The Okinawa Problem: The Forgotten History of Japanese Colonialism and Ryukyuan Indigeneity

The Okinawa Problem: The Forgotten History of Japanese Colonialism and Ryukyuan Indigeneity

While most observers view the “Okinawa Problem” as one of U.S. military bases, it actually involves the colonial history of the Ryukyu islands and the violation of the Okinawans’ rights as an indigenous people.

On June 16, Okinawans gathered in a 65,000 strong protest rally demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. Marine Corps. Organized as a response to the murder of a 20-year Okinawan girl by a former U.S. marine officer, the rally presents the latest episode of the “Okinawa Problem.”

Okinawa hosts 74 percent of all U.S. military bases in Japan, although it only constitutes 0.6 percent of Japanese territory. Many Okinawans have been demanding the removal of these bases since the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American servicemen in 1995. Very few observers, however, realize the Okinawa Problem is not just about the military bases, but it takes into account of the colonial history of the Okinawans as an indigenous people.

Okinawans as Indigenous Peoples

According to international laws, “indigenous peoples” refer to those populations who experienced colonization and assimilation by external powers and as a result lost their native cultures, languages, land, and socio-political institutions. There are more than 370 million indigenous people living in the world today. The international community has created international laws and norms to protect the rights of those people, including rights to culture, education, land, development, and self-determination. Such instruments include the 1989 Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, No. 169 (ILO 169) and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Indigenous rights matter a great deal to Okinawans because they are indigenous peoples and the concentration of U.S. bases is one instance of violation of their indigenous rights. Okinawans, formerly known as the Ryukyuans, existed as the Ryukyu Kingdom since the 13th century until Meiji Japan forcefully annexed the island nation. Under the Japanese colonial rule and assimilation policy, the Ryukyuans lost their own culture, language, land, and political institutions. After WWII, they experienced rule by U.S. occupation force, losing their land to the building of American military facilities. Even after the 1972 reversion to mainland Japan, the Okinawans have still suffered from the continuing presence of the U.S. military as well as the loss of their native culture and language.

During the 1990s, Okinawan activists formed the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the Ryukyus (AIPR), and started participating in UN forums to demand the removal of American military bases and the preservation of Ryukyuan indigenous culture and language. Specifically, they claim that the continuing presence of American military bases violates the Okinawans’ rights to land and self-determination, because these bases are occupying their native land despite their political demand to remove them.

In response, UN bodies made several recommendations to the Japanese government that it recognize Okinawan indigeneity and protect their indigenous rights. In 2008, the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) called on Japan to recognize the Okinawans as an indigenous people. In 2009, the UNESCO recognized six Ryukyu languages as “endangered” or “severely endangered.” In 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) criticized the concentration of U.S. military bases as “contemporary forms of racism.” In 2014, the HRC and CERD issued further recommendations to Japan.

A Way Forward on the Okinawa Problem

Despite the international pressure, the Japanese government has yet to recognize the Okinawans’ indigenous rights, arguing that they are Japanese citizens, not indigenous peoples. This official stance is weak, to say the least.

The international community has made it clear that the Okinawans have indigenous rights. Moreover, the government voted in favor of the UNDRIP in 2007 and recognized the Ainu, another indigenous group in Hokkaido, as an indigenous people in 2008. There is little legal justification for Japan’s inaction on Okinawan indigenous rights. Instead, there is strong strategic motivation: national security. Given the rise of China and the Senkaku Island dispute, the maintenance of American military presence in Okinawa seems all the more important for Japan. The Japanese government may be thinking that the recognition of Okinawan indigenous rights would necessitate the reduction or removal of American military bases, which in turn could put Japan’s security at risk.

This view of the Okinawan Problem is short-sighted and narrow-minded, however. As many Okinawans continue the anti-base movement, it will become more and more difficult for the Japanese and U.S. governments to maintain the military bases without political struggles. The recent protest rally in June, and the loss of pro-base incumbents from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the July national election, attest to such difficulties that lie ahead.

Moreover, the Okinawa Problem is not only about Japan’s national security but also about its colonial history. Many countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, and Australia, have faced their past and made efforts to protect the rights of those indigenous peoples they once colonized. In comparison, Japan has a long way to go, with its official historical recognition and textbooks largely omitting its colonial legacy in Okinawa. “In the current education system, there is little opportunity for the Japanese to learn that the problem the Okinawans face is one of ethnicity and colonial history,” says Hideaki Uemura, Director of the Shimin Gaiko Center, a Tokyo-based human rights NGO that has been assisting the Okinawan indigenous activists.

In order to solve the Okinawa Problem, the country needs to not only rethink its national security but also revisit its national history.

Daisuke Minami is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University studying the security and identity issues in East Asia and was a past research assistant for the Rising Powers Initiative. He is a 2016 recipient of the Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research and conducted fieldwork on the indigenous rights movements in Hokkaido and Okinawa.