Threads of Okinawan History

By Stinchecum, Amanda Mayer | Natural History, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Threads of Okinawan History


Stinchecum, Amanda Mayer, Natural History


Three weavers interpret their region's heritage.

Stretching from the island of Kyushu south-- west to Taiwan, the Ryukyu archipelago consists of about two hundred islands, some volcanic, the rest formations of coral. The majority make up Japan's southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. Typhoons regularly pummel this sub-- tropical region, impartially buffeting old wooden houses and new buildings of stucco, glass, and poured concrete. Rain and salt spray drench sugarcane fields, rice paddies, jungle, and city streets. The soil is generally thin and poor, and on many islands the water table is too low for wet rice cultivation. More than 90 percent of the more than 1.3 million inhabitants are concentrated on the main island (also called Okinawa). Relying principally on income from US. military bases, government subsidies, and tourism, the prefecture is Japan's poorest. But the women boast the highest average life expectancy in the nation and the world.

During World War II, Allied bombing of the main island, culminating in the 1945 invasion of Okinawa, reduced the prefecture's capital city of Naha to rubble and destroyed most of the smaller towns and villages. An estimated 150,000 civilians died. Twenty-seven years of US. occupation followed before the territory reverted to Japanese sovereignty. Even now, some 25,000 American military personnel, along with their dependents, live and being among the most serious. Accidents that have resulted from military maneuvers-including 39 air crashes since 1972-are another cause of outrage.

Although Okinawans have not turned to the kind of violent nationalism that has arisen among some ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, or Africa, they do assert their own identity, distinct from that of mainland Japan. Linguists recognize five separate languages within the archipelago, related to but different from Japanese. The indigenous religion, presided over primarily by women, incorporates elements of shamanism and animism. Aspects of household and village organization (particularly the prominent role played by women), together with Okinawan music, dance, literature, architecture, ceramics, textiles, and food, form a multifaceted and fluid but unique heritage. Among these, cloth and clothing in particular have come to embody Okinawan ethnicity, both for the people of the islands and for others beyond their coastal reefs.

Records of local textiles go back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when China extended its cultural and economic hegemony to the Ryukyu Islands, legitimating three kings of the main island in exchange for their submission to the Ming emperor. In 1372 the first Ryukyuan emissaries reached Nanjing, where they presented their tribute payment of local products: sulfur, horses, and ramie cloth, a fabric woven from the bast fibers of an indigenous plant in the nettle family.

Under this benign arrangement, the kingdom of Ryukyu (unified in 1429 under the court at Shuri, now part of the city of Naha) became a thriving entrepot for trade between Japan, Korea, China, Siam, Sumatra, Malacca, and other Asian states. But in 1609, forces from Satsuma, a Japanese feudal domain in southern Kyushu, invaded the islands and took the king hostage. Ryukyu's autonomy survived in name only. Two years later, Satsuma demanded its own annual tribute, including some 75,000 bushels of rice and 19,000 rolls of cloth (each roll was about thirteen yards long and sixteen inches wide enough to make one kimono). Sixteen thousand of these rolls were ramie; the remaining 3,000 were basho, fu, made of fibers taken from the leafstalks of the ito basho, or fiber banana plant, a relative of the edible banana. These crisp, breathable fabrics are highly valued even today for kimonos worn during Japan's hot, humid summers.

To meet Satsuma's demands, the Shuri monarchy levied taxes on the Ryukyuan people. Most of these taxes were payable in grain. But on Kume Island (west of the main island) and in the Outer Islands (the island groups of Miyako and Yaeyama, at the southwestern end of the archipelago), these took the form of a poll tax. …

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