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Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Study of Okinawa: No Cultural Sensitivity Toward Shamanism

I was going to wait until I had some fiction to blog about.  I shouldn't be overwhelming my readers with so much non-fiction.  Yet I do want to finally finish with my bloggable August reads.  I've consistently been a month behind on this blog and that irritates me.  I might as well get used to it, I suppose.

I had a roommate who clued me in about Okinawans having a separate culture.  In fact, that was what originally got me interested in minorities in Japan.  I've been meaning to read a book about Okinawa.  I now have ten pages of notes on Identity and Resistance in Okinawa by Matthew Allen  which I must distill into a cogent review.

I found this book on the bibliography of an essay on Okinawans in Japan's Minorities.  The first thing I learned is that Okinawa is the main island of an archipelago. The southern islands of this archipelago comprise Okinawa prefecture. The Northern islands are administratively known as Kageshima prefecture.   The original name for the entire archipelago is Ryukyu which was once an independent kingdom.  See Ryukyu Islands on Wikipedia .The author conducted his study on the island of Kumejima whose shape resembles the continent of Africa.  See map of Kumejima . You need to scroll down to the map and reduce the size slightly to see the shape of the entire island.  The island's name is Kume. The suffix "jima" means island in Japanese.  Under the Ryukyu kingdom Kume had two districts, Nakazato and Gushikawa.  These two districts were retained under Japanese rule until 2001 when they were combined.  This hadn't happened yet when Matthew Allen was on Kume.   He makes numerous references to these administrative districts, and the differences between them.

An interesting fact of Okinawa's history that I learned from this book is that the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded the Ryukyu archipelago in 1609 and established a base there for secret trade with China and other countries during the period when Japan was officially closed.  Since it was supposed to be a secret, a fictional facade of Ryukyan independence was maintained so that the Chinese wouldn't learn that they were really trading with Japanese.  It sounds like a sweet set up for the Satsuma clan.  They encouraged Chinese cultural institutions and suppressed native Ryukyan culture.   I assume that they wanted the Chinese to think that the Ryukyan kingdom was totally under their influence.    In 1872 the Ryukyu islands were officially annexed by Japan.

Although there were no WWII battles on Kume, there were people who were executed by the Japanese military after the war was over.  It was a situation of an officer not recognizing or accepting that Japan had surrendered. I am aware that this happened on other Pacific islands. This officer and those under his command continued to comport themselves as if the war wasn't over yet, and killed some Kume residents for cooperating with the American occupation. The man who brought the surrender documents to this commanding officer was executed along with his entire family. There was another entire family executed for eating American food.  A total of 20 people on Kume were killed by Japanese military right after the war. Matthew Allen tells us that in 1999 the Nakazato Board of Education sponsored a community workshop about this period.  Many expressed feelings of betrayal.  They had believed that they were under the protection of the Japanese military because they were citizens of Japan, yet they had been treated as if they were Japan's enemies.

On the main island of Okinawa, the situation was much worse.  Entire villages had been ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese military so that they couldn't be taken prisoner by the Americans.  By the end of the war, 90% of the structures on the island were destroyed by U.S. bombing, and the surviving  inhabitants had become refugees. On Kume only 20% of structures had been destroyed by U.S. bombing.

 Some might say that because Kume had suffered less during the war, they should have been able to put the events of WWII behind them by 1999.   Yet there was a simmering resentment against Japan on all the Ryukyan islands  because the Japanese authorities have taken the attitude that Ryukyans are inferior.

This is a longstanding Japanese prejudice. For example, in this book we learn that in 1895 it was decided that English wouldn't continue to be taught in the schools of Okinawa prefecture because Ryukyan children were deemed not smart enough to learn it.  In Naha, the capital of Okinawa on the main island, there was a student strike demanding that English be restored to the curriculum.  One student leader of this strike, Iha Fuyu, later became a well-known scholar.  He came to the conclusion that Ryukyans were really Japanese because there were so many similarities between their languages. For more about Iha Fuyu see Wikipedia on Iha Fuyu 

Although I was mainly impressed by this study, when I reached the chapter on shamanism I'm afraid that I had a problem with Matthew Allen.  His social scientist's neutrality doesn't really extend to religion.  This book's treatment of  religion on Kume is rife with confirmation bias.  This means he looks for evidence that there is no legitimacy in their religion and he finds it.  When he also finds evidence that a shaman really isn't just hallucinating, he ignores it.  He definitely buys into the psychiatric model that shamans are schizophrenics that need to be treated. I noticed that there is a psychiatrist on Okinawa mentioned in this book who incorporates shamanism in his practice.  He calls it "culturally sensitive psychiatry".  His name is Takaishi Toshihiro.  There are three books by him listed on Allen's bibliography.  Unfortunately for me, none are translated into English. I think that any anthropologist should choose to be "culturally sensitive" about shamanism. 

Okinawan shamans call themselves kaminchus. Allen devotes a chapter to a psychiatric nurse with the pseudonym of Hobomura who tries to become a kaminchu.  The reason why she fails is because she can't control her visions.  Hobomura discovered that psychiatric drugs  gave her even less control over them, and made her worse.  I  think that psychic shielding techniques would have helped her enormously.  Allen isn't willing to admit that her visions are genuine.  I found the incident of a patient's ghost appearing to her saying that she bled to death very convincing.  She and the doctor went to check on the patient afterward, and she discovered that her vision had been sadly accurate.  Allen still calls it a hallucination even though Hobomura wasn't the only one who saw the ghost.  Given that there was a witness to the ghost's appearance, I find Allen's attitude rather close-minded.  A truly neutral opinion about shamanism is that science doesn't understand what is happening here.

There is a great deal of interesting material in this book, but Allen's prejudice about shamanism lowers its value in my estimation.



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