In the opening chapter of Susumu Higa’s manga, Okinawa, a group of Japanese soldiers land on a Ryukyuan island to prepare for World War II’s Battle of Okinawa. A child asks her principal whether the soldiers will occupy their island forever. “Until they know all of us are safe,” he replies. His words are an ominous beginning for readers who know anything about the next seventy years of Okinawa’s history.
Susumu Higa is a Japanese manga artist from Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Since the late 1980s, he has been telling the stories of his culture and its history in illustrated form. As published in English, Okinawa is a single collection of Higa’s work originally published in two editions, five years apart—Sword of Sand in 1995 and Mabui in 2010.
The stories in Sword of Sand (“part I”) are almost entirely set during the Battle of Okinawa. In Mabui (“part II”), Higa presents more contemporary life in Okinawa. (Mabui is “an Okinawan religious concept, similar to ideas like ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’.”) Higa calls Okinawa’s history “all one connected, continuous world”. Each section is divided into a series of vignettes (“chapters”) with overlapping themes but almost no shared characters or narrative.
Okinawa may defy Western readers’ expectations of manga. Many non-Japanese are almost exclusively familiar with shonen manga—titles like Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, or Naruto—targeted at adolescent boys. The human figures in Okinawa don’t have large eyes, spiky hair, or outrageous costumes. They aren’t comic or cartoonish, either, as in the work of Shigeru Mizuki. They’re realistic. The backgrounds are lovingly detailed.
There is certainly violence—the manga covers the Battle of Okinawa, after all—but the violence is understated. It is no less haunting for its restraint. For example, one chapter depicts Higa’s father struggling home in pitch dark, only to realize that he is walking over the corpses of soldiers caught in a raid. Each chapter ends with a photograph of a feature of Okinawan geography, daily life, or culture. A path to the sea. Sefa Utaki, a holy place in the Ryukyu religion. A military base.
The volume also includes an interview (translated, like Higa’s text, by Jocelyne Allen) between Susuma Higa and Christopher Woodrow-Butcher and Andrew Woodrow-Butcher of the podcast Mangasplaining. The interview helps put the Japanese original in context. Higa explains that he isn’t “one of the major players” in Japanese manga, but he did work on a well-received TV documentary. He tells his interviewers that he hopes all readers—in both Okinawa and the US, find
that element of shared humanity, of empathy for one another. Okinawa’s problems aren’t just Okinawa’s problems; they’re connected to global issues.
The volume isn’t about blame or recrimination. Characters on all sides can be equally human or inhumane. Some Okinawans rob cultural artifacts. Others are torn between the economic rewards and cultural and environmental costs of supporting American bases. Still others heroically stand up to bullies—Japanese mainlanders, Americans, and even other Okinawans. Some American soldiers are horrified to see the consequences of the occupation, both in the 1940s and today.
In a sense, it’s a rare treat for English-language readers to have access to Higa’s work at all. There are few manga titles that aren’t intended for adolescent boys or girls translated into English each year. And despite the rapid increase in books translated from Japanese, there is still very little translated by writers from Okinawa. Most Okinawan literature translated into English is available only in a handful of important and worthwhile anthologies like Southern Exposure (edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabon) and Islands of Protest (edited by Davinder Bhowmik and Steve Rabson). The first full-length, stand-alone novel by an Okinawan writer wasn’t published in English until 2017—Shun Medoruma’s In the Woods of Memory, translated by Takuma Sminkey.
Jocelyn Allen leaves many of Okinawa’s most important cultural terms untranslated. (Higa left these dialect terms untranslated in the Japanese original as well.) She defines terms in a glossary at the manga’s end. The most important in the volume are almost certainly mabui and ugan (“a ritual or ceremony which honors or pays homage to something supernatural or divine”). A yuta is “an Okinawan medium or shaman who works with individuals or familiar to solve or heal spiritual problems or disturbances,” often by means of an ugan in Higa’s book. Almost all yuta are women.
Although the entire manga is well worth a read, a few chapters stand out.
“About Mother” opens, “My mother passed away. So I thought I might write down my stories about her so my memories don’t fade away and leave me.” The chapter depicts Higa’s mother bravely protecting her children during the Battle of Okinawa, even nursing her youngest in one poignant illustration. Her enemies are both American and Japanese; she flees one shelter because Japanese soldiers hiding with her family threaten to kill her crying baby. She manages to keep her family alive until American soldiers capture them and carry them to a camp where they are, ironically, treated better than they had been by the Japanese mainlanders. The chapter ends, “My mother’s stories of the War began and ended with her boasting that she had managed to protect her sons and daughters.” (Higa didn’t play a role in these events personally, though the chapter depicts older siblings; he was born in 1953.)
A later chapter, “Soldiers of Sand”, tells the story of Higa’s father and his time in Okinawa’s “home guard”. Later, he would only tell his children stories about the year he spent in a detention center in Hawai‘i, which he described as “like a paradise”: “The food was so great! I could never eat this kind of food on Okinawa!” Higa’s father never spoke about the battle itself.
“School” presents a dedicated professor and students who discover a treasure of historical documents from the golden age of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), before Japan annexed the islands. They talk the Japanese army into leaving the texts where they can be studied in situ, only to have them mistaken for military secrets and destroyed by mistake by the American army. The tale is compelling in its own right, and also a kind of metaphor for Okinawa’s history.
Finally, perhaps more than any other chapter in the volume, “Military Landlord” depicts the consequences of the ongoing military presence in Okinawa—disruptions to daily life, conflict among Okinawans, and cultural dispossession. It opens
Of the American military facilities in Japan, 75% are concentrated in the prefecture of Okinawa.The area of land for military use comprises 20% of the main island of Okinawa (as of 1996).
(According to the Okinawa Prefectural Goverment’s Washington, DC Office, that number is now closer to 15% as of 2023.)
There are approximately twenty-eight thousand private landowners who sign contracts with the Japanese government’s Defense Facilities Administration Agency to lease the land and, in return, receive a sum of approximately sixty billion yen [about $400 million US as of November 2023].
They are called “military landlords.”
The chapter shows representatives of the Defense Facilities Administration Agency negotiating with an Okinawan man to rent his land. He insists they come to his home in person so they must experience what life is like for people who live near bases. As the representatives leave, they throw their hands over their ears and duck under the “non-stop” stream of low-flying planes preparing to land. The stoic Okinawan, Mr Machida, stands tall, arms crossed and eyes closed—long accustomed to the interruption. “That’s what living here’s like,” he tells them. “Might be hard for you lot, but you can at least suffer through it while we’re workin’ out the lease.”
Meanwhile, many of Mr Machida’s neighbors and relatives are full of get-rich-quick plans for golf courses and campgrounds. They’ve taken out loans against their military land to fund their consumption. Mr Machida is different. He continues to contribute to village life and holds regular ugan. He may be a military landlord, but he invests his profits in a future when the US military is no longer a presence on his island. It’s that hope—which both Mr Machida and Higa realize is probably a distant one—that fills the pages of Okinawa.