The Ryukyu’s Right to Self-Determination
by Yui Akiko
Okinawa’s two largest local newspapers, the Okinawa Times and the Ryukyu Shimpo, listed the top-10 news stories of 2008 as follows:
The Okinawa Times
1) The Okinawa Shogaku High School (Okisho) baseball team’s second championship in the annual National High School Invitational Baseball Spring Tournament and Okinawa’s Urasoe High School baseball team reaching the top four in the annual National High School Invitational Baseball Summer Tournament;
2) The victory for Nobel Prize-winning author Oe Kenzahuro and twanami Publishing in a lawsuit over their description of the Imperial Japanese Army’s ordering of civilian “mass suicides” during the Battle of Okinawa;
3) The victory of environmental protectionists in the Naha District Court’s decision to stop the appropriation of public funds for the reclamation project at the Awse tidal flat, a landfill planned by the Japanese Government and Okinawa Prefecture Government;
4) The Liberal Democratic Party-Komei Party coalition being reduced to a minority in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly elections;
5) A wheel-chaired Okinawan athlete winning a silver medal in the 800m wheelchair race at the Beijing Paralympics.
The Ryukyu Shimpo placed the results of the Prefectural Assembly election on the top, followed by the Oe and Iwanami court case, the Naha District Court’s decision on the Awase tidal flat, the victories of Okisho and Urasoe High Schools, a rape case by U.S. military personnel and other incidents or accidents attributed to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
Both of these newspapers are differentiated from their major mainland Japanese counterparts by a more critical stance on Japanese government policies. Both papers maintain a pro-pacifist reporting attitude and often voice opposition to Japan’s remilitarization, and place a focus on local Okinawan issues. Therefore the papers are often criticized by the Japanese right wing. Even modest conservatives sometimes say these papers are “extreme.”
But anyway, I am struck that both papers placed the victory of Okisho high as the top news item, a choice a bit out of balance considering that this same school had won championship in 1999 too. This choice, however, shows how Okinawa people now covet a bright story that would elevate their mind. The two paper’s top-five news stories of 2008 are similar, only the order of ranking varies. And only two items differ in the respective top-6 to -10 stories. The Okinawan people long exposed to discriminately treatment from mainland Japanese, tended to be resigned that they were the lowest-raking in all fields of activity. Now Okinawan youth are doing wonderfully in sports and otherwise, and this delights Okinawans and fills them with pride.
By any measure, Okinawan youth transcend the thinking framework of the older generation, and do their best indeed. Okinawan youth have been making spectacular showings in sports, music, acting and so on. The aged Okinawans, born before World War II or in the early post-war period of poverty, were physically very small. Whatever they tried in sports, they could not break though in Kyushu block competitions. For many years; they had to bite their lips from the feeling that Okinawans were no match for Japanese.
The young Okinawans do more than just please their chagrined elders.
In October 30, 2008, the U.N. ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) Human Rights Committee delivered a report to the Government of Japan. It said that the Japanese government “should provide adequate opportunities for Ainu and Ryukyu/Okinawa children to receive instruction in or of their language and about their culture, and include education on Ainu and Ryukyu/Okinawa culture and history in the regular curriculum.” The report also recommended that the Government recognize the land rights of the Ainu and Ryukyu/Okinawan people, It was the first time for the Ryuku Islanders to be officially recognized as an independent ethnic group at the United Nations.
This report, according to informed sources, was the fruit of lobbying carried out by civil groups such as the Association of Indigenous Peoples in the Ryukyus (AIPR), the Okinawa Citizen Information Center, and the Citizens’ Diplomatic Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) from the mid-90s.
Uehara Kozue, an activist scholar involved in the aforementioned civil lobbying, explains the significance of the report as follows:
- The report recommended that the Japanese Government preserve Ryukyu/Okinawa culture and history for future generations. It means that the government was asked to respect the history of Ryukyu/Okinawa, including the 1879 annexation of Ryukyu (the forceful annexation of Okinawa by the Meiji Government), the occupation by the U.S. military forces after Japan’s defeat in World War II, and the continued oppression of Okinawa through the reversion to the mainland;
- The report disclosed to the world that the Japanese government falsely categorized the people of Ryukyu/Okinawa as “Japanese” and has appropriated the land, ocean and air of Okinawa in the name of Japan’s “national security” and “national interest.”
Konaki Morita, an Okinawan scholar of Peace Studies, refers to the preamble of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which says “all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legallyinvalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.” He observes, “From these words it becomes clear that the difference between the Ryukyu and the Japanese should be respected, instead of being used as a reason for discrimination against the Ryukyu. The phrases also deny the Japanese assimilation policy on the Ryukyu.” He continues, “When we the people of Okinawa become aware that we are the indigenous people of Japan and exercise our right of self-determination, we will responsibly be able to solve various issues such as the presence of military bases, the understanding of the Battle of Okinawa, the economy, the cultural and land assets stripped by outsiders, the destruction of communities by development, the destruction of cultural assets including sanctuary areas, the destruction of livelihoods and environment, and the crisis of the Ryukyu language’s extinction.”
Further, Miyazato Kozamaru of the AIPR says that the Declaration recognizes the rights of “we the Ryukyu/Okinawan people to live based on our own values and thoughts.” It means, he explains, that if the Ryukyu/Okinawan people decide not to host the military bases on their lands, they would not be denied the right to development but would be able to choose their own path other than the Japanese government-imposed alternative choices ? no base, subsidy or development subsidy by accepting bases. “The Declaration provides a basis for an international standard allowing us to make our own choices,” he said.
While affirming that it was outsiders who have been treating the people of Ryukyu/Okinawa unjustly and oppressing their human rights in the name of “national interests that impeded Okinawans’ right to self-determination, Tonaki also points out that the process to self-determination is also hindered by Ryukyu/Okinawan people’s own intention to assimilate with Japanese.
In the eyes of aged Okinawans who “tried but could not become a Japanese” (words of the late Okinawa Governor and fine conservative politician Nishime Junji), to hear the powerful young “envied generation” who can stand up to Japanese with dignity and as equals talk about themselves as a discriminated indigenous people may sound rather strange. At the same time, I must admit that their self-affirming presence directs my attention to an innermost propensity for assimilation lurking in myself which I would rather disown but which the young may have facilely seen through.
Tonaki observes that the Ryukyu people’s consciousness to gain various privileges through Japanization has generated a sense of supremacy or discrimination against weaker people and also leads to Okinawans’ self-denial. This reasoning is not new. Opinions such as Tonaki’s were heard from the late ’60s, when Tonaki and Iviiyazato were born. These were a minority opinion at a time when the movement for reversion to the motherland rose powerfully leading to the return of Okinawan to Japan on condition that U.S. military presence was tobe guaranteed.
Half a century has passed since then. The Japanese government’s crafty trick -- the bolstering of Okinawa’s economy in exchange for its hosting military bases -- has deprived the people of Ryukyu/Okinawa of their right to self-determination as well as their mountains, oceans and skies, and has resulted in the further destruction of the natural environment.
On July 18, 2008, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly where the opposition parties now have a majority, adopted a resolution-opposing the new U.S. military base construction plan at Henoko, in the northern part of Okinawa Island. There is a plan to relocate the current U.S. Futenma Air Base to Henoko as one of the new hubs in the ongoing U.S. military power transformation. Although there was strong pressure from the Japanese government behind the plan, it was the Okinawan government’s own decision in 1999, for the first time in the Okinawan history, to accept hosting a military base. However, persistent opposition and movements against the construction plan by people from both directly-affected communities and wider areas succeeded in stopping the construction. The initial plan formulated by the Japanese and U.S. governments for reclamation of Henoko Bay for the base was derailed, and both governments were forced to change the plan to build V-shape runways extending into the sea from the U.S. Camp Schwab. The 2008 Prefectural Assembly resolution says, “Protecting our rich nature and passing it on to future generations is the obligation of we Okinawans.” It was the first time for the Assembly to advocate the protection of nature as a universal value. The anti-military base movement for long laid emphasis only on the removal of the threat of the bases to peace of people in other countries and also threats to Okinawan people’s daily life. Now the movement has opened its doors to new areas of environment, and this occurred thanks to international solidarity substantiated by civic movements. And now Okinawan youth is generating new international solidarity with their flexible way of thinking.
The year 2009 will witness deeper discussions over the rights to self-determination of Okinawa, and more activities will emerged toward reclaiming these rights.
(Translated by Hikaru Kasahara)
Yui Akiko: Born in Naha City in 1933. In 1951, came to Tokyo using a passport issued by the U.S. military authorities. In 1955, began working for the Okinawa Times. In 1990, moved back to Okinawa after 30years to work in the head office. Reported on changes in Okinawa and women’s activities. Was a chief editor and editorialist from 1991 to 1992. In 1997, retired and became a freelance writer. From 1997 to 2002, acted as chair of the Unai Festival organizing committee. From 2003 to the present, has acted as joint representative of the Okinawa Network on the Hansen Disease Problem.JAPONESIA REVIEW, No.6, 2008-9