Japan has a reputation as a homogenous society, and when compared with the diversity of the U.S., that perception holds true.
But scratching below the surface finds that there are many subcultures and minority groups within Japan: the Ainu and the Burakumin, for a couple of well-known examples.
There have also been ethnic Chinese and Koreans living amongst or as Japanese for decades. If you go back far enough, chances are the ancestors of some Japanese were Chinese or Korean. Just ask Japan’s emperor.
Nowadays, there are those who identify as mixed-race or multicultural Japanese, thanks in part to statistics showing that one in 30 marriages are considered international, between a Japanese national and someone of another background. (Since the overall marriage and birth rate in Japan has dropped significantly in recent years, the relative homogeneity of Japan will no doubt change in the future. But that’s a topic for another column.)
One significant group in Japan, as well as among Japanese Americans, are the Okinawan Japanese. The citizenship of a modern-born resident of Okinawa (who isn’t part of the U.S. military) is Japanese; so, if that person were to travel internationally, he or she would require a Japanese passport. Prior to Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japanese from United States control, however, this was not necessarily the case as an Okinawa Japanese, if I may use that term, was in sort of a nationality limbo. But that’s all history now.
So, while legally Japanese, the people of Okinawa have a rich heritage that differs from mainland Japanese folk, culturally, linguistically and ethnically, as well as in traditional dress, food, music and so on. Okinawa also had its own line of kings. The Okinawan Japanese called themselves Uchinanchu, while the mainland Japanese were Naichi.
If geography is destiny, then Okinawa has been, depending on one’s perspective, enriched or oppressed by China and Japan for centuries, and the United States since WWII. In actuality, it’s probably a bit of both.
Interestingly, there was an “Okinawa boom” in mainland Japan a few years ago. (It seems like there’s always some sort of faddish “boom” going on there, doesn’t it?) Thanks to the popularity of recording acts like Speed, Begin, Rinken Band and Namie Amuro, as well as a TV serial titled “Chura-san,” Okinawa and its culture was in the spotlight, and favorably at that.
I lived on Okinawa as a military dependent and enjoyed it there. I became interested in aspects of the local culture, especially since I later studied a style of Okinawan karate.
That preceding long and drawn out introduction brings me to a new, self-published debut novel titled “My Name Is Mahataa,” written by Jikun Kathy Sankey, aka Dr. Kathy Sankey, a long-time friend of mine who is, incidentally, of Okinawan heritage.
Sankey is someone whom I consider a seeker, a person with natural curiosity about the world but from a nontraditional perspective, whether it’s spirituality, healing or diet. (Actually, from her perspective, all of those are intertwined.)
Same for her husband, Mikio, which is probably why they operate joint acupuncture practices in Inglewood, with Kathy operating the One Drop zendo in the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, while Mikio also has naturopathy in his quiver of healing arts.
In “My Name Name Is Mahataa,” Kathy Sankey has set her story in Okinawa at the turn of the 20th century. Its titular character, Mahataa, has an auspicious birth and is understood to be someone with special attributes and karma, a high-born one, if you will. Nevertheless, as a teen, Mahataa must learn how to develop those skills in order to fulfill her destiny, seeking out teachers who can recognize and nurture her development.
Sankey said she had felt a novel brewing in her for years and when she started writing, the inspiration for the character was her maternal grandmother, whose name was Mahataa.
Along Mahataa’s journey, Sankey weaves together her imagination, indigenous matriarchal Okinawan culture and things she has learned in her own life’s journey: tai chi, yoga, zen meditation and more.
“Many people don’t know that the Okinawan culture has been, historically, a matriarchal culture,” Sankey said, referring to three “gifted women” who appear in the book and serve as Mahataa’s guides.
Sankey said it took three years to complete her novel, which is now available for purchase via Amazon (SRP $15.95), of course, but in addition to buying it in paper form, it’s also available as an e-book. You can also visit her book’s website, MyNameIsMahataa.com or search for the book’s title in Facebook. An audio interview I conducted with Kathy will also be appearing shortly on her website, too.
So, if you’re interested in learning about any of the aforementioned topics, check into getting a copy of “My Name Is Mahataa.” Nifee debiru!
Poking Moses Dept.: My last two columns dealt with the new DVD release of Frank Abe’s documentary “Conscience and the Constitution,” which focused on Heart Mountain’s Fair Play Committee and resisters of conscience. Its three individuals spotlighted the most were Fair Play Committee member Frank Emi, journalist James Omura and JACL leader Mike “Moses” Masaoka. What I tried to convey was that while it is easy for Masaoka to come off as the documentary’s villain, the real blame must go to the U.S. government for prosecuting such an ill-advised plan of forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans (and legal residents of Japanese nationality barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens).
I added that I didn’t think Masaoka’s intent was evil, that he was out to ruin anyone who disagreed with him. In a conversation, Abe himself liked my use of the phrases “collateral damage” and “law of unintended consequences” to describe the fallout for some as a result of Masaoka’s decisions. Nevertheless, Masaoka’s (and JACL’s) actions likely had negative impacts on some in the Japanese American community.
I received the following email from Soji Kashiwagi regarding Masaoka: “I am in complete agreement that we should place the blame for what happened to our community squarely on the U.S. government where it belongs.
“But I also feel that the wartime JACL leaders should not get a ‘free pass’ for its actions … especially when you consider the damage done to the Tule Lake ‘no-no boys,’ renunciants and the resisters. All those who protested and resisted were stigmatized as ‘disloyals’ and ‘troublemakers’ and were basically disowned and thrown under the bus by JACL’s wartime leaders. They did have what they thought were our community’s best interests in mind, but I know from those who lived through it that they were not kind to those who disagreed with them.”
“Undead” for Japan Relief Dept.: In May 2010 I wrote about author Steven Fujita and his self-published novella “Sword of the Undead,” an interesting hybrid of jidaigeki (period drama), horror (vampires) and historical fiction.
Now, word from Fujita is that he will donate a portion of his book’s sales to Japan disaster relief from now through year’s end. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.com.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)