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Play probing Japanese discrimination against Okinawans streaming online until Feb. 21

The comic play "Jinruikain" (Human Pavilion) is recorded in Nishihara, Okinawa Prefecture, on Feb. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

NISHIHARA, Okinawa -- A play on the 1903 "Human Pavilion incident" portraying discrimination against Okinawans was performed in this southernmost Japan city on Feb. 14 after a seven-year hiatus, and is being streamed online for free until Feb. 21.

    The "Academic Human Pavilion" was set up just outside the grounds of the National Industrial Exhibition in the city of Osaka's Tennoji district. The latter exhibition was put on by the Japanese government from March to July, 1903, to put the country's growing power, boosted by industrialization, on display for audiences both foreign and domestic.

    Late Okinawan dramatist Seishin Chinen, who wrote the play "Human Pavilion," is seen. (Photo courtesy of Akane Chinen)

    Inside the privately run Human Pavilion, however, it was human beings who were "exhibited" -- including indigenous people from Taiwan, Ainu people from Hokkaido and "Ryukyu people" from Okinawa Prefecture -- as "people of foreign races." The letter of intent for the pavilion read, "It is academically, commercially and industrially helpful as a reference to display these people's unique properties of rank, population, human feeling, manners, and so on."

    According to a 2005 book about the pavilion, "displays" of people from China and the Korean Peninsula had been also planned, but were canceled one after another before and after the opening due to protests.

    The Ryukyu "exhibit" featured two women from Okinawa. It was suspended about a month after the pavilion opened amid a flurry of critical articles in Okinawan local newspapers. And though it closed early, the event highlighted discriminatory feelings against people including those from Hokkaido, Okinawa and Taiwan, which the government of Meiji Japan had only recently put under its control.

    The play performed on Feb. 14 is titled "Jinruikan" (Human Pavilion), and was written by the late Okinawan dramatist Seishin Chinen with the 1903 event at its inspiration. Premiered in 1976, the play was performed in and out of Okinawa Prefecture by amateur theater company Sozo (creation) based in the city of Okinawa. The play won the Kishida Drama Award, sometimes called the "Akutagawa Prize of the theater world" after one of Japan's top literary prizes, in 1978.

    Actors rehearse in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Feb. 10, 2021. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

    Three characters appear in the play: "a man who looks like a handler," "a man on display" and "a woman on display." The play begins with a scene at the Human Pavilion, where the contemptuous and whip-wielding handler puts the other man and woman on show. However, the setting then changes repeatedly. One of them is a prewar Okinawan school, where the children are being strictly forced to "Japanize" and adopt allegiance to the Imperial family. Another is the scene of a mass suicide during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, where psychologically desperate locals kill each other, even their own family members. All these different characters are played by the same three actors.

    While the theme that connects each scene at a fundamental level is discrimination against Okinawans, there is a scene where the handler confesses he himself is from Okinawa, highlighting the fine line between those who discriminate and those who are discriminated against.

    "This play portrays the 'regeneration of discrimination.' People who have suffered prejudice then discriminate against other people in even weaker positions," said actor Hiroyuki Shimabukuro, 41, who plays the handler. "As everyone has the potential to discriminate against others, the play makes me wonder if I have that in me, too."

    The play was performed in the city of Okinawa in 2014 to commemorate the passing of Chinen the previous year at age 71. The most recent staging was planned by his eldest daughter Akane, 44.

    This Feb. 10, 2021 photo shows stage director and acting instructor Asao Uezu in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

    "Since my father died, I have been told by people who knew him, 'You have to do it (the play) next,'" Akane said. "Every year, I had grown more afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it." With the help of government subsidies, Akane launched script readings and rehearsals in September 2020.

    Stage director Asao Uezu, 59, instructs young actors. He played the handler in performances between 2003 and 2009. "Though the play was written in the 1970s, it still echoes in the modern era, where sexist remarks and discrimination related to the pandemic is gaining attraction," he said.

    When Uezu went to a hot spring in the Tohoku region in northern Japan in the 1980s to visit a friend, a local said to him, "An Okinawan 'dojin' has arrived!" "Dojin," literally "dirt person," is a derogatory term for native peoples.

    It was a prejudiced remark coming relatively soon after Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 that implied mainland Japanese inquisitiveness in the southernmost prefecture. However, more than 40 years after Okinawa's return from U.S. control, there was another incident of the word being thrown at Okinawans, this time by riot police officers from Osaka Prefecture.

    The two officers in their 20s were part of an Osaka Prefectural Police contingent deployed to Okinawa to guard a U.S. military base construction site from anti-base protesters in 2016. The officers hurled insults at the protesters, including "dojin," but also "Shina-jin," a pejorative term for Chinese people.

    "There's a link between unconcernedness about Okinawa's situation and discrimination and prejudice," said Uezu. "It's the same as the U.S. military base issue. The bases are still concentrated here, Osprey aircraft have been deployed, and there have been a series of accidents. But there are people who don't want to know about it."

    The fact that some 70% of U.S. military facilities in Japan are in Okinawa has apparently fixed the hierarchy of "those who discriminate" and "those who are discriminated against," with a cloud of indifference hovering over it all.

    The 1 1/2-hour play had initially been planned to be performed in front of audiences, but was recorded instead to prevent coronavirus infections. It is now streaming online for free until Feb. 21.

    Akane told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Why do humans discriminate? I'd like the play to make people feel a little uncertain in their ideas, and think together."

    The link to the video can be found at the "Kigeki Jinruikan" website at (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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