‘Island people are always waiting’
Young people’s everyday lives and future narratives in Okinawa [1]

Firouz Gaini, Department of History and Social Sciences, University of the Faroe Islands [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 2 (Article 3 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 16 August 2021.

Abstract: This paper explores young people’s everyday lives and future narratives in Okinawa with focus on education, career, and the role and position of Japan and USA in Okinawan society. Drawing on anthropological and sociological scholarship on youth cultures and island futures, it aims to outline and analyse the meaning of place and cultural identity in relation to oscillating local-global power dynamics. The military bases in Okinawa, influencing the islanders’ lifestyles and values, play a central role in the discussions about the past and the future among young people. The local notion of chanpurū, referring to the hybridisation of elements from different cultures, is used as to scrutinise young people’s identity negotiation and struggle to rethink Okinawa’s relation to the world. The paper, based on a fieldwork among students at higher education institutions in Okinawa in 2019, argues that present-day young people use creative future imagination better to understand contemporary realities and challenges.

Keywords: youth, identity, everyday life, futures, chanpurū, islands


In this article, at the intersection of island studies, youth research, and the sociology of the future, young Islanders from Okinawa Island, the key participants of my project, are invited to share their personal narratives and reflections on their everyday lives and futures, but also their perspectives on the island community’s complicated relationship with Japan and the USA. The article addresses questions about everyday life, knowledge, identity formation, and future narratives through the outlook of girls and boys of diverse socio-economic and cultural background in a coastal urban community on the island of Okinawa. The main objective of the article is to outline and analyse the role of contemporary realities and values in young people’s visions of coming times, as well as to examine the interplay between their personal aspirations and their general vistas of the future. Drawing on anthropological and sociological theories, it intends to illustrate how young people’s unheralded projections not only reflect ambivalent feelings about upcoming developments, but also represent images critically confronting the present with alternative ‘presents’—i.e., futures (Austdal and Helgesen, 2015). The article resonates with the discourse on sustainable societal development in relatively peripheral island communities threatened by de-population and economic decline. It also contributes to discussions on the complex dynamics of inclusion/exclusion in contemporary (globalising) society, for instance through the images of new social and cultural ruptures within Okinawan society. The article focuses on the local intergenerational and intercultural dialogue: How do young people use the knowledge of the past (older generations’ local knowledge and skills) as a guide for future navigation? Okinawa is today a society between tradition and (late) modernity; between local and global social and cultural currents; between the past and the future. It is connected to the rest of Japan, yet also to the rest of East Asia and Western Pacific—also, evidently, to the USA through the controversial American military bases occupying very large Okinawan territories. How does this influence local young people’s cultural identities and values? How do historic ‘wounds’ affect people’s future projections? Focusing on so-called ‘contemporary futures’ can help us outlining the “causes and consequences of images of the future in specific contexts of time and place” (Persoon and van Est, 2000, p. 22). Future thinking, says Wallman (1992), is also a ‘safe’ way of criticising present realities. One way of setting in motion radical visions of alternative presents is by ‘othering’ the future (Gaini, 2018). From this perspective, the future is being imagined as an “alterity of the present, rather than as a distant eventuality” (Pink et al 2017, p. 133). Young people’s contrasting images of the future, directly or indirectly, comment on a wide range of everyday life aspects reflecting their sense of belonging and cultural identity, family, education, and knowledge (Galland, 2008). The future, in other words, is great to think with, to use for mental escapades and veiled critiques of present-day issues (Abram, 2017). The not-yet-now is first exoticised and then de-exoticised (Bryant and Knight, 2019). Struggle is a part of the everyday life of young islanders. Struggle implies the future, says Threadgold (2018, p. 213), and the idea of struggle can be used to grasp how young people make “strategies to deal with the present and engage with the future” (ibid., p. 209). Future imagination also represents a struggle for the right to define one’s own future culture and society (Klein, 2018).

In relation to the context of Okinawa specifically, chanpurū represents an interesting way of merging the past with the future and the local with the global. Chanpurū, an Okinawan word meaning ‘mixing’ or ‘being mixed’, can be traced back to the golden era of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, with precolonial international trade and cultural diversity and exchange (Ikehara, 2016, p. 3-4). It can help us better understand the cultural and social processes that young people manoeuvre in their identity negotiation and future imagination. Chanpurū, the art of mixing and fusing, which most commonly is used to describe Okinawan cooking style, but which today is also the base of so-called chanpurū culture (multiculturalism and hybrid identities), is a representation of cultural adaptation and resilience (Ko, 2010). While chanpurū among scholars usually has been an instrument for analysis of new trends in music, poetry, film, and theatre, as in the case of Nelson’s important volume Dancing with the Dead (2008), I am here broadening the scope of chanpurū to encompass everyday life practice and cultural identity in a broader sense. The processes of chanpurū, says Nelson echoing Roberson (2001), reflect the performance of pragmatism and innovation in “necessary and contingent engagement with the complex influences of foreign cultures” (Nelson, 2008, p. 85-87). The Okinawan slogan “a people bridging all nations,” forming a “betwixt and between” identity out of multifaceted cultural chanpurū processes (Carter, 2014, p. 657), derives from the archipelago’s long history of ‘grassroot cosmopolitanism’, connecting Okinawa to other islands and regions in everchanging networks. Chanpurū has also been employed in contemporary scholarly discourse on the military occupation of the islands and its impact on the local culture. From a (postmodern) cultural studies perspective, chanpurū represents a ‘third possibility’ beyond conflicting Okinawan and American performances of cultural essentialism (Ikehara, 2017, p. 121-122).

Okinawa studies

Okinawa, says Beillevaire (2012), is “one of the regions of the world that has received the greatest attention from scholars,” most of whom belong to the Japanese scientific community, but a growing number of them are from other countries, especially Hawaii, Australia, the USA and the UK, which have ‘Okinawan studies’ as a study programme or research focus at some of their leading universities (Smits, 2019). Struggle, in many different shades, has been a pervasive theme of anthropological studies examining Okinawan culture and identity since the war (Matsui 1987, Tomoaki 2007). The ‘Okinawa struggle’ refers to almost seven decades of “social, cultural and political movements against the US military bases” (Takahashi 2015, p. 29), and, more recently, also against “the global military-industrial complex” of the neoliberal world (Tanji, 2012; Tanji and Broudy 2017, p. 6), but the everyday struggle of young Okinawans is indeed more than a question of living with military bases in their backyard. There are many parallel and interconnected struggles to meet and risks to navigate in the lives of young people. Scholarship on the Okinawan political struggle is extensive, with recent ethnographic studies of militarism, everyday resistance, and peace and anti-base movements (e.g., Tanji, 2006; Tanji and Broudy, 2017; Iacobelli and Matsuda, 2017), as well as the struggle’s influence on local identities in shift (e.g. Allen 2002, Takahashi 2015), on gender issues and postcolonialism (e.g., Ames, 2010; Angst, 2001; Barske, 2009; Keyso, 2000), and on memory and cultural performance (e.g., Nelson, 2008; Ikehara, 2017; Roberson, 2009 and 2015), but very few studies have focused on young people’s everyday lives and struggle to deal with the present and prepare for the future (Gaini, 2020).

Critically rethinking research on the postwar occupation of Okinawa, and challenging dominant history writing drawing on narratives of ‘nationalism’ in Okinawan studies, Iacobelli and Matsuda (2017) open a new research horizon relevant for studies focusing on youth and young adults in the 21st century. While scholars have different, and in some cases conflicting, positions and perspectives concerning the role and meaning of colonialism in Okinawa, it is not possible completely to withhold Okinawa from scholarship on Japanese and American colonialism (Christy, 1997, p. 42). Okinawa’s triangulated relationship with the US and Japan is strongly linked to a history of colonial and postcolonial power relations and its associated local identity politics based on strategic essentialism and chanpurū. Roberson (2011, p. 612) talks aptly about a condition of (post-war) colonial modernity in Okinawa today. “Island people are always waiting,” says the male character in an Okinawan dance performance, “waiting for a new dawn… over there one can see, a Ryukyuan tomorrow” (Barske, 2009, p. 313). In order “to have a sense of who we are,” says Taylor (cited in Giddens, 1991, p. 4), “we have to have a notion of how we have become, and where we are going.” Waiting is also a part of everyday struggle in a precarious and reflexive world (Threadgold, 2018 and 2020). Struggle, therefore, is oscillating between individual strategies and collective projects, and serves as inherent part of young people’s difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, from school to work, in a globalising world.

The context

Okinawa (Uchinaa in Okinawan), the name of both a subtropical island group and its main island, is located between the Amami Islands to the northeast and the Sakishima Islands (including Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands) to the southwest. Okinawa, one of the 47 Japanese prefectures, is part of the larger Ryukyu Islands group, comprising all the islands between Kyushu and Taiwan in the extreme south of Japan. The Ryukyus have a population of roughly 1.55 million, of which approximately 1.4 million are based in Okinawa Island. Okinawa, branded as ‘the Galapagos of the East’, represents an oceanic intersection with ancient maritime trade routes to China and large parts of coastal East and Southeast Asia (Furuki, 2003). The Ryukyuan archipelago, some 2,275 square kilometres in total, is composed of 36 permanently inhabited islands among hundreds of uninhabited and forgotten isles. The Ryukyu Kingdom, a proud tributary of the Chinese court since its origins in the fourteenth century, came under Japanese control when the domain of Satsuma launched an invasion of the Ryukyu Islands in 1609 (Kerr, 2000). Its kings were masters in the art of balance, harmonising their diplomatic relation to rivalling neighbouring powers—Japan and China, above all, but also other upcoming regional players—in a quest for autonomous survival. The Elders of Okinawa used to say, “think of China as grandmother and regard Japan as grandfather” (Lebra, 1970, p. 283). Four years after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the Japanese Empire annexed the Ryukyu Islands, and in 1879, when the deposed Ryukyuan king, Shò Tai, was exiled from his country to be secluded in Tokyo, Okinawa formally became a Japanese prefecture. Okinawa was the stage of the bloody 82-days-long WWII ‘Battle of Okinawa’ in 1945. At least 130,000 Okinawans, more than a fourth of the civilian population, were massacred in what some commentators have called a genocide (Nelson, 2008). The American Occupation of Japan was concluded in 1952, but Okinawans, treated as ‘half-foreigners’ in Japan, had to wait for 27 years until they were released from American military control. The 1972 Okinawa reversion (formal return to Japan) was welcomed, but the US military bases did not disappear.

Method and framework

This paper is based on a fieldtrip to Okinawa Island in the summer of 2018. During my fieldwork, I was affiliated with the Research Institute of Islands and Sustainability (RIIS), formerly known as the International Institute of Okinawan Studies, at the University of the Ryukyus, as guest researcher. Most of the participants in my study were senior high school and college and university students, but a small number of participants were young working people without higher education. I visited and talked to staff and students from the following institutions: The National Institute of Technology (Okinawa College), the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa Christian University, Okinawa International University, and a high school in central Naha. The enthusiastic students from the universities—around 25 persons in total—told me about their families, everyday lives, education, future images, and other topics. The National Institute of Technology was an interesting institution to study, because it attracts other groups of young people than the public and private universities do. The National Institute of Technology’s Okinawa branch is located in the small town of Henoko, close to the city of Nago, at the edge of the marvellous coral-reef-fringed coastline of Oura Bay. It is adjacent to the controversial US Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab. While some of the students at the colleges and universities hardly speak a word in English, many have basic communication skills in English. A few students, especially young people who have lived abroad earlier in life, demonstrated excellent English proficiency. One of the female students that I met in Henoko, who had lived in Canada for a year, became one of my key-participant and research co-workers. At the University of the Ryukyus, I had informal meetings with senior RIIS researchers and discussions with small groups of students within the field of social sciences, but I also invested time studying at the libraries at the main university campus.

At all the educational institutions that I had the pleasure to visit, I introduced myself and my project to the staff and students with a talk, which included comprehensive information about my own university, island community, and culture. This introduction had a dual purpose: firstly, it displayed my willingness to share my knowledge and experience with the participants or co-researchers in the field. It was a sign of openness and inclusiveness helping me build rapport and trust with the people on whom my ethnographic project depended. Secondly, the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean (my country) and Okinawa in the East China Sea share some very interesting characteristics. This was a fact arousing the participants’ interest in the conversation on (colonial) history, culture, nature, and sustainable futures. Young Okinawans were wondering how the Faroe Islands (an autonomous region within the Kingdom of Denmark) with a population of less than 60,000 inhabitants could have its own language, stamps, national football team, and Parliament. My own background, from an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, opened doors and made people talk.

Books and arms

Young people studying at colleges and universities in island communities are in an advantaged yet delicate position from the local society perspective: will they move away to make a career in larger urban communities, or will they stay and be the frontrunners working for societal development and sustainability? (Gaini, 2019). Are they educating themselves out of the island community, or do they learn how to alter their own society in a more progressive direction? Most of the students that I talked to in Okinawa expressed an aspiration to move out of Okinawa, up to the cities of mainland Japan, or, in some cases, to foreign countries, after graduation from university. While most of the young islanders insisted, in a reassuring tone, that they will return home to Okinawa later, “someday in the future,” I could not but speculate that their working life will principally take place in new settings. For some of them, in the same way as for other older Okinawans resettling to new places, life in exile is expected to last until the evening of life. It came as no surprise that most college students, in contrast to their university peers, wished to find themselves a job in the local labour market right away after graduation. Through multiplex future perspectives, the students condense their reflections and narratives about their present-day social practices and upcoming societal transformation. Their images of the future, therefore, illustrate and comment on a wide range of themes influencing their local identities and day-to-day challenges and choices (Gaini, 2018). In the first decades of the 21st century, the position of education as core societal value has been turned upside down in Japan, argues Arai (2005), and this shift has indeed influenced young people’s future images and career strategies. Nothing is taken for granted anymore, and young people, including students at higher education institutions, are aware that they might, involuntarily, end up as members of the “new underclass of labourers,” the so-called furiita, counting more than four million citizens of Japan (ibid.). Young students in Okinawa can hardly talk about their everyday life, educational ambitions and island futures without touching upon the issue of the US military bases: are they going to stay open or are they going to disappear?

Makoto, a young male student from a family of academics, studying economics, tells me that he expects the US bases to disappear within 30 to 40 years, at the same time as an Okinawan cultural revival will be witnessed. It is his hope that the language, culture, and history of Okinawa will obtain higher status and recognition at school. The curriculum, he says, should include subjects and material resonating the contextual realities of Okinawa. Afterwards, he looks at me and renounces that this, actually, is “more hope than expectation.” It has been claimed that young people, generally, are “reflexively realistic about their future” (Threadgold, 2020, p. 690). Another participant, Ria, a talkative and vivid young woman studying psychology at university, voices her worries about so-called “anti-US military base activists.” If the visiting activists keep staying in Okinawa, she slams, “Okinawa will not be better.” According to Ria and some other students opposing the popular movement against the US bases, most of the leading anti-base activists are from other parts of Japan, mainly large university cities. Some Okinawan students sharing Ria’s position even talk about the movement and its anti-base campaigns as ‘un-Okinawan’ in its nature. There is no evidence to the claim that the movement is hijacked by ‘intruders’ from the North, even if there of course are many Japanese students supporting the anti-base movement (Tanji and Broudy, 2017). This conservative position does, nevertheless, not always reflect an unconditional support of the military bases. Another seemingly like-minded male student, Takuma, who is an undergraduate psychology student, says that he is looking for a politician who does not “only make complaints about American bases.” Takuma says that he would welcome a person accepting that they (Okinawans as well as foreigners at the US bases) “should coexist.” He does not want to promote any form of ‘imperialist’ occupation of the islands, but he leans towards what some scholars have described as a decolonial ‘third way’ in his future imagination (Ikehara, 2017).

Many discussions revolve around a search for a viable and durable solution concerning the panoply of military problems on the islands. The very sense of ‘victimhood’ in Okinawa, says McCormack (1999, p. 38), “predisposes towards passive acceptance of externally imposed solutions.” Saki, a female university student and independent thinker from a large working-class family, points out the bases as the ‘main problem’ of present-day Okinawa. It is a problem, she says, not only for Okinawa, but “for the whole of Japan.” She states that she is ‘Okinawan first’ (before Japanese) when she reflects on her (national) identity. Her future dream is, in brief, “to improve Okinawan sovereignty, to develop Okinawan industries, to boost the local economy...” Like some of her peers, Saki reviews the bases at the same time as she critically re-examines the economic structure and vulnerability of the islands. She openly supports the Student Union, which is a very important player in the umbrella of anti-base social movements, but she does not agree with all of their goals and missions. The people of Okinawa, she insists, can solve their own problems. “If they want, they can,” she says laconically. But how? Another female student, Hana, a friend of Saki studying mathematics and science, is also anxious about the ‘menacing bases’ hampering solid social progress. Hana analyses this problem in connection with the generally worsening Japan-Okinawa relations that we, according to her, are witnessing these days.

The bases represent both small routine issues and large structural questions in the minds of the islanders. Because they are living with military bases as closest neighbours, many Okinawans’ everyday lives are constantly compromised, at the same time as some of these islanders find it difficult to imagine a future without bases (Takeo, 1997, p. 308). In the viewpoint of many Okinawans, the military bases also represent a serious threat for the natural environment and landscape of the islands too: the coastline, the inlets, the seascape, the forests, the hills, etc. The bases are impossible to ignore in the landscape. More than half of the 55,000 active duty US military personnel in Japan are stationed in the Okinawa Islands, most of whom belong to the military bases covering almost one fifth of the main island’s land area. If you add civilian employees and family members, the number reaches more than 50,000 persons stationed in Okinawa (Forgash, 2009, p. 220). Okinawa’s relation to the US bases is complex, and the islands have relied on indirect financial support compensating for the bases for many years now. Okinawa, the poorest prefecture of Japan since the 19th century, has, according to the pessimistic and sketchy assessment of Hein and Selden (2003, p. 8), “no obvious alternative to economic reliance on central government subsidies.” Based on this premise, the economic consequences of a future society without military bases might look severe, but this line of reasoning does not stop young people from imagining and predicting a future without US bases—or with more sustainable bases regulated by Okinawan requirements.

Wealth and poverty

Young people dream of a more prosperous and independent future society capitalising on its resources and capacities, but their visions tend to lack an operational plan for the project. University students, my main research participants, represent a privileged group of young people, who often belong to relatively wealthy families with urban lifestyles. They know that their future is less precarious than the future of most other young Okinawans, and that they are going to fight against each other for the highest positions in the society, but they are divided on their visions for tomorrow—some enthusiastic about the opportunity of social and economic transformation, other disillusioned about a presumed lack of influence on development of society. The depression of the post-miracle economy of the 21st century, in Okinawa as well as in mainland Japan, has extinguished young people’s hope for speedy access to the smooth and generous from-student-to-job ‘escalator’, which used to be a general rule among all groups of students in the country (Arai, 2003, p. 370). Hiroto, a young man from a family of farmers, but also of primary school teachers, who is a student at the technical college in Henoko, talks about the need to invest heavily in education for the future of the islands He writes in a message to me:

I believe that in order for Okinawa to become prosperous in the future, it is necessary further to enhance employment opportunities and raise Okinawan people’s awareness of education. Establishing universities and secondary schools that are comparable to those of the whole country is also important.

Several young people that I talked to reflected on their islands’ educational predicaments and disadvantages in comparison with meritocratic mainland Japan. Talking about poverty in Okinawa, Hiroto also points out underprivileged parents’ lack of (academic) resources and interest in their children’s formal education. Because of this vicious cycle, he pessimistically concludes, “Okinawa will remain poor forever.” While Okinawa is presented as a disadvantaged, faraway region compared to urban mainland Japan in this narrative, the problems in Okinawa also mirror a radical neoliberal turn in the Japanese economy, fostering a misplaced individualism rendering individuals “responsible for themselves” in case of illness, poverty and unemployment (Arai, 2005). In mainland post-growth Japan the ‘lost generation’ of the ‘lost decade’ has become a common dreary expression warning about the adversities facing post-bubble Japanese youth (e.g., Allison, 2013; Arai, 2005; Baldwin and Allison, 2015; Brinton, 2011; Slater and Galbraith, 2011). What will happen in the future? Growing social inequality (e.g. alarming youth poverty and homelessness), social disaggregation (social withdrawal, loneliness, etc.), demographic predicaments (falling fertility-rates, very restricted immigration, etc.), recurring risks of natural disasters, and rise of the precariat (connected to the process of deregulation of the market, hence also precaritisation of the labour market) are some of the main problems influencing the everyday struggle and future perspectives of young people in Japan—including Okinawa—today (Arai, 2003; Baldwin and Allison, 2015). The ‘relationless society’ of de-social Japan is the outcome of the disintegration of the efficacious ‘family-corporate’ system, which characterised post-war Japan until the 1990s (Allison, 2015, p. 37). One of the students that I talked to in Okinawa, a female university student with very high academic ambitions, told me that she could not imagine that her native islands could provide her the career opportunities that she had aimed for in the foreseeable future. She felt forced to move away, or completely to change her life project. The 21st century, says Arai, started in Japan with media headlines about collapsing classrooms, failing homes, and strange millennium-kids (Arai, 2003, p. 370). Young people have been particularly hard hit by the shift, as they were introduced to (or at least tried to enter) the job market in the so-called ‘glacial age of hiring’ when the neoliberal political rhetoric focusing on flexibilisation and individual responsibility dominated in the public discourse (Lie, 2001). Another transition in the labour market is linked to what Graeber has described as the rise of ‘pointless work’—the quality of ‘bullshit jobs’—in late modern society (Graeber, 2019). It is, he says provocatively, “as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working” (ibid, p.xvi) This adds a dimension to the discussion about employment versus unemployment, because it resonates an assumed change in young people’s identification with and expectation of their future labour market position.

The precaritisation of employment is indeed significant, and “for increasing numbers of workers and their families, the attendant risks are becoming the new normal” (Osawa and Kingston, 2015, p. 76). The common response among Japanese young people feeling marginalised and isolated, has been to “turn inward and blame themselves” (Brinton, 2011, p. 183). Differently, says McCormack (1999, p. 38), the ‘Okinawan problem’ is almost always interpreted as “one of bases, not development.” The everyday life and future imagination of contemporary young Okinawans resonate with the shifting social, cultural, and economic fabric of the archipelago, which battles with higher unemployment, lower wages, fewer industrial jobs, more divorces, and more poor and homeless people than other prefectures of Japan (Hein and Selden, 2003). Many of the students that I met at higher education institutions talked about this dilemma, one of them stressing that: “Okinawa people need to prioritise and develop new industries, but people with good ideas have often left the islands.” When talking about the future, Hana expresses above all a worry about the economic crisis and high unemployment rates in Okinawa. She is not impressed by her own generation: “Young people do have power, but they are not interested in changing society,” she claims in frustration, and people interested in politics “represent a minority.” The ambivalent sentiments toward the US bases in Okinawa, says Ames (2016, p. 41), are influenced by modern values of consumerism and the “shifting perceptions of Amerikanum—Ryukyuan for ‘American products’—which has generally received a positive appraisal despite widespread, sustained opposition to the US bases....”

Islands and cultural identities

Not surprisingly, the military bases have had a strong impact on young people’s cultural identities in Okinawa, and many Okinawans also have a personal connection to the garrisons (Ames, 2010). One female student, Ayaka, studying IT and journalism, who has a middle-class background and an international network of friends and relatives, explained to me that Okinawan women dating men from the military bases feel ‘cool’ and are admired among their peers. They obtain access to the bases providing American restaurants, clubs, sports facilities, and other symbols of western lifestyles (Ames, 2010; Gaini, 2020). But after a while, many of the local women frequenting the military bases start feeling stigmatised as disgraced in their home community, and this reaction makes them realise that they are cornered between two groups that they must try to consolidate (Ames, 2010; Ginoza, 2007). Okinawan women’s relation to the bases and their servicemen is a complex story and multi-layered landscape, which, according to Johnson, tells about women’s role in “the larger geopolitical game, influencing, challenging, and smoothing the way for the US-Japan security alliance” (Johnson, 2019). Another university student, Sora from Okinawa Christian University, around 20 years old and without any siblings, disclosed to me that she loves the USA and American culture. As a young teenager, she used to frequent ‘the American village’, a large hybrid American Disneyland-esque shopping and entertainment complex in Chatan, adjacent to US military bases, acting as retreat and haven for wistful residents of the military bases as well as locals (Ames, 2016; Koikari, 2015). She has many friends working on the bases—in restaurants, shops, dormitories, etc.—in Okinawa, who narrate life inside the bases, symbolising a piece of America, in colourful details to their acquaintances.

In the narratives of many young Okinawans, two, usually interconnected, life episodes seem to have opened their eyes to the culture and language of their native island community: the experience of living overseas (outside Okinawa) for a longer period, and enrolment to a higher education institution. In these places, with a kind of emotional separation from everyday life practices in Okinawa, they discovered and acknowledged for the first time that Okinawa was different, not just a curious miniature of aggregated Japan. Shiori, for instance, realised that she wanted to live in Okinawa and learn more about the history and culture during an (student) exchange stay in Canada. Situated in this faraway setting, she realised that she had been unaware of the unique islandness—Okinawaness—of her home place. Another student, a politically interested and visionary young man whom I met together with common friends at a small tavern outside Naha, explained to me that it was during a formative stay in Hawaii (where he had become acquainted with the large Hawaiian Okinawan community) that his interest in politics and the Okinawan struggle for self-determination was awakened. He is striving to replace the nostalgia for the exotic past with a dynamic future of hope (Threadgold, 2020, p. 695). “She tells me that I should try to move away in order to learn about Okinawa,” says Saki referring to her mother. You fail to recognise Okinawa’s ‘good things’ when you are at home on the islands. According to her wise mother, Saki needs “to get out to find out what is inside.” When they are situated in mainland Japan, Okinawans often feel forced to decide whether to be Japanese or Okinawan, and a growing number of people tend to reject the Japanese identity because of hurting discrimination and the colonial situation in the South (Rabson, 2012). “People do not respect Okinawa in Japan,” one young female student argues, “people just see the exotic sides.” The tourism-induced tropicalisation of the islands, says Figal (2012), is the outcome of mainland Japanese people’s stereotypical fantasies of a paradise in the South. An Okinawan student talks about an event from his stay in Australia:

When I was in Australia as exchange student, there were many students from Japan. In first class, of course, we had to introduce ourselves. I said, ‘I am from Okinawa’ but other Japanese students said, ‘I am from Japan’. And there was another Okinawan student. He also said, ‘I am from Okinawa’. I think people from Okinawa are proud of Okinawa.

My study is in accord with this student’s hunch: most of the islanders are grateful and proud of their belonging to Okinawa. They declare a deep yet intricate love for the archipelago. The multifaceted individual struggles to reinvent and reinvigorate the Okinawaness of Okinawa are thus to be imagined as either negative or positive, in the sense that they can be “devastating, depressing, anxious, uncertain,” but also may be “creative, empowering, stimulating, inspiring, and arousing” (Threadgold, 2018, p. 22). The future images altering the present—status quo—are moulded by the progressive attitudes. One of the students told me zealously about the old diaspora in Latin America: “I went to Brazil last summer. I was surprised! Because many Okinawa people live there. They can speak Uchina-guchi and play the Sanshin, dancing Eisa, dancing traditional dances…” They speak the local language, sing the traditional songs, and dance the traditional dance, all of which represent important pieces in the mosaic of future images created by young islanders, but which also are core qualities in the touristic branding of the paradise islands. He talked about the Okinawans in South America as if they were more ‘authentically’ Okinawan than Okinawans living in Okinawa are today. Another student, thinking about generational transitions, told me in a small written note: “My father says that I don’t like Okinawa now, but that I am going to like it later in life, just like he did.” In this way, the father promises the son that the nature of the youth generation’s precarious and ambivalent relation to the islands will change with the transition to adulthood (or maybe late adulthood).

Sustaining the treasure

The struggle to sustain and to revive the language of Okinawa (the largest out of ten ancient Ryukyuan languages) is also an important part of the future images of several participants in my study. Most young people from Okinawa Island do not speak Okinawan, but some of them are familiar with the vanishing language through their parents and grandparents. Shiori, a female student at the technical college in Henoko, tells me that her grandmother speaks uchināguchi (Okinawan), while her parents hardly speak it. Shiori would love to learn basic uchināguchi, but she honestly does not expect it to survive in the future. Several of the students that I talked to find it very important to protect the local language heritage, and by that to keep the old stories and legends in ‘authentic’ terms, thus keeping memories alive, but they are not very optimistic in their views. “It is important for the identity,” Hana and Saki acknowledge. The language and culture, says Hinata in unison with the others, are “our treasures from our ancestors.” The intensive Japanification of Okinawan society since the end of the 19th century, especially in the domains of education and social and cultural communication and policy, has made the struggle for uchināguchi very strenuous (Nelson, 2008). Language revitalisation is indeed on the political agenda in Okinawa today, with strong support among the people and from the governmental authorities, but the current linguistic ‘landscape’ and social realities make it a mission difficult to realise (e.g., Heinrich, 2004 and 2016). “People from Okinawa take care of their ancestors,” says a pondering student referring to traditional rituals, which he does not want to be lost, even if the cultural meaning of the ancestor has changed with the process of modern individualisation in society. In the Yaeyama-based pop band BEGIN’s popular song ‘The Treasures of the Island People’ from 2002, which was produced to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Okinawa reversion, young islanders’ ambivalent relation to the past and precarious journey to the future is articulated in a language resonating with contemporary Okinawans’ wish to recapture the ‘treasure’ (Gillan, 2012):

Looking up at the skies of the Islands here where I was born
And I wonder how much I know about the sky
There must be something invaluable here
That is the Treasure of the Island People
Until that day—someday—when I must leave the islands
I want to really know and understand deeply the important things
These are the treasures of the Island People

Here, a group of young people from the remote Yaeyama Islands send a powerful poetic message, echoing the tacit local knowledge of the islanders, and their unexplored memories and entangled roots, but with an existential longing for the ‘treasure’, which symbolises the innermost identity of all layers of cultural identities. Okinawans have used their ships as icons of a naval ‘bridge to all nations’ creating a ‘bridging culture’ in countermoves against Japanese “images of Okinawa as less modern than Japan” (Barclay, 2006, p. 125).  “I think Okinawa is international, and a symbol of peace,” says a young Okinawan student of media studies. Okinawa, says a young woman from Naha, “is a region that has many cultures…it is called chanpūru bunka.” Like many of her peers, she underlines its cultural diversity in contrast to images of a ‘primitive’ rural culture beyond the modern world. Another student says that his father loves Okinawa, even if he originally is from Saitama Prefecture without family roots in Okinawa, and therefore, the student concludes, “he is uchinanchu.” Mulling over the abstract question of identity, another young student, originally from one of the smaller islands in the region, tells me that he believes that his mission “is to revitalise Okinawa, to keep peace, to cherish my family… we must never repeat the war….” One of the students from Okinawa International University, a cheery young man from the urban area of Naha, told me that he presupposes that young people from Okinawa need to remember and learn more about their cultural and historic heritage, about nature and the ocean, because this is how they can reach their goals for the future in a globalising world. Chanpurū generates creative thinking in the everyday struggle aiming to de-exoticise and reinvent the islands, thus also providing us with a better understanding of the social realities and complex particularities of Okinawan colonial modernity (Roberson, 2011, p. 612). Chanpurū, thus, resonating Okinawa’s resistance, and involving active appropriation of carefully selected elements from the dominant culture, challenges Japanese essentialism as well as the Japanese ideology of homogeneity (Ko, 2010). Nevertheless, the life and struggle of present-day Okinawans can, evidently, not be reduced to conventional binary schemes with Okinawa/Japan corresponding to tradition/modernity oppositions (Alam, 2003, p. 222). The Okinawan artist Teruya Rinsuke says:

In chanpurū rhythm, we happily combine new lines of scientific inquiry, unscientific traditions passed on from older generations, as well as outright lies. I am convinced that when absolutely incompatible perspectives are brought together and the boundaries between this and that are weakened, a new truth, a new culture will be born (Roberson, 2001, p. 27)

This is the work of a bricoleur using his imagination to create new patterns out of old elements from different domains. Chanpurū in arts talks about the art of life. People’s relation to the art of chanpurūism is also a reflection of a view of life: what is laughable and what is not? What is reality and what is not? “All we can do is laugh and get on with things,” says a character in an Okinawan comedy (Nelson, 2011). The chanpurūing process, says Ikehara (2016, p. 30-31), is “one hundred years of laughter”; laughter as weapon of the weak employed to move from pain to pleasure, from hardly bearable to enjoyable life.

Chanpurū and generous dreams

The idea of chanpurū is not only about the past, but also about the future. We have seen that young people’s everyday lives and future narratives produce contested versions of the future(s) resting on the pillar of the history and the culture of the place. The vision of a common island future gives young people individual strength and integrity (Augé, 2014, p. 106). Time, says Augé, “is a palimpsest; everything inscribed there does not reappear, and sometimes the earliest inscriptions surface most easily” (Augé, 2016, p. 85). In Okinawa, Tanji and Broudy explain, time is “an open ocean where movements in the tides and currents of society sometimes carry people a bit off course and delays meetings” (2017, p. 218). The ocean is both a metaphor and a part of everyday life. Time and waiting are, hence, moulding and guiding the everyday life and struggle of young Okinawans. The culturally endorsed practice of waiting (resisting haste) serves in Okinawa as a form of symbolic protest in the fast and accelerating time of the neoliberal world. Awaiting an omen, “a Ryukyuan tomorrow, the beginning of a rich world of peace” (Barske, 2009, p. 313-314), as the lyrics to a traditional Okinawan dance for males tell, demonstrates the artistic version of the fight for the future. “Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities,” says Anatole France (cited in Urry, 2016, p. 23). As prime site of potentiality, the future continues “to inform actions in the present” (Nielsen, 2011, p. 417), and people’s actions, says Strathern, “are all the time informed by possible worlds which are not yet realised” (2005, p. 51). From this perspective, seeing the present as ‘not-yet’ (Pels, 2015, p. 789), the young islanders take the role of agent of altered futures through their creative chanpurūism.  In my project, I noticed how the Okinawan university students narrated their social practices and everyday lives in a set of schemes mirroring the image of Okinawa as a place of culturally syncretic practices (chanpurūism) and of a “spirit of globalism” (Keiichi, 2000). The day-to-day practices and decisions of young Okinawans, wavering between the mundane and the dramatic, between routine and eccentricity, resonate the reflexive strategies of young islanders reclaiming the future (Threadgold, 2018, p. 209). Young Okinawans also draw inspiration from global youth cultures in their struggle to self-authenticate and strategically essentialise their cultural identities in counter-narratives opposing dominant images of Okinawa and stereotypes of the ‘Okinawaness’ of their island community (Ota, 1991). In this landscape, with insulated military bases, tourist-enticing beaches and peninsulas, and young people dreaming of another ‘Ryukyuan tomorrow’, Okinawans create alternative spaces, where they can rethink and rekindle their cultural and gender identities, but also spaces to accommodate the desire to crack and challenge power structures in Okinawa (Karides, 2017). Contemporary young people are “thinking and dreaming the materials of new tomorrows” as they navigate between romantic nostalgia and revolutionary visions for the future (Polak, 1973, p. 21). They critically reflect on alternative futures, on the near and the distant future, on the personal and the ‘common’ future, and on individual and collective visions, create complex and ambivalent future images based on experience, knowledge and wish—images hovering between bright and dark expectations.

The opportunity to dream and to imagine tomorrow is an important part of young islanders’ everyday life practices and struggles. They “strategise and struggle within and between multiple ontological realities” (Threadgold, 2018, p. 70). In an overheated world of risk, where many people absorb the idea of an unavoidable future, young people seem to escape temporal tautologies and embrace contingent future worlds (Gaini, 2018, p. 15). Islanders imagine their home to be at “the crossroads between the closeness of place and the infinity of the universe” (Lems, 2018, p. 213). Tomorrow is full of uncertainty as a Faroese proverb instructs with the message: ‘no one knows in the morning, where he may spend the night’. You never know what tomorrow will offer. Many young people certainly can (even if it might be unintentional), as canary in the coal mine, warn against upcoming change considered risky, but their capacity to create visions, to envisage ‘better futures’, and their motivation for action and future-oriented selection, is essentially what reveals the nature of the values and norms, viability and sustainability, of contemporary society (Slaughter, 2003). Young people in Okinawa identify and reinterpret their identities through their future perspectives. While waiting for change, they are actively engaged in future imagination giving everyday life realities a powerful language.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the joint annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA), in Vancouver, Canada, 20-24 November 2019.


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About the Author

Firouz Gaini is a Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of the Faroe Islands. He studied in Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. He has done fieldwork in France, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Japan. His research focuses on young people’s identities and values, education and future aspirations. He is especially interested small-scale island communities’ challenges in the age of globalisation. He has published several books, including Lessons of Islands—Place and Identity in the Faroe Islands (2013).

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