Why Study History? Ryukyu’s respect for ancestors

Why Study History?

Ryukyu’s respect for ancestors

Robert Kajiwara

Done in partial fulfillment of the PhD in History program at Liberty University

Robert Kajiwara is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan), Nahua, Hawaiian PhD in History student at Liberty University. He has an MA in History from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and a BA in History, Asia/Pacific focus, from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is President of the Peace For Okinawa Coalition, a non-profit think-tank and cultural organization (www.PeaceForOkinawa.org). For more information please see his website, www.RobKajiwara.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RobKajiwara.

For many people the study of history is not exactly fun or important. Some colleges have actually reduced the amount of history credits required for general education. Earlier this year the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Americans’ ignorance of history is a national scandal.”1 In 2017 they ran an article titled “Why so many students hate history – and what to do about it.”2 In 2016 the American Historical Association wrote that fewer students were enrolling in college history courses.3 In 2018 the Smithsonian wrote that the number of college history majors has dropped by more than 30% since the Great Recession.4

Why, then, should people study history?

In my book, Occupied Okinawa: The United States of America and Japan’s Desecration of Okinawa’s Democracy and Environment, I argue that there are five basic aspects that make up Ryukyu / Okinawan identity. They are, in no particular order, culture, history, language, environment, and national identity. To lose any one of these will mean eventually losing them all, since they are all intricately connected to each other. Though this is specific to Ryukyuans, the same can be applied to many cultures or nations around the world.

Ryukyu was a prosperous independent nation up until 1879, when Japan forcefully annexed it against the will of Ryukyuans. Since then, Japan has worked to destroy Ryukyu’s history, culture, language, and identity in order to prevent Ryukyuans from rising up and regaining our independence.

To forget one’s history is to forget one’s self. This is why when a nation commits genocide against another, they often forbid the teaching of the victim’s history, and instead brainwash them into learning the history of the oppressor nation. The Nazis and the Khmer Rouge were notorious for this. The Spanish did this against Native Americans in Mexico and South America. The United States has done this to Native Americans as well as Hawaiians, and Japan has done this to Ryukyuans.

Generally I think many indigenous cultures place a greater emphasis on history than does Western culture. Westerners give little thought or acknowledgment to their ancestors, so there is also little emphasis on the study of history. 65% of Americans define themselves as Christian, and Christianity has played a pivotal role in American society since the earliest days of the United States.5 The Bible places a tremendous amount of importance on history, and contains twelve historical books, along with numerous genealogies scattered throughout. The ancient Jews and early Christians, similar to Ryukyuans, understood that knowing genealogies was critical to knowing history and to knowing ones’ self. Western Christians, though, tend to give little thought to the genealogies found in the Bible. Perhaps if they better understood their own history, the average American Christian would better understand their own faith and role in the world.

Ryukyuans are traditionally taught history from a young age, and a person with good understanding of history is often referred to as a kaminchu, or a Godly person, since in Ryukyuan culture knowing history is synonymous with respect for ones ancestors. Genealogies are so important to Ryukyuans that up until recent generations, Ryukyu women tattooed their genealogies onto the back of their hands as a sort of fashion accessory. After Japan annexed Ryukyu, they banned the practice of traditional Ryukyu tattoos (hajichi), along with many other practices. Today, because of Japan’s oppression, most young Ryukyuans have little understanding of their history, culture, language, or identity, all of which are in grave threat of extinction in the immediate future.

History provides us with the knowledge of our ancestors and those who came before us. It can help foster greater understanding of ourselves and the world. It allows us to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of previous generations, and can help us make better decisions in our own lives. Westerners would do well to revive the study of their ancestors and of history in general. Indigenous peoples around the world should continue to study our histories, in spite of the many colonizing forces that try to prevent us from doing so. Through the study of history we can find better understanding of people from other cultures and backgrounds and perhaps make the world a better place for ourselves and future generations, who may someday look back on us with gratitude.

Sources

“Americans’ ignorance of history is a national scandal.” The Washington Post. 20 February 2019.

Brookins, Julia. “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses.” American Historical Association. 1 September 2016. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses.

Daley, Jason. “Why Are Fewer People Majoring in History?” Smithsonian.com. 29 November 2018. Retrieved 28 October 2019 from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-people-major-history-180970913/.

In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center. 17 October 2019. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

Kajiwara, Robert. Occupied Okinawa: The United States of America and Japan’s Desecration of Okinawa’s Democracy and Environment. Honolulu: Kaji Books. 2019.

“Why so many students hate history – and what to do about it.” The Washington Post. 17 May 2017.

1“Americans’ ignorance of history is a national scandal.” The Washington Post. 20 February 2019.

2“Why so many students hate history – and what to do about it.” The Washington Post. 17 May 2017.

3Brookins, Julia. “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses.” American Historical Association. 1 September 2016. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses.

4Daley, Jason. “Why Are Fewer People Majoring in History?” Smithsonian.com. 29 November 2018. Retrieved 28 October 2019 from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-people-major-history-180970913/.

5“In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” Pew Research Center. 17 October 2019. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

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