In Okinawa, Talk of Break From Japan Turns Serious
The New York Times
Chosuke Yara, the head of the Ryukyu Independence Party, last month. “Independence is an idea whose time has come,” he said.
In a windowless room in a corner of a bustling market where stalls
displayed severed pigs’ heads and bolts of kimono silk, Okinawans
gathered to learn about a political idea that until recently few had
dared to take seriously: declaring their island chain’s political
independence from Japan.
About two dozen people of all ages
listened as speakers challenged the official view of Okinawa as
inherently part of homogeneous Japan, arguing instead that Okinawans are
a different ethnic group whose once-independent tropical islands were
forcibly seized by Japan in 1879. Then, to lighten the mood, the
organizers showed “Sayonara, Japan!”, a comedy about a fictional
Okinawan island that becomes its own little republic.
now, you were mocked if you spoke of independence,” said one speaker,
Kobun Higa, 71, a retired journalist whose book on the history of the
tiny independence movement has become a hot seller online. “But
independence may be the only real way to free ourselves from the
Mr. Higa and other advocates admit that few
islanders would actually seek independence for Okinawa, the southernmost
Japanese island chain, which is home to 1.4 million residents and more
than half of the 50,000 American troops and sailors based in Japan. But
discontent with the heavy American presence and a growing perception
that the central government is ignoring Okinawans’ pleas to reduce it
have made an increasing number of islanders willing to at least flirt
publicly with the idea of breaking apart in a way that local politicians
and scholars say they have not seen in decades.
In May, a
newly formed group led by Okinawan university professors held a
symposium on independence that drew 250 people. A tiny political party
that advocates separation from Japan through peaceful means has been
revived after decades of dormancy, though its candidates have fared
poorly in recent elections. And on his blog, a member of Parliament from
Okinawa recently went so far as to post an entry titled “Okinawa, It’s
Finally Time for Independence From Yamato,” using the Okinawan word for
the rest of Japan.
“Before, independence was just something we
philosophized about over drinks,” said Masahide Ota, a former governor
of Okinawa, who is not a member of the movement.
“Now, it is being taken much more seriously.”
The independence movement remains nascent, with a few hundred active
adherents at most. But Mr. Ota and others say it still has the potential
to complicate Japan’s unfolding contest with China for influence in the
That struggle expanded recently to include what
appears to be a semiofficial campaign in China to question Japanese rule
of Okinawa. Some analysts see the campaign as a ploy to strengthen
China’s hand in a dispute over a smaller group of islands that has
captured international headlines in recent months. Some Chinese scholars
have called for exploiting the independence movement to say there are
splits even in Japan over the legitimate ownership of islands annexed
during Japan’s imperial expansion in the late 19th century, as Okinawa
and the smaller island group were.
Okinawa has long looked and
felt different from the rest of Japan, with the islands’ tropical
climate, vibrant musical culture and lower average incomes setting it
apart. Strategically situated in the center of East Asia, the islands,
once known as the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, have had a tortured history
with Japan since the takeover, including the forced suicides of Okinawan
civilians by Japanese troops during World War II and the imposition of
American bases after the war.
For years, Okinawans directed
much of their ire over the bases at the United States. But that changed
four years ago when the Japanese prime minister at the time, Yukio
Hatoyama, reneged on campaign pledges to move the bustling Marine air
base at Futenma off Okinawa, rather than to a less populated site on the
island as previous governments had approved. After that, many Okinawans
shifted much of their anger toward the rest of Japan, which wants the
United States military presence to offset China’s growing power, but is
unwilling to shoulder more of the burden of bases for fear of crime,
noise and accidents.
Local leaders and scholars say the last
time Okinawans spoke so openly of independence was during a period of
sometimes violent unrest against American control before the United
States ended its postwar occupation of the islands in 1972.
“There is a growing feeling that Okinawans just exchanged one colonial
master in Washington for another one in Tokyo,” said Shinako Oyakawa,
32, a doctoral student at the University of the Ryukyus and a co-founder
of Okinawan Studies 107, a group promoting research into Ryukyuan
Such discontent has helped nurture groups like
hers, which seek to promote the idea that the islanders form a distinct
ethnic group. It has also led to the creation of places like Ryukyu
Hall, a privately run school that opened last year and offers classes on
Okinawan language and culture.
On a recent weekend, about 30
people gathered at the school, a small, sparsely furnished two-story
building, to hear accounts in the Ryukyuan language by survivors of the
American invasion of Okinawa in 1945.
“Regaining our identity
is the first step toward regaining independence,” said Midori Teruya,
41, a co-founder of the school in Ginowan, the site of the Futenma air
The talk of independence has grown enough that it is
being heard in Tokyo, where some conservative newspapers have begun
calling the Okinawan independence activists “pawns” of China.
Whether or not the activists are pawns, there is certainly some
discussion in China about using the independence movement. Recently, an
editorial in The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, said China
could pressure Japan by “fostering forces in Okinawa that seek the
restoration of the independence of the Ryukyu chain.”
believe China is about to pursue ownership of Okinawa. But Japanese
analysts see the informal campaign as the latest gambit in China’s
attempts to take over the smaller group of islands, known as the Senkaku
in Japan and Diaoyu in China, by essentially warning that China could
expand its claims beyond those islands if Japan ignores its arguments.
“It will create problems for us if the Chinese government tries to use
this issue,” said Masaki Tomochi, a professor at Okinawa International
University who helped organize the symposium on independence in May.
Mr. Tomochi and other activists said that in the remote event that
Okinawa became independent, they felt little fear of a Chinese takeover
because the Ryukyus had held friendly ties with China for centuries
before the Japanese takeover.
Mr. Tomochi’s group is planning a
second symposium to present research on how Pacific island nations like
Palau could serve as a model for a future Ryukyu republic. The idea is
to try to overcome what he sees as the main challenge his movement
faces: winning over Okinawans who seem content with their Japanese-style
“People are talking independence now, but
how realistic is it?” asked Yoshinao Hiyane, 22, an economics major at
Okinawa International University. “My generation has grown up Japanese.”
At the movie screening in the market, independence supporters tried to
bolster the notion that their idea is more than a fantasy by handing out color-copied “currency” of a Ryukyu republic. They stood before a blue
banner with three stars that the organizer, Chosuke Yara, called its
“Recently, the interests of the Japanese people and the
Ryukyu people have clearly diverged,” said Mr. Yara, 61, the head of the
tiny Ryukyu Independence Party. “Independence is an idea whose time has