Saturday, October 31, 2015

Champions of Ideology

Last week I visited the Yoko Gushiken museum in Ishigaki island. It was an interesting moment because of the way it connected to the many discussions of the week relating to decolonization, nationalism and activism. Gushiken is a celebrity in Japan and in the international world of boxing. He was the WBA Flyweight Champion for five years, with a record of 23-1, 15 wins by KO. Although he came from the small island of Ishigaki he fought in rings around the world. In a two-story house on the edge of the tourist area of Ishigaki City, you will find his museum. It has his trophies, images of him and a mock practice ring with highlights from his matches playing on a TV nearby. Throughout the museum was images of eagles, as the eagle is an important animal to Ishigaki Island and it was his symbol that he put on his uniform and on his promotional materials. You might wonder what a boxer like Gushiken might have to do with the conference I was attending, where Okinawan Independence was the main subject. People often imagine sports to be where real things go to die, as a mere distraction, something which confuses people, allows them to channel their energy into something trivial and pointless as opposed to challenging the oppressive social orders of the day. While this is true, there is nonetheless something to be said of larger than life figures such as Gushiken, and since he is considered to be an Okinawan folk hero, it was very relevant.

In discussions of independence or decolonization the issue naturally came up of how to get people engaged, how to open their eyes, how to help them see things differently so they don’t resist and don’t become so fearful when the idea is mentioned. Several activists discussed how when they interact with people, when the topic is broached people become so resistant, they are suddenly so dismissive of anything and everything you say. Someone who you have known your whole life and who have trusted you on so many other matters, will suddenly become defensive and suspicious, calling into question your motives, your intelligence. Why is it that if the idea is raised, all of a sudden you lose your friends.

Tåya’ ga’chong-ña i ume’essalao. They say tåya’ guma’ para i ablådot, but often times it feels as if tåya’ guma’ para i activist. A person who takes on a critical position in life often times feels without friends, without allies, as if the burden of truth in your society has fallen on your shoulders alone. What can fuel even more frustration is the way in which people don’t heed you, listen to you, take what you say seriously, but will believe what their priest says, what some Governor says, some idiot on television. People won’t believe what you say, but it seems like a host of other, less serious, less intelligent souls might somehow have more effectiveness in their speech. They may have some credibility which you lack or can’t seem to gain.

At dinner one night I asked everyone what the difference is between Yoko Gushiken and a decolonization activist. Why is it that if one person says something while standing in front of Camp Schwab or Takae or Futenma it would be treated differently by Okinawans than if it was said by someone like like Yoko Gushiken. The most obvious answer is that people would believe or accept the speech of one over the other because one is more famous. Mås matungo’ si Fulånu kinu si Fulåna. This is generally how the media works, but not necessarily how people in general work. If your average activist proclaims independence for Okinawa versus a celebrity such as Yoko, it is not so much that one is better known and therefore more trustworthy (although advertising is based largely on that idea), it is what one represents over the other.

The activist is a subject who is attempting to speak directly to an issue. The speech is complicated as is all speech, but it is interpreted as being blunt, as speaking directly to the issue. It may not at all actually. That is what is always hysterical about the decontextualized way in which activist discourse is decoded, is that it often accepts the fact that it is spoken directly or bluntly or forcefully or yelled loudly as being the key for its translation. An activist as a result is often seen as being too close to truth, too close to the issue for people to accept. There is too much of the other involved in accepting what they say, not enough of the self. It feels like truth is arriving at your doorstop by virtue of someone else being smarter, knowing more, being more serious about the world, just in so many ways being better. The self contracts and rejects it primarily because of the notion that this truth isn’t what you have arrived at, this truth comes via someone else’s intelligence or their benevolence. This is why psychological strategies which reverse the form or attempt to manipulate people by seeing their desire reflected and reversed can be so successful. People don’t want to feel like someone knows more then them, even if that is clearly true. They resist out of a stubborn selfishness, they try to take what you offer and reject it or distort it, morph it into something that they can take credit for, feel as if it really was theirs all along.

But returning to the boxer Yoko Gushiken, the difference is the symbolism involved. Very few people are famous just because they are famous, although many historical figures or important concepts illustrate that simple truth. Everyone knows this because everyone knows this. People may not know much about it, but it is known that everyone knows it. If Yoko Gushiken speaks on independence or decolonization for Okinawa, his speech may be taken more seriously because he is not interpreted as an activist. He is someone outside of that. He is not normal or average though, his power comes from his social meaning and what has been historically poured into that in order to sustain his public identity.

At the museum in Ishigaki there was a man from Naha who has long been a fan of Yoko Gushiken. He remarked on how back in the day when Yoko would fight everything in Naha would stop. People would take off work, businesses would close, buses wouldn’t run. Because of the pride that he represented in coming from a small island in the Ryukyu peninsula people saw so much more in him than just being good at hitting another person. The social ties to a figure like Gushiken is filled with those sorts of memories and moments. Time shared with friends while watching. Recounting stories of fights with your family. Feeling a growing and sweeping pride for your island(s) when he is mentioned. He symbolizes so much more to people than your average activist, and so much of who he has become is tied to empowering ideas which might make people listen or consider what he says more. An activist appears to be simple and direct, but when someone else, for whom so much cultural energy is invested speaks up it can reach a far greater audience.

The ultimate point of this conversation was the issue of culture in political movements. Culture is not just practices and traditions of which you would present to a waiting anthropologist. It is not just dance or religion, but can refer to the day to day forms of life that keep us busy, keep us entertained and give us a quotidian sense of meaning. Speech which is explicitly political will always fall short, your attempts to reach people have to have a cultural dimension as well, something which will make it relevant to the majority of moments of peoples lives. 

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