The Okinawa Memories Initiative (OMI) is a public history project that explores the postwar history of Okinawa, Japan, from a global perspective through collaborative storytelling. “In the fall of 2013, the Gail Project (a predecessor to OMI) was officially launched as an undergraduate student historical research project. Students used Gail’s photos as a starting point for an elaborate scavenger hunt of research through which students could begin to understand post-war Okinawan culture and the history of the Okinawan people.” Over the years, OMI has had many wonderful opportunities to use the Gail photos as a jumping-off point for conversations about Okinawan culture and history. This timeline highlights these opportunities and the work OMI has done to facilitate the sharing of knowledge about Okinawa.
In 2011, Geri Gail, campus auditor at the time, first reached out to Shelby Graham of the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UCSC about preserving and presenting the photos that her father, Dr. Charles E. Gail, had taken of Okinawa between 1952 and 1953. Ms. Graham initially brought the photos to the History of Art and Visual Culture (HAVC) professor Stacy Kamehiro, who recommended that the photos be brought to Dr. Alan Christy, a professor in Japanese history.
In 2012, actions regarding the Gail photos were mainly focused on figuring out the legalities of usage. Dr. Alan Christy was getting requests from students during this time about doing research on Okinawan history, however, he had no real outlet for them aside from the Gail photos. He advertised that he wanted to go forward on a project with the photographs but he had not yet gotten permission on his ideas from Geri Gail and was waiting for her to call him back.When a student asked again he told them about how he had been calling and called Ms. Gail to show the student. She picked up! She then approved the Gail Project with the students, and Toshiro Tanaka and Dr. Christy began talks soon after they finished their previous project. This all took about a year or two from when the photos had first been passed to Dr. Christy in 2011.
In the spring of 2013, conversations about starting formal work based on the photographs began to ramp up. This was because of Dr. Christy’s Okinawan history seminar in the fall of 2013, where he told the class about the Gail photos and promised them a trip to Okinawa. In his first student trip to Japan, Dr. Christy brought four undergraduate students from this class to Yokohama in December 2013, along with Ph.D. student Dustin Wright, who was working on his dissertation in Tokyo based at Waseda University and funded by Fulbright Hays. In the summer of 2013, Dr. Christy and his family went to Okinawa and met with museum personnel, such as Nakamoto Kazuhiko from the Okinawa Prefectural Archives (OPA).
While Gail photographs have yet to be shown in the archives, Dr. Christy established a lasting relationship with the archives and brought students there on later trips for independent research.
In the fall of 2013, the Gail Project (a predecessor to OMI) was officially launched as an undergraduate student historical research project. Students used Gail's photos as a starting point for an elaborate scavenger hunt of research through which students could begin to understand post-war Okinawan culture and the history of the Okinawan people. Around the same time, UCSC’s history department offered History 194, an Okinawan history seminar focused on Gail’s photos.
In December of that year, History 194 took a class trip to Yokohama to work with Yokohama National University students and professor Hiroyuki Matsubara. Dr. Matsubara, a former Ph.D. student mentored by Dr. Christy and Dr. Alice Yang, was a faculty member at Yokohama National University. Dr. Christy and Dr. Matsubara’s classes teamed up and Dr. Wright accompanied them, arranging a trip to a former protest site at the Tachikawa Air Force Base in Western Tokyo outside of Tachikawa, in a town called Sunagawa.
In September 2014, the Gail Project traveled to Okinawa as a student research team for the first time. Six members went on the trip: Dr. Alan Christy, Toshiro Tanaka, Rei Coleman, Conner Lowe, Natanel Miller, and Madeleine Thompson. One of the goals of the trip was to try and locate the specific locations of Dr. Gail’s photos. They were successful in doing so when they visited Nakagusuku Castle where they were able to confirm Gail had taken photos when they found a staircase. Another great find of the trip was a pair of shisa (stone lion figures) near the castle, which had been depicted in the Gail photos in a very different place, a warehouse of some kind.
At first, they could not find these lions, however had Conner Lowe found a book published in 1958 that depicted them before traveling to Okinawa, leading them to assume they were in a museum. Before going to the castle, they bought tickets for Tama-Udun, a tomb just west of Nakagusuku Castle, where they asked about the image of the shisa and found they had been restored to their original place atop the tombs! Members of the project wrote about their experience finding the shisa which can be read here.
A highlight of the 2014 trip was when the Gail Project visited the Himeyuri Peace Museum, which contextualizes the tragic story of the students and teachers of Okinawa Daiichi Women's High School and Okinawa Shihan Women's Schools. They were mobilized to be nurses for the Japanese army during WWII in what would be called the Himeyuri students corps (or Himeyuri gakutoutai). Out of 270 students and teachers in the mobilized nurse corps, the 13 sole survivors spent the next 40 years working to preserve the memory of their classmates and instructors, which led to the building of the Himeyuri Peace Museum. This peace museum thoughtfully captures WWII from an often underrepresented perspective: the civilian perspective. Dr. Christy, after this initial visit to the museum, would make visiting the Himeyuri Peace Museum one of the first agenda items in every student trip to Okinawa thereafter.
From 2015 to 2017, Dr. Wright taught an Okinawa history class at UCSC titled the History and Memory of the Okinawa Islands and another class about Anti-Base Protests in Asia. Many students of these classes were involved with the Gail Project.
Late 2015 introduced a new member and focus to the organization. Cameron Vanderscoff, a former student of Dr. Christy, reached out to the Gail Project expressing interest in collaborating with the Gail Project and expanding its research scope to include life story oral histories with Okinawans from all walks of life. With the expanded scope, Vanderscoff proposed renaming the project Okinawa Memories Initiative. While the Gail Project focused more on the post-war photos they had acquired, the Okinawa Memory Initiative would focus on recording and sharing the stories of the survivors and descendants of the war. The lasting effects that the war had on the Okinawan people meant that more trips to Okinawa would be essential. Mr. Vanderscoff was able to receive a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace which made it possible for both the Gail Project and the Okinawa Memory Initiative to visit Okinawa the next year.
In 2016, the Gail Project could not afford a group trip to Okinawa. However, the Gail Project’s media head, Toshiro Tanaka, traveled to Brazil to aid the Gail Project’s activities. Cameron Vanderscoff from the Okinawa Memory Initiative traveled to Okinawa in the same year.
Mr. Tanaka was inspired to go to Brazil, a country with a large Okinawan community, after the 2014 Gail Project trip to Okinawa where he saw a large number of Brazilian flags in Kokusai Dori, the international street in downtown Naha. Mr. Tanaka went to Liberdade in São Paulo in August and stayed for about a month. Most of the Okinawans who had immigrated to Brazil did so after the war in the 1950s. Approximately 20% of Japanese immigrants who live in Brazil came from Okinawa. In São Paulo, there were multiple meeting houses for people with Okinawan backgrounds, and they organized cultural events. Mr. Tanaka made wonderful connections while he was in Brazil. He hopes one day the program will take a group trip to Latin America and present the Gail photos.
While scheduling for a second trip to Okinawa fell through for the Gail Project, they were still able to collaborate with Mr. Vanderscoff. Under the Okinawa Memory Initiative, Mr. Vanderscoff traveled to Okinawa in June and established conversations with various groups of citizens. These citizens included government officials, council members, veterans, peace activists, protesters, and civilians who lived through WWII. He also helped form a collaboration with the University of the Ryukyus. These connections would not only contribute to the goal of creating an archive of oral history interviews but would also benefit the Gail Project’s forthcoming ambitions.
2017 was the year that the Gail Project and the Okinawa Memory Initiative merged into the same group, officially renaming themselves as the Okinawa Memories Initiative (OMI). However, the old name and the new name were used interchangeably until 2018. While Gail’s photos had started the project, the name “The Gail Project” no longer encompassed all the work and interests of the initiative. The “Okinawa Memories Initiative” was chosen because it encompassed the main interest of the project, which is what people remember when they see the Gail photos. “Okinawa” was chosen instead of “Okinawan” because memories are not limited by geography, and we wanted a wider cultural scope. The word “memory” was also pluralized to represent the multifaceted culture and upbringings of post-war Okinawa as well as the numerous people around the world who have connections to this history. We wanted the name to encompass all of the different people from whom we have learned about Okinawa over the years.
In August of 2017, OMI took a group trip to Okinawa. The trip included revisiting sites that Dr. Christy had taken students to on the first trip to Okinawa in 2014, such as Nakagusuku Castle and the Himeyuri Peace Museum. During the trip, OMI team members had opportunities to Interview people, such as a Naha politician’s wife, about their reactions to the Gail photos. These interviews provided us with new insight into the photographs and helped us better understand what we saw and what memories arose when people saw the pictures. As a result of Mr. Vanderscoff’s 2016 trip, OMI members interviewed Guchi, who Mr. Vanderscoff met in 2016, at his art commune. In the interview, Guchi explained how he was a former bartender on a base bar, sympathizing with the stories of American service members and why they signed up to deploy so far from home. He decided the best way to peacefully resist the bases was to commit to complete self-reliance in the 1960s back-to-the-land format. Another way OMI members learned about the peace movement was by attending a peace rally in Naha. These experiences showed OMI members how the mission for peace is ongoing and very important to Okinawans.
Using the knowledge we gained during our summer trip, OMI curated and held two exhibits in galleries on the UCSC campus. The main exhibit, held at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery in Porter College, featured Dr. Charles Gail’s original photos, OMI’s rephotography work over previous summer trips, and a contextualization of the anti-military base movement in Okinawa. The second exhibition, located at the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery in Cowell College, highlighted OMI’s student team and expanded upon the various projects of the initiative. OMI members were unofficial docents to the exhibitions, engaging with visitors by sharing stories and findings from rephotographing the original Gail photos, as well as their experiences in Okinawa.
2018 was a landmark year for OMI, as many of the organization’s defining moments took place. The vast contacts that were gathered in the preceding trips led to more contacts, more communication, more interviews, and more opportunities. The outreach work of Japanese Director of Communications and OMI member Tomoko Kubota led to extensive coverage of OMI by the Japanese press. OMI was featured nationwide through the NHK channel and major publications such as the Ryukyu Shimpo and The Okinawa Times.
Dr. Wright took students who had research interests to the prefectural archives where they looked through databases, microfilms, newspapers, and the US Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR). The trip also consisted of Museum visits with University of the Ryukyus students, and coordinating visits with community centers which were facilitated by Ms. Kubota. At the community centers, pop-up photo exhibits and interviews with older Okinawan residents took place. Students were also taken on a tour of the Peace Park in Mabuni and went to a traditional Okinawan dancing and drumming performance, known as Eisa, in the Koza Music District.
It was through this outreach that OMI gained additional recognition and credibility. This led to more engagement with a variety of groups related to Okinawa, including partnerships with Okinawan universities and even a collaboration with the famous rock musician, George Murasaki. OMI also revealed their first exhibition in Japan during this summer trip, presenting the Gail photos in Naha to thousands of visitors over multiple days. The most remarkable moment, however, was when an Okinawan citizen contacted OMI, claiming she was in one of the photos taken by Dr. Charles Gail. Arakaki Masako, age 74, at the time, saw a picture of herself at around eight years old in an article promoting our interactive exhibition published in the Ryukyu Shimpo. We had the privilege of meeting with Ms. Arakaki and interviewing her about her memories tied to the photograph.
Dr. Dustin Wright presented Gail Photos for the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) as part of Bodies & Structures in Washington, D.C. in 2018. Kate McDonald, a historian at Santa Barbara, and David Ambaras a historian at North Carolina State University were collaborating and bringing together historians of various elements of East Asian history. The aim of the website was to link seemingly disparate histories to one another. The website was one of the first times that OMI attempted to incorporate the photographs into a collaborative digital medium.
In the Spring of 2019, Dr.Christy and various OMI members came to CSU Monterey Bay with the purpose of engaging and involving their students in OMI’s projects. Cultivating these inter-university bonds has been integral to broadening OMI’s network, and centering student involvement within our team. As a direct result, two CSUMB students joined Assistant Professor Dustin Wright, who serves as a mentor in Japanese Culture and Language at CSUMB as well as Research Director of OMI, on our trip to Okinawa that summer. Additionally, two students from CSU East Bay similarly joined us, accompanied by Assistant Professor Anita Chang, who serves as a Communications mentor at CSUEB as well as Creative Director of OMI.
In the summer of 2019, we sent the biggest field research team to date to Okinawa, with a tally of 17 undergraduate students, two graduate students, and seven staff members. This summer trip spanned from June 20th - July 20th, marking our project’s second month-long trip to Okinawa. We planned our trip to overlap with Okinawa's Memorial Day (Irei no hi) on June 23rd, a day of remembering the lives lost during the Battle of Okinawa and marking the end of WWII. Our team members attended both the Japanese government-officiated remembrance ceremony at the Peace Memorial Park, as well as the community-driven ceremony at the Himeyuri Peace Museum just 10 minutes away.
One of the most meaningful accomplishments of this trip was showcasing the Gail photos all over mainland Okinawa. We curated exhibitions generously hosted by various community centers (or kominkai) spanning from Ogimi in rural northern Okinawa, to the east-central coastal fishing town Henza, and the urban cities Naha, Moromizato, and Urasoe. We encountered a wide range of audiences and settings, from intimate conversations around a long table of elderly folk to animated storytelling mingling with the buzz of a busy community center hallway. In continuing the interactive project that took off the previous year, OMI encouraged visitors to jot down and stick their observations to the photos on display using sticky notes.
In 2019, we had the pleasure of meeting the Governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki. Members of the project showed the governor Gail’s photos and got to ask him questions. One question that particularly stood out was asked in Uchinaaguchi (the most widely spoken Ryukyuan language, learn more about the Ryukyus) by graduate student Alexyss “Lex” McClellan-Ufugusuku. Lex asked Governor Tamaki how he felt being an inspiration to bi-racial Okinawans which allowed him to speak from his heart about his life experiences. OMI has maintained relations with Governor Tamaki and members from the project went to see him when he spoke at Stanford University in the fall of 2019.
OMI started 2020 out with in-person events. We were invited to present a selection of the original Gail photos at the Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko’s 25-year anniversary Eisa event, which was held on February 20th and hosted by the Okinawa Association of America in Gardena, California. The photos were displayed in the lobby of the theater where the performance was held, and we had wonderful conversations about OMI with the attendees before the performance started and during the intermission.
We also hosted a community conversation featuring Akemi Johnson, the author of Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the US Military Bases in Okinawa. The event was scheduled before pandemic quarantining was enforced in March, so we worked to transition the event to an online platform. On May 15th, over 60 people tuned into our Zoom discussion of US military and local Okinawan relations. The success of the event inspired OMI to facilitate more virtual events, nested within a longer-term series of public events called “Community Conversations.” Our first event of this series, “Photographic Memory,” took place on July 10th. This event featured a retelling of the life of Dr. Charles Gail, the military dentist whose photos inspired the founding of The Okinawa Memories Initiative. The event featured Geri and Laura Gail, daughter and granddaughter of the notable photographer, along with commentary led by several OMI members on the lasting impact of Gail’s photos. The following event on September 25th, entitled “Eisa: Drumming, Dancing, and Memory in Okinawa,” featured Associate Professor Chris Nelson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Okinawan Dance Teacher Aiko Majikina based in Los Angeles. Dr. Nelson and Ms. Majikina discussed the importance of Eisa within Okinawan culture.
OMI’s most recent event on December 19th highlights the beginning of a growing partnership with The Humanities Institute (THI). The collaborative event, “Revisiting the Koza Uprising,” was a huge success with over 270 people in attendance. The event was scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Uprising. The event (“riot” to Americans, “uprising” to Okinawans) is the only time that Okinawan protests against American rule (1945-1972) turned violent. During the event, speakers discussed how the uprising relates to the current movement for racial equality in the United States. In the fall of 2020, Dr. Christy launched an online course on Okinawan history for UC students. Members of OMI helped Dr. Christy develop the course, and some students who took it but had not heard of OMI before have now joined the project.
In 2021, we plan to continue the work we started in 2020. In 2020, we formed five times to process the material that OMI has accumulated and created over the years. The thank-you album team created albums to send to locations that hosted OMI exhibitions. The exhibition assessment team worked to create a guide for putting together OMI exhibits. The media production team worked on creating video content from videos taken during past trips to Okinawa. The OMI archival team worked to create a catalog of all the documents that are in OMI’s google drive. The OMI history timeline time worked to create the timeline you are currently reading. While the thank-you albums team has completed its work, the other four teams are continuing to work with the content OMI has created over the years. While it is unlikely that OMI will be able to go on any trips during 2021, we have multiple trips planned for when COVID is under control. Members will return to Okinawa, Southern California, and Hawaii. A group of members will also go to South America, where multiple countries, such as Brazil, have large Okinawan communities.
The interviews used to create the timeline were conducted by: Alyssa Davis, Sam Garbus, and Nicholas Ruiz
The timeline was written by: Mary “Miki” Arlen, Alyssa Davis, Sam Garbus, Sage Michaels, and Nicholas Ruiz
The timeline page of the website was designed by: Jared Guzman