A (Hi)story of Okinawan Clothes: Three Figures of Indigenous Women Against the Japanese Modernization of the Ryukyu Islands



Introduction ///

On September 7, 1912, one of Okinawa’s two major newspapers, the Okinawa Mainichi Shimbun published an article titled “Soshi Taiyo” (“Rough Sketch”). It opened by claiming that there were two things that should be most feared in the prefecture. The first was the poisonous habu snake that, according to the author of the piece, did not really have to be taken seriously because it was nothing more than an unfounded fear that first-time visitors held of Okinawa. The second did actually constitute a serious threat. This took the form of women who cloaked themselves in the then well-known Ryukyu-style kimono and was, unlike the harmless habu snake, a real danger because they were the receptacles of an enslaved historical remnant: “As long as they are not reformed, the people of the prefecture cannot be considered civilized. Streetlights, telephones, railroads, banks, companies and schools are at present, of no use to us.” The author (whose gender is unspecified) writes that a strange feeling comes over them whenever swarms of women walking around in their Ryukyu-style clothing pass by: “I feel as if I am encountering women of the colonies. Even though I am also from the prefecture, I am sometimes frightened at the sight of these inconsiderate people.” The author insists that readers should be less interested in current debates in the Naha city assembly over the implementation of a sewage system and more concerned about the need to reform these women from the inside out. Once this happens, they will shed their outer markers of enslavement. Only then will true change come to Okinawa. If they insist upon dressing like women from the colonies of Korea and Taiwan, they will continue to be misunderstood by people from other prefectures. Because of the deep harm that their behavior will have upon all Okinawans, these women who continue to dress in Ryukyu-style clothing and walk the streets of Naha in swarms should be labeled the enemies of civilization that they are.

Albeit extreme, this is just one of many statements regarding the dress and appearance of Okinawa’s kimono-clad, often tattooed “unreformed” women that proliferated during the decades following the region’s annexation by the Japanese state in 1879. That is to say, before Okinawa was Okinawa, it was the Ryukyu Kingdom, an autonomous kingdom with robust commercial and cultural ties to the continent and Southeast Asia. In 1609, this condition changed as a result of the Satsuma domain’s invasion of the kingdom. After that, it became a semi-autonomous kingdom, still called Ryukyu that was dually subordinated to the Qing and Tokugawa regimes. The territory called Okinawa today emerged through a process known as Ryūkyū Shobun, or the “disposition of Ryūkyū,” which took place between 1872 and 1879. During these seven chaotic years, the Meiji state annexed the Ryūkyū kingdom, converted it into a feudal domain, and abolished that, renamed the region Okinawa, and welcomed it into the nation-state. Though Okinawa was incorporated into Japan not as a colony but as a prefecture, it was welcomed into the national space in a completely different way than the feudal domains of the early modern polity. Confirming the definition that Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson give of the nation-state in Border as Method (2013) as “adaptable, sly, and fragmented […] capable of harboring a multiplicity of times, temporal zones, and temporal borders” that includes, and expels different segments of the population in different ways at different moments, the Meiji state restaged old systems, relations, and hierarchies in Okinawa as the very method of its inclusion into the national space. As we will see, this initial policy, called “The Preservation of Old Customs,” produced new forms of difference that were then used to explain the state’s treatment of Okinawa like a semi-colony rather than full-fledged prefecture of Japan. This historical background is crucial for understanding the intense gaze that Okinawa’s women were subjected to since annexation.

If it the sentiment expressed in the opening article was an isolated example it would be easy to dismiss it as a case of a local writer’s overly enthusiastic acceptance of the assimilatory rhetoric that the Japanese state was selling in order to ‘civilize’ Okinawa while it transformed the region into a sugar monoculture for its own profit. However, given that it was by no means isolated, it becomes necessary to examine the conditions of possibility of the emergence of this kind of sentiment as discourse. Once we do that, we see that matters are more complicated than they may appear. In fact, behind this kind of description lies a violent and gendered process of the displacement of Okinawa’s women from the prefecture’s textile industry, the devaluation of the skills, knowledges and experiences that they possessed as weavers, dyers and merchants, and finally, the destruction of entire sets of social relations in which they lived and worked. As we’ll see next, the early 1900s — the period when the prefecture’s economy was undergoing a massive transformation following two decades of imposed ‘delay’ of modernizing reforms by the Japanese government — was a pivotal juncture in the devaluation of women’s work and knowledge. This was also the period when we begin to see serious objections to their comportment and outward appearance.

Three Figures ///

Matsumura The Funambulist 3
Okinawan women photographed by Torii Ryuzo in the North of Okinawa Island in 1904.

The Ryukyuan kimono-clad Okinawan woman began to appear frequently in newspaper and magazine articles from the early 1900s, right as the state privatized the prefecture’s lands, clarified boundaries between communal, municipal and state lands, and prepared the ground for its capitalistic development. Given these conditions, Okinawa’s entrepreneurs, politicians and reformers scrambled to formulate a strategy that would allow the prefecture to modernize without being overwhelmed by the vast resources that mainland Japanese capitalists wielded.

The Female Textile Weaver ///

The textile industry, which at the time was a specialty industry that had catered to wealthy patrons in mainland Japan since the kingdom era, was object of concern from the early years of the prefecture’s establishment. Comprised mainly of tsumugi, kasuri, and basho cloth, it was one of the prefecture’s most valuable industries but faced stiff competition from its rivals on the mainland like the Kurume textiles industry in Fukuoka and Kagoshima (both on Kyushu Island) that had rationalized its production and distribution circuits in order to carve out a space that was becoming dominated by cheap imports. As early as 1888, observers had pointed out the disorganized nature of Okinawa’s textiles industry. One report of the time, titled Records of Observations about Ryūkyū (Ryūkyū Kenbun Zakki) described the conditions in Shiohama district, the center of commercial activity where a large proportion of the textiles produced in Okinawa was sold to individual buyers. After introducing it to his readers as the Okinawan equivalent of Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, also an important commercial center during the early modern period, the author painted the following picture:

They [the sellers] do not abide by any rules and stalls are set up in a large area, some facing forward, others facing backward and still others facing sideways. The women who run these stalls set up shop as they please. The conditions are extremely noisy; at times, their barbarism is unbearable.” An observer described the women in the following way: “They walk around mostly on the bare ground like beasts. I heard somewhere that the feet of Okinawan women are very solid, like that of cats and dogs. This is understandable since they have to carry around trees, rock, sand, dirt, rice bales and sugar barrels. […] They have tattoos on the back of both hands. Their words are incomprehensible though they do speak in broken Japanese or at the very least, can understand it.

Transforming these chaotic conditions in the textiles industry required driving out these disheveled women who held a virtual monopoly on both production and sales of Okinawa’s most important export after sugar. Self-appointed reformers began by instituting measures to control quality and inspect textiles produced by female weavers and spinners and sold by the female merchants at Shiohama in order to prevent the outflow of products that could damage the reputation of the highly coveted “Okinawa brand.” They gained approval from the prefecture to form a Ryūkyū cloth woven dealers association in the winter of 1898 that was aimed at reforming what they considered poor quality textiles that are churned out in the prefecture in order to recover the mainland Japanese consumer’s lost trust in their product.

Matsumura The Funambulist 2
Okinawan women photographed by Torii Ryuzo in the North of Okinawa Island in 1904.

Following the examples from mainland Japanese sites that had recently made vast improvements in the implementation of spinning machines, the association came up with the proposal to keep the skilled thread weavers in a single location and provide opportunities for dyers to make their own reforms. By instituting a wage rather than leaving the business of weaving to women who engaged in it when they had a break from other duties like agricultural production, they hoped to ensure a steady flow of textiles whose quality could be regulated by the association. Further, they stated that in time, these reforms would lead to problems they believed plagued the industry: petty thefts of raw materials, the placing of communal tools in pawn and the failure to adhere to externally imposed deadlines. These maladies, which reformers characterized as individual workers’ theft of the collective profits of their villages, would necessarily decline with the start of large-scale factory work: if women attempted to steal from the community, they would be fired immediately. A system of inspections, restrictions of the free sale of textiles and fines could protect the reputation of Okinawan textiles from its main practitioners.

Young Girls With Loose Morals ///

At roughly the same period that reformers were making a push to clean up the textiles industry, a project called the Movement to Reform Old Customs was implemented in the prefecture’s agrarian villages in order to rectify what mainland Japanese observers had long characterized as Okinawa’s inversion of proper gender relations: “The men just lounge around at home while the women engage in commerce outside. The men pretend to be gentlemanly with a long kimono sashes and parasols while women wear short sashes and go barefoot into the sun […] the men are very gentle and the women are slightly rugged.” Correcting these inverted roles and transforming the temperament of men and women was considered absolutely necessary for Okinawans to become full-fledged Japanese subjects.

In fact, the transformation of gender norms was necessary in order to realize a new sexual division of labor that subjugated women’s labor and reproductive functions to the reproduction of capitalist society. A main target of the Movement to Reform Old Customs was the perceived loose morals of the young men and women of the agrarian villages. Although most observers conceded that women were extremely hard workers, they were disgusted by the enthusiasm with which these women engaged in after-hours activities, most importantly the practices called moasobi (young men and women meeting at night in the empty fields to sing and dance together) and yagamaya (young men singing songs while the women engaged in handicraft activities indoors) in the villages. In Nakagami and Shimajiri regions of the main island of Okinawa, restricting these practices became an urgent matter after reports surfaced that a young man had contracted syphilis after paying a visit to a prostitute and had infected the entire village. Newspaper articles stressed the need to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases by policing the practice and periodically testing women who had relations with multiple men through the activity. This link between prostitution, syphilis, and loose women seeking pleasure was repeatedly made in articles around this time and reinforced the notion that Okinawa’s young women were constantly in danger of slipping into prostitution and compromising the sexual health of entire villages. As was the case during the witch hunts in Europe investigated by Maria Mies, reformers “denounced female nature as sinful, as sexually uncontrollable, insatiable and ever ready to seduce the virtuous man.”

Noro/Yuta ///

Another important part of the movement to reform old customs was a violent campaign to diminish the authority of women who had once served important political, spiritual, and economic roles in the kingdom. Two key groups that were targets of such campaigns were Okinawa’s female priestesses and oracles, called noro and yuta. In particular, female priestesses who enjoyed key positions in village communities as subordinates of the Kikoeogimi — the title granted to the chief priestess, oracle, and highest ranking spiritual advisor to the king during the kingdom era — lost much of their legitimacy in the transition from kingdom to prefecture. During much of the early modern era, they had been in charge of performing monthly religious ceremonies in their villages and overseeing the spiritual health of the countryside. They had been granted official lands, called norokumoi lands, and had been allowed to supplement their stipends by growing crops on them. After 1879, the noro continued to perform their usual tasks of praying for the peace and prosperity of the village community and villagers’ safety at sea and continued to lead annual ceremonies and festivals associated with harvest cycles. This attitude began to change beginning with enactment of the modern Japanese state’s first civil code in 1898, which reinforced male leadership in the family. The principle of male primogeniture weakened the control that the noro had over their lands. In conjunction with these new codes that took away her ability to manage her lands, reformers began publicly criticizing the noro for offering ineffective spiritual advice and accused them of deliberately confusing ignorant people. Local elites were particularly critical of the noro’s willingness to offer prayers on behalf of young men of conscription age to avoid being drafted and recommended stricter policing of their activities.

Yuta were also central figures in the spiritual life of village communities from the kingdom era. In contrast to the noro, they were not incorporated into the bureaucratic structure of the kingdom government, nor were they responsible for the village as a single unit. They served as fortune-tellers and interlocutors between the living and the dead, performed a wide variety of services for individuals and families, and responded to unfortunate events in people’s lives. Unprotected by the kingdom government, they did not enjoy the same status or privileges that the female priestesses received as bureaucrats of the spiritual realm and were periodically targeted for policing. Still, they remained a strong presence into the Meiji period.

Newspaper articles that appeared during the Movement to Reform Old Customs reveal the frustration that many reformers felt about these women. A common theme that emerged in these articles was the village yutas’ connection to prostitution rings in the three pleasure quarters of Naha: “These yuta lie, trick people out of their money, cause the demise of businesses, and disrupt public morals. […] We have heard that one woman, fifty years old, who was once a mistress in Unten works as a middleman [for yuta and their customers] and secretly sells herself on the side.” A large portion of this article was devoted to publicly outing these women, many of whom lived in the Tsuji District, by printing their names and addresses for all to see. Yuta were accused of being quacks who collected significant fees to make divinations for the sick, only to collect additional payments when their divinations proved ineffective. Reformers believed that a vicious cycle existed wherein superstitious reliance on the yuta during illnesses created debt, which in turn rendered villagers even more vulnerable to the prostitution rings that the same yuta operated.

The Ryukyu Shimpo reported on a trial held involving an accused yuta named Nakachi Kamado who was on trial for spreading rumors that there would be frequent fires and hurricanes in Higashi because the gods were angered that belief in their powers was waning in Naha. The article described Nakachi, as well as her fellow yuta supporters as appearing in court wearing kimonos that were held in place by Ryukyu-style sashes. It also mentioned that Nakachi required the services of an interpreter while she was being questioned (February 28, 1913). She was, in light of efforts by reformers to spread standard Japanese and Japanese-style dress during the Movement to Reform Old Customs, a symbol of feudality; a dangerous remnant that had to be excised from view.

Matsumura The Funambulist 1
Okinawan women wearing garments made of a fiber taken from a species of dwarf banana tree (1880s). / Public Domain.

These attacks against weavers, priestesses, oracles, and women of loose morals who were immediately identifiable by their dress and appearance show striking similarities to witch hunts in Europe during the primitive accumulation process of the 16th and 17th centuries that led to the confiscation of women’s property, their removal from communal lands, and their loss of control over their bodies. In Okinawa, the expropriation of priestesses from their lands, the erasure of dates from the calendar during which their services were needed by their communities and the rejection of their knowledge as anything more than dangerous superstition was part and parcel of broader attacks that reformist intellectuals and state authorities waged against female property and control of economic spheres over which they previously held a monopoly.

Conclusion ///

Concern with the visible markers of difference vis-à-vis Japanese women that Okinawa’s women carried with them escalated as more people left their hometowns to find work abroad. This trend began around the same time that attacks against the three figures considered above intensified in the prefecture. Once they were away from their hometowns, Okinawan men and women became representatives of Japan in foreign countries. The fear that their barbarity would cause embarrassment for other Japanese abroad led to increased scrutiny in their new sites of work and residence, which in turn fed the civilizational discourse back home. In 1899, the Ryukyu Shimpo published articles that noted with concern, the treatment that Okinawans received in Taiwan. While men did not escape their scrutiny, the main target was clearly women: “When the people of Taiwan see women and men from Okinawa, they call them Japanese savages because of their strange customs. It cannot be helped that they are seen as underdeveloped savages, since the women’s hands look like they were bitten by a snake and because men’s hairstyles look like those of women with headpieces (September 27, 1899).” Several days later, another article appeared with the title “Taiwan Miyage,” or “Souvenir from Taiwan” that described a common scene that a tourist might see walking around Taipei: “If one travels around the streets of Taipei, one is bound to meet a Ryukyu woman in a short left fold kimono. Among these women, there are some very young girls, groups of couples who appear to be on honeymoon, and bare-footed old women and old women with red eyes. […] The indigenous people laugh, mostly at their tattoos and call them savages of Japan (November 3, 1899).”

The linkage of women’s dress and overall appearance with barbarity was not only linked to prefectural elites’ desires to exclude women from key economic and cultural positions that they held prior to annexation. Those factors alone cannot explain how, by 1912, Ryukyu-style kimono-clad women became objects of fear for people like the author of the Ryukyu Shimpo article introduced at the start of the piece. The emergence of Okinawan women, visibly marked by their clothing and tattoos, can be traced to the way that Japanese anthropology constitutes the object of its gaze following the formation of the Anthropological Society of Tokyo in 1886. As Tomiyama Ichiro argues, the first studies that the members of the society embarked upon were directed toward residents of the Japanese nation-state, itself only founded in 1868. The work of solidifying territorial boundaries and beginning the process of building a national community in Benedict Anderson’s sense that scholars and politicians recognized as still an uncompleted project, was taken on by anthropologists like Torii Ryuzo, Tsuboi Shogoro and Tashiro Antei, all of whom participated in debates over the true origins of the people of Okinawa. This debate and the field surveys that they undertook to clarify Okinawa’s place within the national community began in the 1880s alongside similar studies of the Ainu, who were the indigenous peoples in the northern part of the Japanese territory that became Hokkaido in 1869. Posing the question of origins is evidence, of course, of the assumption of difference to begin with. These studies intensified after Taiwan was incorporated into the boundaries of the Japanese empire in 1895 following the military’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War.

Torii, who took the photographs of the women in “Ryukyu dress” and the noro shown on page 21, made his second and final trip to Okinawa in 1904, a year after female weavers of Okinawa were displayed in the Human Race Pavilion at the Osaka Expo alongside Taiwanese “aborigines,” Ainus and Koreans where they were meant to be visible signs of all of the progress that Japan had made toward becoming an imperial power. What Torii, with the assistance of Okinawan scholar Iha Fuyu hoped to accomplish with his 1904 survey was not identical to the goals of the Pavilion. His archaeological study of pottery remains, his study of the skin color of Okinawans, and other anthropological analysis had convinced him that Okinawans, unlike the Ainu, shared origins with the Japanese people. What his interest in Okinawan women’s dress, tattoos, religious practices and customs meant following this determination of shared origins, was that they explained why the people of Okinawa had not arrived at the same level of development — that is, why they still appeared to be so different — despite being Japanese. This mode of problematization seen in the intense gaze he directed toward customs, dress, and the appearance of Okinawa’s women — all malleable things — distinguished the residents of the prefecture from the Ainu and the Taiwanese, and shaped the way that different populations were inserted hierarchically into the order of the empire. Torii’s survey and the emergence of Okinawan women as markers of difference vis-à-vis mainland Japan through his photographs had an immediate impact upon policies toward women in the prefecture and worked with the measures that its nascent bourgeoisie implemented in order to delegitimize their experiences, knowledges and practices as things that could lead to the prefecture’s demotion to formal colonial status if reforms were not implemented immediately.