I don’t know what I was expecting when I cracked open Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina this morning, but it wasn’t this. I just spent the entire day unable to put this book down, weeping and raging. I only paused long enough to send a Kindle copy to my mother and order a copy to keep as mine is from the library. I will be sending copies to my adult children as well, so they can understand who they are.

Where to begin? First, with a thank you. Elizabeth Miki Brina has explained the mystery of my life back to me through the lens of her own. I saw the relationship with my mother, and her relationship with her mother reflected on these pages. I found answers to my own questions—why am I different? Why is my mother so different? What does it mean to be Uchinanchu?

In this book is a secret history of the US involvement in Okinawa alongside the narrative of a half Asian daughter. Whenever I’ve told people my mother’s family comes from Okinawa I am usually told how much “the local people” love Americans and appreciate the military.

They maybe don’t know about the nearly 9,000 murders, rapes and robberies committed by US service members against “the local people.” Maybe they don’t realize the cases for sexual assault against “the locals” are higher in Okinawa military bases than anywhere else in the world. One of the youngest victims of rape was nine months old.

They fail to mention the Koza Uprising on December 20, 1970. They want to believe this impoverished indigenous people are grateful to be used as service animals for greater purposes. Maybe they don’t know that Okinawa was claimed by the US after World War II because it was such a strategic location for military bases—20% of the islands sacrificed for a foreign military.

They don’t see any unfairness when the US sold Okinawa to Japan for six hundred eighty-five million dollars despite the protests of the people they were selling. Perhaps they forget that it was imperialism and war, other countries’ war, that created the extreme poverty in the first place.

Combined with this historical but often overlooked narrative is the intimate story of what became of them. It is an explanation for all the Uchinaa children to explain to us why we are as we are, even as generations four times removed. On a personal note, it showed me an unfamiliar world that contributed to who I am. Brina showed me other points of view from my family. She’s closed the distances between my own generations.

A memoir, Brita writes with cutting honesty that reflects ourselves back to us. Whatever ethnicity we come from, we can find ourselves on these pages. This isn’t a book of accusation but of understanding. Atrocities happen. It is time to unmake them. The first step is opening a conversation—a dialogue.

Since I’ve started researching what it really means to be Uchinanchu I’ve shared many conversations and the response is usually: Okinawans aren’t Japanese? The answer is no, they are a separate indigenous people with their own customs and language. Japanese can’t speak and read the native tongue, called Uchinaaguchi. Despite this, an internet search assures me it “is the Japanese language as spoken by the people of Okinawa Islands.” This is incorrect. It is the language of the Okinawa Islands.

This book is one of the most valuable and intense books I’ve ever had the traumatic pleasure of reading. If I thought writing a poetry collection about my blended Asian experience was wrenching, this book has ripped my heart wide open again. I’ve wept all day for a people that couldn’t. There wasn’t enough water and energy to waste on tears. There was only survival. I’ve cried buckets for them.

There’s a line in the book that resonates deeply with me. It sums up what I think my grandmother never had and what I suspect my mother craves. It’s a good phrase for all sorts of underrepresented people regardless of ethnicity, gender, age and physical abilities. Brita writes of moving to a town where the ethnicities are mixed more evenly through a population, and how comforting that was, and strange. She described it as “where I feel seen, rather than exposed.”

This is a book that needs to be seen. Speak, Okinawa does indeed speak, loud and clear. It is from a particular voice, but it speaks to and for all of us. We all have the same human desire to matter, to be heard—to be seen rather than exposed.

The best and most important book I’ve read for many years. You can find Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina on Amazon here.

By Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is a third-generation Ryukyuan-American, award-winning poet, author, and publisher with 20+ years in newspapers. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), two-time Bram Stoker Awards® Winner, and HWA Mentor of the Year, she shares Authortunities, a free weekly calendar of author opportunities at authortunities.substack.com.

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