Just before dawn, the sky is a shade darker. On the high ground overlooking the sea, I wait for that moment when morning rises. Soon the black lacquered heavens begin to thaw, and an indistinguishable place where the eastern sky and sea meet begins to whiten. Until this moment, there is no border between sea and sky, but then a single ray of light runs smoothly across the horizon, spreading.
This hill is at the tip of Chinen Peninsula in Okinawa. Next to me, the woman watching the sunrise becomes a silhouette. The circle of the tīda is not yet visible, but it brushes the clouds near the horizon, casting shadows as the world gradually brightens and silver waves spread across the water’s surface. It is in these moments that I feel the divine.
We wanted to hail the first sunrise of the New Year, so my friends and I bustled out to the tip of Chinen. I was surprised by how quickly the darkness melted away. It had been so dark I couldn’t see a thing, but gradually I could make out the contours of the people around me. Soon enough, there was a cluster.
In the Beginning, women were the tīda1. In the olden times, the tīda was a god. Now, the tīda is sometimes a god.
In Okinawa, there is a saying, “nuchidu takara.” It goes like this, “Mun kwishidu waga shu.” (The giver of goods becomes my master.) Even when it was Ryukyu, Okinawa was already being tossed on the tempests of history. Like Momotaro in his magical peach, Okinawa has floated as flotsam at the mercy of the waves as they rush poccharakō, poccharakō down time’s stream. An Okinawan shimauta2, “Jidai no nagare” (The Tide of History), captures the Okinawan sense of floating through the changing times:
Tōnu yu kara
Yamato nu yu
Yamato nu yu kara
Amerika nu yu
From Chinese era
From Japanese era
it keeps on changing
This, our Okinawa
And now we’ve come to an age when you could add another verse: From American rule / to Japanese again. Ryukyu was long a tributary state to China, but then came the invasion of the Shimazu clan from Japan’s Satsuma Domain, making Ryukyu a tributary of both China and Japan. Following the Meiji government’s success in the Sino-Japanese war, Ryukyu was violently assimilated under Japanese rule. After the Battle of Okinawa, the United States imposed itself. Ryukyu/Okinawa has long existed either as an entity under indirect rule or as a colony. Our pandering to each successive power is expressed through “The giver of goods becomes my master.”
How self-deprecating, this concept that any ruler who feeds us is our master. It reflects the historical background of our small nation bowing in the face of powerful nations like China, Japan, and the United States in order to survive. Another saying with the same sentiment: “Nubui tīdadu ugamariru” (We hail any rising sun.)
In Okinawa, not every aspect of the tīda is considered divine. You can see this by observing an old farmer. He rises early and cultivates his field. After a morning’s work, he has a long brunch and then a nap. When the tīda starts to sink into the west, he again goes out and tends to his field. Just after daybreak, tīda stands as a god, but once it shines overhead, it becomes a harsh reality. There is a word, mafukkwa. It expresses temperatures so hot your mind goes blank. Okinawans don’t try to fight the mafukkwa. The tīda is both a blessing and a curse, and it’s an Okinawan sensibility to see god dwelling there just in the morning.
To hail the rising sun is to subjugate oneself to the ruler of the moment. You might call it the inscrutable Okinawan spirit.
- A reference to the saying by writer and pioneering feminist Hiratsuka Raichō.
- Songs native to Okinawa