Humanizing History

  • January 8, 2020

When Cal State East Bay students Ailing Cheng and Sean Jacob Torralba stepped off a plane in Okinawa, it felt at once familiar and far away.

Over the coming weeks, they would settle in, becoming accustomed to the muggy air and no longer surprised by the KFC on the corner that looked just like the chain restaurant in the U.S. (except for the rice on the menu in lieu of macaroni and cheese.)

The pair, along with mentor and assistant professor Anita Chang, spent four weeks this summer in Okinawa as part of the Okinawa Memories Initiative. Their mission? To find, collect and share the stories of native Okinawans.

“This is something I have been working on for the past two summers, and it’s a project that is evolving every year,” Chang said.

Started by Alan Christy, professor of history at UC Santa Cruz and now involving almost 30 students and faculty from various California universities, OMI is inspired by a collection of photos taken in Okinawa by U.S. Army Captain Charles Eugene Gail between 1952-53.

A dentist who also had studied with the  world-renowned photographer Ansel Adams, Gail’s images depict the story of everyday Okinawa post-World War II.

Torralba and Cheng, along with several other students, found ways to use Gail’s photo to provide context to the images and the people in them.

“[Gail’s photos] are unique because civilians during this period were not allowed to have cameras, and if they did, they had to register it and weren’t allowed to use it,” Chang said.


June 20, 2019

“At the Himeyuri Museum — it’s insane watching the elderly especially — react and wander throughout this museum these were high schoolers — dreams and aspirations, they had epithets growing up… and to halt that all in their eyes — exposed to war, saying sorry to their friend as they went out to bury her nobody deserves to suffer through the repercussions of war. these young women deserved to fulfill their right to live for themselves in happiness and peace.” — Sean Jacob Torralba

Well-known for being home to the majority of the world’s centenarians, Okinawa is a prefecture of Japan with its own distinct languages and culture and encompasses two-thirds of the Ryukyu Islands in a chain that’s more than 620 miles long.

“Okinawans occupy a really complex position with Japan … it’s interesting because there is definitely discourse around indigeneity happening,” Chang said, relating it to the national discourse in the U.S. taking place around race and indigenous identity.

Or in the words of Torralba: “Okinawa is to Japan as Hawaii is to the U.S.”

June 26, 2019

At the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, there’s a timid elderly woman half my height with a scalp of greying, thinning hair. She inquisitively investigates the artifacts on display. She peeks her head over exhibit barriers to observe then she reads museum placards. I assume she’s a security guard because she wears all-black. There’s a poetry in such a visual scene. It says a lot about community history and cultural identity (+ pride) of one’s heritage in presentation. —Sean Jacob Torralba

Before becoming a prefecture in the late 1870s, Okinawa was a semi-independent kingdom influenced by both Japan and China. At the time, the Ryukyuan or Uchinaaguchi language was divided into five groups: Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawan, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. However, according to the Japan Times, beginning in the 20th century, children were punished if they spoke Uchinaaguchi.

Add to that American military rule from 1945-1972 following the last major battle of World War II, and much of the Okinawan language and history is in danger of disappearing altogether.

“There’s this notion of vanishing history,” Chang said. “War is so much about obliteration and loss … but it’s also about the remnants and what remains, what happened in that place.”

And the push-and-pull is still going on. Earlier this year, despite a majority of voters opposing the plan, Japan announced it would relocate the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase. Many Okinawans would prefer seeing the base removed from the island altogether.

“It was interesting to meet the people at the protesting camp who are trying to delay the construction the military is trying to do,” Cheng said. “People have this perception that Okinawans don’t like Americans, but it’s not that. They have an issue with the military, no matter who it is. They’re trying to promote peace.”


June 24, 2019

After speaking with university Okinawan students, always pivot back to your intention. People find a way to turn back to what gives them comfort and what makes sense without giving a second thought to how different people live their life for themselves and how that affects others … especially if it’s a foreign country. — Sean Jacob Torralba

Cheng and Torralba are both fifth-year students in Cal State East Bay’s communications department.

For Cheng, it was her first time out of the country, and for Torralba, it was his third time to Japan, but his first trip to Okinawa. Both students said the hands-on experience they gained — both in using their journalism skills and having to navigate a new culture and country — is something they won’t forget.

“What’s interesting about visiting an occupied territory is it kind of feels like a place you already know,” Torralba said. “The streets and cities were designed by the American military … so in some parts you feel like you’re in Los Angeles and in other areas you feel like you’re in Japan.”

For Chang, it was those discoveries she was excited to see her students have.

“This is an internship that’s really meant for them to apply the skills they’ve learned, but also to gain new skills and to be in an environment where they’re interacting with the people of Okinawa, but also their peers,” she said. “In addition to the journalism skills they are learning, they are also having to get along with people of different backgrounds, speaking different languages, it’s a cross-cultural collaboration.”

Torralba is still trying to sort through his time in Okinawa and how it will color where he goes post-graduation, but for Cheng, it has reignited her desire to pursue photojournalism, particularly projects that center around the idea of identity.

“Being in a different country was a huge experience on its own, but also being able to apply what I’ve learned thus far in my school career,” she said. “I’ve always been curious about what it means to be proud of your identity, and this trip really solidified that for me … [and] pushed me toward where I want to be.”