Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sarah Bird & Steve Rabson: "Above the East China Sea: Okinawa During the Battle and Today"

Sarah Bird's novel about the Battle of Okinawa and the US military occupation of the prefecture
 was released May 27, 2014.  (Image: Knopf)

Beautiful book excerpt and stunning conversation, "Above the East China Sea: Okinawa During the Battle and Today," between novelist Sarah Bird and Okinawan literature scholar Steve Rabson at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

In 2009, Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy, and founder of Center for Courage and Renewal, told Bill Moyers that Americans have been going through a period of collective disillusionment and heartbreak, facing historical and contemporary realities: "...the notion that we always get it right, my country, right or wrong — that somehow America is the noblest nation in the world, these are things that I've for a long time, been unable to believe." This painful collective awakening has been a long time coming.

Bird lived in Okinawa with her career Air Force parents, and Rabson was stationed, as an Army draftee, in Okinawa; both during the late 60's. Bird’s novel, Above the East China Sea, "engages the themes of suicide and death from the Battle of Okinawa to the present, interweaving the fate of Okinawans and American occupying forces." Rabson, a Brown University professor emeritus, became a leading translator of Okinawan literature after his military sojourn there. Their descriptions of their political awakenings resonate with those of us who have experienced similar shocks and awakenings about what the American (and Japanese) governments have done in Okinawa.

In a commentary for The New York Times, "A Military Brat on Okinawa," Bird describes her bond with Hana-san, her family's Okinawan housemaid, now passed on, but whose presence is infused in the compassionate sensibility that informs the Texan author's luminous novel:
Okinawans like Hana-san have paid, too much and too long, for a war they had no part in starting. During the 82 days of the Battle of Okinawa, Hana saw her homeland turned into a wasteland of decomposing corpses and mud, then watched as it was permanently occupied by the invaders. She long ago joined her ancestors, but we still have an unfulfilled obligation to her and to her descendants...
Bird and Rabson speak for many Americans (and Japanese), in their wish that their governments do the right thing, for once, for Okinawans:
 Sarah: My learning curve about the Ryukyu Islands was marked by a series of shocks as I wondered, “How did I not know that more people—mainly Okinawans and Japanese, but also the largest number of Americans in any battle in the Pacific War, as well as Koreans, Taiwanese and others—had died during the invasion than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined?”
“How was I not aware of the profoundly exploitative nature of our relationship with the islands and their people?” Steve, at what point did you come to appreciate these disturbing political ramifications?

Steve: As soon as I arrived in Henoko, I could see the enormous economic gap between Americans and Okinawans, and sensed the American military’s condescending attitude toward the local people. Later I learned that many of those who worked on the bases or as bar hostesses and prostitutes in the vils’ were from farming families whose land had been forcibly seized by the U.S. military for base construction in the early to mid-various 1950s...

The late 1960s was the peak of the movement for Okinawa’s reversion to Japan where people lived under a civilian constitution and enjoyed prosperity in contrast to Third World conditions in Okinawa under American military rule. The daily protest rallies, marches, and sit-ins reminded me very much of the civil rights movement in the U.S... A Ryukyu University student told me “we have nothing against Americans personally, but are tired of the Pentagon running our island."

...We also know today that the Japanese high command viewed Okinawa as a “throwaway pawn” in their wartime strategy. Recognizing that their forces would be destroyed by the Americans, the Japanese sought to inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and buy time for the battle on the Japanese mainland that they expected to follow. We now know that the Battle of Okinawa, the devastating fire-bombings of Japanese cities, and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would never have happened if Emperor Hirohito had followed civilian advice to end the war in January, 1945...
Steve Rabson, Henoko, 1968 (Photo: APJ:Japan Focus)


More about Okinawa this week at APJ: Okinawa Facing a Hot Summer:  Introduction and Four Texts translated from Japanese" by Gavan McCormack. 

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