Find out more about Episode 22 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.
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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.
Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.
You may have noticed that I’m fairly late putting out this episode. I apologize. I’ve needed a little extra time to think.
Talking about literature in translation is… complicated. Actually, it’s becoming increasingly clear I want to do at least one episode on translation itself. What texts get translated and why? What are the pros of translation? What gets lost? Why might an author prefer not to have their work translated?
Prepping this episode really highlighted some of the complications of talking about literature in translation. There isn’t that much literature from Okinawa available in English. In fact, the 1st full-length, stand-alone novel from Okinawa wasn’t published in English until 2017. That’s Shun Medoruma’s In the Woods of Memory, translated by Takuma Sminkey.
As you might expect, there also isn’t as much English-language scholarship about literature from Okinawa. My bibliography for this episode is a lot shorter than normal. And the story I’m able to tell about the history of Okinawa’s literature relies pretty heavily than normal on the work of just a few scholars. I’m very grateful for those scholars: Davinder Bhowmik, Michael Molasky, and Steve Rabson. They’re generally very highly regarded.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know the way English-speakers think about other cultures and their literatures are filtered through our own historical and cultural biases. At least for me, it was more obvious than normal when I was prepping an episode on Okinawan literature. And I had a harder time looking at multiple stories and sources for a more nuanced perspective.
I’ve done my very best anyway. And it would have been wrong to continue to leave Okinawa out of the story of Japanese literature just because it was hard. But I wanted to be straightforward about why this episode was challenging in the name of intellectual honesty.
A quick content warning: This episode will include some discussion of the Battle of Okinawa. It is a truly horrific moment in history, so we’ll be discussing suicide, rape, and murder.
I’m going to give you a head’s up before we discuss the history itself, so you can skip that content if necessary. But it’s also important history. And it’s going to be relevant to Shun Medoruma’s story “Droplets” at the end of today’s episode.
[3:21] Since it isn’t a place a lot of English-speakers know much about, I want to give you just a little bit more information about Okinawa before we get started.
First of all, the term “Okinawa” gets used to mean a lot of different things. Many (maybe most) non-Japanese people use “Okinawa” when what they mean are the Ryukyu Islands.
Remember that Japan itself is an archipelago. The four “main islands” are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. [Honshu] is the largest island. It’s where Tokyo and most of Japan’s main cities are. It’s also the site of Tohōku, which we discussed in the last episode.
The Ryukyu Islands are a chain of islands that stretch from Japan’s southernmost “main island” (Kyushu) all the way to Taiwan. The official Japanese name for this island chain is Nansei-Shoto.) Okinawa itself is the largest island in the Ryukyu Island chain.
The term “Okinawa” can also refer to Okinawa Prefecture. A Prefecture is roughly the equivalent of an American state or Canadian province—Japan is divided into 47 prefectures.
Two-thirds of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Okinawa Prefecture. The northern third of the Ryukyu Islands are part of Kagoshima Prefecture. In Japanese, these islands are called “Satsunan-shotō” or “the Satsunan Islands”.
Almost 1.5 million people call Okinawa Prefecture home. Okinawa Prefecture is one of Japan’s smallest prefectures [by population].
Okinawa Prefecture is about 880 square miles—that’s 2280 square kilometers. And as I mentioned, Okinawa is its largest island. Okinawa is also the site of the capital city of the prefecture, Naha.
[5:38] I’m going to start today with a deeper dive into the history of the Ryukyu Islands/Okinawa. I haven’t done a history section this deep since season one. If you haven’t been with us since the beginning, season one is a broad overview of the history of Japanese literature.
I think the deep dive is important today because I, unfortunately left Okinawa’s history mostly out of season one. I think that’s a mistake I made—sorry about that—and its history is vitally important to its literature.
We’ll move on to the way literature has developed in Okinawa. We’ll start with some of its oldest recorded texts…some of its Meiji- and pre-war writing… but we’ll really focus on Okinawan literature after the war. The vast majority of Okinawan literature translated into English dates from after 1950.
We’ll end with the life and work of writer/activist Shun Medoruma—especially his Akutagawa-winning story “Droplets”.
[6:47] Over the next few minutes, I hope I can give you the broad outlines of Okinawan history—at least enough to help make sense of the story of Okinawan literature. If you want a more thorough history of Okinawa or the Ryukyu Islands, I highly recommend the History of Japan Podcast by Isaac Meyer. He has a two part series [parts one and two] about Japan and Okinawa—as well as several other episodes. I’ll put links on the episode page.
Formal Japanese interaction with the Ryukyus didn’t begin until the 15th century. But we have lots of information about what the islands looked like before that. Some of the people living in the Ryukyus immigrated from East and Northeast Asia, just like many of the people living in Japan. But others came from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. These migrants would have brought with them special skills in farming and fishing.
By 1300, three kingdoms ruled the Ryukyus:
- Nanzan in the south
- Chūzan in the center
- And Hokuzan in the north
Chūzan was the most powerful—it eventually took control of the entire Ryukyus.
In 1372, Chūzan asked China to establish a formal tributary relationship. They paid money to China and more-or-less deferred to what China wanted. In return, they got political favors and favorable trade conditions. It was a lucrative deal for a country that thrived on trade.
In the early 1400s, a man named King Shō Hashi united the Ryukyu Islands to create the Ryukyu Kingdom.
This tributary system remained the status quo in the Ryukyu Kingdom for about two centuries. And that period is sometimes referred to as “The Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom”.
[8:23] But in 1609 the Japanese invaded.
The extremely powerful Shimazu Clan forced the Ryukyu Kingdom to accept a suzerain-vassal relationship. The Ryukyuans had less control now over their own government than they had before—but they still had a great deal of autonomy for another two centuries.
So the Ryukyuan Kingdom actually managed to be both a vassal state of Japan and a tributary state of China at the same time. This was a great system for China and Japan. You might remember the term sakoku—Japan’s “closed country” policy. Sakoku was at its height in the 17th and 18th centur[ies]. It lasted from 1603 to 1868. The Ryukyuan Kingdom made it possible for China and Japan to trade with each other, and the trading partners could kind of pretend… they weren’t.
As for the Ryukyuan Kingdom, they benefited in some ways, but it was consistent with a long-standing pattern. The Ryukyuans… the Okinawans… tend to get stuck in the middle between larger, more powerful countries on either side.
[9:39] That compromise system—vassal to Japan, tributary to China—ended in 1872.
The Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867. The Meiji Regime took its place in 1868. Four years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The Japanese government created Okinawa Prefecture in 1872. Okinawan men gained the right to vote for representatives in 1912, more than twenty years after the National Diet was established.
The Meiji Government applied its “Civilization and Enlightenment” policies to Okinawa with special zeal. These Meji policies weren’t always met with resistance. Okinawans were sometimes the motivating force behind policies like the use of Tokyo dialect in schools.
Nevertheless, Okinawans often faced the same kinds of prejudices as Koreans, Chinese, or other marginalized groups in Japan. Okinawa Prefecture received less government investment than other prefectures. They paid higher taxes.
It also happened to Okinawans as individuals, especially if they tried to move to the mainland. For example, many businesses put out signs that said Okinawans shouldn’t bother looking there for housing or employment.
[11:07] And then the Pacific War began.
World War II was absolutely brutal—especially for Okinawa. (Here, I’m talking specifically about the Island of Okinawa rather than the whole Ryukyu chain or the prefecture.) The Battle of Okinawa left more than a fourth—maybe as many as half—of Okinawan residents dead.
I might not go into more detail, but the Battle of Okinawa is extremely relevant for Okinawan literature. It’s also a moment in history worth remembering. Some of the details will come up again. If you want to be spared an historical account, you probably want to skip ahead about four minutes.
[The US Army and US Marine Corps invaded Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. That invasion was the beginning of an 82-day battle. It cost the lives of about 13,000 American troops and over 110,000 Japanese troops. That number includes 30,000 Okinawan civilians conscripted into the Japanese army for the battle. And, of those, several thousand were schoolboys between fourteen and seventeen years old mobilized in the Tekkestu Kinnōtai or “Iron and Blood Imperial Corp”.
Legally, the boys were “volunteers”. In reality, most of them didn’t have much choice. The main character in “Droplets” was 1 of these “soldiers”.
Hundreds of schoolgirls were forced to join the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as nurses. Their position as non-combatants didn’t save them from brutal conditions or death. There’s another character in “Droplets” whom we aren’t going to discuss today who was a member of the Himeyuri.
All told, the battle probably cost over 230,000 lives, most of them Okinawan civilians.
This is where I’m afraid I have to get very upsetting—I need to explain the reason the civilian casualties were so high. And to do that, I’m going to have to talk about suicide and a number of other gruesome topics.
The Japanese government went out of its way to convince Okinawan civilians they would be raped and tortured if they were captured by the American military. Many Okinawans took their own lives to make sure that didn’t happen. And the Japanese imperial army often provided them with the means to do it.
Many members of the Himeyuri—the schoolgirl nurse corp—jumped off cliffs or shared a single hand grenade to accomplish the task.
Okinawans shared the responsibility of killing family members, sometimes while they were already sheltering in family tombs.
Japanese soldiers intentionally killed Okinawans. Sometimes simply by driving them out of places where they were sheltering. Sometimes by killing people they thought put them in danger. Small children who might cry. Okinawans speaking in dialect. (Japanese soldiers claimed to think they might be spies.)
Japanese soldiers killed Okinawans caught stealing limited food supplies that had been co-opted by the military.
Some of this history is controversial, as we’ll discuss in a few minutes. But hundreds of thousands of Okinawans have protested even in the last decade to make sure these historical accounts remain in Japanese textbooks.
American soldiers were guilty of atrocities during the Battle of Okinawa, too. But overall, Okinawans were shocked by how relatively well they were treated by American GIs. Compared to the Japanese military, the 1945 American military was considered downright humane. They also provided scant—but desperately needed, food, clothing, and medical treatment. Many Okinawans still feel betrayed by the Japanese government for how badly they were lied to about the way the Americans would treat them.]
[15:12] The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 23. Even today, many Okinawans regard June 23 as the final day of World War II. But it wasn’t until August 15, 1945, that the Emperor of Japan made his 1st ever radio broadcast to announce Japan’s unconditional surrender.
It’s easy to walk away from the story of the Battle of Okinawa with a sense that Okinawans were purely victims. But many Okinawans—especially Okinawan writers—have asserted that Okinawa also needs to confront the role Okinawa played in Japan’s wartime imperialism.
In April of 1945, the US issued the Nimitz Proclamation. The Nimitz Proclamation declared that “the Islands of Nansei Shoto [aka the Ryukyus] and Adjacent Waters” were now under the “final administrative authority” of the US Navy. “All powers of the Government of the Japanese Empire,” it went on, “[Were] hereby suspended”.
American control of the Ryukyus continued after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco re-established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers. After the US ended its occupation of the rest of Japan in 1952. In fact, the American occupation of the Ryukyus lasted for 27 years—until May 15, 1972.
During the 1950s, the US military rapidly expanded its facilities in Okinawa. In the 1950s and 60s, the US even moved nuclear weapons through its Okinawan bases.
To be clear, the US wasn’t the only motivating force behind this military buildup. Under Japan’s 1945 Constitution—which occupying American authorities wrote—Japan can only maintain a defensive military. Japan did—still does—depend on its alliance with the US as a part of its national security policy. And so many people in Japan want the US military in Japan—just not in their backyards.
The Okinawan response to American GIs after the Battle of Okinawa may have been positive, but Okinawans weren’t excited about a prolonged American occupation. A lot of Okinawans opposed the American presence. More than 70% of the Okinawan electorate supported reunification with Japan. (And that was the most commonly fought for solution. Not Okinawan independence, but reversion—the term for returning Okinawa to its prefectural status.)
[17:58] In 1969, Japanese Prime Minister Satō and US President Nixon agreed to return Okinawa’s status as a Japanese prefecture. In the end, reversion took place in May of 1972.
Even though reversion is something Okinawans fought for very hard, it has been something of a mixed blessing. On the plus side, Okinawans have Japanese passports. They can travel to and from Japan as Japanese citizens.
On the other hand, mainland Japanese companies came to Okinawa and quickly overwhelmed a lot of Okinawan businesses.
And, reversion didn’t have the effects a lot of Okinawans had hoped for. Many Okinawans dreamed of social and economic opportunities that didn’t really appear.
And even today, the Japanese government still allows Okinawa Prefecture to bear the brunt of the American military presence.
Okinawa Prefecture makes up just three-fifths of a percent of Japan’s landmass. As of 2006, 75% of all US bases were based in Okinawa. And bases took up 18% of the land on the main island.
The Japanese government has promised, and promised, and promised to find new sites for the bases. But no one else in Japan wants the bases in their prefectures either.
Again, the American military is important to Japan’s national security plans—one poll found that 76% of Japanese people wanted the US military present in Japan. But that doesn’t make the US presence benign. For example, in 1995 three US servicemen based in Okinawa raped a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl. The incident was only the tip of the iceberg of criminal complaints against American GIs—but this one in particular kicked off huge protests.
Most of the complaints are more mundane—though no less valid: noise, pollution, the risks of accidents…
Another poll found that 43 percent of Okinawans want the US bases in Okinawa closed completely. And again, let me add that Okinawans aren’t just angry at the US. They’re also angry at a national government that doesn’t seem to be listening to them.
[20:32] US bases aside, by most measures, Okinawa is still behind the rest of Japan economically. For example, in 2018, Okinawa Prefecture had the second lowest per-capita income of all 47 Japanese prefectures—3.1 million yen or $29,000 US.
[20:58] Scholars Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson edited one of the most important English-language anthologies of Okinawan literature. I’m relying heavily on the background on Okinawan literature in their introduction to the anthology Southern Exposure.
Okinawa literature has usually been more “regional” than literature from mainland Japan—and that’s sometimes been something of a choice.
We’ve talked a lot about how insular and cliquey Japan’s literary establishment can be. Remember the bundan? The bundan rarely stretched itself to accommodate people outside of Tokyo. Little surprise it didn’t stretch all the way to accommodate people from Okinawa.
Instead of fighting for a place in the bundan, the Okinawan literary community has fostered what Molasky and Rabson describe as “an unabashedly ‘regional’ literature capable of appealing well beyond its narrow borders”.
But let me go back a bit…
[21:57] The oldest written Okinawan literature dates to the “Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom” that we discussed a few minutes ago. That period of peace as a Chinese tributary before the Shimazu Clan invaded. But even though the Ryukyus were a tributary for China, they also traded with Japan, Korea, and the rest of Southeast Asia.
People in the Ryukyu Kingdom adopted not Chinese characters as their writing system but the Japanese syllabary—kana. (This is actually a much more appropriate writing system for languages like Japanese, as we discussed in our very first episode.)
The adoption of a writing system allowed the people of the Ryukyus to record much older legends and songs that had been passed down orally. It’s the same kind of process that allowed the people of Japan to collect texts like The Kojiki and other early Japanese anthologies. [Learn more about The Kojiki with RJL.]
In the Ryukyus, the earliest collection is the Omoro Soshi—Okinawa’s most important work of classical literature.
Even though it was collected between around 1530-1630, some of the selections go all the way back to the 1100s. There is something like an English-language translation of the Omoro Soshi: Mitsugu Sakihara published A Brief History of Early Okinawa Based on the Omoro Sōshi in 1987.
Unfortunately, there is almost no other pre-Meiji writing accessible to English-language readers.
[23:26] Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands shaped Okinawan writing. There’s a little more available to English-language readers that was written between 1872 and World War II. Some of it’s anthologized in Southern Exposure. Molasky and Rabson describe “the struggle over Okinawa’s cultural identity” as “the predominant issue in prewar literature”.
We aren’t going to cover any of those writers in depth today, but I hope to come back to some of their writing in the future. That includes writ[ers] like Baku Yamanokuchi, who is also one of Okinawa’s best-beloved poets—although he also wrote prose. And Fusako Kushi, who is 1 of a very small number of prominent women writers in Okinawa before the 1980s.
[24:13] What Molasky and Rabson call the “1st dynamic period in post-war Okinawan literature” began in the mid-1950s.
Now… when I talk about “literature”, I usually talk about fiction. That’s mainly to narrow my scope—and I think it usually makes sense.
Kyle Ikeda at the University of Vermont reminds us that we should also think about non-fiction as literature, too—especially in the context of Okinawan literary history.
For one thing, Europeans and Americans considered non-fiction “literature” for most of our cultural history. For another, Japan’s literary traditions—like the I-novel—make the line between fiction and non-fiction kinda blurry. (We discussed that in an episode last season about Osamu Dazai.)
Kyle Ikeda makes the point that non-fiction accounts are particularly important for Okinawan literature. This is especially true of accounts of the Battle of Okinawa. He quotes Okinawan literature scholar Masanori Nahahodo, who calls this kind of narrative nonfiction Okinawa no senki bungaku or “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa”.
“Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” is hugely impactful.
Mainland Japanese accounts of the Battle of Okinawa tend to celebrate the camaraderie and sacrifice of Japanese and Okinawan soldiers… And they tend to downplay or completely omit the terrible atrocities Japanese soldiers carried out against Okinawan civilians.
These are the accounts Japan’s Ministry of Education is most likely to approve for use in school textbooks. The stories that go in school textbooks tend to become the histories everyone “knows” about their own country.
In 2007, for example, the Japanese Ministry of Education recommended removing references to the Japanese military encouraging group suicides in Okinawa. That incident incited a protest of over 110,000 Okinawans.
And so the “Documentary War Literature of Okinawa” has helped preserve memories of what life looked like during the Battle of Okinawa for Okinawan [civilians].
[26:25] A lot of post-war Okinawan fiction has also dealt with the Battle of Okinawa or its long aftermath… especially the American occupation or war memory.
Scholars Davinder Bhowmik and Steve Rabson identify Ryohaku Ota’s 1946 story “Black Diamonds” as “the first work of postwar Okinawan fiction”.
But that post-war fertile period Molasky and Rabson mentioned was really kicked off by a student magazine out of the University of the Ryukyus called Ryudai Bungaku. Remember that the fertile period began in the 1950s—decades before reversion. American censors hated Ryūdai Bungaku because its editors never hesitated to criticize the American military.
Two Ryūdai Bungaku editors went on to become prominent Okinawan journalists—Akira Arakawa and Shinichi Kawamitsu.
They also founded a second literary journal in 1966 called Shin Okinawa Bungaku or “New Okinawan Literature”. That journal was the most important journal in Okinawan publishing for decades, until iit shuttered in 1993.
According to Molasky and Rabson, “most critics agree that modern Okinawan literature” really “c[a]me into its own” in the 1960s, especially with the publication of Tatsuhiro Ōshiro’s story “Cocktail Party”. “Cocktail Party” won Oshiro the 1967 Akutagawa Prize. (The Akutagawa Prize is probably Japan’s most celebrated literary award. If you want to learn more about the Akutagawa, check out our episode 20 about the Akutagawa Prize and Kobo Abe.)
Keep in mind that the Akutagawa Prize was founded in 1935. Tatsuhiro Oshiro was the very 1st Okinawan to win… and it wasn’t until 1967. Very few other Okinawan writers have won the prize.
In 1996, Eiki Mataoyshi won the Akutagawa in 1996 with his novella Pig’s Revenge. Pig’s Revenge is different than a lot of contemporary Okinawan writing. It isn’t about the war or the occupation. Politics is almost entirely absent. It’s simply a story that takes place in Okinawa that features Okinawan people.
Even though Matayoshi already had an impressive career, critics were pretty cynical about his win. Maybe he won because the competition was weak. Maybe he’d won because Okinawa had been in the news because of protests against the American military bases. Maybe he won because the prize had been going to “minority writers” like Zainichi Koreans… Imagine 2010s and 20s American critics complaining the award had gone “woke”.
Shun Medoruma got something of a different—a more positive reaction—after he won in 1997 for his story “Droplets”.
[29:43] Shun Medoruma was born in a village on the northernmost part of the island of Okinawa—in 1960. For context, Yoko Tawada was born in 1960; Yoko Ogawa was born in 1962…
1960 is also memorable in Japan for the Summer of Rage. “The Summer of Rage” was a coming together of 2 events into a major turning point in modern Japanese history: the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty and the Mitsui Corporation’s Miike Coal Mine Strike. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets over the course of several months—and protests grew so violent that President Dwight Eisenhower had to cancel a planned visit.
I should note that “Shun Medoruma” is a pen name. The author is a famously private man. He insists that critics and the media not reveal his personal name.
Medoruma has been a relatively well-known writer in Okinawa for most of his adult life. He started winning Okinawan literary awards when he was still in college at the University of the Ryukyus.
But he became a prominent voice in mainland Japanese literature when he won the 1997 Akutagawa Prize for his story “Suiteki” or “Droplets”. Very few Okinawan writers support themselves solely through writing. When Medoruma won the Akutagawa, he was working as a high-school teacher.
[31:08] These days, Medoruma publishes essentially no fiction. In early 2023, Dr. Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda translated several of Medoruma’s essays for The Baffler. And they were published under the title “From the Deep Forests and Seas of Yambaru: Against the U.S. Military Presence in Japan”. Her introduction explains that Medoruma has turned “all of his time and attention toward protesting the presence of the American military in Okinawa” since 2009. Medoruma also keeps a prominent political blog.
The essays in “From the Deep Forests…” give us a nice snapshot of the sorts of things Medoruma has been doing with his time instead of writing fiction.
“The Sea of Henoko, Midsummer” dates to 2017. Medoruma describes spending every other day canoeing in Henoko Bay to protest the US Marine Corps’ construction of a military base there. Construction began in 2014. On top of political objections, protestors also have very legitimate concerns about environmental damage.
They’re especially worried about the Okinawan dugong. It’s a marine mammal related to the manatee that’s also an important part of Okinawan mythology and culture. The population has fallen to critically endangered status during the bases’s construction—there are now believed to be fewer than ten (that’s two digits: 1-0) ten remaining Okinawan dugongs left in the wild.
In Medoruma’s words, translated by Hofmann-Kuroda, “We go out in groups of ten boats, leaving around eight in the morning and returning at four in the afternoon… If you go out in two three-hour shifts—morning and afternoon—that’s six hours in a canoe. If you go out every other day, that’s ninety hours a month, 1,080 hours a year.” He thinks that’s about average for his group.
They end at four, wash their canoes and tools. Medoruma heads home around six to shower, do laundry, do a little strength training. He organizes photos and videos, and blogs. By then it’s around midnight—Medoruma’s in bed by one or two am and back up the next morning about six.
“I have almost no time to read books, let alone write on this schedule,” he says. “I’ve often thought to myself that I should stop protesting, or at least significantly cut down on the amount of time I spend protesting, to focus on writing my novels. But I could never bring myself to do it.”
[33:47] In case you’re wondering, the Henoko Base controversy is ongoing. The base is way over schedule and way over budget, but neither the Japanese government nor the US military is willing to admit defeat. Protesters aren’t giving up. The Okinawan Prefectural government isn’t giving up. In December of 2022, the Okinawan Prefectural government lost a Japanese Supreme Court case about the base on a technicality—it was the prefecture’s fifth such legal attempt to halt base construction.
[34:22] Before we begin our discussion of “Droplets,” I want to provide just three ideas to give us context.
First, I want to say something about translator Michael Molasky’s use of dialect in his translation.
The use of dialogue is a thorny issue for Okinawan writers. If a writer uses dialect, they make their work less accessible to mainland readers. A less accessible work reaches far fewer readers… and makes far less money. On the other hand, Okinawan writers who don’t use dialect risk isolating themselves from their culture. This has become less true over time—most younger Okinawans are fluent in “standard” Japanese.
As you might expect, the use of dialect is also complicated for translators. In the introduction to Southern Exposure, Molasky and Rabson identify several ways they might deal with it. Ignore it. Transliterate the words—that means write them with the Roman alphabet—and then define what they’ve transliterated with footnotes. Transliterate the words and then not define it with footnotes. Or translate the words into a different, English-language dialect.
Molasky used this approach for “Droplets”. But he also made the decision with Medoruma on how to translate the dialect into English. The two of them wanted to preserve a marked difference in social class between the main character and his wife, Ushi. So Ushi talks something like someone from Appalachia would talk because she has much less education than her husband.
[35:50] Second, “Droplets” is a work of magical realism. Earlier this season, Read Japanese Literature did an entire episode on magical realism. I talked about why I continue to use the term “magical realism” even though it’s controversial in some circles. More than almost anywhere else in Japan, Okinawa has the kind of colonial history that many people associate with magical realist fiction.
The short definition of magical realism is that it is a way of telling a story that is mostly realistic—except that there are elements of “irreducible magic” that are fundamental parts of the tale.
[36:30] The third thing I want to talk about before we bring up “Droplets” is the “gourd melon”.
The Japanese term is tōgan. The northern Okinawan dialect term is subui. It is a watermelon-ish melon. In Okinawa, it’s usually boiled and eaten as a vegetable.
Medoruma doesn’t usually comment on his own stories, but he does remind his readers that a large number of gourd melons appeared after the Battle of Okinawa. And the anecdotal explanation is that they were nourished by the hundreds of thousands of corpses produced by the battle.
[36:06] “Droplets” begins this way.
It was during a dry spell in mid-June, the rainy season, when Tokushō’s leg suddenly swelled up.”
Tokushō wakes up from a nap to find that his lower leg and foot have swollen to enormous proportions, bigger than his thigh. He can’t move or speak. And his leg and foot are still swelling. He watches as his leg and foot swell to the size of “an average gourd melon” and turn a pale green.
His wife, Ushi, comes to wake him up. (Ushi, by the way, is the Japanese word for “cow”.) Her first response to his illness is… anger? She needs his help on the farm. If he didn’t spend his nights drinking, playing cards, and sleeping around, this wouldn’t have happened.
She slaps his swollen leg, his big toe splits open, and something starts dripping out of his big toe. So she sticks a jug under his foot to catch the liquid. She tastes it… like you do… and it has “the mild sweetness of the juice from an unripe hechima gourd”. Then… she goes to call the doctor. Eventually, she decides she’ll cure Tokushō herself, or at least with the help of traditional medicine. But Tokushō lays paralyzed and speechless for weeks.
One night, the sleeping Tokushō wakes up to find his room full of injured men in tattered army uniforms. One by one, they bend over and lick the water that’s dripped from his toe to his heel.
Tokushō is horrified… and also ticklish. But mostly he has no idea what is going on.
After that, soldiers show up every night. The third night, Tokushō recognizes one of them as his friend Ishimine. The boys served together in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp during the Battle of Okinawa. Tokushō was only sixteen years old at the time.
Tokushō can’t talk anymore. But when he could talk, he hated talking about his time in the Blood and Iron Imperial Service Corp. In the last few years, he had been pressured into it for the village’s oral history project. He has spoken at nearby schools. He got a small honorarium for his efforts—a little cash payment as a thank you. And he has started embroidering the truth—changing his story to match “what his audience wanted to hear”. In other words, he told the nicer version of events—the kind of mainland version of events. Okinawan soldiers bravely fought until they couldn’t fight anymore, and then sacrificed themselves in the name of Japan.
Ushi wasn’t happy when she found out what he was doing: “You start fibbin’ and makin’ up sorry tales to profit off the war and you’ll get your fair punishment in the end.” Maybe the whole experience—the swelling, the paralysis—is the punishment Ushi was afraid of.
About two-thirds of the way through the story, we finally get Tokushō’s memory of what really happened to Tokushō and Ishmine. It’s a heartbreaking memory: Tokushō failed to bring back water to injured and dying men. As Tokushō sees it, he betrayed and abandoned his companions. Then again, many of them were little more than children—including Tokushō. And it’s clear these events of just a few days changed the courts of his entire life.
Tokushō thinks that having his toe sucked, “relieving the soldiers’ thirst” is “the only way to atone for his sins”. But what are his sins, exactly? No one haunted him for decades. Maybe it’s that Tokushō, like many Okinawans, had let his memories fade. He had finally given into stories about the war that were much easier to live with. He tried to make himself forget. And he was profiting off telling a version of events that other people wanted to hear.
It isn’t until the night he forces himself to remember that the spirits tell him, “Thank you. At last the thirst is gone”. The next morning he wakes up, and he is healed.
[41:48] So why read Okinawan literature?
It’s easy for an English reader to focus on the “biggest names” in translated literature from Japan. Contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami or Mieko Kawakami. And earlier twentieth century writers like Yukio Mishima or Osamu Dazai.
We’re readers in translation. The picture we get of “Japanese literature” is always a little blurred. It’s painted by what publishers choose to give us access to in English translation.
(Just in case it isn’t clear, I’m extremely grateful for that access—both to publishers and translators who make it possible to read work from Japan at all.) But we can also sharpen the edges of that by looking to voices outside the mainstream.
There has been notably little work by writers from Okinawa prefecture translated into English. The anthologies Southern Exposure and Islands of Protest are steps in the right direction. Many of the stories in these anthologies are excellent works of fiction well worth reading for their own sake.
And there’s a lot more to “Droplets”, too. I didn’t even touch on several subplots. Tokushō’s good-for-nothing cousin tries to sell the liquid oozing coming from his foot. And there’s a 3rd companion who knows what happened to Tokushō and Ishimine during the Battle of Okinawa. She was serving as a member of the Himeyuri or “Lily Corp” as a nurse. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Southern Exposure to read the story for yourself.
I’ve been reading from Shun Medoruma’s “Droplets”, translated [by] Michael Molasky. It’s available in the anthology Southern Exposure: Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. That anthology is edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.
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Thank you to Dr. Kristen Luck with the Okinawa Collection and Japan Resource Center at the George Washington University Library.
Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese literature Twitter community.
And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.
3 thoughts on “Transcript of Episode 23: Writing from Okinawa”
Love the podcasts!
I think you meant to say Honshu is the largest island, not Hokkaido.
I did! Thanks.