I am writing this on February 16th, 2014, in Naha, Okinawa, though this post will not be published until May (EDIT: July).
So, what represents Okinawan/Ryukyu culture? Karate? Awamori liquor? Sanshin music? Goya (bittermelon)? Shisa lions? Yes … these are outward symbols.
I spent 7 hours the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. I feel like I just went through a crash course in Okinawa-gaku (Okinawan studies), and my head is swimming with historical, geographic, ｓcientific, archeological, and cultural facts about the Ryukyu islands. Yesterday, I visited Shuri castle, which has a mass of detail about the Ryukyu royalty.
And yet, all of this I feel misses an important facet of Ryukyu culture – which I did manage to get a glimpse of in the Shuri District.
I ran into an American who has been living in the Shuri district for four months. He`s married to a woman born and raised in Shuri, and all of his neighbors know everything. As he put it “They know what’s in my mail” (the same mail carrier has been working on that street for 20 years, and he talks to everyone). Everybody knows everyone else, and they are all a part of a close-knit community.
One of the most touristy islands in the archipelago is Taketomi, mainly because of its well-preserved traditional village in a relatively convenient location. The top tourist activity is riding around in a ox-driven cart. I of course refused to do this because I am against animal exploitation. However, I also noticed many signs around the village protesting against the ox-cart tours. My Japanese is not good enough to understand their grievances, but they are angry enough to put signs up all around the village complaining about the company which runs the tours, and I noticed many different organizations signed the signs, including the Citizen’s Hall and the local PTA.
Speaking of the PTA, even though Taketomi has less than 500 residents, it has a school, and … I saw at least ten schoolchildren, which would be quite high in rural Japan. Well, the Ryukyu islands are not rural Japan … the American in Shuri commented that Okinawa has a much higher birthrate than Japan, and that while Japan’s population is in decline, Okinawa is experiencing a population boom.
And why is Taketomi’s village so well-preserved? Because the residents decided collectively that they wanted to preserve their traditional way of live, and saw to it that their coral-sand roads would not be covered with asphalt.
I think this is the single most noteworthy feature of Ryukyu culture. People cultivate close personal relationships and work cohesively together as communities, forming citizen groups, etc. I had read before that one reason Okinawan people live so long is that they develop this tight set of meaningful social relationships – which also turns also to be a force to preserve a village, take down the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands, among other civil acts.
This is something which is not mentioned in the museum exhibits or tourist brochures.
EDIT: After writing this post, I found a tourist brochure with this sentence in a section called “Island of Longevity”:
“If you want to live long and well, eat healthy foods used for Okinawan dishes, exercise effectively, slow down to Okinawa time and get the ‘yuimaru spirit’ by weaving a supportive web of friends and family.”
So I guess there is a tourist brochure which mentions the dense personal relationships of Ryukyu people, though it does not mention the connection between the ‘yuimaru spirit’ and, say, organizing the reversion movement.
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