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Giving Voice to the Women of Okinawa
Man of Song, Man of Words
Family of Love















Giving Voice to the Women of Okinawa
Ruth Ann Keyso-Vail (GJ99) immersed herself in Japanese culture to write a book about life on a garrison island.

Ruth Keyso-Vail with her husband, Mark

It’s an unusual image – an Okinawan woman sharing her innermost thoughts with an American woman she barely knows. "My God, I didn’t think 50 years ago that I’d ever be sitting here with an American and telling my story," says Junko Isa effusively in Japanese. Ruth Ann Keyso-Vail (GJ99) smiles and listens.

Author of the book Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island (Cornell University Press, 2000), Keyso-Vail spent one year on the island, soaking up the life stories of nine Japanese women from their 20s to their 80s – stories that illustrate the complex history that has defined Okinawa since the controversial presence of the U.S. military following World War II.

When Keyso-Vail landed in Okinawa in 1997, she knew nobody, but, supported by a fellowship from the Ito Foundation for International Education Exchange, she immersed herself in Okinawan life. "Sometimes I felt caught between the world of the Okinawans and the world of the Americans," she says.

Although Okinawans were long used to seeing Americans on their turf because of the heavy military presence, Keyso-Vail stood out because she insisted on conversing with her subjects in Japanese. After each interview she painstakingly transcribed hours of tape and delicately shaped the stories she heard into chronological narratives.

Once the women became comfortable with her, they were more than eager to personalize Okinawa beyond the cut-and-dried historical accounts that usually focus on 1945’s bloody battle for the island. One woman, who was 14 when the Americans landed, recalls fleeing with the eight members of her family, only three of whom survived.

Most of the women were able to see both benefits and disadvantages to having the Americans in their midst. Most acknowledged the need for security, but resentment at the disruptions and unhappiness caused by the military presence crept into their feelings, too.

Keyso-Vail’s deep respect for Japanese tradition did not develop overnight. She didn’t know any Japanese after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, so it was both a surprise to her and her family when she applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme – her first taste of the country. Yearning for more exposure to the Japanese world, she went to Switzerland to teach at a Japanese boarding school. "I enjoyed Europe, but being there made me realize how much of Japanese culture I had absorbed," she says.

At the University of Michigan’s graduate program in Japanese studies, Keyso-Vail decided to study about Okinawa. "I was really excited to learn about this very culturally and historically different part of Japan – a place that had been somewhat forgotten, somewhat ignored," she says.

After writing the book, Keyso-Vail came to Northwestern to pursue a graduate degree at Medill. Assigned to the police beat in her introductory news writing class, Keyso-Vail found Evanston police officer Mark Vail to be a trustworthy source. After the class was over, the two went on their first date to a Thai restaurant and were married a year later.

Keyso-Vail, who now works in a suburban Chicago private school, won’t be writing another book anytime soon, but she would like to go back to Okinawa with a new goal – educating her husband about its culture.

"There I learned more than I ever thought I could," she says. "Japan will always be in my heart."

– Jennifer Su (J03)