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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Time to end discrimination against Okinawa

Rika Kayama

There was an incident recently that truly pained me. Osaka Prefectural Police riot squad officers hurled derogatory remarks at local protesters demonstrating against the construction of a U.S. military helipad in the Takae area of Higashi, Okinawa Prefecture. One officer called a protester -- a novelist living in Okinawa -- an "aborigine."

The term was obviously intended to heap scorn on the roots of the person on the receiving end. It was something that no one should ever say anywhere. The fact that it was hurled at an Okinawan makes it all the more problematic.

Until the beginning of Japan's Meiji period, Okinawa was an independent monarchy called the Ryukyu Kingdom. Then the Meiji government imposed its rule on the islands, renamed them "Okinawa Prefecture," and erased the kingdom from the map. In subsequent years, the government banned the Ryukyu language, and forced the islanders to adopt Japanese cultural practices and daily customs. At the time, it's said that mainland Japanese had a discriminatory attitude toward Okinawans, looking down on them as people that needed to be "incorporated into Japan."

There have been many Okinawans who believed that this discrimination continued through World War II, through the U.S. occupation of the islands, and even after the prefecture's return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Of course, the majority of Japanese mainlanders would say, "Of course I'm not prejudiced against Okinawans. I mean, I love Okinawa." But then the claim that forcing the burden of hosting some 70 percent of U.S. bases in Japan onto Okinawa is a form of discrimination has deep roots.

The bare-faced prejudice behind the "aborigine" remark went to the heart of Okinawans' long-held anxieties. When I spoke to a woman in the prefecture by telephone about the incident, she told me tearfully, "Just as I thought, that's how they see us."

There is nothing more hurtful to the human heart than discrimination. For example, if you're scolded for making a mistake at work, you can be more careful and improve the situation. But if you're attacked simply because of where you're from, you can't change that. It's not something you can "improve" or "fix." It's just you, and the sheer unfairness of it is deeply painful. I have had patients who have carried such wounds around inside them for years, unable to recover from the shock.

The Osaka policeman who uttered the "aborigine" comment has apparently said that he "didn't know it was discriminatory." It seems likely he didn't know anything of Okinawa's history, either. Even so, he still hurt the people of Okinawa. We should all take the time to study Okinawa's history one more time, swear to do away with discrimination in its deepest sense, and help Okinawans heal. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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