As a young man, Jahana was selected to attend Okinawa's first modern-style teacher-training school for elementary schoolteachers. The following year, in 1882, he was one of the first five Okinawan students sent to Tokyo on official government scholarships. Of the five, he was the only one not from the gentry class. Rather, he was from a middle-class peasant family from Kochinda. While the other four studied liberal arts in Tokyo, Jahana focused on agriculture and forestry. In 1891, after studying at Gakushuin Middle School, Tokyo Sanrin Gakkô (Tokyo Forestry College), and Tokyo Nôrin Gakkô (Agriculture and Dendrology College), he became the first Okinawan to ever graduate from Tokyo Imperial University. His thesis paper, completed in the Imperial College of Agricultural Science, was a study of fertilizer use in sugar production in Kagawa prefecture. He would later go on to do a similar study for sugar production in Okinawa.
While in Tokyo, he also came to interact with prominent figures in socialist thought and movements, including Nakae Chômin and Kôtoku Shûsui. He then returned to Okinawa, where he worked as an engineer in the employ of the prefectural government, achieving a higher government position, sooner, than any of the four aristocratic students he had left for Tokyo with; according to historian Gregory Smits, "Kuchinda Jahana" was celebrated upon his return home, for having shown what great things an ordinary Okinawan could accomplish.
Jahana employed his position to press for reform in civil law, agricultural policy, and land taxes. He was among the first to advocate for Okinawan emigration to Hawaii as a means to help alleviate Okinawan poverty; though prefectural Governor Narahara Shigeru opposed him at first, saying it would be embarrassing for Japan to have poor, uneducated Okinawans, who could not even speak proper Japanese, being out in the world, inspiring others' impressions of Japan, eventually Narahara agreed. Jahana's other reform efforts included working to see the tax system of payment in kind (in sugar) abolished. This too brought him into conflict with Governor Narahara. In one incident particularly indicative of Narahara's autocratic and highly classed approach, the governor arranged to sell vast tracts of somayama forestland, at inappropriately low prices, to Japanese capitalists and bureaucrats and to members of the Okinawan gentry, where previously Okinawan peasants enjoyed traditional rights of access to these areas of communal land. Narahara removed Jahana from this project in 1894, though the reasons are unclear. Several years later, in late 1897 to 1898, Jahana was placed back on the project, and came into direct conflict with Narahara, who now wished to have Jahana organize the disposal of all somayama land. Under the previous round of reforms, much somayama land was sold to individuals, while much remained communal, and accessible to the villagers who had traditionally used that land for gathering firewood and other forest products. Now, Narahara proposed converting all the remaining communal land into government-held public land, while promising that the villagers' access would not be compromised; Jahana claimed that government was too prone to abuse and corruption, and to the possibility that government could reverse course and change policy on a whim. He advocated instead that the communal land be divvied up among the villagers and converted into private land, so as to better ensure the villagers' access to it.
This later conflict, eventually leading to Jahana resigning from all government service in December 1898, has become a widely known incident in Okinawan history. Jahana come to be remembered as something of an Okinawan hero, praised for standing up for peasants' rights and so forth, against a corrupt governor from the mainland who sought to sell off Okinawan land into the hands of mainlander investors, and a mainlander-dominated government. However, while there may certainly be elements of truth to this, particularly in Jahana's stances and actions in 1897-1898, Smits, citing a number of other scholars, points out that Jahana's writings and actions in the earlier stage of the project, up until his dismissal in 1894, suggest, to the contrary, that at that time, Jahana was dismissive of peasants' views, and resentful that they should claim to know better than he, an expert educated at the highest agricultural college in the country. Thus, the heroic myth, reading Jahana's positions and actions in 1897-1898 backwards onto his earlier activity, may not be entirely appropriate.
In 1898, when Jahana resigned from official government position, he was the largest shareholder in the Okinawa Agricultural Bank, and one of three members of its executive board. His efforts on behalf of the peasants earned him considerable criticism from the Kôdôkai, an organization founded in 1896 by former aristocrats seeking a restoration of royal/aristocratic power, and before long, Jahana had amassed enemies both among the prefectural government (headed by Narahara) and the former Ryukyuan aristocracy (represented by the Kôdôkai).
He soon returned to Tokyo, where he agitated for Narahara's dismissal, and for Okinawan suffrage, receiving support from such prominent figures as Itagaki Taisuke and Hoshi Tôru. He founded a group called Okinawa Club, a monthly journal called Okinawa jiron which would disseminate the group's political views, and a trading company called Nan'yôsha (南陽社, "South Sun Company") which helped fund the Club and the journal. In Okinawa jiron, Jahana published articles advocating for broader access to political participation, and for fairer land distribution practices, as well as attacking Narahara's policies, and Narahara's generally preferential attitude and behavior towards mainland Japanese elite, at the expense of Okinawans' welfare or best interests. Even in Tokyo, Jahana was harassed by Narahara, who used the police force to harass and threaten Jahana and his allies, and even tried to have Jahana killed.
Returning to Okinawa, Narahara attempted to engineer a reorganization of the executive board of the Okinawa Agricultural Bank, in order to gain increased political influence for himself and his supporters. He was defeated, however, in the ensuing executive board elections as the result of considerable tampering by his political opponents. Despite efforts to appeal the decision, and to have the tampering acknowledged as rendering the election invalid, the courts' decision was to have the election results stand. Through this and other efforts, Jahana came close to getting Narahara kicked out of office, but never did manage to succeed before Narahara managed to get the Okinawa jiron shut down, and to block Jahana from both income and his societal/political connections.
He managed to have one article published in a major agricultural journal, describing the importance and impact of the tax structure upon Okinawa's sugar industry, before leaving politics and activism. Despondent at his failures, left Narahara's Okinawa in 1901 for Yamaguchi prefecture, where he was to take up a new post. He became mentally ill, however, as a result of his persecution, and had serious problems for the next seven years, until his death in 1908 at the age of 44.
- "Jahana, Noboru," Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures, National Diet Library, 2013.
- Mitsugu Sakihara, "Okinawans in Hawaii: An Overview of the Past 80 Years," in Uchinanchu, University of Hawaii (1981), 105-106.
- Gregory Smits, "Jahana Noboru: Okinawan Activist and Scholar," in Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002), 99-113.