Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Kakuteru Pātī 「カクテル・パーティー」


The Cocktail Party by Tatsuhiro Oshiro explores a myriad of issues spanning wartime experience, public memory and civic responsibility as situated during the American occupation of Okinawa and following the Okinawa reversion to Japan. This essay examines a set of national attitudes peddled by the United States (defined here as “America’s Okinawa”) in relation to the unfolding alternative hegemony that seeks to challenge the injustices of American extraterritoriality and the oppressive power structures that have been present in Okinawan society. It also makes an attempt to identify the factors involved in the construction of Okinawan identity in relation to the presence of American military bases and their impact on everyday and institutional life.

Language parity

Unlike the Japanese fictions American School and American Hijiki, the Okinawan drama The Cocktail Party does not place the focus on power relations that revolve around linguistic hierarchies. The protagonist, Mr. Uehara, appears to have no difficulty speaking multiple languages, and articulateness does not seem to confer dominance over others within the multiethnic Chinese-speaking circle. Instead, the Chinese language is primarily used as an instrument to create an illusion of parity while concealing the inequities inherent in the distribution of power. It is not a particular language that reflects and informs Okinawan identity, but rather a renewed acceptance of human agency that makes self-actualization feasible in a colonial setting.

America’s Okinawa

“America’s Okinawa” is a (post)-colonial narrative employed by the characters of Robert Harris and Mr. Miller, two archetypes of American exceptionalism when it comes to addressing power imbalances in an occupied society, as well as the attendant issues of marginalization, exploitation and cultural hegemony that have fueled mutual animosity and distrust between Americans and Okinawans.

The coherence to the occupier narrative is reliant on the subordination of dissent and antagonism to a generalized doctrine of “American-Ryukyuan friendship,” (Morgan, 220) which seeks to foster a sense of camaraderie that transcends national borders. This narrative encourages forgetting and forgiveness over remembrance and reflection while representing the Okinawan people as a lowly “peace-loving people” (Lincoln, 228) that is dismissive of their broad-based struggles for justice. It generates an image of the “occupied” that reinforces a mode of colonial mentality predicated on the acceptance of the dogma of the “occupier” as morally superior, while normalizing extant power imbalances as another instance of “peaceful life” (Uehara, 214).

“America’s Okinawa” also rests on a particular logic that distorts and deflects in order to portray the desired picture. This end is achieved by consolidating matters that concern individuals into those which concerns nationals, and vice-versa. Harris utilizes this strategy of reducing individuals from complex beings to mere spokespersons of their respective nations:

“What an underhanded trick! You can’t fool me. It is an undeniable fact that she injured me. And I know I don’t have to testify in any Okinawan court. I know that much about the law… I’ve heard Uehara here was an officer in the Japanese army and fought in China. [To Uehara.] Didn’t you kill Chinese? Do you think you have the right to judge me?... How about Mr. Lawyer there. You’re Chinese. How could you work for a former Japanese officer?” (Harris, 238)
Miller later employs this same tactic of deception, but in reverse:
“We should talk to each other as individuals. If I knew this Robert Harris, my involvement would make sense. But, like you, I’m a complete stranger to him… I really hate to say this, but quite honestly, I have no evidence that Robert Harris actually did something shameful, and I’m in no position to investigate the case myself. That’s why Mr. Yang would be much better. He’s not an American and he is a lawyer, which makes him a logical intermediary.” (Miller, 232)
What is striking is the omission of power relations that belies the presumption held by Miller that it is the very absence of conflict that builds the trust and belief needed to sustain friendships between individuals:
“I would like you to remember that I’ve worked hard to build goodwill between America and Okinawa. It’s for a good reason I can’t help you: we need to avoid unnecessary conflicts if we are to preserve our friendship with Okinawans. Please understand this.” (Miller, 232)
By contrast, Uehara’s conception of reconciliation is based on the understanding that they are dependent on asserting difference and challenging the oppressive structures and functions in society that impose consensus — a practice known as radical democracy.

Uehara’s epiphany

There is good reason to delineate why Uehara has not been portrayed uniformly as a victim to be empathized with. Rather than romanticizing the plight of the Okinawans by depicting them as mere subjects of American imperialism, Oshiro makes an effort to implicate Okinawans as former colonizers who have stood to benefit from Japan’s imperial war machine. On the one hand, Uehara had once served as an army officer stationed in China, complicit in Japan’s destructive course of military expansionism across Asia. On the other hand, Uehara had also suffered greatly from the battles fought on the Ryukyu Islands that devastated his homeland and its people. Each of these considerations serve to probe the complicated relationship between Japan’s wartime atrocities and Okinawa’s prolonged sufferings. Alongside the issues of victimhood and reconciliation, Mr. Yang discusses the contours of ethics that governs how such decisions are made:

“But that’s where we must start—from life as it is. Speaking from my own limited experiences, there are things that can be solved by “legal rights and obligations.” Others, as if fated, may transcend the boundaries of such legalities. We survive by trying, in our own small ways, to hold on to our humanity while torn between the moral and the legal, the individual and the nation.” (Yang, 240-241)
This approach raises questions of whether accusations based narrowly on ethnic or national identity can be justified. How should private individuals be held accountable for the wrongdoings of their nation or their people? How could those affiliations be defined? It is from this context that Uehara makes the connection between his former and present positions and acknowledges his participation in Japanese imperialism as a form of assent (Uehara, 241). He then proposes a brand of ethics predicated on shared human values that he views as essential to restoring friendly relations:
“What is required most now is to be absolutely unforgiving of our sins. Let me repeat this: what I’m seeking is our mutual understanding of the ethics that are fundamental and unconditional for all humanity. What I want to indict is not just one crime by one young American, but the cocktail parties that would conceal fundamental ethics under the pretext of reconciliation… U.S. law establishes one kind of justice for the occupier and another for the occupied. As long as such injustice exists, your hopes will be illusory.” (Uehara, 246)
Uehara’s appeal to universal principles following his awakening may seem somewhat ineffectual, if not inimical, to solving the Okinawan predicament; but this epiphany is crucial in evoking the sense of civic agency needed to articulate the problem and confront the status quo. It is subsequently argued by Uehara that there are real power relations in society that are unequivocally oppressive and therefore should be made visible and contested.

Beyond legal realism

Oshiro also underscores the limits of a dispassionate analytic framework when it comes to the principles of justice and equality. What is central to this story is how the absence of mutual regard precludes efforts to build meaningful human connections and advance dialogue on historical issues. Under the narrative of “America’s Okinawa,” there is a certain tendency toward equivocation and ambiguity disguised under the cloak of legal-rational neutrality (Ben, 216-217). In response to Ben’s claim as a third-party observer, Uehara cautions him against making the “same mistake” (Uehara, 250) as his father did in Okinawa:

“By forcing yourself to forget something, you end up postponing a real solution… As countries and as individuals we are each victims and victimizers. Only by recognizing this fact, can a new millennium of reconciliation begin. We need to punish ourselves, and we need to be absolutely unforgiving of what we have done. Only by looking first at ourselves do we obtain the right to judge the other side. Choosing this path will cause us to suffer, but this is the only path that is humane.” (Uehara, 251-252)
The cocktail party, in essence, exists as a metaphor for cross-cultural encounters and conflicts between individuals. It involves a cascade of empty platitudes about friendship and equality against the backdrop of deep-seated anger and resentment over unresolved problems. It demonstrates how gestures of “international friendships” present new obstacles in a society that relies entirely on asymmetries in relative power. Uehara has been resolute in exposing the lopsided relationship in which Okinawans are placed in an unequal position that necessitates an appeal to basic morals subject to the harsh logic of the military courts. Uehara seeks to challenge these injustices by exposing those very imbalances in power, and at the same time, explain what it means to be Okinawan:
“It’s a matter of Okinawan dignity. No, it’s even more than that. It’s a matter of basic human dignity… I fought for fundamental human rights. For democracy. For a truthful understanding of ethics and justice.” (Uehara, 246-247)
Ultimately, Oshiro elucidates how the mutual recognition of wrongdoing can be pursued not only on the basis of naked self-interest, but more crucially on the understanding that the suppression of emotionally charged memories serves only to widen the rifts between the interlocutors who seek camaraderie and fraternity through dialogue and exchange.


Yet the remnants of Japanese imperialism in its totality become far less obvious than the U.S. military presence. Okinawan indignation toward mainland Japanese is largely diluted, especially when considering the scope of interactions between Uehara and Ogawa. Uehara is unavailable when Ogawa provides a revisionist argument in his debate with Morgan on whether Okinawans are Japanese nationals (Ogawa, 218). What is more, Ogawa absolves himself from any moral obligation to help defend Uehara’s case (Ogawa, 235) or assume wartime responsibility for the Japanese treatment of the Chinese (Ogawa, 236-237). As such, it is uncertain whether a distinction can be made safely between Uehara’s identification as an Okinawan who resists American occupation and as one who seeks full independence.

Furthermore, the role of women in The Cocktail Party appears to be confined to reluctant negotiators between the “occupiers” and the “occupied,” (Yoko, 247) or an immediate gateway to reconciliation through marriage (Yoko, 215). Compared to their male counterparts, Okinawan women are portrayed as lacking the agency needed for organizing the localities to eliminate extraterritoriality rights and privileges afforded to U.S. military personnel, and to reject the status of forces agreement that validates the American military presence in Okinawa.

The construction of Okinawan identity through the lens of social justice may also suffer from the bias of overlooking the trends of cultural mimesis and appropriation that extend beyond the racialized and imperialist dimensions of American hegemony, as articulated by James E. Roberson. Further investigation that considers the aforementioned details and includes diasporic experiences, however, is required to fully appreciate how historical and cultural relations between Okinawans and Americans have mediated the development of Okinawan social identities.