Friday, April 11, 2014

Ryukyuans (Okinawa) and the Question of Mauli

When people ask me about my trip to Okinawa during Christmas 2002, I usually say "Okinawa is the Hawaii of Japan." I spent a week there in college hanging out with friends at a luxury beach-side hotel and checking out the WWII monuments, all the while vaguely aware of an overwhelming US military presence and a bouncy local "dialect" that made it all but impossible to get directions from anyone who wasn't the hotel concierge.

Okinawa is part of a group of islands formally known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. In 1879, during the Meiji Restoration (aka the events leading up to 'crazy imperialist Japan circa 1930'), the Ryukyu islands were formally annexed by Japan and the all-too-familiar assimilation story began. Loss of traditional culture, suppression of native language, indoctrination via compulsory education, etc. The the goal of the Meiji goverment was to make Okinawans believe they were also Yamato (ethnically and culturally Japanese). And where they handed out Japanese names and passports, they curiously would not allow Ryukyuans to hold government office. The message was clear "you are one of us, but you are not equal to go sign up for the military and pay your taxes."

photo cred to

Modern day Japan doesn't recognize Ryukyuans as indigenous people, despite recommendation from the UN and various other third-party groups. The Okinawan language (and the other languages spoken in Ryukyu) is regarded as a "dialect" of Japanese even though they aren't mutually intelligible.

...wait, can you repeat that?

Yep. I said the Japanese government considers Okinawan language a dialect of Japanese even though they are only vaguely similar and nobody who speaks Japanese can understand a damn thing someone speaking Okinawan is saying. I can attest to the truth of this because of an experience I had trying to find the nearest Catholic church on Christmas Eve (sidenote: the church was in a barn, we were a half hour late, and it was a way cool service).

Clearly (at least to me) the classification of Okinawan as a dialect is purely socio-economical. The assimilation of Ryukyuans was motivated by politics and economics leading up to the global disaster that was the Empire of Japan. And it continues to this day because of Japan-US military interests. Unfortunately, Ryukyuan Indigenous Rights Activists have their hands so full with land rights, resource access, and anti-nuclear issues that there is scare time left for language revitalization.

Which leads me to the question of mauli. Hawaiians define mauli as "the unique life force which is cultivated by, emanates from, and distinguishes a person who self-identifies as [a Hawaiian]"(APL) How do we distinguish one group of people as being unique from another, especially when there are powerful ulterior motives for assimilation? What are the benefits of preserving mauli? When we look at the world today, with common rhetoric supporting "global that-and-that" or "internationalism", how do we reconcile that with mauli and the basic human rights of indigenous peoples?


  1. Well written, informative and thought provoking. With regard to mauli, I hope in your next piece we hear about ideas for preserving cultural heritage while at the same time cultivating a global culture in which the common humanity of all is sacred. P.S. I journal on FB sometimes but always keep it private, I wrote something recently that pertains to this and will give you access to it :)

  2. Actually, it be interesting if people thought of cultures more like spheres of their being? Inner most sphere is indigenous culture, your heritage. Second your country you currently live in. And third global common humanity.This hypothetical is assuming, of course, that all cultures in question are ethically sound and not too incongruent . Hmmmmmm, no small thought...This would be an excellent discussion over wine!

  3. Thinking of cultures in terms of spheres would be helpful considering how complex the issue of identity truly is. In fact, many Ryukyuan do see themselves as Japanese and who am I to say "no, you are something else" when they as individuals are comfortable identifying as such (like how many Hawaiians are perfectly happy to be considered Americans). Though Iʻve always found there to be at least some level of duality - even if indigenous peoples are alright with assimilating into a dominant culture, because that culture doesnʻt have their best interest in mind the resulting changes arenʻt always positive (for example, Hawaiians have access to awesome American public education...but they are currently on the less awesome end of the achievement gap). If we think of mauli as a useful tool that can cultivate a sense of self and purpose in an individual, then we should be wary of any system that seeks to undermine or eradicate it - even if those people are willing to accept it. Wine time!

  4. Mauli as a way of cultivating positive self identity. This actually could researched , I think... Looking at the two concepts we've discussed at various times (displaced people in a culture being lost and the idea of cultural trauma radiating through the generations) I will bet we could test how priming people with a discussion of what mauli is and what it could mean for them would effect their answers on certain measures. Or, it could be a more long lasting study.... we should do research together. Both being in graduate school and all ;) I am dead serious, btw.