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In-depth Examining Okinawa Today
Okinawan Identity and the Struggle for Self-Determination

Shimabukuro Jun [Profile]


Since Onaga Takeshi’s successful campaign for governorship of Okinawa last fall, “Okinawan identity” has emerged as a rallying cry for unified opposition to plans for a replacement facility for US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma inside Okinawa Prefecture. Okinawan political scientist and activist Shimabukuro Jun explores the meaning of Okinawan identity in a historical context, focusing on the postwar experience of “structural discrimination.”

“Okinawan identity” emerged as a buzzword during the November 2014 election for prefectural governor, a contest amounting to a referendum on current plans to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture (from Ginowan, outside of Naha, to Henoko in the less densely populated north). Former Naha Mayor Onaga Takeshi won that election on a platform opposing the construction of a replacement facility at Henoko or anywhere else in Okinawa. With his call for “identity over ideology,” Governor Onaga sought to build a unified front against the base plan, an all-Okinawan alliance spanning the entire political spectrum, from Liberal Democrats on the right to Communists on the left.

This was by no means the first time an Okinawan politician had made the case for Okinawans to decide their own fate, particularly as regards the US military bases in Japan, which are overwhelmingly concentrated in Okinawa Prefecture. Indeed, many of the local politicians who have run for the House of Representatives or the House of Councillors in recent years have taken this position. But until recently, no established politician has attempted to win support across the political spectrum by hoisting the banner of Okinawan identity as a unifying principle transcending party allegiances and the competing interests of local constituencies.

Identity Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

Around the time that Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in May 1972, Okinawa’s political forces aligned themselves with either the conservative LDP or the progressive Japan Socialist Party, reflecting the split that dominated national politics in the Cold War era. These were the bases from which politicians drew their support. At the time the left-right split made sense in Okinawa, where the ideological battle lines over the US bases largely coincided with the fault lines between business and organized labor.

That structure began to collapse when the controversy over Futenma Air Station reignited in 2009. In 2010, Okinawa’s LDP politicians joined with the prefecture’s progressives in calling for the relocation of Futenma outside of the prefecture. Most of the LDP dissidents ended up abandoning the alliance under heavy pressure from national headquarters. The ideologically diverse group that remained ultimately adopted the idea of Okinawan identity as their unifying cause.

But what exactly does this rally cry signify?

As currently used by local politicians and activists, “Okinawan identity” is basically synonymous with the right of self-determination for Okinawans—the idea that the Uchinanchu, as the Okinawans call themselves, should have the final say over the use of their own land, waters, and other resources. This has become a key argument in their opposition to the current relocation plan.

Self-determination is a matter of sovereignty, going far beyond the limited autonomy guaranteed to Japan’s prefectures. If the Okinawans could establish their right to self-determination, it would mean that the Japanese and US governments could no longer decide base issues between themselves. They would have to respect the will of the people of Okinawa, since no proposal by the Japanese government that ignored Okinawa’s right to self-determination would be recognized as legitimate.

Historical Grounds for Self-Determination

The case for self-determination rests on the history of the Ryūkyū Kingdom and the subsequent history of Okinawa. The first key point is the Meiji government’s forcible annexation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. The second pertains to Japan’s surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and the subsequent takeover of the islands by the US military.

Until its forcible annexation in 1879, Ryūkyū was an independent kingdom and a tributary state of China. Imperial China typically required the other Asian countries with which it maintained trade and diplomatic relations to pay ritual tribute even though they maintained full political autonomy. (Under Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), Japan itself paid tribute to Ming China.) The Ryūkyū Kingdom continued as a Chinese tributary state for five centuries. In 1609, the powerful Satsuma domain in Kyūshū invaded Ryūkyū, but it allowed the latter to maintain its tributary relationship with China, since that relationship benefited Satsuma economically. There was no interference in the kingdom’s internal political affairs. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ryūkyū was regarded as a sovereign state under customary international law, as indicated by the fact that the United States signed a separate treaty with the kingdom.

In 1879, however, Japan’s Meiji government, established a decade earlier, sent its forces to surround Shuri Castle and declared the annexation of Ryūkyū. The Ryūkyūans resisted annexation and assimilation by various means, including a national liberation movement, appeals by the Ryūkyūan nobility to the Qing government, and appeals to various foreign embassies. But the Meiji government relentlessly stamped out all resistance. Eventually many members of the nobility fled to China, and of those that remained a large number subsequently emigrated to Hawaii. With the collapse of the traditional Ryūkyū ruling class, the inhabitants of the islands—renamed Okinawa Prefecture—had little choice but to submit to the Japanese government’s policy of assimilation.

Today’s advocates of self-determination argue that Japan’s forcible annexation of a country that was recognized as essentially a sovereign state was unjustifiable under international law, and that the people of Ryūkyū never yielded their sovereignty to Japan of their own free will. This is also the fundamental stance of the recently established Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans, discussed below.

[The spelling Ryūkyū (or Ryukyu) reflects the Japanese pronunciation of the name of the islands and the kingdom that once ruled them. Some proponents of independence have adopted the spelling Lew Chew.—Ed.]

The Scottish Model of Devolution

The example of Scotland, which I have been studying for many years now, offers a useful model for the achievement of self-determination. It also establishes an important precedent in that Scotland reasserted and peacefully secured its right to self-determination despite having entered into a political union with England in the past. Scotland has an undisputed history as an independent state, and the Scottish people’s right to self-determination is an abiding belief in that country.

In 1689, after England’s Glorious Revolution overthrew King James II and placed William of Orange on the throne, the Parliament of Scotland passed the Claim of Right, which set forth the rights of the nation and resolved to form a government to protect those rights. Three centuries later, in 1989, some 80% of Scotland’s members of parliament and representatives from almost all of its municipalities established a deliberative body that issued a new Claim of Right declaring the sovereign right of the Scottish people to form their own government—in other words, the right to self-determination.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention, which grew out of this same body, subsequently developed the framework and basic legislation for a new autonomous government, and in 1997, Britain’s Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, adopted this draft virtually verbatim as one of its campaign pledges going into the general election. Labour won the election, and Prime Minister Blair’s government introduced the bill to Parliament. The Scotland Act 1998 was enacted almost exactly as drafted by the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

With the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish people secured the right to internal self-determination, meaning the ability to enact laws governing their own domestic affairs. Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, and authority over such matters as diplomacy, defense, and macroeconomic policy still reside with the British government. But the Scottish have won recognition of their right to self-determination and have gained a high level of political autonomy; whether or not they take the next step and become independent is not terribly important.

Similar moves are afoot in Okinawa. In January 2013, the mayors and lawmakers (minority and majority parties alike) of all 41 municipalities, as well as representatives from business and organized labor, submitted a petition to the prime minister demanding the immediate removal of all MV-22 Osprey aircraft deployed at Futenma, closure of the base, and a stop to all plans to relocate the base to another site in Okinawa. Activists are hoping to build on this effort, much as the advocates of Scottish devolution built on the Claim of Right 1989.

Okinawans’ Dual Identity

While the movement for Okinawan self-determination has gathered momentum on the islands, supporters of full independence are a distinct minority. Governor Onaga, like most residents, identifies as Japanese as well as Okinawan, and he predicates his actions, including opposition to the Henoko plan, on the assumption of his ongoing status as a contributing member of Japanese society with a citizen’s expectations of his government. Let us take a moment to explore this dual identity

Iha Fuyū (1876–1947), who pioneered the field of Okinawan studies, claimed that the Okinawan and Japanese people share the same ethnic and cultural roots, suggesting that Okinawa preserved vestiges of Japan’s ancient language and culture. By linking Okinawa’s distinctive culture with the remote origins of Japanese culture, he hoped to carve out a place for Okinawa as an integral part of Japan and legitimize the unique qualities that the mainland Japanese tended to look down on. His aim was to create and preserve a sense of Uchinanchu identity among the Okinawans without rejecting assimilation—to allow Okinawa to become an integral part of Japan without losing the unique character of Okinawan language and culture. Iha Fuyū’s work had a huge impact on Okinawan studies and on the thinking of Okinawan intellectuals in general, and to a large extent, his ideas continue to hold sway.

But Okinawa has not been treated as an integral part of Japan since World War II, and the awareness of this “structural discrimination” has had a growing impact on Okinawans’ sense of allegiance and identity. Ever since the Battle of Okinawa (1945), Japan’s leaders have treated the islands as an expendable appendage to be cut off and sacrificed for the good of the mainland. “Uchinanchu” identity and the drive for self-determination are a natural outgrowth of the Okinawans’ long postwar struggle to regain the rights and autonomy they lost as the result of this betrayal.

  • [2015.08.03]

Professor, Faculty of Education, University of the Ryūkyūs, specializing in local self-government and public administration. Born in Naha in 1961. Received his doctorate in political science from Waseda University. In 2002 founded the Okinawa Jichi Kenkyūkai (Society for the Study of Okinawan Self-Government), a forum for local citizens and administrators. Author of Okinawa shinkō taisei o tou (Questioning the Okinawa Development Policy) and other works.

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