Okinawa’s ‘Reversion’ 50 Years On

Victoria Young

University of Cambridge

‘This book is a work of fiction’: The ‘place’ of Okinawa in contemporary Japanese literature

The fiftieth anniversary of Okinawa’s “reversion” to Japan is an opportunity to critique the place of Okinawa within contemporary Japanese literature. Although the 1990s saw a significant rise in the critical acclaim given to works of Okinawan literature, including two successive Akutagawa Prizes in 1996 and 1997, writing from Okinawa has become less visible in Japan’s literary landscape. However, during the last decade, multiple works have been published by writers from outside Okinawa that take the islands of Okinawa as their fictional setting. These include the 2018 Naoki Prize-winning “entertainment novel” by Shindō Junjō, Takarajima (Holy island), and two recent winners of the Akutagawa Prize: Shuri no uma (The Shuri Horse, 2020), a fantasy novel by Takayama Hanako, and Higanbana no saku shima (The Island Where the Far-Shore Flowers Bloom, 2021) by the Taiwan-born novelist Li Kotomi. In English-language fiction too, one might point to Sarah Bird’s 2014 novel, Above the East China Sea, which unfolds in the U.S. military bases stationed on Okinawa Main Island, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999) and Venetia Welby’s Dreamtime (2021) that both imagine a quasi-futuristic ‘Okinawa’.

Young’s paper seeks to unpack the impacts of these developments upon Okinawa’s position in relation to contemporary Japanese literary history. While the entertaining and creative fictions listed above help to keep a place for Okinawa within contemporary literary studies, this trend is also appearing to replace, and even displace Okinawa’s own literary voices. At one level, this recalls the philosophical problem of the tōjisha, or subject who experienced the historical event first-hand, and the difficulty of speaking for another that haunts the work of Okinawan writers born since 1945. At the same time, the evident attraction of ‘Okinawa’ as a ‘work of fiction’ suggests a repeat within literary production of the ‘Okinawa boom’ in the 1990s that enticed mainland and overseas tourists to the islands in search of healing.

Victoria Young is the Kawashima Assistant Professor in Japanese Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Selwyn College. Her work engages with issues of multilinguality, historical memory, and translation in Japanese literature, in particular as these are articulated in fiction by Okinawan, ethnic Korean, and ‘transborder’ writers. She is writing a monograph on the role of translation in constructing the borders of contemporary Japanese literature.