Friday, December 30, 2011

Joy Kogawa's "Three Deities": Okinawa's history & culture of peace

Japanese Canadian author Joy Kogawa has long been a supporter of the Okinawan democracy and peace movement. Her brother, Reverend Timothy Nakayama, an Episcopalian minister, served in Okinawa after his retirement. Kogawa's former husband is an Okinawan Canadian whose family lost their home because of U.S. military seizure.

(Joy Kogawa and Reverend Timothy Nakayama.
Photo: Todd Wong, GungHaggisFatChoy

This excerpt from 'Three Deities," a speech Joy Kogawa gave in Stockholm in 2002 illuminates the profound meaning of the Okinawan culture of peace and examines its threat to the primitive forces of violence:
My brother, a retired Episcopalian priest, was in Okinawa for a few years in the 90’s. He told me that in 1815, Captain Basil Hall of the British navy steamed into Naha, Okinawa and was amazed at what he found. The story goes, that on his way back to England, he dropped in to the island of St. Helena and had a chat with Napoleon.

“I have been to an island of peace,” the captain reported. “The island has no soldiers and no weapons.”

“No weapons? Oh, but there must be a few swords around,” Napoleon remarked.

“No. Even the swords have been embargoed by the king.”

Napoleon, we’re told, was astonished. “No soldiers, no weapons, no swords! It must be heaven.”

A unique culture of peace had developed in one tiny part of our warring planet. We might well wonder about the spiritual heritage of such a people. Today they boast not just the longest living humans in the world – the number of centenarians per 100,000 is six times that of the U.S. – but the world’s longest disability free life expectancy.

According to The Okinawa Program by Dr. Bradley Willcox, Dr. Craig Willcox and Dr. Makoto Suzuki, Okinawan society “… reflects a cultural cosmology where the female embodies and transmits sacred forces (shiji). Most Okinawan villages still have “divine priestesses,” called noro or nuru, whose job it is to commune with the gods and ancestors and serve as spiritual advisers. In fact, until the late nineteenth century, the king’s well-being and success as ruler depended on the spiritual sustenance granted by the high priestess (kikoe ogimi), who was of equivalent social standing. This is a unique cultural phenomenon. Although women act as religious functionaries in other societies, there is no other modern society in the world where women hold title as the main providers of religious services.”

When Japan, that once warring nation, took over the kingdom, there was an entirely bloodless coup. No soldiers were found to help later with the invasion of Korea. A disobedient people, Japan concluded. A kingdom without soldiers was clearly impossible. Okinawa, with its history of peace, must surely have had a culture as close to heaven as this planet has managed. And perhaps therefore a special target for the forces of hate.

On Easter day in 1945, on the day of triumph for the Prince of Peace, war came to the people of peace. The battle of Okinawa was the biggest land battle of history to that point. In twelve weeks, in eighty-four days, 234,000 people died, more than the people killed in August in the two atomic bombings.

My brother was in Okinawa in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the battle. Beginning at Easter, and for twelve weeks after, with the pastoral candle lit, a breathtaking action of speech took place. For two hours at noon and two hours at night, the dead were recalled and their names read. These were not just prayers for the Okinawan victims -- parents, grandparents, infants, schoolchildren, the familiar members of the community. The embracing in prayer included Japanese and American soldiers, those who had brought this disaster upon the most gentle of peoples. Here was mercy quietly demonstrated. It did not make headline news. But the Prince of Peace, mocked and murdered on Easter day 1945, was powerfully alive on Easter fifty years later.

In Okinawa’s Peace Park, the names are engraved on row upon row of granite slabs resembling the waves of the ocean nearby. A white towering structure encloses a huge statue of Kannon. She is described as an Asian symbol (with no deification) and is the central figure in the structure where each year on August 15 an interfaith service is held.
(Many thanks to Joy Kogawa for permission to excerpt this speech, published at positions: east asia cultures critique Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 2005).

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