2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Kalamazoo College

The Role of Okinawan Identity in the Anti-base Protests

Mentor: Dennis Frost, Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences
Students: Dalbyeol Bae, Hannah Berger, Emerson Brown, and Frank Meyer


Group photo following afternoon conversations with second-year students from Prof. Tokuyama Kiyomi’s English class at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan.

Project Abstract

This project examined contemporary Okinawan identity and its relationship to the current anti-base protests by examining four aspects of Okinawan culture and society. We examined (1) the contemporary and traditional music scene in Okinawa and how it relates to the protests; (2) the economic impacts of the U.S. military bases on Okinawan communities; (3) manifestations of collective memory of the Battle of Okinawa and how it has become a defining element of Okinawan identity; and (4) history education in Okinawa and the feelings of Okinawan college students toward the education that they received in secondary school. This research provided an excellent opportunity to consider Okinawa in the context of nationalistic historical revisionism that is prevalent in East Asia. Given recent events in Okinawa, including ongoing protests against the construction of new American military facilities and several disturbing crimes committed by individuals associated with the U.S. military in Okinawa, our research involved direct observations of several protests at multiple sites, interviews with activists, and regular interactions with a number of journalists, all of which helped us enhance our intercultural communication and observational skills. Our project also included repeated exchanges and discussions with professors, undergraduates, and graduate students from the University of the Ryukyus and Okinawa International University, as well as home visits, conversations, and dinners with several individuals we met during our stay. Our first-hand experiences at museums, historical sites, base towns, and war-related monuments were complemented by attendance at the annual prefectural Irei no Hi memorial day service and participation in a local annual memorial ceremony for victims of the 1959 military aircraft crash at Miyamori Elementary School. Our final product will include a collective essay documenting our experience in Okinawa and a multimedia gallery held in conjunction with Kalamazoo’s monthly art show in order to foster greater awareness about contemporary Okinawa.

Group photo from our meeting with Okinawa Times journalist Shimabukuro Shinsaku at the Okinawa Times Building in Naha, Okinawa, Japan.

Dalbyeol Bae

This summer, I participated in a research project in Okinawa with my teammates and mentor. Our common research theme explored how the identity of Okinawans is related to the protests against the U.S. military bases on the islands. Each of us had an individual research focus, and I looked at the presence of Okinawan history in education curriculums. Through interactions with local people and observations of major protests, I acquired new knowledge and insights on Okinawa.

The current central issue in Okinawa is the existence of the U.S. military bases and resistance coming from the local people. The bases have created various problems such as base-dependent economies, pollution, rapes, and even murders of Okinawan civilians. Through our observations we learned that the older Okinawan generations who directly experienced the Battle of Okinawa or were under the harsh U.S. regime during the post-war period tend to participate more actively in the protests against the bases.

Our interactions with the Okinawan local people gave me many opportunities to learn about Okinawan culture and to carry out further research on my individual topic. In particular, discussions with a wide variety of students from two different universities helped me realize that the history of Okinawa is nearly absent from the mainstream history education in Japan. 

During the project, I also had a chance to look at some of the colonial legacies of Korea by comparing the similar social structures of Korea and Japan. My Japanese improved a lot as I spent more time with the local people. Through visiting various memorial sites, I became curious about how Okinawan PTSD has been expressed in positive and negative ways in society and have been inspired to research these issues further in graduate school and as a psychologist.

We are currently planning to have an exhibition at the local Art Hop next spring to display pictures of protests and also beautiful nature scenes of Okinawa.  We also will share various local newspapers, pamphlets, and books that we acquired. We will also edit videos that we took during the project and share them to promote greater familiarity with the present situation in Okinawa.

Group photo commemorating dinner and conversations with Prof. Tokuyama Kiyomi’s English circle, including musician Shimoji Isamu at Shimoji’s house in Urasoe, Okinawa, Japan.

Hannah Berger

My experience in Okinawa, Japan was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. The issue we delved into most intensely was the impact of the U.S. military on Okinawan people and culture. I ended up focusing my study on the Battle of Okinawa, and the collective memory surrounding it. To gain background knowledge, we visited several memorials and museums dedicated to the battle and received a private lecture on the topic from a retired professor. However, my research would have been woefully incomplete without the perspective, stories, and experiences of Okinawan people that were shared with me. In that respect, I could not have asked for a more generous and helpful group of people to work with. The many students, professors, protestors, and journalists we interacted with willingly told me many stories about their own or their families’ experiences with the Battle of Okinawa and the impact it had on them. Many Okinawan people went well out of their way to help us, whether it was through connecting us to other people, having us over for dinner, giving us rides, or simply giving their time.

I gained several skills that will help me in my future academic and professional career during this experience. Grant writing, conducting independent research in a foreign country, and bettering my ability to communicate and make connections across cultural and linguistic barriers are skills that will continue to serve me well beyond this summer.

We gathered material such as signage, photos, and videos while in Okinawa to prepare for our exhibit that will be showcased in Kalamazoo during spring 2017. While there is still a lot of work to do, I believe that an exhibit is the best way to reach as many people as possible, and help illustrate connections between Kalamazoo and Okinawa, even though there isn’t necessarily an obvious link. I also think sharing Okinawan stories and perspectives with as many people as possible is a small way of repaying the people we worked with for all they did for us.

Group photo following a home-made dinner, dance performance, and conversations at the home of Ginoza Eiko in Uruma, Okinawa, Japan. Members of the Ginoza family, a classically trained, professional dancer, a visiting scholar from the University of the Ryukyus, and Ryukyu Shimpo journalist Shimabukuro Sadaharu also joined us for the evening.

Emerson Brown

An astounding 74% of American bases that Japan houses are located in Okinawa, despite the fact that it makes up less than 1% of Japan’s land mass. Such a high concentration of bases on such a small island can lead to turmoil, which we learned first-hand by hearing about the multiple drunk-driving accidents that occurred while we were on the island, despite the fact that United States servicemen weren’t supposed to be drinking at the time. While in Okinawa, we met with countless locals, including several groups of college students, whose activities or interests related to our research in some way. All of the professors we met with were excited that we were interested in Okinawan identity and the peace movements, and they were happy to meet with us and share their opinions and information on our research topics. Of particular interest to me was Professor Tomochi Masaki, a leading figure in the Ryukyuan (or Lew Chewan) Independence Movement who spoke with us about the economic impact of the bases and the direct economic benefit from the land that would be returned from the various bases.

Preparing and participating in the trip to Okinawa has also had a profound impact on my academic and professional development. Through helping write the grant proposal for this trip, I developed a better sense of how to work as a group to craft material in a professional manner for a particular audience, something that will be extremely useful in the world of business. In Okinawa we refined many skills that will be valuable to our professional careers, namely communicating across cultural and linguistic barriers. Having finished the fieldwork in Okinawa and having collected many resources while on the island, the major work that remains is to prepare our multi-media gallery to share our experiences and highlight what we learned while in Okinawa.

Photo following an evening of discussions with Prof. Miyahira Katsuyuki and graduate students in various fields of anthropology at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan.

Franklin Meyer

My research on anti-base protest music in Okinawa allowed me to engage with networks of academics, artists, and journalists, while developing professional skills in multi-cultural communication. This was not the original focus of my research, but in the process of finding connections to various musicians, I discovered that the Okinawan community relies on word-of-mouth and personal connections to fuel the civic spirit behind the anti-base movement. The U.S. military presence in Okinawa impacts the daily life of Okinawan people, changing the issue from an abstract political topic into a part of lived experience. This was one of the most important realizations from my research in Okinawa. While I enjoy theory and discussion on political issues, the people experiencing hardship and oppression do not have the luxury to engage with their situation from a distance. Behind every headline there are entire communities dealing with its implications, and this is certainly true in Okinawa.

It will be challenging to share realizations like this one, but our current plans present excellent opportunities for creativity and collaboration. We aim to write an article for the Asia-Pacific Journal, an academic publication that has shown interest in the Okinawan anti-base movement. Published work on my résumé will demonstrate my writing ability to future employees. In the spring, our group will create an exhibit in which we share music, photos, and interviews we collected in Okinawa. This exhibit will require organization, teamwork, and creativity as we integrate our four topics into a single exhibit.

In Okinawa, we developed planning and improvisational skills, as we began each day by planning who we would meet, then integrated sudden opportunities into our schedule. On three different occasions, journalists interviewed our group, and in each case we had to represent our country, our college, and ourselves. In heated situations, such as the rally held after the murder of an Okinawan woman by a U.S. military member, I expressed sympathy while considering how the politically biased newspapers would construe my interview. This ability to understand the ambitions of different parties and how I could best navigate them will be of service to me in the future as I conduct job interviews or interact with others on behalf of my employer.