On Friday, May 4, 2012 during Golden Week, a motley crew of scholars, former military members, artists, business owners came together for a discussion to raise various issues about spaces of blackness in Okinawa. On Sunday, May 6, 2012, we had a smaller group of discussants but more Okinawans in the audience. Both sessions were different and exciting in their own ways. It was organized by Akiko from Cipher City, Bird from Cafe Barcode, and myself.
How this was conceived: A few of us had come together several times, meeting casually on Monday mornings at Bird’s cafe. We chatted intensively about about race and space in Okinawa. Bird, a former Marine in Okinawa said he did not know about events like the Koza Uprising until many years on the island had gone by. He felt like he had come from a place where these kinds of things mattered. Why didn’t it seem like anyone cared? Why was this type of history so silent? Why had no one talked about previous forms of solidarity between blacks and Okinawans to him before? Why weren’t people talking about issues of disillusionment or how and in what ways our identities shift once in Okinawa? Akiko is a hip hop and spoken word artist among other things. As an Okinawan so intimately involved with an art form with its origins in the black urban cultural world and someone who has lived in both Okinawa and in black neighborhoods in the US, she also asked the same kinds of questions. Why isn’t there more understanding beyond an affinity to “try on” or “approach” variations of blackness. Why not something more substantial? If you have followed this blog, it is obvious where my interest in this matter lies. It is both personal and academic. How is someone like me who is both Okinawan and Black represented over time? How possible is it for me to carve out my own meaning/naming/spaces when the processes of racialization both in Japan and Okinawa seem to depend on hardened socially constructed boundaries? How far can representations of blackness shift in a transnational space to the degree that “mutual trans-pacific racisms” (referencing historian yukiko koshiro here) slip and create pockets of transformative notions of difference/solidarity? How is race manifested, made, created, routed transnationally, especially in a militarized context? How are bodies being defined racially, geographically and through memories? These were some of the questions I wrote down after my meetings with Bird and Akiko –things that came up in our long and deep conversations which meandered as the sun grew stronger over the ocean in front of us at Bird’s cafe. Our primary goal: We wanted to pull various outspoken people together with extensive and moving stories about their “routes” and “tangled tales.” I was thinking of this all in a very Paul Gilroy/Stuart Hall kind of way. Others probably took the theme to heart differently.
We called this an experimental focus group. We wanted each discussant to bring their own idea of blackness to the table and we wanted to see how those issues would circulate/meander/intersect with other themes, tales. What spaces moved us towards or away from feeling more or less “Black” in Okinawa. I wanted to see what kinds of inquiry were important to us, which ones would be useful for building stronger conversations later. I had talked to most of the discussants extensively before the event; either in a 2+ hour interview or by email/phone. Others were brought to the table through Akiko- like Kaya, a music producer and author of books on hip hop in Okinawa. We wanted to keep this very open in format as we knew that there would be a second event where we could fine tune what was brought up this time. We wanted the conversation to roam naturally. After all, this was the first time for anything like to happen in Okinawa in a public space, especially off-base. Many of the discussants had either not seen each other in many years or it was their first time meeting. Some folks have been in Okinawa for nearly 30 years and had never met. I overheard one brother tell another, “Man, where have you been hiding out?” Because really, most black folk who have lived long-term in Okinawa at least know OF each other. There was an excitement in the air. We even had “Afro Eric” of Black Tokyo skype in with us and he did a marvelous job of helping to co-facilitate the discussion.
We did film and audio tape the nearly 3 hour discussion. A couple of people do not feel comfortable with airing the event online so I won’t post it. However, I am in the process of writing a paper about the event: the making of it, the discussion and dinner afterwards, the Sunday event that was mostly female centric and how that differed from the Friday event, etc. Here is a rough summary though of some of the topics that came up:
- Racism in Okinawa (interesting that it was the first topic that everyone really wanted to discuss, ex. “I feel like I’ve been treated well in Okinawa” to “I’ve been misunderstood here for these reasons….”
- Black cultural forms–music, food, etc.
- Black spaces–where one felt the most comfortable, the most “black,” the least comfortable, the most aware of one’s difference (I have interviewed many of these folks and was hoping some more of this would have been brought up.)
- Black Okinawans– mixed Okinawans, the rise of black Okinawans after hip hop blew up, child support, absent fathers, transitioning from childhood to adulthood in Okinawa (one black Okinawan woman who grew up here talked about her difficulties in finding work outside of the base areas even though she spoke perfect Japanese.)
- “I see me here too”– Things that reminded the discussants about black issues in the US, riot tanks in Detroit, military tanks in Okinawa
- History of solidarity– Koza uprsing, fighting white supremacy on/off base
- The language of racism vs language of colonialism– different vocabularies to address similar issues, difficulties in coming together because of that
- Militarization–Pride in uniform, disillusion, security and identity, escaping unsafe neighborhoods at home by enlistment, how racial practices differ in each branch, black nationalism, opportunities for advancement through military enlistment
- Gender issues– Okinawan women and black men, dating, power relations, Okinawan men and black male friendships
- Performing blackness– Acting “blacker” in Okinawa, motivations for that, loose boundaries of race, and restricting boundaries–when those shift.
As you can see, we went all over the place. It was good though because I was able to see what issues were easiest to discuss. I noticed which ones were not raised (but had come up in private interviews). The questions were more direct and gendered on the Sunday event which was fully bilingual. Akiko did an amazing job of translating everything and questions between Okinawan audience members and black men and women in the audience were more candid. I wish I could have done a better job directing/focusing the conversation a bit more on both days.
Each person brought their own tales to the conversation– From what it was like to raise black Okinawan kids in Okinawa as a black man, to what it was like working as an interpreter in a meeting between black nationalists and Okinawan base workers in the 60′s, to being a twin of a Koza City “Bushmaster,” to challenging each others’ intersections with blackness over time (the generational differences were quite interesting). I’ll put this all into the paper and will post a link to it here later.
Before each of the discussions had begun, I did a quick presentation on the history of the Koza Uprising in Okinawa and black Okinawa relations in the 1960′s and 70′s in pre-reversion Okinawa. That talk was based on a lot from the paper already written on this subject by my friend Wesley Uenten. I encourage everyone interested in this issue to check out his essay on the Koza Uprising in this book. I focused on that issue because I wanted to talk about a period of time when there was a heightened consciousness of race and identity and possibilities for real transformations to break molds of race-making in a militarized, transnational context, for both Okinawans and Blacks. It was the era of the reversion push so Okinawans were looking at themselves internally against Japanese, against the US, against other “third world” peoples. It was a dynamic period for African-Americans as well, fighting segregation back home and in the social spaces in Koza, where Jim Crow like protocols were enacted in some places. It was dynamic for women — who were positioning themselves in the world differently, thinking about the domestic sphere differently, thinking about their own race and gender in ways that challenged men’s power on both sides of the fence, and especially in the space between. I was hoping that the discussion could move from that point to what is happening now. It transitioned clumsily from that presentation to the next topics but once everyone got comfortable, it started to move along.
The feedback has been generous and I’ve gotten a lot of constructive criticism on how to shape the next one and center the discussion a bit better. On Sunday, we ended the event with a video I made about my mother’s idea of Blackness in Okinawa, her fears about introducing my father to her family, and her fears about staying in Okinawa with us –her mixed black Okinawan kids. The discussion was so busy on Friday that I forgot to show it there but somehow, showing to the Sunday crowd that was mostly made up of Okinawan women, felt like the right space.
I’m hoping the next event will be able to take the broad topics raised at the first gatherings so we can carve out our own theories and methods about race and representations. It’s exciting to unravel the discourse and build a new one in real time. The next event will be in late August or early September at the marvelous Cafe Cotonoha in Ginowan. We are still hammering out a date so stay tuned!
(Also my apologies for these horrible ads below each post–I looked and there’s no way I can take them off since it’s a free blog theme).