When people ask me where I'm "from", I say I'm mixed race or half-Japanese. But I'm not really. I feel I'm lying when I say I’m half-Japanese. It always results in the same conversation about anime, ramen, and how Japanese people are the nicest people in the world. When I say I’m not really half-Japanese, I know I’m letting people down. I tell them my mother is from a small island called Okinawa, formerly the Kingdom of Ryukyu — a string islands in the South with its own unique culture. Most people in Australia don't know what or where Okinawa is besides history majors, people who have dabbled in karate, or watched the Karate Kid 2. Okinawa definitely seems less interesting. It is not famous for neon lights, anime, samurai swords, wood-block prints, or vending machines that dispense used underwear.
These days, I try to explain to others that I'm Okinawan. My mum didn’t embrace Japanese culture like other Japanese mums in Australia: we didn’t learn Japanese at Japanese school, my mother didn't speak to us in Japanese, and we didn’t observe Japanese customs or celebrations. Although my mum had a lot of Japanese friends and acquaintances, we didn’t feel like we belonged
Growing up, I saw my mum struggle with what I now understand to be an inferiority complex in the company of Japanese people. When she was expecting Japanese guests, she made us wash our feet. She would talk about how bad she looked, how messy the house was, how we didn’t have a car, how she felt so much shame about having to ask for rides. As a child, I often sensed an unequal power dynamic between her and her Japanese friends. I knew something wasn’t right. While she joined massage circles on the lounge room floor with my dad’s Western “hippie” friends, she stressed over the dirt on our feet when she was expecting her Japanese friends. I soon learnt that my mother's decision not to raise us as Japanese was not laziness, it was due to the complex history of Okinawa.
The kanji for Okinawa are open sea (沖）and rope(縄).The unfortunate way I remember the kanji for Okinawa is by thinking of the second character, rope, as a rope in a tug-of-war that plays out on the open sea. in 1879, Japan declared its intention to annex Okinawa. In 1843, the monarchy was abolished. Some people regard the annexation of the Ryukyus as outright colonialism. Nomura Koya argues that the Japanese mainland developed "an unconscious colonialism" in which Japanese people are not aware of how they continue to colonize Okinawa through the mainland's inclination to leave the vast majority of the United States' military presence and burden to Okinawa. Others like Eiji Oguma claim that Japan "othered" Okinawa and produced the perception of "backward Okinawans".
I used to be angry at my mum for not teaching me Japanese, for not sending me to Japanese school, for not teaching me about Japanese customs and traditions. But the truth was, she never felt Japanese. Why would she? When my mum visited me when I was living in mainland Japan, she was as new to certain customs as I was. She had always regarded Japan as a foreign country. She even had an Okinawan passport for the one trip she took to Tokyo when she was a young student.
It's important for me to learn about Okinawan culture, to learn uchinaaguchi or even remember a few phrases. For me, it's a way to feel more connected to my mother and her complex place in history.