Lecture Critique: History of Okinawans in Hawaii

Lecture Critique

By Robert Kajiwara

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

As part of my studies in the Ph.D. in History program at Liberty University, Dr. Joseph Super offered valuable feedback regarding my lecture on the History of Okinawans in Hawaii. His first question was why was there a large gap in time between Kalakaua’s request for workers in 1881 and 1900 when the first Okinawans finally migrated to Hawaii. This is a good question that deserves addressing.

Though Japan had annexed Ryukyu in 1879, and in 1881 Kalakaua requested migrants come to Hawaii, Ryukyuans were not immediately drawn to the offer. They were still trying to restore their independence, or to at least advance their rights and well-being through negotiations with Japan. Japan’s attempts following the annexation to eliminate Ryukyu culture, language, history, and religion were met with open hostility, and even spurred Ryukyuan resentment towards Japan.1 Thus the priority of most Ryukyuans at the time immediately following annexation was not to migrate, but to try and improve their situation.

As mentioned in the video, some Ryukyuans did migrate to China during or immediately following the annexation process. They did this in order to try and get the Chinese government to help restore Ryukyu’s independence.2 China at the time, though, was going through several internal and external crises of their own and was unable to help. China itself would soon be colonized by Britain, France, Russia, and Japan, and then fall into a disastrous civil war.

The first Ryukyuans finally did migrate to Hawaii in 1900. Those who did were generally not the adults who had lived through the annexation, but their children who had come of age and found their job prospects nil due to Japan’s abolishing of the Ryukyu government as well as the land redivision, leaving them with few fields to work or ocean resources to harvest, as had been the norm since time immemorial.3 Most Okinawans who migrated to Hawaii were in their late teens or early twenties and found the plantation work in Hawaii to be their best option – or in some cases, their only option.

Dr. Super’s next critique was that I put significant time and attention into dispelling the false reasons that sparked the Ryukyu diaspora. I was aware of this, but I nevertheless believe it to be necessary and important. The false reasons mentioned in the video have been well-propagated, including in some of the most popular books about the diaspora, and had I not taken the time to dispell these fallacies it would surely give way to much questioning and criticism. Normally I would not devote such time and attention to dispelling false information in an overview history lecture, but in this case I believe it was necessary.

Kerr’s false reasons for migrating are highly damaging for Ryukyuans even in the present day because it advances the notion that Ryukyuans must rely on foreign nations (a.k.a. colonization) for our economic well-being. This continues to have a significant impact on most of the issues Ryukyu currently faces. In other words, I think Kerr’s bias is in favor of the military colonization of Ryukyu as can be seen in his derogatory and inaccurate descriptions of some of Okinawa’s characteristics, thus justifying the ongoing military occupation of Ryukyu by Japan and the United States.

I should mention that I do not believe all of Kerr’s work is inaccurate. He generally did a good job of demonstrating Ryukyuans as an independent nation. Had he simply stopped at this, he would probably be fondly remembered by Ryukyuans. Instead, his frequent use of words such as “primitive,” “barbaric,” and “semi-civilized” to describe Ryukyuans is indicative of his bias, his lack of historical empathy, and his lack of understanding of Ryukyu.

I plan on later doing a detailed critique of Kerr’s best known work, Okinawa: History of an Island People.

I think that all people, including historians, naturally have a bias and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. As Dr. Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua told me, “All scholars (and people in general) have biases. Some scholars are aware of and up front about our biases and positionality. Others are not, and that is a reflection of their privilege.”

Academic studies about large nations are usually not detrimental to their survival or well-being, even if they contain some errors. For indigenous people, though, an inaccurate study can have a profoundly damaging impact on their day-to-day lives and even jeopardize our survival. Indigenous peoples such as Ryukyuans do not have the luxury of tolerating false information propagated by others that is harmful to the nation.

Overall Dr. Super’s feedback was helpful and will be useful when creating future lectures.

1Kerr, George. Okinawa: History of an Island People. Singapore: Charles E. Tuttle Company. 1958.

3Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii. University of Hawaii Press. 1981.

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