This article proposes that contemporary ethnic subjectivities are shaped by modernist discourses. Ethnographic material about a group of Okinawan fishermen who worked with Solomon Islanders from 1971 to 2000 is used to explore the effect on national identities of being perceived as modern, or primitive. Okinawa is an island group to the south of Japan that became part of the Japanese Empire in the 1870s. Since then Okinawa has been defined as primitive against modern Japan. Modernist discourse was one of the range of influences on relations between Okinawan fishermen and Solomon Islanders. Symbolically violent identifications of Okinawans as more modern than Solomon Islanders stymied efforts at grassroots cosmopolitanism. Insofar as perceptions of relative levels of modernness of ethnic groups act to rank them, modernism is therefore one of the factors at stake in competition between nationalisms and friction between ethnic groups.