Life Onboard
"A coconut a day will kill you"* - Navigating Oceania with Greg Dvorak, Dec 1, 2013
Guest Educator Greg Dvorak joined Peace Boat from Yokohama to Singapore
On July 5, 1946 French automobile engineer Louis Réard launched his minimalist swimsuit design, the bikini. Attempting to outdo a forerunning two-piece called 'Atome,' Réard hired a 19-year old nude dancer to debut his creation. Four days earlier, the US had conducted its first peace-time atomic weapons test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and nuclear was in vogue; according to a 2013 article in Time magazine 'Réard hoped that his invention would be as explosive.'The bikini captured the public imagination and become a pop-culture icon; meanwhile, way out in the Pacific, nuclear tests continued unabated. As Pacific Islands Studies scholar Dr. Teresia Teaiwa writes, the bikini swimsuit only sexualizes violence and distracts us from the horror and tragedy of the true Bikini. And what of the fate of Marshallese exposed to the blasts? "There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?" then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously said in the 1970s regarding US treatment of Micronesians.

At 32.04 degrees North latitude and 134.50 degrees East longitude, an arcane image filled the projection screen at the front of Peace Boat's Broadway theatre. Wooden sticks tethered with rope intersected to form a matrix of polygons. There was an equilateral triangle and several skewed quadrilaterals. 'It could represent a fish?' one 81st Voyage participant guessed; another thought that the image might be a blueprint for a canoe.

Maps often define the way we see localities, however for the expert navigators of Oceania, arial view maps were of limited use
Earlier Dr. Greg Dvorak, an associate professor at Japan's Hitotsubashi University and special lecturer at Waseda's School of International Liberal Studies, had asked participants to examine a series of maps charting the Pacific. One map came from a pre-World War II Japanese shipping company, another grouped or divided continents according to the location of US military command centres, and a Continental Airlines map showed how the international dateline had been moved to suit US military interests.

All three maps depicted Polynesian, Micronesian, or Melanesian islands - tiny dots in a vast ocean - but the wooden image on the screen, a Micronesian sea chart, evoked a different feeling. "The islanders see the horizon, they don't see things from above. They feel the waves and they hear the waves, it has little to do with distance," said Dr. Dvorak. In an environment where voyaging was a matter of life and death, and where master navigators who knew the ocean became chiefs, imperialistic god's-eye-view maps that encompassed land and sea, like those of European explorers, were of limited use.

The Pacific is home to some 25,000 islands, however the popular nomenclature 'Pacific Rim' entirely discounts this, instead envisioning the ocean as a vast and exploitable empty space that exists solely to serve the economies of the major countries which encircle it.. "People tend to think we are in the middle of nowhere," said Dr. Dvorak, who prefers the term Oceania.

Like atolls formed from coral reefs, Oceanians are not isolated by the sea, but connected by it
Dr. Dvorak moved from the US to Micronesia's Kwajalein Atoll as a young child when his father secured an engineering contract on a missile range there. Growing up in the Marshall islands was idyllic, but even at a young age Mr. Dvorak was aware of contradictions around him: he and his brother played on Japanese concrete fortifications from the Pacific War and climbed on unarmed American missiles, a friend found a pile of human bones, and while American expatriates lived in well-furnished homes supplied by the US Army on spacious Kwajalein Islet, Marshallese workers and their families occupied the cramped shantytown on nearby Ebeye Islet.

Some nights unarmed interceptor missiles would flash across the sky. "I know what the end of the world looks like. I've seen it at least ten times in my life. But to us it was like fireworks," Dr. Dvorak said.

When Dr. Dvorak was a child, Pacific Island studies did not exist as a formal academic discipline. Much of Oceania was economically depressed; most islands in Micronesia, such as Kwajalein, where some 8000 Japanese soldiers had been killed, were still recovering from the war; and self-determination was a major theme Many dismissed Oceania as futureless or consigned its islands to the whimsy of tropical paradises. But when Tongan academic Epeli Hau'ofa published his influential essay Our Sea of Islands in 1993, it revived academic interest and activism. Professor Hau'ofa's treatise made two statements that particularly informed Dr. Dvorak's career: Pacific Islanders are connected rather than separated by the sea, Hau'ofa wrote. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging. Hau'ofa also argued that anyone who regarded the sea with humility and respect could become an Oceanian.

The academic neglect of Pacific Islands is one aspect of what Dr. Dvorak calls 'Tropicalism.' The term echoes some principles of Edward Said's Orientalism, however Dr. Dvorak's Tropicalism "really beefs up the touristic gaze. It creates a cloak that hides the Pacific islands' real problems and enforces numbness," he said. Tropicalism makes trinkets of Tikis and kitsch of culture, and it is behind countless indignities: from the sexualization of Pacific Islanders in French art and American cinema; to the case of 8-year old Pacific Islander Aulokope who was kidnapped from his native Palau, taken aboard a Spanish Ship in 1863, and converted to Christianity, only to end up being exhibited in human zoos in Europe; to Louis Réard naming his skimpy swimming costume after the scene of a humanitarian atrocity.

The naming of the Bikini after the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests is an example of the insidious nature of Tropicalism. Dr Dvorak asked 81st Voyage participants to imagine a swim suit called 'Hiroshima
The United States began conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific just one year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 67 atmospheric nuclear tests - constituting around 80% of those carried out between 1946 and 1988 - took place in the Marshall islands. Bombs tested on the Marshall Islands had names like Zebra, Easy, Abel, and Cherokee, but the BRAVO Test on March 1, 1954 caused exceptional damage.

The blast, around 1000 times the force of the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, had a predicted yield of five megatons, but in fact yielded 14.8 megatons, making it nearly the largest nuclear test ever exploded, exceeded only by a few tests conducted later by the former Soviet Union. The half mile wide crater it gouged was so deep that it proved Charles Darwin's theory that magma resides under the surface of corals. When weather patterns around the atoll changed, radioactive ash drifted to nearby Rongelap Island, where the Ri-Pikkini (Bikini islanders) had accepted resettlement on the basis that they would be able to return home soon after. "Children [on Rongelap] had a vague idea of this strange experiment happening on a far away island," said Dvorak. "They saw the skies turning dark and the flakes falling...They had read about snow in Japanese text books."

Over the past decade and concluding in 2013, the United States declassified all remaining documents relating to nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. According to Dr Dvorak, these documents clearly show that the US was aware of the weather conditions and would have anticipated the consequences of the blast.

Dr. Dvorak's Project35 is an initiative to build new cultural networks between Pacific island communities and Japan.Project35 is pronounced 'project sango' in Japanese; sango means coral
Many Japanese participants attending Dr. Dvorak's lectures were familiar with the contamination of the Japanese vessel Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon) #5, which resulted from the Bravo shot at Bikini Atoll, however hundreds of Marshallese were also effected. In order to maintain good relations with Japan as part of its postwar campaign, the US Government paid direct compensation to the government of Japan, and additionally about 2 million yen to each crew member of the Fukuryu Maru (equivalent to about $50,000 in current value) within a year. For Marshallese victims, the US paid only one fifth of that amount, and only in cases of acute radiation sickness - 72 Marshallese received this compensation when the US first admitted responsibility for exposing the islanders to radiation in 1964.

Towards the end of its 81st Global Voyage, Peace Boat will visit the port of Tahiti--part of French Polynesia--where the French military detonated nearly 200 nuclear weapons tests between 1966 and 1996, and the former Pacific War battlefield of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, a country often viewed through the Tropicalist lens of tourism. Dr. Dvorak encouraged participants to consider the implications of tourism: the photos they might take, the souvenirs they might buy, and the type of interactions that might occur, "expose the contradictions, and embrace them," he said.

Visit Project35 's website to learn more about the project.

*The title for this article was taken from the lyrics of "Bad Coconuts," a satirical song by writers Teresia Teaiwa and Sia Figiel on their collaboration from 2000 entitled "Terenesia."