okinawa does not include Japan, but does it include anything else other than the island of Okinawa itself?

What most people forget is that Okinawa is surrounded by hundreds of islands, with thousands of people on them. Some of these islands are used as training facilities by the military and so they are not exempted from the base issue. Also the waterspace around some of these islands is closed to the public and used for military training exercises. So while many say “Okinawa” are they including these other islands?

Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor at Ryukyu University, who helped organize this trip states that he prefers to use “Ryukyu” when speaking about Okinawa in order to make clear that he is not only including the mainland, but all islands in his assertion of what should be counted as “Okinawa.” For some however, even this broader way of asserting an Okinawan identity presents problems. The Ryukyu Kingdom, prior to annexation, was built upon a hierarchy with Okinawa at the top and the surrounding islands existing in a subservient relationship to it. One man who attended the symposium at Okinawa International University was very forceful in criticizing the idea of Okinawan Independence because of these differences between islands. Coming from what we might call a “lower” island, he did not want to be dominated by Okinawa which is so close, but would rather be dominated by Japan which is so far and also dominates Okinawa as well. Part of this is linguistic, as the Okinawan language has several island dialects and so one person challenged everyone at the forum to think of which version of the Okinawan language will be considered to be the “Okinawan language?” He was certain it would not be the dialects from any of the other islands.

This issue has always been in the background, but it is not one that can never be overcome. I am looking forward to hearing more from the activists and academics that I’ve met, as to how they plan to rearticulate Okinawa to include more than just those who live in the main island.

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