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Japanese Studies Spotlight: The Okinawa Memories Initiative

by Tara McGowan on 2021-02-17T11:09:00-05:00 in Librarianship Reources, Research Resources, Teaching Resources | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at


Dr. Alan Christy, Associate Professor in History, University of California, Santa Cruz

The Okinawa Memories Initiative (OMI) is a public history project that explores the postwar history of Okinawa from a global perspective, with a particular focus on the years of direct American rule (1945-1972). OMI places both pedagogy and public service at the center of its research practice by employing graduate and undergraduate students, alongside professional historians and media-makers, as members of the research teams and by engaging members of the Okinawan community—whether in Okinawa or in diaspora, whether of Okinawan descent or of experience living in Okinawa—as narrators, co-creators and users of its content. Our research practices include public exhibitions of historical photographs, life-story oral history interviews, archival production and research and public service events, from elder “day service” to online events with an international audience. While much of our material is still in production, the archive we are building will be comprised of historical and contemporary photography, oral history interviews, primary source archives produced in collaboration with Okinawan and diasporic Okinawan partners, recordings of OMI events, and original works by OMI members and partners.

The project began in 2013 with the donation of a set of photographs taken in Okinawa in 1953 by an American army dentist, Dr. Charles Eugene Gail (1921-2003), to the Special Collections at McHenry Library at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The donor, Dr. Gail’s daughter Geraldine Gail, had served as the campus auditor at UC Santa Cruz. Upon nearing retirement, she approached the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery on the UC Santa Cruz campus to inquire about the possibility of an exhibition of the photos in her father’s memory. The director of the gallery, Shelby Graham, saw aesthetic merit in the photos but thought they might also be of historical significance. She contacted me, a specialist in modern Japanese and Okinawan history. While there were no depictions of historical events in the photos, I suspected that the photos would be valuable materials for an oral history-based investigation of Okinawa under American occupation.

Okinawa in History

1953 was a significant moment in the history of Okinawa. Okinawa had been severed from Japan under the terms of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. But the Americans had begun that process earlier in the spring of 1944, when the Office of Special Services (OSS) produced a report arguing that Okinawans were an oppressed, colonized people. This report set the terms for the American approach to Okinawa for nearly thirty years, namely, that Okinawa (or the Ryukyus or Liuchius) should be treated as independent of Japan and China, receiving “guarantees” from the United States of its sovereignty. As a result, from 1945 to 1952,  the occupation of Okinawa was run semi-autonomously, viewed as a backwater compared to the center of postwar East Asian power in Tokyo. It had acquired a notorious reputation, known as “the Rock,” a place where the hapless and criminal elements of the Occupation Forces were exiled so as to not cause trouble for SCAP. 

But the formal end of the Occupation and the emerging stalemate on the Korean peninsula triggered a reassessment of the value of the archipelago to American strategic interests. From 1953, the American military began a rapid expansion of the bases, transforming “the Rock” into “the Keystone of the Pacific.” The land confiscations of 1954 through 1956, carried out with “bayonets and bulldozers,” and the byzantine, limited and continually changing procedures for Okinawans to lodge fruitless complaints against the loss of their livelihoods and their ancestral lands sparked a significant ratcheting up of Okinawan resistance. 

Okinawa in Photographs

Dr. Gail’s photographs do not show any clear signs of the tensions that existed between Okinawans and Americans. In one sense, that tension was still just short of the boiling point during his posting on the island, likely not as easily perceived by a single-year sojourner. Moreover, his daughter remembers him as having been driven by a lifelong desire to hone his skills as an artist, which she witnessed sitting with him in his darkroom as he ruthlessly culled about 90% of his shots as unworthy. As a result, Dr. Gail’s focus was largely in capturing the (to him) uniqueness of Okinawa as his subject, rather than documenting the conditions of his life and work as a serviceman. As Fred Turner observed to me at a conference in 2014, Gail’s photographic aesthetic is consistent with that of the “Family of Man” project, directed by Edward Steichen in 1955 (for an analysis of the project see Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround: Multimedia & American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties). 

One can see direct evidence of an American presence on the island in fewer than one dozen of the approximately 150 photos in the Gail collection: a nurse, a bunk with mosquito netting, soldiers in the crowd at a cultural event, one sign in English marking a cultural site (Nakagusuku Castle ruins). Instead, the photos show bucolic landscapes, coastal scenes and everyday people in the activities of everyday life. Touristic at first glance, perhaps, given the impending dramatic transformation of Okinawa into the largest US military base complex in East Asia, Gail’s photos capture those landscapes and lifestyles in their final moments. Three women we met at the Citizen’s Galleries at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum in 2017 put their fingers on the meaning of the photos for so many in Okinawa when they wrapped up their impressions of the images with shaking heads and arms held wide, “You have no idea how much things have changed!” That simple statement is the primary focus of the project: how do we understand the experience of dramatic change in Okinawa under the presence of the American military bases?

To see historical value in these photos is to ask a different set of questions about the history of a place. It entails turning away from an event-structured approach to one that considers the conditions of access to evidence of the past and the experiences of historical time. For example, when I first saw the photographs, I wondered about why I felt that I had seen so few comparable photographs from the era. The Okinawa Prefectural Archives hold many photographs from these years, but on closer inspection it turns out that nearly all of them were photos taken by USCAR (United States Civil Administration, Ryukyu Islands) staff in official capacities or by the licensed Okinawan press. Working in the USCAR archives held in the National Archives in College Park, MD, my team found a suggestive document, issued in February 1949 and rescinded in November 1953, commanding that all who possessed cameras or equipment for producing photographs should register their ownership with the police chiefs in the islands. Corresponding the dates of the document to the “carbon copies” distributed to Rykom (Ryukyu Command, the military government corollary to USCAR) and the 526th CIC (Counter-Intelligence Corps) reminds us that those initial years of the occupation were years of high anxiety about security. The paucity of photos from the era, outside those taken and circulated through military censors, was not just the result of the near total destruction of the material culture of Okinawa during the battle (who could have saved or afforded cameras after that?). It was also the result of clear security policy issued by an occupying authority that did not trust the population, one that feared communist spies around every corner.

None of that is necessarily directly visible in the photographs, and yet when we have put the photos on display in Okinawa in “flipped exhibits” (exhibits without labels, in which we invite visitors to label and debate what the photos show through stickies and on-site conversation), viewers have cued us into the subtle signs in the photographs of the impact of that context on their lives. Electric wires running into thatch-roofed homes evoke speculation about the proximity of a military base and memories of impacts of base-related employment. Photos of “O-bon dancers” at a festival reveal the ersatz character of the event in the presence of incongruent clothing or a surprisingly sturdy and gleaming tile roof in the background, identifiable as a Ryukyuan-American Cultural Center in Nago. Little boys wearing oversized, tattered boots or adults in patched hand-me-down US military clothing remind viewers of the nearly totalizing degree of Okinawan reliance on cast-off American goods. 

Okinawa in Memories

Viewers of the photos have shown me and my students over and over how to see the impact of the American presence in Okinawa in those years in the smallest of details. But the presence of the military is, in fact, not the most common topic of conversation. Instead, what we hear most consistently are recollections of those parts of the daily life of the past several decades that rarely make it into event-driven history but that land most heavily on those reflecting on the changes they have experienced over a lifetime. 

At a very early stage of the project, I showed the photos to Prof. Kina Ikue, of the University of the Ryukyus. I told her that I’d warned Dr. Gail’s daughter that her father’s photos could evoke painful memories for some in Okinawa. Prof. Kina acknowledged that possibility then waved it away. “What is most likely is that people will respond with nostalgia. We have a strong sense of our public memories of those years but very little conversation about our private memories.” (personal conversation, September 2013). So far, she has been absolutely right. I can still see and hear an older man with his middle-aged son, standing in front of a photo of a thatch-roofed house, at the 2018 exhibit at the Hoshizora Community Center in Naha, saying, “This is the truth.” (これは真実だ。) I can hear the two women in their 90s in the Shioya Community Center in Ogimi in 2019 thanking my student for listening to them talk of those days when their own families had lost all interest. I vividly recall spending nearly two hours with an elegantly-dressed woman in her 80s at our exhibit in the entry hall at the Urasoe City Hall in 2019. She held me and her Japanese son-in-law transfixed with stories of her wartime and postwar life, illustrated with her finger tracing parts of dozens of Gail’s photographs on display. She ended her stories with a wistful summation: “I haven’t thought of those days in so long, not until I saw these pictures. I haven’t had occasion to think of them. We had nothing then and we have nothing now from those days to help us recall.”

Okinawa in the Classroom

Involving undergraduate students as researchers has been a boon to the project. As new groups of students join, we have had many opportunities to refresh our views of the photographs. I am amazed at how often I still have a student point out something in a photo that I never really focused on before. But students have more important roles to play. First, as I suggested above, our exhibitionary practice seeks to flip the expectation of authority in our exhibits. We show the photos so that visitors will teach us what they see in them. The undergraduate students are far better at transforming visitors into teachers.

Second, with the Gail photos as the point of entry into Okinawan history for many of them, we have had developed a robust reflex to generate questions from the photos and our narrators’ comments, that we take to the archives, both the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland and the Okinawa Prefectural Archives. This reflex, combined with our Okinawan colleagues’ observations about the obstacles to studying Okinawan history even in Okinawa has led us to work on curating a collection of public domain documents that can provide a different kind of context to the photos. 

Third, alongside the unstructured conversations we have had at our exhibitions we have launched a broader series of life story interviews, under the direction of Cameron Vanderscoff and Kubota Tomoko, with politicians, activists, artists, researchers and musicians. Building on all these research activities, Prof. Anita Chang (California State University, East Bay), Tosh Tanaka and Prof. Dustin Wright (California State University, Monterey Bay) are guiding students and partners in the production of media (film/photo/audio) and writing (academic and creative) that we hope will keep our growing archive a dialogue between the past and the present, looking to the future.

Big, collaborative pedagogical projects are not always swift of foot. We have a backlog of work to process for publication at Visitors today can see the Charles Gail photos and will, over time, be able to read and hear the thoughts of our community partners. As the project continues to grow, the next ambitious phase will be to engage with the overseas diasporic communities of Okinawans in North America, the Pacific and Latin America. In addition, we have only scratched the surface (but the scratching has begun) of the experiences of non-Okinawans, especially American servicemen with the islands. The task is daunting, but our experience to date suggests that to the degree we engage our communities as collaborators and creators, we will be able to produce a compelling vision of a small archipelago with a global footprint.


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