When I was in the States over the summer, I spent time with one of my American of-Japanese-heritage friends and her family. We were talking about if I was planning any trip to Japan since I’m living in Taiwan. I said something along the lines of, “yes, Okinawa’s only about an hour away by plane.” My friend’s dad replied: “Oh, Okinawa isn’t really Japan.”

At first I thought this reply rather smug. But now having been to Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa, I see the reason to pout out these differences. For one, the climate is totally different. Osaka and Kyoto over January 1st weekend felt like mid-to-late Chicago in November; whereas Okinawa winter feels like Taiwan winter, mild compared to Chicago. One of the days we were in Okinawa – a bright, sunny day – I wore a skirt because without the clouds or rain, it’s quite warm.

Okay, but weather and climate are not good indicators of nationality. Chicago winter is no where near Florida winter, but I would never say one is more American than the other. That would be ridiculous. Sure they different culture, but they’re just different types of America.

On that warm day when I wore a skirt, my dad and I took the Naha monorail (built in 2003, cute and quaint given it’s just one line, with two cars per train, and there’s a short jingle that plays between stops compared to other metro transit systems) to the Okinawa Art and History Museum.

Park adjacent to the museum.

On our way, we walked by a gorgeous park where families were flying kites and throwing frisbees. There was a skate park, a soccer field, tennis courts, and grass play fields – a low-impact foam running track encircling them. It was beautiful and I felt a longing for something like this in Keelung. But the hills just don’t allow it.

Atrium of the Okinawa Art and History Museum.

Anyway, it was in the Museum that I learned why Okinawa was not considered “really Japan.” It only became a Japanese Prefecture in 1879! Before then, the island was a part of it’s own sovereign Ryukyu Kingdom. This kingdom engaged in trade with Korea, China, and Japan, developing it’s unique culture as a blend of these outside influences and the indigenous culture of the islands. It was big in sugar production.

The War in the Pacific changed things. (More on that in “What I Learned on My Winter Vacation: WWII in the Pacific.”) For one thing, did you know the U.S. Military completely controlled Okinawa from the end of the war until 1972. For twenty-seven years, Okinawans had limited rights and had to do things like give up their land so the U.S. military could build bases where weapons (including chemical weapons) could be stored and prepared for use in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This is sh*t you DO NOT learn in AP U.S. History textbooks. (The tagline for an article in the May 28th, 1945 edition of LIFE magazine reads: “Okinawa. Except for Japs, it is a very pleasant place.” So Okinawans also probably had to put up with American racism.)

So it’s no wonder the place has a unique identity, what with being a trade hub, then a colony under Japanese and American militaristic control.

I was happy that the Museum was a combined History and Art Museum, because after learning about the history and culture with facts and dates, I could see this history through the lens of artistic expression.

“Portrait of Stanley Steinberg” by Tamanaha Seikichi.

The major exhibit was one that focused on the work of a collective of Okinawa artists in the post-War era. Oshiro Koya’s “Going to War” was particularly striking (I was not allowed to take pictures in the museum and cannot find any images on the internet). As were portraits of American soldiers by Tamanaha Seikichi. On the wall beside his painting, the museum had written a quote by Tamanaha Seikichi: “There’s no way I can get rid of the vanity of the war. it appears in my paintings.”

There was also a free exhibit showcasing the artwork of recent undergrads and graduate students. I regret not writing down the artists names…

In the atrium of the Museum, there were performance artists showcasing their skills. Opera singers performed classics like Puccini’s “Un Bel Di Vedremo” and Bizet’s “Toreador” (that I only recognize because of artists like Malcolm McLaren and TV shows like Hey Arnold!).

Some performers showcasing traditional instruments and music.