Tragedy at Yonaguni Island


”Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” ~Robert Kennedy

Life can be full of tragedy, but only if we make it that way.  Every once in a while, there comes along a heartbreaking tale that is almost too hard to believe.  This one I experienced on a remote Ryukyuan island, seemingly far from the harder toils of life.

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Infamous Kuburabari can be found at the top-center of this rather animated map.

Kuburabari, located near the west tip of Yonaguni Island, is near to Kubura village.  An infamous gorge located there is about 60 feet long, 25-30 feet deep, with a width on top of about 10-15 feet.  In the age of the Ryukyu Dynasty, foreign rulers imposed a severe tax based on population throughout this island chain then under their control.  It is said that during these sad times, to avoid an unaffordable increase in population pregnant woman were made to attempt to leap the gorge, ensuring only the strongest mothers and by extension babies survived.  But more directly to the point, to ensure that most of the woman and fetuses didn’t survive the attempt….

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Contemplating the Past

A terrible tale by any stretch of the imagination, something of which to be ashamed.  Perhaps that is why in more recent times the Yonaguni Island Board of Education has claimed the story to be only a local folk tale.  That said, Kubub Bari remains designated as an important prefectural scenic tourism spot, with signage explaining his haunted past, and with a small Buddhist altar located on-site.  Besides, there is always some measure of truth in folklore, else it wouldn’t exist.

When you visit however, you can take the edge of this sadder side of the site by going in the very late afternoon.  You see, the hill the gorge is sliced into also happens to be the last hill in Japan to see the sunset, being on the western portion of the most western island in all of Japan.

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It is said that Satsuma and his clan were ultimately responsible for such a horrific outcome.  Based in the southernmost part of Kyushu, Japan and looking to rebuild their fortunes after defeats in the Japanese home islands, they built 100 warships to carry 3,000 samurai invaders to send to the Ryukyus.  Eleven years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Port, the Satsuma battleships left on a mission of violence on February 6, 1609.

Satsuma’s troops took over Nakijin Castle on Okinawa, then burned it to the ground as they slaughtered the local peoples they encountered on their way to capital city and castle of Shuri.  On April 1, 1609, Satsuma’s invaders rushed into Shuri Castle. Then Ryukyuan King Sho Nei was arrested and the Kingdom’s treasure and important official documents were stolen.  The Ryukyu Kingdom suddenly came under the control of Satsuma.

Ships of the Type Used by Satsumo

Ships of the Type Used by Satsuma

Removing the deposed Sho Nei and his ministers to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Satsuma was free to prepared a wholly one-sided treaty, which was imposed on the King’s offices by force.   The Ryukyu’s “Golden Age” of peaceful self-rule had suddenly turned into a Dark Age under Satsuma colonization.  For the next 270 long years, the people of the Ryukyus suffered under Satsuma’s control, paying heavy taxes and impossible tribute to their new, brutal rulers.

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

Invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 17th Century

All the Kingdom’s people between 15 and 50 years of age now had to pay taxes.  Some tales talk about a “head tax” (jinto-zei) rather than age.  In some villages in the Yaeyama islands (southern-most islands in the Ryukyu chain), stone pillars can still be found by which children were measured; once over the stone’s reach, taxes were to be imposed.  To make things easier, Satsuma blamed the taxes on the deposed King, and claimed to have come to the rescue of the peoples of the Ryukyu Kingdom.   Obviously, these lies and shams became rather obvious when the taxes were never lifted or eased, and, in fact, were not abolished until 1903 and only after a strong petition from the local peoples once under Japanese formal rule starting in 1879.

On Yonaguni Island, some claim that is was Satsuma himself who introduced sad and inhumane methods of population control.  One method was Tonguda, the rice paddy located at the center of the island.  Periodically, all islanders between ages 15 and 50 had to dash to the paddy on some signal, and those who couldn’t get there in a set amount of time were beheaded.  Obviously this most effected the physically handicapped, injured and sick….

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Placard explaining the rocks and small Buddhist altar at far right

yonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-the-jumping-point-for-sadnessyonaguni-2017-kubura-bari-rocks-to-jump-acrossAnother, more infamous method was the one detailed here:  killing of pregnant women.  Periodically, all pregnant women of the island were forced to line up on one side of the Kuburabari ravine.  They were then ordered to attempt to hurdle the ravine by jumping to the other side.  Of course attempting to leap a gap of 10-15 feet was mostly impossible for women in such a state, and most of them died after bashing against the rock of the opposite side and falling deep into the ravine.  If that is not bad enough, there are claims that most of those women who miraculously succeeded their leap of faith ended up suffering miscarriages.  The islanders usually had to pay their taxes in food (mostly rice), and only by reducing the number of mouths to feed could the taxes be afforded.  Similarly, Satsuma realized he could receive maximum tribute if he were to “help” control population.

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Sadly, there is only the smallest memorials altar placed at the site.  Although there is tourist parking and signage explaining the nature of the area, they are as much about observing the sunset here as remembering a darker time.  It seems in a formal sense that Japanese officials have ignored and discarded this shameful history as simple island myths and legends not to be taken literally.

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But the truth is always somewhere in the middle.  For me, myth and legend do not exist in a vacuum.  And I would rather say a silent prayer for all those lost here, rather than ignore the possibilities.  Rather than to act as our guide in life, tragedy can rather result in wisdom for life.

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Culture Club in Japan: Bunka no Hi


“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.  By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death.  The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us.  Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life”

~Octavio Paz

There’s more to Japanese Culture than an SNL skit would lead you to believe

“Thanks for sharing,” Jody coyly says to me as the autumn winds blows and cold drizzle sets in just after sunset. Sure, I checked the weather and told her the high temperature for the day, along with the chance of rain we could suffer.  But she’s a smart, well-educated woman, and clearly should would understand the nighttime lows, especially given we’ve been sleeping with the windows open the last couple of days.

“Cold is a state of mind,” I flatly respond with my oft-repeated joke of how they taught us to embrace cold in Navy SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training. She does nothing but glance disapprovingly in my general direction.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, somber processional approaches

Earlier, things were different as the processional came into view as it passed over a rise in the roadway on the horizon. Even at this distance, the colors and pageantry of the parade already shine true in the bright afternoon Okinawan sun.  The crowd gathers has the spectacle closes, and slowly the somber sounds of Chinese horns, drums, and hand cymbals grow ever louder, setting the tone and cadence for all involved.  The pace is dignified and slow, and the King and Queen held high in their large, ornate litters.  And so went the Royal Ryukyu procession of guards, warriors, musicians, and dancers for the Chinese Investiture Envoys for the next two hours….

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, golden fans

The Ryukyu King

The Ryukyu King

And his Queen.

And his Queen.

The Shuri Castle Festival is certainly one of the biggest annual events on Okinawa. And there’s no mistake that it’s held in conjunction with the Japanese National Holiday, “Culture Day.”  For a day, the capital city of Naha is transformed into the Ryukyu Kingdom’s old hub.  The Ryukyu Dynasty Parade is truly a splendid sight to see.  A grand parade in brilliant period dress recreates the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most formal and picturesque procession.  In three groups — the dignified King and elegantly beautiful Queen’s procession, the dark and mysterious envoys’ procession, and the colorful and lively traditional arts procession — a throng of almost one thousand costumed period players parade along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha, the same route that has been traveled over the past six centuries.  The costumes are authentic, down to the same stitching used in robes and gowns worn in antiquity.  At the same time, traditional song and dance is performed free of charge and on-site at the castle’s park.  Clearly, to the Okinawans, this is more than just a chance to dress-up; rather, it’s a city-wide embrace and revival of the Ryukyu Dynasty in all its former glory.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, costumed happy dancers

Culture Day (文化の日, Bunka no Hi) is celebrated annually on November 3.  It is expressly set aside by the government to promote culture and the arts.  Events typically include art exhibitions, parades, and in Tokyo, even an Imperial award ceremony for distinguished artists and scholars.

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

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Still more to Okinawa than this....

Still more to Okinawa than this….

First held in 1948 to help promulgate the ideals of love of peace and freedom organic to the post WWII Japanese Constitution, its roots go much deeper. November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868 when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節), a holiday held in honor of the birthday of the reigning emperor.  An interesting aside, the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō Tanjōbi) remains a national holiday here, but with a differing date based on the specific reigning Emperor.  For contemporary Emperor Akihito (born in 1933), it is celebrated on 23 December.  During the reign of Hirohito (Showa period, 1926–1989, the sitting Emperor during WWII), the Emperor’s birthday was observed on 29 April.  Due in part to the nation’s reverence for Hirohito, regardless of how western history taints his role in the incitement and sustainment of World War II throughout Asia and the Pacific, that date remains a public holiday, but was renamed Greenery Day in 1989, and then finally Showa Day in 2007.  Coincidentally, and oddly enough, Showa Day also happens to be the same day in which the Allies’ International Military Tribunal for the Far East condemned key officials of the Imperial Hirohito government during World War II to death, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, back in 1946.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Chinese-inspired Seiden of the CastleShurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Shurijo Castle FestivalShurijo Castle prospered as the Ryukyu Kingdom’s center of politics, diplomacy and culture for 450 years, well into the late 19th century.  The castle was the residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s King and royal family, as well as the headquarters of the Shuri government, which traded with China, Japan and far-reaching Asian countries, shaping forever the distinctly Okinawa society.  Shuri also served as the heart of the kingdom, a center of culture and the arts, where classical court dance was born in order to welcome Chinese envoys and ambassadors.  After the Ryukyu Kingdom was unilaterally annexed by Japan in 1879, the King was removed from power and position, and the castle was relegated for use as a simple barracks for the Japanese army, falling into some significant measure of disrepair.

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Confederates in Japan??

Confederates in Japan??

The more appropriate standard.

The more appropriate standard.

A “National Treasure” before World War II, it was fiercely attacked for three days during the Battle of Okinawa since the Japanese military had located its headquarters in the castle’s underground maze of natural caves and tunnels. On May 27, 1945, Shuri burned for the fourth and last time, and was effectively razed to the ground by intensive shelling and bombardment.  Oddly enough, upon capture a Confederate battle flag was hoisted over the castle by the “Rebel Company,” Alpha Company of the 5th Marine Regiment, and there remained visible for three days until it was ordered removed by Marine General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., himself the son of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who felt that all Americans helped to win the battle, and was replaced by a more appropriate standard.  For an interesting take on the role and continuing consternation over this odd intersection of flags, see Should the Rising Sun Finally Set.

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female straw hat dancerAfter the war, plans were set in motion to rebuild and recapture the past. Castle reconstruction began in 1958, and was largely completed in 1992 with the restoration of the complex’s main buildings.  In 2000, along with other gusuku, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  See more on the Castle and other festivals held there in my blog Hidden Harvest Moon.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, dragon-topped Seiden rooftop roofline structure

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female dancer and minature puppet shishimaiShurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, footstepsJody and I went down early and parked near the castle, then took the city’s monorail over to the parade grounds. We thoroughly enjoyed the parade for close to two hours, trying to take in as much of the show as our overwhelmed senses would allow.  Jody let me jockey for a better photog position, which is thankfully much easier here in Asian surrounded by rather polite Japanese.  While I’m still sorting and sifting through over a thousand photos taken on no less than three cameras, a few selected ones are included here to help demonstrate the pomp of the ritual.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, Eisa ghost dancer

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female Yosudake dancer traditional Okinawan costumeShurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, colorful female dancerAfter the parade we decided to try another one of the “Sam’s” eateries, a popular chain here on Okinawa, and enjoyed an overpriced but delicious teppanyaki lunch at Sam’s Anchor Inn while we recharged our bodies and reset our senses. Taking the monorail back to the castle, Jody finally was able to tour the inside of the primary buildings of the castle, and we both attended a few displays of traditional Okinawan arts on the stage nearby.  We were, on the one hand happy that there were very few Americans in attendance, but saddened at the same time by this lack of interest and participation.

King's Throne in the Seiden

King’s Throne in the Seiden

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male and femaleAlthough Culture Day is statistically one of the best days of the year weather-wise – in Tokyo there have only been three years with rain in something like 40 years – the forecast is often much different in the sub-tropics, including Okinawa. While the rain Sunday night didn’t keep the crowds away, it did cut short our enjoyment of the candle-lit grounds during the Shurijo Castle Illumination.  Jody’s sleeveless blouse, which threatened to lead to sunburn just hours before, was ultimately no match for the strong fall winds and cold rain of early November.

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

But she sure does have nice shoulders. And besides, it gave me a chance to hold her close as we strolled through the romantically candlelit castle grounds on the way back to our car to zoom away to a steaming bowl of Ramen and freshly fried gyoza.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Kankaimon gate and castle approach at night

And as we warmed our hearts together on the ride home and over a late dinner, reminiscing, mostly in silence, about the rich fabrics in the colorful cloth of Okinawan culture, I found myself thinking, “Thanks for sharing.”

Thank you, Jody, for sharing this day of culture with me.

See my Flickr Set Shurijo Castle Festival 2014 for more photos as I process and post them.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male golden fan dance