Examining Okinawa Today

Okinawan Identity and the Struggle for Self-Determination

Politics Economy Society

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.

An Island Cut Loose and Betrayed

Upon landing in Okinawa in late March 1945, the US Navy, by order of Admiral C. W. Nimitz (commander of the US Pacific Fleet), notified the local inhabitants that they were no longer part of Japan, and that the Japanese government no longer had jurisdiction over them. On April 5, the US forces set up a military government in the Hija district of Yomitan village. The Battle of Okinawa raged for more than three months, and its toll on the local population was devastating.

In the years immediately following Japan’s surrender, several political parties sprang up in Okinawa, and every one of them called for Okinawan independence. If Okinawa was in fact a separate entity distinct from Japan, then it followed that the Okinawans had a right to self-determination and should be able to regain their sovereignty separately from Japan. For the United States, which envisioned Okinawa as a permanent base for military operations in the region, this was a most unwelcome development.

In September 1947, Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) helped solve the dilemma. According to a memo to General Douglas MacArthur from his political advisor, William Sebald , imperial aide Terasaki Hidenari had relayed to Sebald the emperor’s opinion that America’s continued military occupation of Okinawa “would benefit the United States and also provide protection for Japan” and that “such a move would meet with widespread approval among the Japanese” owing to their concerns about the threat from the Soviet Union. According to the same memo, the emperor had indicated that the US military occupation of Okinawa “should be based upon the fiction of a long-term lease—25 to 50 years or more—with sovereignty retained in Japan.”

This offer was a godsend for the United States. When the Occupation ended in 1952, Japan retained nominal sovereignty over Okinawa but agreed, under Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, to hand over the islands for separate administration by the United States. Okinawa finally reverted to Japanese control in 1972, but its treatment remained subject to agreements between the Japanese and US governments.

Exclusionary and Inclusionary Approaches

The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans and other proponents of Okinawan independence believe that this system, which fundamentally denies the Okinawan people’s right to self-determination, is structurally rooted in the “colonial” relationship between Okinawa and mainland Japan that extends back to the prewar era, and that the only way to break free of that relationship is independence.

One important feature of the ACSIL’s stance is its insistence that the right of self-determination resides with indigenous peoples and that in Okinawa, therefore, the right of self-determination is limited to people of Ryūkyū extraction extending back to the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Another feature is the organization’s sense of urgency regarding the need to protect the Okinawans from assimilationist policies that they say have violated their freedom of education and their right to preserve, develop, and pass down their own language and culture. The fact that Okinawan schools must teach exactly the same curriculum as Tokyo schools under the guidelines of the Ministry of Education, and therefore have no means of incorporating courses in Ryūkyū language or history into the formal curriculum, could certainly be seen as a violation of their human rights.

The All Okinawa Council, in which I am currently involved, has adopted a somewhat different approach, one grounded in international constitutionalism. We are appealing for the support and involvement of people from all over the world on the basis of universal values and ethical principles. Paramount among these is human rights, as defined by such international instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination—all of which Japan has ratified.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded in 2010 that the disproportionate concentration of US military bases in Okinawa constitutes a “contemporary form of racism.” A special report of the UN Human Rights Council and an opinion issued by the UN Committee on Human Rights have underscored the view that Okinawans’ human rights are being violated. More recently, in its “concluding observations” on Japan issued in August 2014, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that the Japanese government “consider recognizing the Ryūkyū as indigenous peoples and take concrete steps to protect their rights.” The All Okinawa Council aims to take full advantage of these opinions to rally worldwide sympathy and support for the position of the Okinawan people.

As we see it, the crux of the matter is the freedom of the Okinawan people to determine their own political status, whether it be that of an independent nation, a self-governing entity within Japan, or a prefecture as currently constituted. The important thing is that the Okinawans have the right to decide of their own free will.

Challenging Pork-barrel Subsidies

Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.”

Today one of the key issues pertaining to Okinawan self-determination is the violation of the Okinawans’ freedom of economic development. The Japanese government has the authority to set the course of that development through its Okinawa Promotion Plan, and although it claims to be acting in the prefecture’s best interests, it goes without saying that Okinawa’s development agenda should be tailored to the unique linguistic, cultural, environmental, and human needs of the region, not determined by Tokyo bureaucrats.

Since the late 1990s, the central government has come under increasing criticism—much of it from the Okinawan business community—for using pork-barrel-style budget allocations to compensate communities for the presence of the US bases and shore up local support. More and more local business leaders have come to the conclusion that by preventing Okinawa from standing on its own two feet, the government’s development policy not only subverts the prefecture’s economic interests but also violates its economic freedom. This is the reason Onaga’s 2014 election campaign won the support of many local businesses, including the construction companies that have profited the most from the central government’s development grants.

As this example suggests, the Okinawans as a group are more aware today than ever of the structural discrimination they have endured, particularly with regard to the burden of the US bases.

The Basis of Okinawan Identity

Among the most glaring examples of discrimination in the postwar era was the Law on the Provisional Public Use of Land in Okinawa, which went into force upon the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese rule in May 1972. This law permitted the government to expropriate for public use all Okinawan lands previously seized by the US military, without offering any justification. Its enforcement was a clear violation of Article 95 of the Constitution, which states that the Diet must obtain the consent of the majority of the voters of a local public entity in order to pass a special law pertaining to that locality only. Such a law should never have been enacted without first being submitted for local approval by means of a public referendum.

Ever since the mid-1950s, when the US military’s seizure of farmland triggered the “all-island struggle,” the Okinawans had hoped in vain that the Japanese nation would share their pain and rise to their defense, and such hopes were particularly high as reversion approached in 1972. But far from lightening the burden, the Japanese government passed a law legitimizing the violation of their rights. Since that time, a long series of base-related incidents and controversies, culminating in the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by US servicemen, have thrown this discriminatory situation into ever-higher relief and heightened the Okinawans’ awareness of their victimization.

Today the Japanese government continues to demand that Okinawans put up with structural discrimination in the name of the US bases and the benefits they provide, and the national media and Japanese public do little more than parrot the government line. Now even Okinawa’s conservative forces and business interests are losing patience.

To confront this structural discrimination, we need to recognize that the history of Okinawa since the time of the all-island struggle has been a quest for self-government and human rights, and to resume that crusade. In the end, this is the best way to affirm our Uchinanchu identity. After all, the shared identity that Okinawan leaders are stressing today is not something descended directly from the Ryūkyū Kingdom. It is rooted instead in our shared postwar struggle. It is rooted in the social solidarity the Okinawans have built in the process of resisting wanton oppression and the blatant violation of their rights. The process began in the 1950s, when the all-island struggle laid the foundation for unity after the US military severed Okinawa from Japan and consolidated its control, and gained strength in the 1960s through the ongoing struggle with High Commissioner Paul Caraway who dismissed Okinawan autonomy as “a myth.” A sense of grave historical injustice and oppression is at the heart of the controversy over Futenma and other US military bases, and the struggle to be free of that injustice and oppression is at the heart of Okinawan identity.

Mainstream Japanese politicians and media pundits see it differently. They think it only natural that the Okinawans put up with the US bases, given the facilities’ strategic importance—despite the fact that there is virtually no chance of marines based on Okinawa battling Chinese forces—as well as their contribution to the local economies and the added benefits of special budget outlays from the central government. This refusal to acknowledge the injustice and oppression at the very core of the Okinawans’ postwar experience highlights once again the rejection and indifference that have defined Japan’s attitudes toward Okinawa over the past 70 years.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 30, 2015, and published on July 10, 2015. Banner photo: US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy visits Shuri Castle in Okinawa in February 2014. © Jiji.)

United Nations China LDP Okinawa Futenma human rights identity osprey Ryukyu discrimination military Scotland Henoko Onaga Takeshi ethnic US Marine Corps