The Ryūkyūans are a group of indigenous peoples living in the Ryūkyū archipelago, which stretches southwest of the main Japanese island of Kyūshū towards Taiwan. The largest and most populated island of the archipelago, Okinawa Island, is actually closer to Manila, Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul than it is to Tokyo. Though considered by the Japanese as speaking a dialect, the Ryūkyūans speak separate languages such as Okinawan, also known as Uchinaguchi, as well as Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. All are part of the Japonic language family, to which the Japanese language also belongs, and all are recognized as endangered languages by UNESCO.
Although linguistic scholars point to common origins of Ryūkyūan languages and the Japanese language, the former are incomprehensible to Japanese visitors to the islands. Some researchers point out that the difference between the Okinawan and Japanese languages is similar to the difference between French and Spanish. Isolated by distance and geography, Ryūkyūans were throughout much of their long history able to develop their own political, cultural and religious traditions, although they also share cultural elements with China and Japan because of the longstanding connections with both.
Though many Ryūkyūans have migrated to other parts of Japan, and in particular Tokyo, the majority live in Okinawa Prefecture, which includes most islands in the Ryūkyū archipelago.
After unification in the 14th century, the Ryūkyū Kingdom became a formal tributary state of the Emperor of China, although in practical terms the kingdom remained largely independent. This lasted for almost three centuries until a Japanese expedition to the islands in 1609 led the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate to lay claim to the Ryūkyū Islands and their peoples. At the same time the islands continued to be a tributary to the Chinese Emperor.
Because of the unusual nature of this trilateral relationship, the Ryūkyūan archipelago was never fully incorporated into Japan until its formal annexation in 1879. Leaving the Ryūkyū kingdom as a quasi-independent entity for hundreds of years permitted trade to occur between China and Japan when such trade was ‘officially’ prohibited by the Japanese shogunate. It also had the effect of maintaining Ryūkyūan culture, language and political institutions for much of this period, during which there were restrictions forbidding Ryūkyūans from adopting Japanese names, clothes or customs.
This changed drastically in 1879 when the Meiji government invaded militarily and formally annexed the Ryūkyūs. From this point on, the treatment of the Ryūkyūans is one which many indigenous peoples around the world are familiar with: loss of traditional forms of government and control over land and resources, as well as steps to supplant their distinct cultural and spiritual beliefs. Within 20 years, the Japanese government began to impose coercive measures to spread Japanese and ban Ryūkyūan languages in the public sphere, such as with the 1907 ‘Ordinance to Regulate the Dialect’. During the 1920s and 1930s, further steps emerged to prohibit the use of Ryūkyūan languages, especially after the start of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937: an ordinance banned all use of the Ryūkyūan languages at all government offices, state employees had to refuse service to people who would attempt such use, or risk punishment. Students in schools were shamed for speaking Ryūkyūan in class by having to wear what was called a ‘dialect tag’ around their necks.
After World War II, the Ryūkyūs were occupied by the United States, which retained control of Okinawa until the island’s 1972 reversion to Japan. The US has since maintained a massive presence in Okinawa, with their military bases occupying up to 20 per cent of all land on the island. The loss of such a large proportion of land, much of it agricultural, has historically been one of the main grievances of the Ryūkyūans against Japanese authorities. The land has been technically leased, with the local landowners and farmers or their descendants receiving payments for it from the Japanese government. However, Okinawans have had no choice in the matter since this leasing arrangement was forced upon them by national legislation, the Special Measures Law for US Military Bases, with the governor of Okinawa designated as the proxy signatory to the leases which permit the continued use of the Okinawans’ land by US forces. In 1996, the governor of Okinawa refused to sign the lease agreement on behalf of local owners who did not want to renew the leases.
Japan’s Supreme Court proceeded to overrule the governor’s refusal to renew the leases, and the Japanese Diet subsequently changed the Special Measures Law for US Military Bases to make the renewal of the lease of land for the American military bases ‘automatic’ under the authority of the Prime Minister. This reinforced the feeling among many Ryūkyūans that they have disproportionately been made to pay the price of continued US military presence, including the loss of use and enjoyment of their land because of the discriminatory policies of the central government.
The Japanese government continues to refuse to consider the Ryūkyūans as minorities or indigenous peoples. United Nations Special Rapporteurs on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance have in the past referred to the ‘people of Okinawa’ as a national minority and as having an indigenous culture, and there have been some private initiatives in revitalizing Ryūkyūan languages and a greater appreciation of traditional culture and traditions. Yet no such recognition or positive movement has been forthcoming from the side of the country’s authorities. Japan’s reports to various UN treaty bodies dealing with human rights, minorities or indigenous peoples have not recognised the existence of the Ryūkyūans as indigenous peoples, although the government has acknowledged their unique cultures and traditions. Despite some demands in the 1980s and 1990s for greater use of Ryūkyūan languages in government, no use of these languages is legally guaranteed in the judicial system, in public education or for access to public services. Coercive and discriminatory measures against the Ryūkyūan cultures and languages have in a sense continued to this day. Educational materials for use in public schools continue to be silent on the topic of the Ryūkyūans as indigenous communities with their own languages, cultures and traditions. The assimilation into mainstream Japanese language and culture has been especially thorough amongst younger generations in Okinawa, though less so in outlying islands.
The culture and traditional lands of Ryūkyūans continue to be threatened by the denial of the right to free, prior and informed consent in policymaking, especially concerning the expansion of US military bases in Okinawa – an issue that is perceived as a form of discrimination against the indigenous population. Okinawa Prefecture consists of 0.6 per cent of the entire territory of Japan, but around 74 per cent of all US military bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. The land occupied by military bases has been allocated via a leasing agreement forced upon locals by national legislation, with landowners and farmers receiving payments from the Japanese government – but with little say about the agreement itself.
Ongoing plans to relocate a US military air base from Futenma to Henoko, which is situated in a bay rich in biodiversity, including the critically endangered Okinawan dugong, has been a particularly contentious issue in Okinawan politics in recent years. Many Okinawans have also opposed the relocation (or existence of US military bases more broadly) because of various incidents such as aircraft accidents as well as acts of violence against local women by US officers. Local protests swelled to several thousand demonstrating ahead of elections in November 2014, with authorities responding harshly by detaining and arresting anyone who approached the construction site. The subsequent election of Takeshi Onaga as Governor of Okinawa Prefecture was in large part due to his strict opposition to military base construction. At present, the United States’ military presence and facilitation of this by the Japanese government dominate the efforts of most politically active groups in Okinawa, who helped mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators in June 2016 after the arrest of a base worker in connection to the rape and murder of a local woman. But despite strong opposition, the Japanese government has pushed ahead with the relocation plans, arguing that the move is necessary on national security grounds. As of late 2017 the project to undertake construction in Henoko is moving forward despite legal and political resistance to it.
Updated April 2018
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