Okinawa in American Literature
- Steve RabsonSteve RabsonBrown University
The several works of American literature set in Okinawa or about Okinawans include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Perhaps the earliest, Francis L. Hawks’s 1856 Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, is an account of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854 when he forced his demands on leaders of what was then the Ryukyu Kingdom, allowing Americans to land, travel, and trade there. Hawks also provides informative and colorful descriptions of the local residents, architecture, and natural environment.
A century later, Okinawa commanded all of America’s attention in the spring of 1945 during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War. Two Okinawan immigrants to the United States published autobiographical accounts in English of mid-20th-century Okinawa, including the battle and its aftermath. Masako Shinjo Robbins’s My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa (2014) describes life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. Sold as a child by her father to a brothel in the 1930s, she barely survives the battle after being trapped in a cave collapsed by shelling. Jo Nobuko Martin’s novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (1984) depicts the horrifying ordeal of the Princess Lily Student Corps of high school girls, the author among them, and their teachers, who were drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. Writing from the American side of the battle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent. His account in The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950) begins with American battleships’ shelling of Okinawa and ends the day he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the offshore island of Iejima.
Over more than 12,500 Americans died in the Battle of Okinawa which took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked with bringing “democracy” to Okinawa, which many Americans considered feudalistic. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1951. Later adapted into two plays and a film, it is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawaii (1965) by Jon Shirota depicts the experience of Okinawans in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first novel by an Asian American writer to become a bestseller and one of several works portraying the lives of Okinawan immigrants including three plays by Shirota and an autobiography by Hana Yamagawa.
Victory in the Pacific War brought Okinawa under American military occupation for the next twenty-seven years, 1945–1972. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. government constructed a vast complex of bases to support hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Sarah Bird’s novel The Yokota Officers Club (2001) depicts the bases’ effects on Okinawans and Americans living in close proximity yet in separate worlds during the U.S. occupation. Today, more than four decades after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area. Bird’s Above the East China Sea (2015) juxtaposes the ordeals of an American military dependent living on base in present-day Okinawa who contemplates suicide after her soldier sister dies in Afghanistan with a student medic in the 1945 battle ordered to kill herself to avoid capture by the Americans. Drawing on extensive research in Okinawan culture, Bird evokes Okinawan religious beliefs and observances relating to death and the afterlife to frame her narrative and inform her readers.