Urge to apologize, understand leads author deep into roots

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Knopf, 289pp, Maruzen price: ¥4,899

It’s a story many children of immigrants can relate to: Just trying to fit in, but constantly being reminded that you’re different, and being asked the dreaded question, “No, where are you really from?”

In “Speak, Okinawa,” Elizabeth Miki Brina takes us through her life in America, her parents’ lives and the lives of the people of Okinawa, starting from before the island’s history became as complicated as it is now.

The memoir connects Okinawa’s past as an independent kingdom to the present, when the U.S. military controls almost 20% of the land on Okinawa Island, and how that has affected people from the island.

However, it is mostly written as an apology to her mother.

Brina apologizes for her actions and inactions and for not empathizing with her — a woman who moved to a country where her husband was the only person she knew, and where she could not speak or understand the language.

Brina’s mother, born a few years after the end of World War II, is from Okinawa. Brina’s father was an American soldier from New York. Her parents met in Okinawa, married and moved to the U.S. to start their new life.

Brina grew up in Fairport, N.Y., which was “99% white and 1% everything else.” She seems to have had a typical childhood, including making friends, throwing parties and going to concerts. But she realized somewhat early in life that maybe she wasn’t so typical.

One of the first lessons she learned in preschool was to look for things that are the same. “We are taught that sameness is correct. Sameness is desired.” She remembers thinking that since her mother didn’t pronounce “Elizabeth” like her friends and teachers did, her pronunciation was, therefore, incorrect and something to be ridiculed.

For a long time, she viewed her mother as weak “because she couldn’t speak English very well or read.” When she was 19, she decided to get a tattoo of her middle name in kanji, but instead of asking her mother how it was written, she consulted an English-Japanese dictionary and her English-speaking father, “because my Japanese-speaking Okinawan mother couldn’t possibly know the kanji for my middle name. She never went to high school. She’s practically illiterate.”

As she got older, guilt began to set in. The guilt of how she treated her mother, the guilt of how she continued to treat her and the guilt of not knowing Japanese. She writes that going to Okinawa for the first time as an adult was when she really started to make an effort to understand her roots and began to feel more connected to her mother. When her mother had taken her there as a teenager, it was a chore, but as an adult, Brina saw her mother’s ease with the family she’d left behind and wondered how their life might have been if they had lived in Okinawa.

As Brina recounts her life so far and her relationship with her parents, she weaves in the history of Okinawa. She begins when the island was nameless, continues to when people from China claimed it in the 14th century, to its annexation by Japan in 1879, through World War II when “everything in Okinawa is crushed and burned,” and leads into the present.

She writes about the struggles and trauma the people of Okinawa have faced throughout history but focuses on World War II and its aftermath, including enormous portions of the island being placed under U.S. control, and the thousands of crimes that have been committed by U.S. military personnel, most of which she says went unpunished.

According to Brina, the most important word in the Japanese language is “sumimasen,” which is a form of apology, but “‘Gomen nasai’ is pure apology, used for more profound transgression and wrongdoing.”

Through her apology to her mother, Brina makes us wonder if we have shown enough appreciation to those around us, or if we have mistreated them for something that is not their fault. Have we said “thank you” enough? Or should we be saying, “gomen nasai”?

— By Akino Higa, Japan News Staff Writer