Contemporary Japanese Writers

Shun Medoruma*

Shun Medoruma* 目取真俊

Shun Medoruma (1960–)  is a leading contemporary writer profoundly influenced by the legacy of Okinawa, his homeland. Okinawa is like a foreign land within Japan. Occupied by the United States after World War II until it was “returned” to Japan in 1972, the prefecture is still home to many U.S. military bases, which cover an area of about 20 percent of the main island. Of all the prefectures in the country, Okinawa bears the brunt of this military burden. On these islands, formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, a rich culture different from that of Japan proper has flourished. It is characterized by its abundant music, dances, and oral tradition.

Medoruma’s novel Niji no tori (Rainbow Bird) was one of the best books published in Japan in 2006. It offers the reader a rare, painful experience. The story is set in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Hika, a yakuza, makes a living from blackmailing men with compromising pictures he takes of them with prostitutes. His subordinate Katsuya is entrusted with managing the young women. One day, Hika brings home Mayu, a girl weak from drug use. Katsuya panics when Hika reprimands him for his uselessness in training her to be a good prostitute. Things start moving quickly when Mayu exacts revenge, through a grisly lynching, on a middle school teacher who has picked her up for sex. The novel obsessively depicts the violent bullying Mayu had been subjected to as a girl, Katsuya’s experiences as a delinquent, and the brutality of the yakuza. The most extreme violence portrayed in the book is the rape of an Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen. The rape and ensuing demonstrations, employed as a backdrop to the story, were modeled on an incident that actually took place in 1995.

“Okinawa is a beloved place for the Japanese government, as long as it remains quiet. As the cat continues to play with the mouse, however, the mouse loses its will to run away and eventually grows weak and dies. To avoid that, the mouse must bite the foot that steps on it. Such straightforward action must be taken,” Medoruma says in an essay. The Japanese government and people have forced the bases onto Okinawa in order to maintain an alliance with the U.S. Through this riveting novel, the author flings in front of us a reality from which the government and the people would rather avert their eyes.

Indeed, Okinawa is caught in a paradox in which it challenges the U.S. military presence at the same time it depends on it economically for its survival. The starting point of this contradictory situation was Okinawa’s experiences during World War II, in which the islands became a fierce battleground, with its people subjected not only to attacks from the U.S. but to betrayal by the Japanese military. Countless people were driven to commit group suicide. For Medoruma, this painful memory of war is another source of creative inspiration.

Suiteki (Droplets), an earlier story published in hardcover along with two other tales, established Medoruma as a master of Okinawan magical realism. Tokushō, an old man who continues to tell children stories of his wartime experiences, finds one June day that his right foot has swollen to the size of a squash. Water drips from his big toe; the cause of the strange disease is a mystery. Since that day, men in military uniform on the brink of death appear at Tokushō’s bedside every night to take a sip from his toe. Tokushō’s cousin, who is taking care of him, realizes the fluid has hair-growing and libido-enhancing properties and starts selling it as “miracle water.”

The author has revealed that this allegorical tale, told in dialect, is based on the true story of Okinawan people who suffered from feet so swollen they could not walk. The cause is said to have been the rat poison entire families took to commit suicide toward the end of the war.

The novella Fūon (The Crying Wind) also has as its motif the memory of war. It is set on an Okinawan coast, where below the bluff, dead bodies were left in trees or on the ground, exposed to the elements, instead of being buried at sea or in the earth. Enshrined here is a skull called Nakiunkami that the local people worship. It creates a subtle cry whenever the wind blows. Legend has it that the skull belonged to a kamikaze pilot who was shot down by the Americans. One day, some boys vandalize the skull, after which it no longer cries in the wind. Small strains start appearing in life on the island.

* Suiteki (Bungeishunju, 1997, 188 pages, Akutagawa Prize)
* Fūon (Little More, 2004, 205 pages)
* Niji no tori (Kage Shobo, 2006, 220 pages)