A panel from Okinawa

Susumu Higa’s manga Okinawa hit me a lot harder than I would like to admit. 

As a nisei Uchinānchu (second-generation indigenous Okinawan), all I have known in this world is my hometown in Oregon and my homelands in Okinawa. My mother’s entire family is in these beloved islands, and we used to live with relatives for months at a time during our summer breaks before the COVID -19 pandemic. So, understandably, I was more than happy to read Higa-san’s graphic novel when given the chance. Okinawan representation in a book created by an Okinawan author is so rare to find, and was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

That being said, I never would have thought that reading a manga would be so difficult.

Okinawa — which was written between 1990 and 2000 and published in English in 2023 — summarizes the horrific events of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa through glimpses into various characters’ lives before, during, and after the war. Combining two of Higa-san’s books, this compilation weaves different social issues related to the war into its storyline.

Through these illustrations, we hear from villagers whose homes were destroyed in countryside regions and neighbor islands. We learn about the devastating deaths, mass coerced suicides, and killing of Okinawan civilians. We watch spiritual ceremonies conducted by yuta (Okinawan mediums or shaman) in hopes of peace and healing for the land and people. Finally, we witness the experiences of war from the perspective of our Okinawan elders and survivors in a visual context.

Each characters’ stories seem to be equally validated and memorable in these chapters. From the American coach and soldier who started an Okinawan baseball team in the camps, to the memories of Higa-san’s own mother as she hid in an ohaka (family grave) near rice fields, this book offers just a glimpse into the depth and trauma this war has caused on our community.

Reading these mini-stories, I couldn’t help but think of my own family reflected in its pages. It is heavy knowing that all of us — all Okinawan people and descendants — have some familial ties to this war. Within just three months in 1945, over a quarter of our people were killed by U.S. and Japanese military forces. And even if you survived, there was nothing left to come back to.

I recall my own auntie, a survivor and teacher at Himeyuri High School, telling her story about how she saved all her students by hiding them in the caves. I grew up hearing about my great-grandfather, who was a defense attorney on behalf of Okinawan civilians after the war ended. I still talk with my friends and peers from Okinawa about their lives growing up with militarization as a normalized concept — and how these bases are still there, still causing fear, and still taking up space. Even though this book may show fictional characters, the stories are very real.

While the overarching theme of Higa-san’s work surrounds the Battle of Okinawa, other problems that persist today are shown, too. There are characters who discuss the controversy of selling your land to profit from the expansion of bases; the desecration of ancestral remains; the noise and discomfort brought with Osprey military trainings in local areas; and the social stigma and ridicule towards indigenous spiritual practices due to assimilation. These intersectionalities are deeply rooted in Okinawan society and are difficult to discuss in some households to this day.

Still, Okinawa made one thing clear: war helps no one. And while the Battle of Okinawa is usually talked about in a past context, I would like to remind readers that 1945 was not that long ago. It is not a distant thing for our people, and the effects of occupation and militarism from both the U.S. and Japanese governments are still seen today. As mentioned in the book, our islands and homelands have been treated as a battleground — not as a home — for far too long.

As heartbreaking and heavy as it was to read, I could not recommend this manga enough. For those considering: Please take the time to really sit with the images shown because while some may be fictionalized, all of these are real to our community. I think Higa-san’s goal was to humanize our experiences as Okinawan people, and he did so in a simple yet captivating way. It is the responsibility of all of us, shimanchu or otherwise, to critically analyze our understanding of history, whose stories are being told, and whose stories are missing.

I can’t describe this book as beautiful or pleasant, but it was raw, and it was real, and I honestly think that means more than anything else. I saw my friends, my family, and our struggles in these stories. And despite the generational traumas that were forced upon my elders and still seen in our streets today, I am grateful that there are Okinawan creatives working to put a spotlight on the real narrative of what our people endured.

To Higa-san: ippē nifē dēbitan (thank you so much) for creating these pieces. I hope we can work towards peace and decolonization of our islands, and I think this is a great starting point to dissecting how to heal and move forward as a global community. 

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