Dancing with the Dead: Memory, Performance, and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa

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Challenging conventional understandings of time and memory, Christopher T. Nelson examines how contemporary Okinawans have contested, appropriated, and transformed the burdens and possibilities of the past. Nelson explores the work of a circle of Okinawan storytellers, ethnographers, musicians, and dancers deeply engaged with the legacies of a brutal Japanese colonial era, the almost unimaginable devastation of the Pacific War, and a long American military occupation that still casts its shadow over the islands. The ethnographic research that Nelson conducted in Okinawa in the late 1990s—and his broader effort to understand Okinawans’ critical and creative struggles—was inspired by his first visit to the islands in 1985 as a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Nelson analyzes the practices of specific performers, showing how memories are recalled, bodies remade, and actions rethought as Okinawans work through fragments of the past in order to reconstruct the fabric of everyday life. Artists such as the popular Okinawan actor and storyteller Fujiki Hayato weave together genres including Japanese stand-up comedy, Okinawan celebratory rituals, and ethnographic studies of war memory, encouraging their audiences to imagine other ways to live in the modern world. Nelson looks at the efforts of performers and activists to wrest the Okinawan past from romantic representations of idyllic rural life in the Japanese media and reactionary appropriations of traditional values by conservative politicians. In his consideration of eisā, the traditional dance for the dead, Nelson finds a practice that reaches beyond the expected boundaries of mourning and commemoration, as the living and the dead come together to create a moment in which a new world might be built from the ruins of the old.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Moving from public meetings concerning US bases in Okinawa to the poetry of Takara Ben to amateur dance clubs, this study reveals a complex, comprehensive understanding of Okinawan identity and history. One of the highlights of the volume is Nelson’s recounting of his own experiences as a member of an amateur eisa collective. Although rooted in anthropology, this volume will also be of interest to those in performance studies, Asian studies, history, and cultural studies.” - K. J. Wetmore Jr., Choice

”This book greatly enriches memory studies by unsettling the location of memory. Nelson’s honest voice as an ethnographer also opens up the welcome subject of the ethics of anthropological research through his poetic and moving engagement with the subject. Dancing with the Dead is an absorbing and nuanced ethnography that will be of significant interest to Japan and East Asian specialists and to all who engage with questions of history and memory, subaltern studies, and the ethnography of the everyday.” - Yukiko Koga, American Anthropologist

Dancing with the Dead is a beautifully written, deeply evocative, and smartly argued book about the ways in which the past intrudes into the present and how memory is given shape, recognition, and vigor through storytelling of various forms. This will be an important book not only for and about Okinawan history but also about the times of continued violence and militarism in which we live.”—Anne Allison, author of Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination

“Colonized by Japan, traumatized by war, dominated by an ongoing American military presence, Okinawa has never attracted the sustained attention of Western anthropologists. That has now changed, for here we have an ethnography of Okinawa that finally does justice to the complexity of its poetic and political realities. In Dancing with the Dead, Christopher T. Nelson takes up the Okinawan performers, raconteurs, and citizens who work to transform everyday life and to reanimate the present, all in the service of cultural and political commemoration. Beautifully written and deeply considered, Dancing with the Dead is a signal contribution to the anthropologies of performance and everyday life, and it will remain the benchmark ethnography of Okinawa for years to come.”—Marilyn Ivy, author of Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Christopher T. Nelson is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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Read an Excerpt

dancing with the dead

memory, performance, and everyday life in postwar okinawa

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4349-3

Chapter One

fujiki hayato, the storyteller

Our campaign slogan must be: reform of consciousness, not through dogma, but through the analysis of that mystical consciousness which has not yet become clear to itself. It will then turn out that the world has long dreamt of that which it had only to form a clear idea of in order to really possess it. It will turn out that it is not a question of any conceptual rupture between past and future, but rather the completion of the thoughts of the past.-KARL MARX, Letter to Ruge

In chanpuru rhythm, we happily combine new lines of scientific inquiry, unscientific traditions passed on from older generations, as well as outright lies. I am convinced that when absolutely incompatible perspectives are brought together and the boundaries between this and that are weakened, a new truth, a new culture will be born.-TERUYA RINSUKE, Terurin Jiden


It was the autumn of 1945. The battle of Okinawa had ended. Their villages destroyed and their farms confiscated, thousands of Okinawans remained confined in resettlement camps under the haphazard administration of American military authorities. During the day, people gathered in the muddy streets between the ramshackle tents and shacks in which they were forced to live. Shocked, saddened, bored, they struggled to piece together the fragments of their daily lives. One day the dentist and comedian Onaha Buten joined them, laughing impishly.

I know that things have been terrible, but you can't go on this way. Here's what I'm going to do. Everyone gather around-I'll tell some stories and maybe we can sing a few songs. Now I know that times are tough, but I need to survive too. So I'll just put my hat down in the middle here. Then, everyone can close their eyes and pitch in whatever they can afford. That way, someone without much money won't be embarrassed. Once everyone has put their money in, I'll give a signal. You can open your eyes and I'll go on with the show.

They all agreed that this was a good idea. Buten put down his hat and told his audience to shut their eyes. Everyone dug into their pockets and threw money into the hat. After a few minutes, Buten shouted, "Open your eyes!"

When they looked around, Buten had taken the hat and gone. Laughing, he waved to them from his bike as he raced away down the street.

"Don't you ever learn?"

In the spring of 1997, the Japanese Diet acted with extraordinary-almost unprecedented-dispatch, passing a special law enabling the central government to compell Okinawan landowners to continue to lease their land for use by the American military. With this decision, the exuberance and determination of the previous months came to an abrupt and shocking halt. Nearly two years before, in 1995, the prefecture had erupted in anger over the rape of an Okinawan child by American soldiers-the latest in a series of attacks visited upon young women by American servicemen. Since that incident, there had been a prefectural referendum on the future of the bases, a series of public hearings on the renewal of leases, and several massive demonstrations.

A tremendous amount of critical effort had been directed at reconsidering the Okinawan past, and not merely the history of American military occupation. Essays in newspapers and journals, public discussions, and private conversations debated Okinawa's history of Japanese colonialism, wartime genocide, modernization, and incorporation into the Japanese nation-state. Questions of Okinawa's subjection to nativist analysis and cultural commodification were aired in the mass media. Angry commentators and politicians revisited Okinawa's history of discrimination at the hands of both the American and Japanese states. Calls were heard for greater regional autonomy, for recognition of Okinawa's unique status in the Japanese nation, even for independence. Commentators on both the right and the left urged Okinawans to seize this opportunity to determine their future; of course, the choices that these commentators enjoined their fellow Okinawans to make were radically different. In the midst of all of this, complex negotiations with the Japanese national government and American authorities continued. When landowners were finally forced to renew the leases held by the Japanese government, when the Diet enacted special legislation making leases compulsory, Okinawans were amazed to once again find their claims so summarily dismissed.

An editorial in the journal Keshi Kaji explored the deep emotions that swept through Okinawa following the Diet's stunning actions. The author, Miyazato Chisato, described how a feeling of chirudai came to pervade everyday life. In this case, chirudai can be understood to be a state in which the boundary between waking life and dreams has become blurred and charged with feelings of disappointment and loss. Politicians, activists, and critics would soon reorganize, particularly in the context of announcement of U.S. plans to build a new helicopter base in Nago. However, in a series of performances throughout Okinawa-at the Terurinkan in Okinawa City, at Ryubo Hall in Naha, and at the Nakamurake in Kitanakagusuku-the humorist and essayist Fujiki Hayato had already organized a different sort of response to the state of despondency described in the Keshi Kaji essay. Evoking the work of Teruya Rinsuke and the aforementioned Onaha Buten, Fujiki attempted to both transform the sense of chirudai-of disappointment and loss-and provide a critique of everyday life in contemporary Okinawa.

"One does not have to be a resentful reactionary to be horrified by the fact that the desire for the new represses duration." Theodor Adorno wrote these words in a critique of modern art; however, at this historical conjuncture it would be impossible to separate the cultural from the economic, the aesthetic from the quotidian. The modern era has been characterized by a kind of ceaseless impulse toward change. In the case of Japan, postwar economic growth was driven by a relentless mobilization of resources directed toward domestic development:

During the period of rapid GNP growth Japanese cities and industrial areas were virtual war zones. "Scrap and build" was the phrase the Japanese themselves used to describe the situation. The particular development strategy of government and business was reminiscent of the wartime strategy of resource mobilization.... During the war the Japanese were made to work selflessly in the attempt to win. After the war similar sacrifices were evidently expected in the interest of GNP growth.

Okinawan space is inscribed with the signs of these catastrophic transformations. In the name of parity with mainland Japan-hondonami-tremendous levels of capital have been committed and natural resources sacrificed to develop the Okinawan economy. Successive municipal governments and prefectural administrations routinely develop and deploy complex and ambitious plans for modernization and development: "international cities" and "free trade zones" are conceived and attempted, if never completed. Enormous construction projects-dams, highways, oil storage facilities, municipal buildings, conference centers-compete with the network of American bases for domination of the countryside.

This ceaseless orientation toward the future has also required Okinawans to defer the satisfaction of their desires until the constantly receding horizon of parity has been reached. Although much of this remains within the discourses of postwar modernization theory, it also resonates uncannily with the prewar Okinawan experiences of seikatsu kaizen, or lifestyle reform. In the aftermath of the colonial era, Okinawans were urged to renounce their backward culture and commit themselves to an ideology of shusse, of self-improvement. In the pages to come, I will consider the disturbing parallels between these discourses. However, for now, I want to focus on the experience of living in a present, a "now," where the experience of duration is constrained by the relentless practical orientation toward the future. And yet, this orientation is constantly brought up against the unfulfilled promises of the past that continue to manifest themselves in Okinawan social space and the practices of everyday life.


Central Okinawa, dominated by the sprawl of Kadena Air Base, is haunted by this complex and unresolved dialectic between past and present. The base itself is a massive network of runways, hangars, and magazines, hardened against nuclear attack. It is ringed by neighborhoods of suburban bungalows, apartment complexes, and shopping and entertainment centers, all surrounded by miles of chain link fence and razor tape, pierced at intervals by guarded gates. And yet, fragmentary remains of other orders belie the monolithic permanence of the base: here, a monument to the Japanese troops who died during the defense of the Japanese air field that occupied the same space during the Pacific War; there, signs that mark the mouth of a cave where Okinawan civilians took refuge during the battle for Okinawa. Family tombs and village shrines continue to stand on the carefully groomed lawns of the base, the fresh offerings of incense and flowers linking them to communities that have been dispersed or destroyed. Aging farmers pass through the gates, undeterred by armed sentries, to tend gardens and cut fodder on the margins of their ruined farms.

Okinawa City-Koza-clings to the perimeter of the base, its narrow streets and riot of construction a stark contrast to the spaciousness of Kadena. As I drove through the city, I felt like a swimmer moving across an enormous reef, its vibrant, expanding fringes counterbalanced by vast expanses of rigid, lifeless coral. Okinawa City radiates out in the same way, the debris of the modernization projects of past generations embedded in its concrete body. Tightly packed buildings lined the wide, asphalt highways linking the island's military training and storage complexes with the airfields at Kadena and the military harbour in Naha. Many of these buildings were vacant, their faded signs continuing to advertise bars, discos, restaurants, and souvenir shops long since closed. Narrow side roads led through crowded Okinawan neighborhoods where wooden houses with red-tiled roofs stood side by side with modern homes of polished concrete and glass. The crests of hills and slopes overlooking the sea were given over to tombs, neighborhoods of massive stone and concrete crypts inhabited by ancestral spirits. Beyond, entire districts of crumbling Western-style concrete bungalows mirrored the American housing areas on base. In fact, these were once the homes of the Americans who have now retreated to the communities constructed at Japanese taxpayers' expense within the base perimeter. Now they run to ruin, some occupied, most awaiting demolition and reconstruction. They stand as a kind of high water mark of the American military's physical penetration into Okinawan social space.

As always, my gaze was drawn to this Okinawan landscape-there seemed to be so much to see and to understand. And yet, I also felt as if I was searching for something that I did not see in the concrete neighborhoods, the cane fields, the rocky hilltops. Did I imagine that, after half a century, the hillsides would give up the bodies of those who died by the thousands in the withering fire of the war? Did I think that I would glimpse a shell-shattered village, still smouldering? Did I expect the streets to be packed with Vietnam-era revelers or rioters? Or perhaps I thought that I would catch a glimpse of an earlier self, the young Marine infantryman that I had been more than a decade before?

My tiny, underpowered car labored painfully as I climbed along the mountain road, heading south. To my right, an American golf course occupied a ridge where Okinawan tombs once stood; to my left, the road winding down to the eastern coast was lined with flamboyantly designed "love hotels." Every draw, every open field in the lowlands was planted with sugarcane, a legacy of the Japanese colonial administration still supported by modern state subsidies. I passed through a hilltop neighborhood of elaborate California-style ranches, home to the U.S. consul, the commanding general of the U.S. forces, and a number of wealthy businessmen. Towering above them, an abandoned Sheraton Hotel and several shuttered restaurants testified to the mistaken conviction that Okinawa City would become the center of Okinawan tourism and industry after reversion to Japanese rule in 1972. I followed the road as it descended through a jumble of construction sites and concrete houses, rose through a second public golf course and an evergreen forest. At last, I turned into a small parking lot that stood before the walled compound of a rural Okinawan villa.

I climbed out of the car, a cool breeze challenging the heat that still radiated from the asphalt pavement. It was sunset, the sky streaked with violet and crimson. A young woman, Fujiki's wife, met me in front of the main gate and we exchanged greetings. After receiving brief instruction from Mrs. Fujiki, an attendant led me through the gate and to the right of the hinpun, the massive masonry barrier defending the household from the direct assaults of intruders and malevolent spirits. Skirting a paved courtyard (the na), we stepped up onto the veranda of a semidetached guesthouse. I slipped off my sandals and followed my guide through the guesthouse and into the public rooms of the main villa. Connecting doors had all been removed for the evening, and an open expanse of tatami stretched from the eastern side of the house to the kitchen on the west. With a smile, the attendant motioned for me to sit in an open spot before the ancestral altar. I nodded to the guests already present and joined them in facing the courtyard.

The sliding exterior doors of the villa had also been removed, affording guests an unobstructed view of the na. Behind me, the doors of the ancestral altar had been opened as well, the interior shelves laden with flowers, fresh fruit, and water, providing a comfortable space from which the spirits could also observe the guests as well as the courtyard beyond. Smoke from newly lit mosquito coils mingled with the scent of tropical flowers and the lingering fragrance of incense offered earlier at the altar.

A low murmur of conversation and laughter filled the rooms as guests continued to arrive. By now, the rooms of the main house were filled and latecomers were forced to sit along the veranda of the guesthouse as well as the edges of the courtyard itself. Neighbors shared fans and passed cans of chilled Orion beer back and forth. The audience was diverse, most coming from the neighboring communities of Okinawa City and Nakagusuku, as well as some from Chatan on the west coast of the island and Urasoe and Naha to the south. They were socially and economically diverse as well: office workers and bureaucrats, university students, schoolteachers, construction workers, and electricians-a few still in their mint-green sagyofuku, or working uniforms. There was also a smattering of tourists from mainland Japan-cognoscenti of Okinawan pop culture, as well as the odd anthropologist. Entire families sat together, toddlers on their grandparents' laps, groups of friends and coworkers next to young couples on dates.


Excerpted from dancing with the dead by CHRISTOPHER NELSON Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


introduction the battlefield of memory....................1
1 fujiki hayato the storyteller....................27
2 the heritage of his times teruya rinsuke and ethnographic storytelling....................58
3 the classroom of the everyday fujiki hayato and his "shima to asobimanabu" seminar....................89
4 in a samurai village....................126
5 dances of memory, dances of oblivion....................171
conclusion in the darkness of the lived moment....................215
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