Okinawan hospitality and Ryukyuan glass: Picking up the (post-War) pieces.

Not long ago I knew very little about "Okinawa." The most thought put into the island was when I (constantly) mispronounced "Aconcagua" - the tallest peak in South America. Beyond knowing that it was somewhere (vaguely) in the Pacific Rim and that it had something to do with the United States military, I knew - pardon the callous language - diddly-squat. Until my partner, Kc, was moved there for her job with the Red Cross, and now I've had the pleasure of spending a wonderful week on the subtropical Pacific island. The Ryukyu Islands stretch an arc from the tip of mainland Japan all the way to Taiwan. Okinawa is the largest of these islands and nearly 1000 miles (~1600km) from Tokyo. With dense forests, sharp rock formations and dark greens against the pale sands and deep blue water of the shoreline, it is quiet and beautiful. The island chain was once part of the Ryukyuan Kingdom dating back to the 15th century CE. The islands grew wealthy being at strategic position along a trade route between Japan and China until the late 1800s when Japanese expansion dismantled the local monarchy.

 
Display case with Ryukyuan Glassware. Okinawa, Japan

Display case with Ryukyuan Glassware. Okinawa, Japan

 

As many of the people I talked with would attest, Okinawa is a distinct East Asian culture - not Japanese and not Chinese. It is known as the birthplace of karate (as the Ryukyuan king had outlawed the use of weapons), and in contemporary times, it is home to some of the longest living people on the planet (which likely has a lot to do with the Okinawan cuisine). In one conversation I had on the plane with a long-time Okinawa resident, I was informed that the local Okinawans are much less reserved and more open than mainland Japan (having never experienced mainland Japanese culture I can only take their word for it.) I was also struck with the incredible kindness of the Okinawans, in many ways their warm congeniality surpassed that of Montana and Azerbaijan (both of which I place very high on my "list of nice peoples").

A very prevalent and eye-catching feature of Okinawan tourist attractions is the brightly colored Ryukyuan glassware. The glass comes in many different styles, but incorporates semi-translucent colors with dazzling pinks, reds, blues, greens and oranges. What sets most of the glassware apart are the bubbles, which guarantee that each piece is a unique creation.

Ryukyuan Glass Art
Ryukyuan Glass Art

Despite being so widely available, the glass is a very recent cultural artifact. While, glass-making has a long history on the island and the broader Pacific region, much of the Okinawan culture and economic infrastructure was wipeout in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. This bloody encounter between the Japanese and American forces is considering one of the worst in the Pacific; over 100,000 civilians lost their lives, and if the military causalities are included the number surpasses those who died in the Hiroshima bombing. Following the surrender of Japan, the United States assumed administrative authority and demilitarized the Japanese government, US forces then set up shop.

As the story goes, the US soldiers also brought with them a hearty supply of trash. The industrious locals recycled the discarded glass, pop bottles (yeah, I said pop! I'm from Montana. I know I just used a period in the middle of a sentence, but that's how firmly I feel about the use of the word "pop") and began producing a beautiful fixture of modern Okinawa.

The glassware is not difficult to find, nearly every trinket store has a shelf-full or take a walk down Kokusai Street (roughly 2km (1.2 miles) in the heart of Naha, plump with interesting boutiques, restaurants and even a microbrewery, Helios Pub). While, the market for these cultural commodities may seem saturated, many of the stores have taken to importing more from the surrounding countries (Vietnam is the only that I can recall).

 
 

Also in recent years, the locals have been pushing for a revival of their distinctly Ryukyuan heritage. Shuri Castle, which stood for 450 years before being destroy during World War II, was rebuilt in the early 1990s using pictures, plans and memories and is a beautiful example of the decadence of the Ryukyuan Kingdom.  The Manza Beach Resort houses "The Orchid," a delicious Okinawan buffet, accompanied by a small theater performance. The all- female show, moves quickly between scenes and dances. The show dazzles with bright colors, and contrasting tempos - in one instant dancers slowly move in tight unison, and another a drummer bounces aggressively while quickening her pace - bringing the energy of the room to a crescendo. This traditional Ryukyuan Dance performance was only a small glimpse of the many different styles and in no way a comprehensive review. At one point during the show, the dancers taught the audience (nearly all Japanese tourists) how to greet in the Ryukyuan language. After slowly sounding out the word, the crowd went back and forth with the performers until the room was shouting "Haisai!"

Tourism is one of the many topics that I enjoy studying and is especially relevant to our world. Though, it is not unique to modern (or post-modern) times, it is certainly occurring on a much greater scale than in previous eras. I will save the critique of tourism - and cultural-based tourism in particular - for a later post, though I strongly believe that a critical eye to this growing practice is warranted. Okinawa provides an example of  cultures embracing their heritage, but also crafting new ways of expressing and understanding their worlds. If a culture is not creating then it is likely dead or dying. While the process of "commodifying" culture in the form of tourism undoubtedly has risks, it also has great potential to revive a peoples' history and empower their ancestors to write their own future.

TravelDustin Stoltz