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.