Long live the noodle soup: A cultural-historical slurp of Okinawa Soba

Comparatively recent, on March 29, 2005, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly declared October 25th as “Karate Day.” The date was chosen in reference to October 25, 1936, when several leading karate practitioners of the era officially decided on the notation Karate 空手 (empty hand) to replace the older notation of Karate 唐手 (Chinese martial arts skill).

These two events are the result of the interests of various influential stakeholders from fields such as politics, prefectural administration, business associations, media, lobby groups, education, military, etc., and of course the karate masters themselves. It is the premise of an undifferentiated continuum, a logical fallacy of the kind “If the premise is true, then the conclusion must be true.”

In postwar Okinawan self-historiography, October 25, 1936, is treated like any other date. In fact, “Okinawa” as a whole fails to recognize that the name change coincided with the era of Japan’s military and colonial expansion in Asia and that Okinawa was a proactive part of it since the late 19th century. Whether the karate masters were aware of this or not: Karate 唐手 written by using the character kara 唐 meaning China became untenable due to the situation of the expanding Fifteen Year War, meaning the timeframe from the Mukden Incident in Manchuria in 1931 through the end of World War II in 1945. By changing the name within this situation, the karate masters complied with the wishes of the various, influential stakeholders of the era, without being willing or able to classify their deed contextually or historically.

In the resolution on the declaration of Karate Day in 2005, it is the collective silence of all stakeholders in and outside of the prefecture that allows “Okinawa” to euphemistically define karate as a “martial arts of peace based on the magnificent philosophical principle of ‘no first attack in karate’ and the fundamental ideal of cherishing life as ‘life is the treasure’.” While sympathetic and positive, this is straightforward marketing speech, a selling point using selective, fragmentary indication of ingredients.

Don’t get me wrong, Karate is a great exercise and self-protection, Japan is a great country and Okinawa is a super vibrant and interesting place with great history and culture. My point is simply, to historically, contentually, and contextually position Karate in a larger whole, including its dark ages, the above issue would need to be taken into account as part of the overall considerations. However, when comparing Okinawa Karate’s current popular self-theory as a tripod, since the issue would chop off one of its modern legs (i.e., international dojo business, tourism, UNESCO intangible cultural heritage inclusion etc. pp.), there is little hope that it will ever be discussed and narrated by stakeholders of Okinawa Karate themselves. This is all the more so because Okinawa Karate stakeholders are positioning themselves more and more as an elite group and are deliberately taking a protectionist approach. In other words, the sovereignty of interpretation of Okinawa Karate is placed solely in the hands of its own stakeholders who never fall short of excuses for anything that might contrast their polito-economic interests.

Loosely related to postwar karate in that it shares its dimension as an economic policy measure, October 17, 1978, was designated “Okinawa Soba Day.” Let me tell you this about the importance of regional particularities for Okinawans: My Sensei would ask me, “Do you like Okinawa soba?” If I said yes, he would shake my hand, proudly saying “You are my son!”

Okinawa soba is one of Okinawa’s most representative dishes made from wheat flour, table salt, and brine. Unlike Japanese soba, it does not use buckwheat flour, so in terms of its recipe it is classified as Chinese noodle soup (chūka men, chūka soba, shina soba). In Japan, the Chinese noodle soup was adopted in the 19th century from China and then adapted and further developed and became known as rāmen.

The history of Okinawa soba began only in the earlier 1900s when Chinese noodle soup was served at a restaurant run by a Chinese person (tōjin 唐人) in Uenokura in Tsuji, Naha City. At that time, it was simply called “soba” (buckwheat noodles) or “shina soba” (Chinese buckwheat noodles). In 1916, the Chief of the Naha Police Station at the time instructed the name to be changed to “ryūkyū soba” (Ryūkyū buckwheat noodles), but this change did not take root.

It was only after the war that a noodle soup came to be commonly called “Okinawa soba” (Okinawa buckwheat noodles). While this soup did not use proper buckwheat noodles, modern product marketing drew a continuum to the Chinese noodle soup served at the Tsuji restaurant since the earlier 1900s, and adopted the name “soba.” This resulted in a drawback for the Okinawan noodle soup industry, when in 1976, the Japan Fair Trade Commission ruled that “Okinawa soba” must not be labeled as “soba” since it did not contain 30% or more of buckwheat flour, which was a requirement according to the Fair Competition and Trade Code.

In response, the Okinawa Noodle Association campaigned to preserve “soba” as a local name. As a result, on October 17, 1978, the Japan Fair Trade Commission has officially approved the trademark registration of “Authentic Okinawa Soba” with attributes such as being a local specialty, a famous product, and authentic Okinawan, etc. specified in the attached table of the “Fair Competition Code and Enforcement Regulations Concerning the Labeling of Raw Noodles.”

To commemorate this day, in 1997, the Okinawa Noodle Association designated October 17th as “Okinawa Soba Day.”

As can be seen, just as in case of karate, without considering contentual, contextual, and historical discontinuation and tectonic societal shifts, although it wasn’t soba at all, stakeholders such as the Okinawa Noodle Association succeeded in creating, establishing, and perpetuating their very own kind noodle soup as an authentic Okinawan product in the late 1970s, and established October 17th as “Okinawa Soba Day” in 1997.

It can therefore be said, that “Okinawan Soba” came into being years after Greek immigrant Sam Panopoulos created the Pizza Hawaii in Canada in 1962.

Also, while there was always noodle soup, the story of the Okinawan noodle soup in particular is a mirror of Okinawan society and can be compared to the creation of Japanese as well as Okinawan karate, large chunks of the contents of which were likewise rather recent, postwar inventions based on older recipes, and which include embedding the product in the larger cultural and geographical frame of Japan and Okinawa, respectively.

© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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