This is the first installment of a four-part series that I will be writing for CULTURE Society about the island prefecture of Okinawa, Japan. The Indigenous population of the island, the Ryukyu people, have faced oppression and violence at the hands of imperial powers for hundreds of years. Before we can talk about the long history of violations, it is important that we set the historical context and see how we have arrived at the current situation there. In this first installment, I go over the history of the relationship between Okinawa, Japan, and the United States.
Okinawa was officially integrated as a prefecture of Japan in 1879, but its history with the Japanese began long before it officially became part of the nation. Japan and Okinawa’s sociopolitical relationship began in 1609 when the Satsuma Domain, a powerful group during Japan’s Edo Period, conquered the island. During this same period, China, in addition to Japan, was a competing imperial power looking to establish dominance in the East Asian Pacific, thus, Okinawa was placed into a “triangular relationship with China and Japan.” (Hook & Siddle 2003). This triangular relationship would characterize the socioeconomic and political structure of Okinawa for centuries.
Japan and China constantly competed for control of the Asian Pacific, and the Japanese Empire often found itself playing catch up. This led to Japanese overreach when it came to their imperial ambitions, and their policy in the region was characterized by intense aggression with goals of aggrandizement of the empire.
While the triangle would remain a constant, the members of the vertices would not. Okinawa was officially integrated as a prefecture of Japan in 1879. Shortly after this, the Chinese influence would begin to be diminished as Japan and China were often in direct conflict in the pacific. The Japanese empire would gain control of the island of Taiwan in 1895 through the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The acquisition of Taiwan as a Japanese imperial colony would establish Taiwan as the new vertex of the triangle relationship with Japan and Okinawa. The Japanese Empire was able to completely control the Indigenous population of many peoples of the Asian Pacific. As written by Hook and Siddle, “This Policy subordinating the Ryukyus within Japanese political and economic, if not cultural, space, was part of the historical development of Japan as a sub imperial power in East Asia.”
This iteration of the triangle stayed in place until World War Two. Toward the tail end of the war, the United States launched a successful amphibious invasion of the Okinawan mainland. This was in April of 1945, only five months before the atomic bombs were dropped ending the war completely. This invasion was extremely disruptive to the indigenous population and displaced thousands of Okinawan people. (Kirk, 1997)
1945 is the year that the United States assumed its current role as the third vertex of the triangle relationship. The official military occupation of Okinawa “ended” in 1972 but the Americans never left or demilitarized the island. Rather, they expanded and built numerous bases, making Okinawa home to the highest concentration of foreign United States bases in the world. More than 60% of the United States’ military bases in Japan are located on Okinawa, and they cover about a quarter of the island’s landmass. (Hook and Siddle, 2003) This continued occupation of the United States, and economic and political control of Japan, has put Okinawa into a tripartite economy based on three main factors: bases (kichi), public works (kōkyō kōji), and tourism (kankō). The United States controls Okinawa with bases to expand their sphere of influence in the Asian Pacific, and Japan champions the island as a wonderful vacation and tourist destination. This leaves the Ryukyu people in a constant state of control as the legacies and modern iterations of western imperialism control their socio-economic and political climate.
Today, it is clear that the Ryukyu people and other Okinawan residents do not approve of the presence of the United States military. This is mainly due to the continued harmful effects of constant base construction on the environment, and the criminal actions of some U.S. servicemen. For the people of Okinawa, the continued presence of the United States military has created a “pecking order” of oppression in the modern Japanese sphere of influence. The American presence applies pressure on the Japanese, and the Japanese in turn apply the same pressure on the Okinawans. (Shimabuku, 2012)
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the sociopolitical and economic climate in Okinawa. Check back next month for the second installment of this series where we’ll discuss some of the specific crimes that have plagued the island.
- Darren Heigel, CULTURE Society Incorporated