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Okinawa’s “shrine problem”: Reconfigurations of Okinawa’s religious landscape, 1879-1945

Mainland shrine Shinto and its practices of kami worship spread in prewar Okinawa as part of the imposition of Japanese colonial rule in the prefecture. This spread was visible not only in the establishment of new Shinto shrines but also in the conversion of utaki sacred groves and other spaces of Okinawa’s indigenous ritual practices into jinja.

Despite these developments, shrine Shinto’s presence in prewar Okinawa cannot be left only as a story of the successful top-down imposition of practices and spaces of mainland kami worship. The spread of Shinto was so slow that Okinawa was described as having a “shrine problem.” However, speed was not the only issue; the spread of Shinto was problematic in other ways too. Mainland Shinto was caught up in a complex encounter with the prefecture’s indigenous religion that unsettles commonplace understandings of and assumptions about the Japanese state’s rule of Okinawa, the role that Okinawans played in that process, and the power relations between the Japanese mainland and Okinawan periphery.

This presentation will discuss two elements that demonstrate the complexity of that encounter. First, it looks at how local Okinawan intellectuals and communities actively wrote Okinawa’s indigenous religion into the world of shrine Shinto. Second, it examines how shrine Shinto served as a means through which Okinawan communities pursued local agendas that were unrelated to the concerns of the mainland Shinto establishment and Japanese state.

Together, these elements raise questions about how local agendas inflected the process often referred to as the “Japanization” of Okinawa in the prewar. They suggest that while local communities suffered discrimination and coercion which characterized Japanization, Okinawans were able to bend that process in ways that challenged Tokyo’s authority. In some instances, Okinawan communities went even further to appropriate and deploy mainland Shinto in ways that maintained local lifeways, even as they negotiated the radical changes demanded by an increasingly mainland-centered world taking shape around them.

Tze M. Loo is an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond. She is the author of Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation into Modern Japan, 1878-2000 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014).

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