Colonialism, Gender & Okinawa in Modern Japan


A review of Performing Embodied Histories: Colonialism, Gender, and Okinawa in Modern Japan, by Valerie Holshouser Barske. 

Divided into six chapters with an Epilogue and Appendix, Valerie Barske’s dissertation examines Okinawa’s postwar history, identity formation, and the politicization of culture and gender through the lens of Okinawan performance culture.

Providing a comprehensive historiography of both Japanese and English secondary sources, the first chapter emphasizes the methodological and theoretical dispositions of the dissertation. A hybridization of cultural history and historical anthropology, the dissertation’s post-colonial analytical framework challenges several orthodoxies. First, by combining archival research with embedded ethnography, where the researcher becomes an active participant, Barske asserts that a more nuanced understanding of Okinawa’s postwar social movements emerges. Taking issue with “objective” accounts based solely on archival research and an emphasis on a top-down political narrative, this dissertation offers a greater sense of agency and an improved understanding of Okinawan resistance and ethnic identity in all their deliberate subjectivity. Second, this approach highlights women’s central role in the anti-base movement and in promoting Okinawa’s pacifist message. Finally, with its “intellectual lineage” firmly rooted in post-colonial studies, the analysis of Okinawan performing arts uses a “semasiological framework for analyzing human movements and action sign systems” (p. 55) to show the extent of political protest and ethnic nationalism embedded in Okinawan cultural performances.

The second chapter covers Okinawa’s early modern and modern history, emphasizing Okinawa’s encounters with Japanese imperialism and challenging the orthodox view that Okinawa has always been an integral part of Japan. Analyzing Ryukyuan performance culture during Japan’s 1872-1945 period of rule, Barske shows how mainland authorities either censored or fully banned traditional performance because they were deemed too foreign and seditious. Japanese authorities imposed an aggressive assimilation program, an effort that found support among many Okinawan elite who equated assimilation with modernity. Despite Okinawans’ efforts to assimilate, Japan continued to view Okinawa as a primitive Other, as seen especially in the infamous 1902 Osaka exhibit depicting Okinawans in a racial hierarchy of Japanese colonial subjects. Yet Barske also highlights Japan’s contradictory understandings of Okinawa with analysis of ethnographers such as Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) who viewed Okinawa in a more positive fashion and argued for preserving Okinawa’s heritage. Such views represented a form of Japanese Orientalism where Okinawa was depicted nostalgically as a culture untainted by modernity.

The theme of colonization continues in Chapter 3 with examinations of how the US military replaced seventy years of Japanese rule by imposing a military occupation until 1972. While prewar Japanese rule tried to eradicate traditional performance, US officials pursued a policy of nation-building that promoted Ryukyuan performing arts, history, and heritage. American altruism, however, was not the motive for such Ryukyuanization, as military officials hoped to maintain control over the islands by promoting an identity gap with mainland Japan. To illustrate US colonial behavior, the chapter focuses on the 1953 film, Teahouse of the August Moon, which epitomized the Orientalist discourse found in US policies. Barkse argues that the film, based on a novel written by a US military officer stationed in Okinawa, represented Okinawans as the primitive and lazy Other in need of civilizing. The film’s racist undertones also revealed how the US feminized Okinawa, as the prominent role of a geisha reinforced existing Western stereotypes of an exotic and erotic Orient. The chapter concludes that Teahouse “is a collaborative effort between American and Japanese to produce a mocking, often degrading portrayal of Okinawans, a people colonized by both the US and Japan” (p. 166).

Switching from the theme of imperialism, Chapter 4 focuses on Okinawan agency during the US occupation. From the onset of the occupation, Okinawans used their performing arts as a means to resist military rule, to assert an anti-war sentiment, and to promote ethnic solidarity. Traditional dance in particular served as “cultural tools” to “grapple with past and present colonial realities” (p. 184). While the San Francisco Peace Treaty ended the occupation of Japan, the same treaty, with Japan’s support, allowed the US military to control Okinawa indefinitely. Okinawans’ frustrations over the US military takeover of Okinawan land for bases, the occupation’s inherent authoritarianism, and the separation from Japan led to massive resistance during the 1950s with calls for immediate reversion to Japan and just payment for land acquisition. Okinawan performing artists used their skills to add their voices in protest. A 1956 Eisa (a form of traditional Okinawan line dancing) competition held in Koza, Okinawa’s largest military camp town, became a site of contestation against US rule as the “intensification of the dancing… may be understood as an embodied engagement with the political realities of the Occupation in which many young Okinawans were disempowered and emasculated”  (p. 213). In addition, Okinawan artists performed acts that showed the innate cultural link between the Ryukyus and Japan, which, for the Reversion Movement, provided evidence of the occupation’s illegitimacy.

The final two chapters reflect the embedded and activist ethnography that delineates this scholarship from traditional archive-only research. Chapter 5 covers Kodama Kiyoko, an Okinawan performing artist, who consciously used culture and the performing arts to advocate a variety of political causes. After the war, Kodama founded the Okinawa Performing Arts Preservation Society. Performing traditional Okinawan dance in mainland Japan, Kodama and her fellow artists reminded audiences that they were “redefining traditional culture and cultural heritage in the reconstruction of postwar Japan” (p. 232). More importantly, they used culture as a potent political platform as the “preservation society reaffirmed Okinawa as part of Japan” (p. 231) in solidarity with the Okinawa reversion movement. While Kodama wanted to highlight Okinawa’s distinctive culture, she maintained that Okinawa’s folk traditions showed how “we are all Japanese, and all Japanese are the same” (p. 242). After Okinawa’s reversion, Kodama used performance to promote the idea that Okinawans, because of their horrific experience with war and US military occupation, were in a unique position to advocate for peace.

The final chapter brings Okinawa’s performance culture and social movements up to the present with an in-depth account of personal contacts with activist Ginoza Eiko and the Okinawa Women’s Association. Ginoza, a high school teacher, and other women activists use performance to promote a pacifist ideology and to critique the military base problem. After the rape of a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl by three US military personnel in 1995, Okinawa’s third wave of demonstrations confronted not only the military base industrial complex on Okinawa, but Tokyo’s complicity in maintaining this status quo for over fifty years. Ginoza and other women activists saw Okinawa’s performance culture as an effective means to promote an acute Okinawan identity, to reify Okinawa’s claim of possessing an intrinsic pacifist ethos, and to elevate women’s roles in the anti-base movement. The chapter ends with Ginoza’s 2005 group performance in New York to advocate for global peace during a time of US war preparation for the invasion of Iraq.

This dissertation is a welcome addition to the recent historiography on Okinawa, especially those works by Masamichi Inoue, Miyume Tanji, and Linda Isako Angst that combine ethnographic and historical analysis. All of these works have provided a much needed bottom-up and gendered perspective of Okinawa’s troubled modern experience.

David Tobaru Obermiller
History Department & Japanese Studies Program
Gustavus Adolphus College

Primary Sources

Interviews with Ginoza Eiko and Kodama Kiyoko
Edward Freimuth Collection, Okinawa Prefectural Archives, Haebaru, Okinawa
George H. Kerr Collection, Okinawa Prefectural Archives, Haebaru, Okinawa
Nagako Hateruma, Motofumi Hattori, and Harumi Morishita, Movement Dictionary of Okinawan Dance as a Digital Database of Asia-Pacific Dance Research (2001).

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2009. 357 pp. Primary Advisor: Karen L. Kelsky.


Image: Esai troupe. Photograph by Kasanui, Wikimedia Commons.

  1. I am so honored to be reviewed by someone with such personal and professional commitment to Okinawan studies. Dissertation Reviews.Org serves a crucial function in the field of Asian Studies. Thank you to everyone especially David Obermiller and Dennis Frost for their hard work and dedication.
    In Uchinaguchi, “nifee deebiiru.”

  2. Dear Masae, You can find the dissertation on UMI ProQuest or you can contact the author of the dissertation, Valerie Barske, directly. With best wishes, Leon Rocha from Dissertation Reviews.

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