On the edge in Okinawa: a postcard from occupied paradise island

Venetia Welby on the knife edge of writing about another’s culture

People gesture in front of US Futenma airbase during a demonstration in Ginowan on  Okinawa in 2010. Some 17,000 people took part in the protest. Photograph: Reuters/Kyodo

People gesture in front of US Futenma airbase during a demonstration in Ginowan on Okinawa in 2010. Some 17,000 people took part in the protest. Photograph: Reuters/Kyodo

 

When I first went to Okinawa in 2017, I was not prepared – as a westerner – for the reality of the political situation. I’d thought it would be a dream tropical island, “the Hawaii of Japan”, and a fascinating hybrid culture of Okinawans, Japanese and Americans. In fact it was a state-sanctioned bastion of colonial oppression, stuck in a time warp, hidden from the eyes of the world inside military exclusion zones and spin.

Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island, Okinawa.
Kabira Bay, Ishigaki Island, Okinawa.

On my first night in the capital, Naha, a drunk marine crashed a two-ton military truck into a local man, Hidemasa Taira, and killed him. The week after that, a US military aircraft dropped part of itself onto the roof of a nursery; six days later, a marine helicopter window fell onto the sports field of Daini Futenma Elementary School where 50 students were playing. Only one boy was hurt, a miraculous outcome. Others have not been so lucky.

This terrorism, I realised, is normal life for Okinawans, who live crowded around the 33 US military bases that take up the good, fertile, stolen land. Japan colonised the former Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, tried to erase its language, culture and identity and used it as a human shield in the second World War, in which a third of the civilian population perished. America occupied it in 1945 and never left, thanks to Tokyo’s duplicity. Together they systematically abuse the island and its people. Most recently, the US poisoned the water supply of 400, 000 Okinawans. Violent, sexual crimes against locals are rife, and the Status of Forces agreement means the perpetrators rarely have to face justice.

I saw all this first hand – I felt I had to write about it. One of the reasons I love writing fiction is to explore and understand what it is like to be someone else. I think that’s an important skill, as well as perhaps encouraging empathy in others. I had a good story, one that emerged powerfully from the island itself – an American woman trying to find her long-lost GI father there – and I also felt the need to draw to the attention of an English-speaking public to these secret areas of the world. But is this all part of white saviour syndrome?

I was afraid to write about another country’s culture. Authors are frequently denounced for it, and their motives and right to do such a thing are justifiably questioned. American Dirt outraged, a novel about Mexican migrants written by non-Mexican Jeanine Cummins, said to be exploitative “trauma porn” based on stereotypes, false assumptions and ignorance. The vilification of Cummins was a cautionary tale: write what you know.

Okinawan nationalists have condemned various American and Japanese writers for getting it wrong, too, for profiting from others’ pain, stealing cultural knowledge, stealing the limelight. If you want to help, help from the sidelines, is the message. This is not your story to tell.

Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa. Photograph: Issei Kato/ Reuters
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan on Okinawa. Photograph: Issei Kato/ Reuters

And yet, the following statements are both, I feel, true:

1. Too few in the West know about Okinawa. Anyone who has a voice should use it.

2. The voices of Okinawans need to be heard.

At best my novel is a signpost to those voices. And yet too often a white voice can obscure the truth, rather than direct towards those who keep it. Is it ever possible to act as a signpost for the authentic voices of an oppressed nation, not to steal that space? If so, how?

I didn’t know. So I tried various approaches. It seemed to me key to let Okinawa’s history and culture unfold through complex, authentic characters. I wrote about what I knew first… the experience of foreigners travelling through Okinawa, encountering the political situation for the first time. My protagonist Sol is American – because the bases are American – and I wanted to explore civilians’ ignorance of what is done in their name. I drew directly on my own experience as a white western woman coming face to face with the calamity of colonialism.

My Okinawan characters were more difficult, and I felt a greater obligation to present real life. I based them in part on the many people I talked to when I was there, and when I returned the following year. I learned some Japanese and some Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan) in order to converse more freely, though I’m still woefully inadequate. An Okinawan historian and political activist read my draft and generously offered feedback: one of the characters did not ring true. I rewrote the character.

Fiction must have its own integrity. It is a novel, set in the future, not a propaganda vehicle or a manifesto. However, much of what happens in Dreamtime has already happened or is happening right now. It’s an idea of where we might end up based on where we’ve been. It’s good to get a grip on where, exactly, that is. Misinformation can obscure and misdirect. It can turn attention away from those whose voices you seek to amplify. I did a lot of research. I immersed myself in the indigenous culture of the Ryukyu Islands, read reams of documents, articles and books on Ryukyuans’ history, myth, folklore and politics. I consulted Okinawans in person during my travels there, and online – and also talked to Americans.

Venetia Welby:
Venetia Welby: I learned a great deal about Okinawa but inevitably I’ll have made mistakes and ultimately, of course, I can never speak with the inside knowledge, experience and innateness as those who are of the islands.

Having been due to give me a tour of Camp Lester, the lieutenant I’d arranged it with suddenly went quiet. So I hung about in the American Village until some marines from Camp Foster took pity on me. Interviewing these military personnel, and spending time with them off base helped me to understand their mindset, motivation and backgrounds, and to see how the antagonists in Okinawa’s story are themselves pawns in the bigger political game: many of these young people are at the mercy of the Pentagon too.

There are many sides of every story and particularly of this multi-national little island beset by military violence, pollution and horror. I made the same journey as my characters, spending time in each location – including Tucson where the novel begins. I had a tutoring job in a desert rehab there, but that’s another story.

I learned a great deal about Okinawa but inevitably I’ll have made mistakes and ultimately, of course, I can never speak with the inside knowledge, experience and innateness as those who are of the islands. It’s vital to hear their stories, not obscure them – and I hope at least that Dreamtime alerts those who read it to the existence of this beautiful, unhappy place, where truer voices can be found.

As a British person I am a descendent of empire. Is there a hypocrisy in calling out the crimes of the secret American empire when I am myself, as a member of the dominant world culture, a survivor of those who have raped and smashed their way through everything in their path? Do good intentions mean anything at all?

Western society is engaged in a battle: wrestling with the morality of our historical icons, attempting to reconcile their actions with our values and what is done in our name, unseen. Sometimes it’s not possible. As the characters in Dreamtime discover, we must all face the idea that we live as the children of monsters. It is on this journey that I allowed the stories of my novel to unfold.

Dreamtime by Venetia Welby is available from Salt Publishing and all good bookshops.

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