Modern Girl in the Periphery of Empire:
Mobility and Colonial Modernity among Okinawan Women in the 1920s and 1930s

Ruri Ito(Ochanomizu University)

   In the 1920s and 30s, the population of Naha, prefectural Okinawa’s largest city, fluctuated at around 60,000 inhabitants, while Tokyo counted well over 2 million. Tramways and cars had begun to appear in the provincial capital but were still considered curiosities into the late 1910s. Not only was Okinawa located far from the center of the Japanese empire and capitalist growth. Because of its distinctive cultural heritage and the systematic discrimination that Japanese mainlanders inflicted on its people, Okinawan leaders promoted assimilation to Japanese language and culture in the belief that wholesale Japanization was the prerequisite for access to the knowledge and power emanating from Japanese modern institutions.

    The emergence of such “new women of Okinawa” as Tomihara Hatsuko, Tamaki Oto, Iha Fuyuko, Kinjo Yoshiko or Arakaki Mitoko represented a somewhat different and significant current of thinking. Directly in line with Iha Fuyu’s enlightenment project, these “new women” sought to open a space for women’s independent thinking. Some, as young school girls in the 1910’s, sympathized with Seito (Bluestockings), Japan’s feminist literary magazine. Others in their later life joined the socialist movement or the Christian social reform activities, frequently through their contacts with the urban life in Tokyo or Osaka.

    They also heralded the new school girl culture that flourished in the 1920s and later on, as in the case of Arakaki, led the ephemeral cultural wave of “haikara-san” or “modern girls” of the 30s, by introducing western aesthetic for dressing and cosmetics, until war came to impose its reality on people’s lives.

    This paper focuses on the question of Okinawan women’s mobility. Drawing on the scattered data in Hokama Yoneko, Ryukyu Shimpo ed., Jidai wo Irodotta Onnatachi (Naha: Nirai Sha, 1996), I am establishing that the 80 notable women, whose biographies are anthologized in this recently published history of modern Okinawa, shared an interesting propensity for extensive travel. A metropolitan center to some degree, Naha was nonetheless located on the periphery of Empire, and thus its urbanity and material resources were limited. Geographical mobility itself seems to have been the link between Naha and Tokyo, or other cities like Osaka, Taipei and Dalian. Among elite Okinawan women, there was a widespread perception that opportunities for female education and employment existed outside the island prefecture. Given Okinawa’s peripheral location, the issue of mobility presents a strategic site of research into the question of how “new women” and “modern girls” could have appeared at all in colonial Okinawa, in the absence of full scale consumerism and cultural urbanity.