Reforming Old Customs, Transforming Women’s Work
This chapter examines the tensions that emerged in the late nineteenth century between the first generation of Okinawa’s intellectuals and female weavers soon after the Miyako island peasantry. It focuses on the conflicts that took place between local advocates of the movement to reform old customs—a project designed to transform the hearts and minds of the Okinawan people in preparation for the establishment of capitalist relations of production in the prefecture—and Okinawa’s female producer-merchants. Prominent local intellectual Ōta Chōfu and others urged the Okinawan people to change their habits and customs so that even their sneezes resembled those of the mainland Japanese people because they believed that such assimilatory policies were necessary for acceptance and for the successful establishment of capitalist relations in the prefecture. As part of this movement, they encouraged the establishment of mechanisms of quality control and marketing strategies in order to strengthen local industry. To their chagrin, they found that weaving women, who were the main dyers and peddlers of cloth wovens, were not at all interested in conforming to Japanese or modern industrial standards. Ōta was particularly concerned that these women prioritized their immediate and petty profits at the expense of the development of the industry as a whole. The conflict between local advocates of the reform of old customs and these women was couched as a problem of the backwardness of Okinawan culture, but was actually a fight over who had the right to control and manage the prefecture’s human and material resources.