Ryukyu/Okinawa, From Disposal to Resistance  琉球/沖縄、処分から抵抗へ

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September 9, 2012

Ryukyu/Okinawa, From Disposal to Resistance  琉球/沖縄、処分から抵抗へ
Ryukyu/Okinawa, From Disposal to Resistance  琉球/沖縄、処分から抵抗へ

Volume 10 | Issue 38 | Number 1

Article ID 3828

This is a slightly modified version of Chapter One of Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Lanham, Boulder, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. For recommendations by Noam Chomsky, John Dower, Norma Field, Sun Ge, Glenn Hook, and Ron Dore, see (“Reviews” Tab)


Islands of Ambiguity

In May 1972, following twenty-seven years of direct American military rule, the Ryukyu Islands reverted to being a Japanese prefecture under the name “Okinawa.” The year 2012 therefore marks its fortieth anniversary. These islands have a complex history and every year is punctuated by anniversaries, many with painful associations. Okinawa today looks back upon a history as an independent kingdom, enjoying close affiliation

with Ming and then Qing dynasty China (1372–1874); a semi-independent kingdom affiliated with both China and Japan but effectively ruled from Satsuma in southern Japan (1609–1874); a modern Japanese prefecture (1872–1945); a US military colony, first as conquered territory and from 1952 subject to the determination of the San Francisco treaty (1945–1972); and then, from 1972 to today, once again as a Japanese prefecture but still occupied by US forces. Before the recent and contemporary disputes that are at the center of the US-Japan relationship can be understood, something of this checkered history as a region alternately in and out of “Japan” has to be recounted.

(Map by Executive Office of the Governor, Okinawa Prefecture)

Okinawa’s chain of islands—around sixty of them inhabited and many more not—stretch for 1,100 kilometers (683 miles) along the Western Pacific between Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture and Taiwan. The largest and most populated island is about one hundred kilometers long and between four and twenty-eight kilometers wide, and the islands as a whole are about one-seventh the area of Hawaii. Linked to the Asian continental landmass until a million or so years ago, the islands have long been separated from it by a gulf sufficiently deep and dangerous to have allowed the emergence in relative isolation of a rich and distinctive human as well as botanical and zoological environment. Today its people are both “Japanese,” speaking more-or-less standard Japanese and constituting part of the Japanese nation-state, but also “non-Japanese,” whose ancestors a century ago spoke languages distinct from Japanese, that is, separate languages rather than dialects, and five of which, still spoken today, especially on the outlying islands, are recognized by UNESCO as either “endangered” or “severely endangered.”1

In 2008, the UN’s Committee on Civil and Political Rights recognized the Okinawan people as indigenous inhabitants and called on the government of Japan to recognize them as such and “to adopt special measures to protect, preserve and promote their cultural heritage and traditional way of life, and recognize their land rights.”2 It also called for adequate opportunities to be provided for “Ryukyu/Okinawa children to receive instruction in or of their language and about their culture … in the regular curriculum.” Three years later, neither had been taken seriously by the government of Japan, and, as detailed below. Meanwhile, at the heart of the so-called Okinawa problem is the struggle by Okinawans to regain their land compulsorily and often forcefully acquired for US military purposes more than six decades ago.

The islands enjoy a mild subtropical climate and good rainfall with a rich marine reef environment. From the fifteenth century a flourishing autonomous state, the Ryukyuan Kingdom, trading along the China coast and as far south as Vietnam and Siam, formed part of the East Asian tribute world centering on Ming China.

 Images of Ryukyu Tributary relationship with China.

Though virtually obliterated from conventional historical memory, premodern Okinawa was a vigorous, independent economic, cultural, and political system, flourishing on the frontiers of the early modern Asia-Pacific. Its music and performing arts and its crafts, including lacquerware, dyed textiles, and pottery, were widely known and appreciated. However, the island kingdom that flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was profoundly affected by major shifts in the global geopolitical balance starting in the late sixteenth century and continuing into the mid-twentieth century.

Both the early and then the mature phases of European maritime expansion, in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, opened new routes of commerce, spread new ideas and technologies, and helped dissolve and reform states. In the seventeenth century, as European capitalism and nationalism, underpinned by war and its technologies, despoiled Africa, colonized the Americas, and encroached on Asia, Japan, emerging from a long period of chronic civil war and failed attempts (in the 1590s) to subject Asia to Japanese rule, retreated to concentrate on developing its so-called closed country (sakoku) polity. But it first launched in 1609 one last expansionary thrust: an invasion force of three thousand musket-bearing samurai to conquer the Ryukyu Kingdom, punishing it for its recalcitrant attitude toward Hideyoshi’s grand continental invasion plan. Within days, the court submitted and King Sho Nei (1564–1620) and his entourage were carried off to Kagoshima.3

The new order that was imposed was more “modern,” rationalized and bureaucratic than the shamanistic, ritual court world it displaced. It was also often harsh, with basic policy decided from Kagoshima (capital of the Satsuma domain), 660 kilometers away. The king and court continued, but the kings were no longer sovereign.

Okinawa/Ryukyu became a Potemkin-like theater state: Okinawans had to hide the fact that they were incorporated into the Japanese system in order to sustain the tribute relationship to China, those involved in missions to and from China were ordered to hide all things Japanese, and those on embassies to Edo (Tokyo) were required to wear distinctive, non-Japanese clothing. Thus the façade of independence was preserved, a trading window between Japan and China kept open through Japanese-controlled Ryukyuan tributary missions to China, and the prestige of the Bakufu heightened by the appearance of a foreign mission pledging fealty to it.

Ryukyu became in effect Japan’s colony, its kings tied to the Japanese domain of Satsuma, and through it to the Edo Japanese state, while maintaining all the appearances of continuing attachment to the Chinese court in Beijing. Dual vassalage characterized the next several centuries. It meant that Okinawan officials were required to perform theater designed to conceal the locus and nature of political authority, and Shuri Castle, the site of the Ryukyu kings, was a carefully constructed stage.

1832 Ryukyu mission to Edo

The curtain did not ring down on this peculiar state till the mid-nineteenth century. For a brief period then, the omens for Ryukyu seemed good. Left more than usual to its own devices as the crisis in the Japanese Edo order deepened, Ryukyu courts negotiated modern “opening” treaties, as an independent kingdom, with the Americans, French, and Dutch (in 1854, 1855, and 1850).4 Visitors were impressed. When the US Navy’s Commodore Perry sailed into what was known as the Loochoos on his Black Ships en route to open Japan in 1853, his scientific advisers reported on a fertile, friendly, and prosperous state, a “most rich and highly cultivated rural landscape,” with an agriculture more akin to horticulture, in a “system which could scarcely be improved” and its villages quite romantic, and more beautiful than any of like pretensions I have ever seen.”5

The French missionary Furé, who spent the years 1858–1861 in Naha, described the villages as “resembling the beautiful gardens of England.” It was by then diminished from its flourishing sixteenth-century peak and maintaining a precarious autonomy through judicious expressions of respect toward its two powerful and sensitive neighbors: the kingdom of Satsuma (one of the domains, centering on Kagoshima, making up the loosely linked Japanese state structure) to the north, and the Qing court in Beijing to the west. The Okinawan kings relied on their remoteness and their diplomatic skills to preserve the relative autonomy they enjoyed within their dual dependence on two powerful neighbors.

However, Ryukyu’s ambiguous, dual-sovereignty status was incompatible with the “new world order” of expansive, rapacious, and militarized modern states and competing empires. It was of this state without weapons and ignorant of war that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was said to have been told by passing sailors in his St. Helena exile, exclaiming that it was unbelievable. While the island elite debated possible responses to Commodore Perry on his 1853 visit and struggled to explain their island’s status as a dual attachment, to China as mother and Japan as father, and their wish to maintain things as they were, the governing elite of the new modern Japanese nation-state in Tokyo adopted a strict modern, legalist view of the world, in which sovereignty was absolute and indivisible and frontiers had to be secured. The Japanese flag was first raised over the main island of the Ryukyus in 1872 and in 1873 over the outlying islands of Kume, Ishigaki, Miyako, Iriomote, and Yonaguni.

The Ryukyu court faced an impossible dilemma. The dual fiefdom status quo was unsustainable however much they clung to it, and the Qing court could not come to their aid with the Chinese “world order” under siege from central Asia to Indochina and Korea and much of the country only slowly recovering from the calamity of the Taiping rebellion and civil war. Beijing viewed Ryukyu as of relatively minor significance, just a “small kingdom in the sea.”6 The Shuri court, after much agonizing, ended its feeble resistance in 1879.7 Submitting to the “punishment” from Tokyo over its lukewarm response to the new Meiji state order, in the first of the series of modern shobun or “disposals,” it handed over the castle and sent the king, Sho Tai (1843–1901), into exile. Its incorporation into the modern Japanese state is unique in having been accomplished as part of a punishment (shobun), “unilaterally and by force,” thus becoming an “unrecognized colony,” and its subsequent status within the state was marked by persistent suspicion, discrimination, and forced assimilation.8

According to one story, probably apocryphal, as King Sho Tai in 1879 surrendered Shuri Castle to the superior force of the Meiji government, he uttered the words “Life is precious” (Nuchi du takara). These words later came to be understood as a core statement of Okinawan moral value, and the catastrophe that swept over the islands in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa was taken as confirmation of their wisdom. In the face of oppression, militarism, and colonialism the Okinawan people struggled to preserve the ideal of the supremacy of life over death, peace over war, the sanshin (samisen) over the gun.

Perry’s ships in Naha, Ryukyus in 1853

The Weight of the Nation-State

Thus Okinawa was incorporated in a subordinate status within the Japanese state. The new national government in Tokyo regarded the islands as crucial to state defense rather than as integral elements of any national community. This was clear from the readiness they showed, in negotiations with China from 1879, to split the islands either into two, ceding the farthest islands, Miyako and Yaeyama, to China in return for the grant of “most favored nation” trading rights within China itself. China in response, proposed a three-way split, south to China, north to Japan, with a reinstated Ryukyu Kingdom in the main island. In the end, no agreement was reached.9 China only formally acknowledged Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, as part of the settlement of the Sino-Japanese War, which also ceded Taiwan to Japan.10

The historian Nishizato Kiko offers this judicious assessment:

“Had those Ryukyuans who evolved a “Ryukyuan Salvation Movement,” instead of treating the tribute order as absolute been able to respond to the dawning of the new era, taking account of the proposals of Ueki Emori and Guo Songtao11 as possible ways forward and forging links with the kingdoms of Korea and Hawaii12 or with Vietnam, they might have been able to find a new way forward. But the Ryukyuans who plunged into the Salvation Movement treated the traditional tribute order as absolute and just sought the help of the Qing authorities to restore the Ryukyu kingdom. That was their historical limitation.”13

Though this history is today largely forgotten, it is instructive. Again in early twenty-first-century East Asia, Okinawans, now living in a prefecture of the Japanese state that is closer to China (and Taiwan) than to the rest of Japan, seek a way to coexist peacefully and to cooperate with both in the formation of some kind of East Asian commonwealth. Where the dominant paradigms of the international system were tragically incompatible with Ryukyuan aspirations in the seventeenth and nineteenth

centuries, in the post–Cold War twenty-first (in the context of partial US eclipse and the rise of China), the prospects might be better of reducing the iron grip of US military power or of the US-Japan condominium at a time when nation-states perforce yield more of their authority to supranational institutions and the movement for regional and global cooperation grows.

Belatedly incorporated within the modern Japanese state, Okinawans were pressed to follow a path of self-negation, casting aside their distinctive language and culture, their “Okinawan-ness,” in order to become “Japanese.” Punished for speaking their own language, they were required to reorient their identity around service to the Japanese emperor and to participate in mainland myths and rituals. Less than seven decades after being launched on this process of identity change, in 1945 Okinawa was to be sacrificed in order to stave off attack on the “mainland” and preserve the “national polity”—meaning the emperor system. Japan’s war on Asia came “home” in the cataclysmic Battle of Okinawa, when more than 120,000 Okinawans, between one-quarter and one-third of the population, died. These months, March to June 1945, marked the islands as nothing before or since has. Beneath the surface of contemporary Okinawa, the memory of its horror remains fresh, and it constitutes a well-spring of thinking about the present and future.

Americans landing in the Battle of Okinawa

From the onset of the Battle of Okinawa in late March 1945, Okinawa and the surrounding (Nansei) islands were severed from Japan by order of the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral C. W. Nimitz.14 Months later, the thirtieth parallel was defined as the dividing line.15 Separated from Japan, when the catastrophe of the war ended, Okinawa was transformed into the American “Keystone of the Pacific.” The Japanese emperor himself, Hirohito (1901–1989), gave his blessing to the separation and long-term military occupation. While publicly endorsing the May 1947 constitution under which all political authority was stripped from his office, Hirohito told the occupation commander, General Douglas MacArthur, that he believed Japan’s security depended on “initiatives taken by the United States, representing the Anglo-Saxons,” and in September 1947, Hirohito said 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.”16 His message must have confirmed to US authorities the wisdom of their decision to retain him in office rather than put him in the dock for trial as a war criminal during the Tokyo International War Crimes Tribunal.

Although the new constitution abjured the “threat or use of force” in international affairs, the emperor plainly believed that only the massive force at General MacArthur’s disposal could assure Japan of its security, while for MacArthur, the fact that US military control of Okinawa would be acceptable to Japan for the long term gave him confidence to order the demilitarization of mainland Japan. However much as that “25 to 50 years or more” stretches into “more,” that imperial pledge to General MacArthur is not forgotten.

In an arrangement thus blessed at the highest level, mainland Japan became a constitutional “peace state” and Okinawa a “war state,” both tied symbiotically within the US Pacific and Asian Cold War empire of bases. In mainland Japan, the US occupation ended in 1952; in Amami, the most northerly of the major Ryukyu Islands in December of the following year; but in Okinawa itself and its adjacent islands, and in Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, US occupation lasted until 1972.

In 1972, as the islands reverted from direct American military control to Japanese administration, switching in the process from the Sinic name Ryukyu (Liuqiu) to the Japanese Okinawa, the curtain rose over a different kind of “theater state.” Nothing on stage was quite what it seemed. First, the reversion was not so much a “handing back,” as implied by the words, but actually a “purchase” (discussed in detail in chapters 3 and 4). Second, the “return” was a “nonreturn” since the US military continued to occupy and enjoy free use of much of the most fertile agricultural lands and to control the seas and skies. And third, following this strange transaction in which roles of buyer and seller were reversed, Japan adopted as national policy the retention of a substantial US military presence in Okinawa. To prevent any significant reduction of US forces ever taking place, it began to pay a sum that steadily increased over the years. The price that Japan paid to avoid reversion thus rose steadily. Japan also took steps to ensure that the truth of the reversion transaction be concealed and pursued mercilessly those who would venture to lift the curtain on it.

Okinawans had sought a reversion that would release them from the parameters of force, return their most fertile lands, and restore something of their ancient ideal of demilitarized, peaceful islands. The 1972 terms thus disappointed and angered many. On the actual day of the reversion ceremony, none of Okinawa’s seven recently elected members of the national diet attended the Tokyo ceremony, and in Naha far more gathered in Yogi Park to protest the terms of reversion than attended the official ceremony. For them, May 15 was a day of humiliation. Yara Chobyo (1902–1997), long a major proponent of reversion and Okinawa’s first elected governor, referred to the terms of reversion as “not necessarily what we had so earnestly striven for.” He nevertheless tried to project a hope “to overcome the history in which Okinawa has always been a means and become a prefecture in which it would be possible to hope.” 17

Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako in Tokyo look on as US Vice President Spiro Agnew presents Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato with documents returning Okinawa to Japan.

The formal documents and instruments of power were therefore as deceptive and misleading as the Ryukyu expressions of tribute fealty to China and Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Post-1972 Okinawa performed Japanese sovereignty, constitutional pacifism, prefectural self-government, and regional autonomy while in reality sovereignty was only partially returned (the bases and American military sovereignty retained intact). The US-Japan security treaty continued to serve as Okinawa’s key charter, in effect transcending and negating the constitution, and all important decisions were reserved to Tokyo and Washington. Despite nominal incorporation in the constitutional pacifist Japanese state, therefore, the American military colony of Okinawa became the militarized, dual-colonial dependency of Japan and the United States.

For the Japanese state to impose a “priority to the military” polity on Okinawa and secure its compliance to an agenda whose core was priority to the US alliance over the constitution, to military over civil or democratic principle, and to the interests of the nation-state over those of the Okinawan people, Okinawan opposition had to be neutralized. Reversion, therefore, was built on deception and trumpery, bribery and lies.

The Japanese state used smoke and mirrors to try to create a theater capable of deceiving and persuading the Okinawan people on a mass scale.

Two decades after “reversion,” the Cold War ended. The enemy against whom the base structure had been directed collapsed, but the base complex remained. The bases did not just remain, but to the bitter disappointment of Okinawans, both governments insisted they be reinforced. In the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghan wars, the United States called on Japan to play a stepped-up military role, and governments in Tokyo did their best to comply, with Okinawa remaining pivotal. “Deepening the alliance” meant reinforcing Japan’s subservience and, therefore, its irresponsibility. As of 2012, nearly 20 percent of the total area of Okinawa Island is occupied by US bases. Okinawa prefecture, which is only 0.6 percent of the total area of Japan, hosts 75 percent of the US military bases in Japan. This means that the density of US bases in Okinawa is about five hundred times that of the mainland.

Okinawans who aspired to a reversion that would transform their islands from the militarism of war and occupation to the peace-centered values of the constitution of Japan found that the role assigned them in the post–Cold War order was to be that of bastion for the projection of force to maintain a US-dictated order from the Western Pacific to Central Asia. As after the reversion in 1972 and after the end of the Cold War in 1990, the military relationship with the United States, not the constitution, was to be Okinawa’s key charter.

When mass discontent at these arrangements threatened to boil over, especially following the rape of a schoolgirl by three US servicemen in 1995, a new round of “reversion” was promised; but again deception was the keynote. Where “reversion” in 1972 meant retention (and purchase), so in 1996 it came to mean substitution, modernization, and expansion of US military bases. Of the dense web of bases across the main island of Okinawa, the return of none was more urgently sought than that of Futenma Marine Air Station, which sat uncomfortably in the midst of the bustling city of Ginowan. While the two governments sought to contain the 1995 crisis by promising Futenma’s return, they did so only by attaching the condition that an alternative facility would first be constructed. They assumed it would be possible to impose such a solution on the people of Okinawa. As the nature of the process was obfuscated by calling it reversion, so its scale too was concealed by calling the projected new base a “heliport” and by using the expression seiri shukusho (base reduction) to try to convey the impression that overall that was what was happening.

Ginowan City, with Futenma Air Station in the center of dense neighbourhoods Photo by Ginowan City

US Marine helicopter crashed into the campus of Okinawa International University, August 13, 2004. Photo by Ginowan City

The post–Cold War reorganization called for Japan to move from being a dependent and semi-sovereign state to become a full zokkoku or “client state.”18 For the most part, clientelism and the Japanese state priority to military ties to the United States could be ignored by people in mainland Japan because it impinged little on their everyday lives; but in Okinawa it weighed heavily and was felt intolerable. While protest elsewhere was scattered and easily contained, in Okinawa it grew steadily. Okinawans were also able to see what mainlanders only rarely could: that the US insistence on Japan’s submission and support for its hegemonic order rose even as US credibility shrank on all fronts: economic, political, and especially—with the launch in the early twenty-first century of illegal, aggressive wars and the adoption of tactics such as torture and assassination—moral.

Today, as in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the old order is again breaking down. The global coalition of US-led, militarized, and alliance-supported neoliberal states confront uneasily the crumbling of an order that once they believed to be unshakable. For Okinawa, geopolitical and economic flux constitutes threat and opportunity: to be swallowed again into an exploited and manipulated status, or to assert a distinctive role as a historical actor. Alternately “in” and “out” of Japan over four centuries, and an integral member of the China-centered “tribute world” for a similar period before that (and partly coinciding with it), Okinawans sense the opportunity encased in the present crisis: to formulate a way beyond nation-states and military blocs and to reconstitute itself at the center of the process of evolution of an East Asian or Northeast Asian community, as a bridge linking Japan, China, Korea, and the Asia-Pacific.


Okinawans tend to look back and see the four hundred years of their troubled premodern and modern history in terms of successive shobun, or “disposals,” by superior, external forces depriving them of their subjectivity, with militarism their peculiar bane—under Satsuma from 1609, the modern Japanese state from 1879 to 1945, direct US military rule from 1945 to 1972, and nominal Japanese rule after 1972. Though helpless to avoid or resist past disposals, from 1996 the balance shifted. Okinawa gradually has come to play a major, if rarely acknowledged, role in the regional and global system. It became a state of resistance.

Nothing in its historical circumstances or long record of being victimized can account for what today has become Okinawa’s most distinctive feature: its deep-rooted, sustained resistance. Almost in proportion to the denial of their aspirations and their autonomy, Okinawans challenge not only their own island’s fate but also the pillars on which the Japanese “client state” and the US-imposed regional and global order itself rests. This book is an attempt to elucidate the process by which disposal, oppression, and alienation become resistance.

The contest over the Marine Corps base at Futenma and the plan to replace it, commonly represented as a struggle over the question of construction of a single base, is therefore much more. It pits the Okinawan community against the nation-states of both Japan and the United States. We believe that Okinawa as of 2012, fiercely insisting on the constitutional principle of popular sovereignty (shuken zaimin), astonishingly holds the advantage. It deserves to be understood in the context of the global democratic movements of the early twenty-first century.

(Struggle between government survey ship and protesters in canoes, November 2004. Photo by Toyozato Tomoyuki)

As the Japanese nation-state replicated its own dependence on the United States in the regional order it imposed within Japan, it evolved mechanisms by which to distribute largesse to buy off opposition and win consent. The state design was one in which Okinawa was to be locked into dependence by several conditions: first because it was seen (and saw itself) to be backward in that its per capita GDP and other economic indexes were below the rest of Japan, so that it therefore had to “catch up”; and second because “development” funds were seen by state bureaucrats as the best device to foster the sort of mendicant mentality in which the anti-base and environmental movements would lose momentum. “Development” therefore tended to be concentrated on infrastructural public works projects that often were economically retrogressive, ecologically damaging, and debt and dependence building (the same strategy that was followed by the state in order to impose nuclear power on reluctant local communities elsewhere in Japan). Nature came to be seen as something to be “fixed” (by seibi) in a process that had virtually no limit, with the result that the natural environment was subject to siege, even as public works–led doken kokka (construction state) development came to be discredited elsewhere in Japan. 19

Today no spectacle is sadder to the regular visitor to Okinawa than to see, in the north, the steady pressure designed to impose a huge new military complex on the quasi-pristine waters and reef of Oura Bay (and associated helipads throughout the Yambaru forest), and in the south, the gradual reclamation of the Awase tidal wetlands (Okinawa’s “rain forest”) to create an artificial beach.20 Base-dependent development replicated two decades later than mainland Japan the worst features of the construction state,” with devastating consequences for the prefecture’s economy and ecology. In 2010, however, the people of Nago City demonstrated that they had seen through this manipulative device and decisively rejected it.

In the centuries before 1609, Okinawa’s smallness of scale and its relative geographic isolation from major powers were its strengths. After 1609, in the Westphalian era of nation-states contesting and prevailing by force, they became its weaknesses. The Japanese nation-state (and its American patron) continue today to see Okinawa’s location as crucial for the defense of “Japan proper” and for the regional and global projection of military force to advance their interests. Okinawans know from their history that armies do not defend people and that security in real terms depends on the forging of close, friendly, and cooperative ties with neighbor countries. To attain such security, Okinawa’s “war preparation” functions designed to secure American power throughout the Asia-Pacific have to be converted into “peace-building” functions. Okinawa’s geographical location and multicultural history suit it well to serve in the future as a peace center, a Sino-Japanese bridge, and an obvious candidate to house some of the core institutions of a Northeast Asian concert of states, as an Asian Luxemberg or Brussels.

So in a sense this is a book about relations between two great and powerful countries from the perspective of a relatively remote and peripheral region and within that region an even more remote village and bay. We believe that much is to be learned by shifting the focus away from the capitals and the centers of state power in this way. Beyond the immediate issues of the future of Okinawa, Henoko, and Oura Bay, the struggles under way highlight some large questions: if, as seems the case, the Japanese constitution’s guarantees of popular sovereignty, basic human rights, and peace do not apply to Okinawa, what does that mean for the rest of the country?21 In the context of relations between major states, especially those in “alliance” relationships, how should the confrontation centered on the Okinawan base issue that occurred between the United States and Japan in 2009–2010, in which abuse and intimidation led to the fall of a government, be understood? And through the lens of Japanese history, what does it mean that an entire prefecture unites, as does Okinawa today, in saying “no” to the central state authorities and the world’s military colossus? Can that incompatibility be resolved within the existing state system, or is Okinawa headed toward semi- or even full detachment from the Japanese state?

These are all matters of large import not only for scholars specializing in modern Japan, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific but for concerned citizens everywhere. We make no claim to have resolved them in this book, but we hope we have provided enough material for readers to make better-informed judgments about them.

Above all, this is a story of the process by which, for the first time in Japan’s history, grassroots democratic forces seized the initiative and over a sustained period became the key subject in determining the course of history. That struggle is of far-reaching significance. Their immediate message to the governments of Japan and the United States is simple: “No!” to the new base project. But it is a negative that holds within it a positive vision of a different future, a message addressed to all its surrounding countries, not just Japan and the United States. And to which the “nuchi du takara” principle is central.

Gavan McCormack is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and author of a number of studies of modern and contemporary East Asia. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne (law) and University of London (Chinese), with a PhD from University of London in 1974. He has been a regular visitor to Japan over half a century since 1962 and has been a visiting professor at a number of Japanese universities. His most recent book, Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (2007), was translated and published in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.

Satoko Oka Norimatsu is director of the Peace Philosophy Centre (, based in Vancouver, Canada. She is a graduate of Keio University (BA in literature, 1990) and the University of British Columbia (MBA, 2001). After teaching at UBC Centre for Intercultural Communication, she established her peace education organization in 2007. She writes, speaks, and teaches on issues such as the US military bases in Okinawa and the WWII history and memory, and coordinates peace study tours, including an annual North American and Japanese students’ trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Twitter: @PeacePhilosophy; Facebook: Peace Philosophy Centre)

Both authors are coordinators of the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, which in 2008 was awarded the Inaugural Ikemiyagi Shui Prize (by the Okinawan daily Ryukyu Shimpo) for the dissemination of issues surrounding Okinawa to the world.

Recommended citation: Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu,”Ryukyu/Okinawa, From Disposal to Resistance,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 38, No. 1, September 17, 2012.

Articles on related topics

Gavan McCormack, Troubled Seas: Japan’s Pacific and East China Sea Domains (and Claims)
Carlyle A. Thayer, ASEAN’S Code of Conduct in the South China Sea: A Litmus Test for Community-Building?

Wani Yukio, Barren Senkaku Nationalism and China-Japan Conflict

Gavan McCormack, Mage – Japan’s Island Beyond the Reach of the Law

Gavan McCormack, Small Islands – Big Problem: Senkaku/Diaoyu and the Weight of History and Geography in China-Japan Relations

Wada Haruki, Resolving the China-Japan Conflict Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Peter Lee, High Stakes Gamble as Japan, China and the U.S. Spar in the East and South China Sea

Tanaka Sakai, Rekindling China-Japan Conflict: The Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands Clash

Koji Taira, The China-Japan Clash Over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands


1 Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawa, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni. Christopher Moseley (ed.), Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. 3rd ed. (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2010), link.

2 United Nations Human Rights Committee, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (Geneva: United Nations, 2008).

3 The Ryukyu resistance was overwhelmed by superior force, especially forearms. Gregory Smits, “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (September 13, 2010), After the initial hostilities and surrender, resistance ceased, but one prominent member of the Ryukyu nobility, Jana Teido (a.k.a. Jana Uekata Rizan) (1549–1611), was summarily executed in Kagoshima because of his refusal to swear allegiance to the new Satsuma overlord.

4 Nishizato Kiko, “Higashi Ajia shi ni okeru Ryukyu shobun,” Keizaishi Kenkyu, no. 13 (February 2010): 74.

5 J. Morrow, “Observations on the Agriculture, Etc, of Lew Chew,” in Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy (Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1856), 15; and D. S. Green, “Report on the Medical Topography and Agriculture of the Island of Great Lew Chew,” in Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy (Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1856), 26, 36.

6 Li Hongzhang, quoted in Nishizato, “Higashi Ajia,” 99.

7 One Ryukyuan scholar-official, Rin Seiko (1842–1880), who had been active in the “Salvation Movement,” sought refuge in Beijing in 1876 and committed suicide there in despair and protest at the new order in 1880.

8 Hideaki Uemura, “The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an Indigenous People,” Japanese Studies 23, no. 2 (September 2003): 107–124: 122.

9 Nishizato, “Higashi Ajia,” 107–8.

10 Ishii Akira, “Chugoku no Ryukyu/Okinawa seisaku: Ryukyu/Okinawa no kizoku mondai o chushin ni,” Kyokai Kenkyu no. 1 (2010): 73.

11 Ueki, a prominent figure in the “Liberty and People’s Rights Movement” in Japan of the 1880s, and Guo Songtao, an official and prominent member of the Chinese “Self-Strengthening Movement” in the 1870s, both favored independence for Ryukyu/Okinawa.

12 Hawaiian king, King Kalakaua, visiting China in 1880 or 1881, expressed a desire to mediate a Sino-Japanese agreement on Ryukyu/Okinawa, in the context of promoting Asian unity, resisting European-American pressure and promoting Asia’s rise (Nishizato, “Higashi Ajia,” 120).

13 Nishizato, “Higashi Ajia,” 120.

14 “Proclamation No. 1 (The Nimitz Proclamation), 5 April 1945,” Gekkan Okinawa Sha, Laws and Regulations during the U.S. Administration of Okinawa, 1945–1972 (Naha: Ikemiya Shokai, 1983), 38.

15 “Navy Military Government Proclamation No. 1-A, 26 November 1945,” Gekkan Okinawa Sha, Laws and Regulations, 41–42.

16 For the former, the emperor’s view as stated just three days after the new constitution came into force on May 3, 1947, Toyoshita Narahiko, Anpo joyaku no seiritsu: Yoshida gaiko to tenno Gaiko (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1996), 144, and Toyoshita interviewed in Narusawa Muneo, “Showa tenno to Anpo joyaku,” Shukan Kinyobi (May 1, 2009): 11–17; for the latter, Shindo Eiichi, “Bunkatsu sareta ryodo,” Sekai (April 1979): 45–50. (The “emperor’s letter” discussed in the latter was penned by Hirohito’s aide, Terasaki Hidenari, but emanated from the emperor.)

17 Arasaki Moriteru, Okinawa gendaishi, 2nd ed. (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2005), 34.

18 See Gavan McCormack, Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (New York: Verso, 2007).

19 For further discussion, see Gavan McCormack, “Okinawa and the Structure of Dependence,” in Japan and Okinawa: Structure and Subjectivity, ed. Glenn D. Hook and Richard Siddle (London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

20 According to Okinawa University’s Sakurai Kunitoshi, Okinawa has thirty-eight artificial beaches and is planning ten more while its natural ones shrink. Sakurai Kunitoshi, “COP 10 igo no Okinawa,” in Okinawa wa doko e mukau no ka (Okinawa University, December 19, 2010).

21 Editorial, “Okinawa no min-i—Kennai isetsu ‘No’ ga senmei da shusho wa omoku uketome eidan o,” Ryukyu Shimpo, November 3, 2009.

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Volume 10 | Issue 38 | Number 1

Article ID 3828

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