This month marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa Prefecture officially reverting from American to Japanese control. Though the United States’ postwar occupation of Japan officially ceased in 1952 (though its military presence in the country remains significant to this day,) it was not for another two decades that they relinquished control of Okinawa, which holds a highly strategic position in the Pacific. The 1971 reversion brought to a head multiple social and political issues on the archipelago concerning its colonization both by Japan and by the US — issues that remain unresolved to this day. This year, Japan Society in New York has been observing the semicentennial of the reversion with its programming series Okinawa in Focus, highlighting Okinawan culture and history. The latest installment in this series, Cinematic Reflections, brings together a variety of films that consider Okinawa and its relationship to Japan.
The selections run the gamut from a yakuza picture to Level Five, Chris Marker’s final feature. But of particular note are two documentaries by the Nihon Documentarist Union (NDU), both of which were shot on Okinawa in the midst of the social upheaval around the reversion. Active from 1968 to 1973, the NDU was a collective of radical leftist filmmakers, an offshoot of the intense youth activism in Japan at the time. The group was so committed to breaking traditional forms of film production and forming non-hierarchal structures that they eschewed individualism almost entirely — everyone who was a part of it was anonymous and uncredited in their work. The NDU’s population ranged from several dozen to hundreds of members over the course of its brief but fruitful lifetime.
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The NDU’s two films in the program, 1971’s Motoshinkakarannu and 1973’s Asia is One, bookend the Okinawan reversion, with the former shot before the event and the latter during and after it. Both documentaries are thrillingly low-fi affairs, scraped together from whatever materials were on hand with pure youthful gumption. (The preservation of these films, essentially buried for decades, has been so spotty that sound is wholly absent for some stretches. Japan Society has helpfully posted transcripts on its site.) For Motoshinkakarannu, several members of the crew had to forge documents to journey to Okinawa, since at the time it was officially a foreign territory and required a visa for travel. Sound is often deliberately asynchronous with footage, denying the idea of authoritative single voices in favor of building a sort of heteroglossia of visuals and oral testimonies from Okinawa that allow the area to speak “for itself.”
The title of Motoshinkakarannu is an Okinawan term meaning “business without seed money,” local slang for dodgy business ventures in general but particularly denoting prostitution. The film indeed spends a great deal of time with sex workers, whose trade is fed greatly by the US military presence on Okinawa. Much of the industry — and social tension — in the region orbits the foreign presence there, in fact. (US military bases in Japan, especially on Okinawa, were key to its war with Vietnam.) One fascinating sequence sees NDU members hanging out with Black soldiers from the US, disgruntled with their roles in the military and finding political common ground both with the Japanese and the Okinawans.
But the US is not the only colonizing influence. Okinawa, and the rest of the islands of the Ryukyu region, are culturally distinct from the rest of Japan, which did not bring the archipelago under its jurisdiction until several hundred years ago. Some of the protest at the time of the reversion was that the islands should be independent, rather than “given back” to their previous colonizer. (Some sentiment to this effect also shows up in both films.) While the NDU captures plenty of voices critical of the US’s dominion over the islands, it’s also unsparing in scrutinizing Japan’s own role as an imperialist power, rejecting postwar narratives of wholesale blameless victimization by the West.
This theme comes to the fore in Asia is One, with its title both sincerely speaking to the need for international solidarity among workers in Asia and ironically referencing Imperial Japan’s WWII-era propaganda of forging the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” It pays special attention to migrant workers from Taiwan and Korea who do dangerous, often exploitative mining work on Okinawa. We also see local attempts to revive the widespread practice of Okinawan culture through dances and festivals. Years out from the fall of the Empire of Japan, capitalism ensures that unequal relations endure. Even another 50 years later, these problems do not subside. Because of this, the NDU’s films on Okinawa have lost none of their potency.
Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections runs through May 21 at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Manhattan), with Paradise View, Motoshinkakarannu, and Asia is One available to stream online through June 3.