Thursday, April 07, 2016

Indigenous Okinawans

My column for the Guam Daily Post about my most recent visit to Okinawa. There were some serious questions about the nature of Okinawan struggle for decolonization and their place in the global order as a people that were being discussed. I got to participate as much as I could in these talks, all adding more content to my research on their independence movement.

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“The Indigenous Idea”
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Guam Daily Post
March 16, 2016

Over the weekend I attended a symposium at Okinawa International University on the topic of whether or not the Okinawan people are “indigenous.” For some, this may seem like a strange question, as on the surface Okinawans seem to simply be Japanese. They look like Japanese, sound like Japanese, how could they be indigenous?

A few decades ago, the idea of even considering Okinawans to be indigenous would have ranged from being ludicrous to heretical. This was due to a long period of coercive assimilation where Okinawans and also Ainu to the north, were forced to become more Japanese, in ways ranging from giving up certain cultural practices, silencing their languages and even changing their last names to make them sound more appropriately Japanese. Because of this Okinawans were encouraged to forget their past prior to being colonized by the Japanese, and just think of their cultural differences as being the things that made them inferior, and needed to be hidden or forgotten.

In the 20th century, due to discontent over their mistreatment during World War II, the attacks on their language and culture and the oppressive amount of US facilities in their islands, Okinawans began to remember their past in new and sometimes radical ways. A pride in their identity, an awareness over their difference with most Japanese was obvious, had always been present, but now their anger over their historical treatment by the US and Japanese has fueled the development of new political identities.

Last year Governor Onaga of Okinawa travelled to the United Nations to give a short speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He spoke out against the treatment of Okinawans by Japan and specifically criticized the expansion of a US base Henoko in Northern Okinawa,that would require the destruction of beautiful coral reefs. He vowed to use any legal means to obstruct or halt the expansion of that base. He highlighted the centrality of land to his protest stating, “After World War II, the US military took our land by force and constructed military bases in Okinawa. We have never provided our land willingly.” The criticism over the base issue was expected, but Onaga surprised many by referencing self-determination as well. He said, “Our right to self-determination and human rights have been neglected.”

The mention of self-determination moves the terrain of discussion towards issues of colonization and decolonization. In this new context, Okinawa is not just a prefecture of Japan nor is it simply just a prefecture of Japan that has a history of not being treated fairly by the rest of the country. In that context, Okinawa is contested territory. It is a nation stolen, where the people were colonized, remain colonized and therefore have the right to be decolonized. To make things more interesting, Onaga’s presence before the Human Rights Council came through the intervention of Shimin Gaikou Center (Citizens’ Diplomatic Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Onaga’s speech stirred a debate in Okinawa over issues of self-determination and more specifically the possibly indigenous status of Okinawans. Some resisted the notion of being indigenous, as the term conjured up images of naked brown people on small islands or in isolated jungle villages. Others railed against the idea because of the way it reminded them of the colonial difference between them and mainland Japanese. These Okinawans were trapped by assimilationist desires. Even if they were cognizant of their terrible historical and contemporary treatment by the Japanese, they were still caught in a desire to prove themselves to be good colonial subjects and imagine themselves to be just another part of the Japanese national family. A group of local elected officials even went so far as to put out public statements denying any indigenous status to the Okinawan people and asserting themselves as good Japanese instead.

The symposium was in response to this discussion, as not all Okinawans resisted the indigenous idea, some, especially those who are critical of the current relationship between Japan and Okinawa, found it appealing. They were intrigued by it since it allowed them to view their situation beyond being just a mistreated minority, which given their history of colonization and displacement, never quite fit. If Okinawans consider themselves to be indigenous, culturally or politically their entire worldview shifts.

In the process of decolonization, one of the first steps can be to resist the idea of being a minority, as such a status subsumes you completely within your colonizer’s nation. Your history, culture and even your mistreatment all end up belonging to the colonizer, feeding power into it, and cutting you off from your past and your sovereignty.

If Okinawans are a minority, the historical crimes that Japan has committed against them become the litany of past wrongs that have now been overcome and are best forgotten. The past discrimination becomes something to show how much better and more tolerant Japan is now. If Okinawans are a minority, their language becomes just a dialect of Japan and their culture becomes a variation of Japanese traditions, a series of prefectural or regional differences. Okinawans are just one thread in the tapestry of Japan’s overall beauty. If Okinawans are a minority, their suffering today, the burden of having so many US bases in their island is also reduced. As Japan is such a tolerant and good nation, the bases are the sacrifice, the price that Okinawans have to pay to belong to such a great country.

In my speech at the symposium I encouraged Okinawans to explore the possibilities of seeing themselves as indigenous, and take on the project of remembering their indigenous pasts and creating their indigenous present. To do so, would give them the chance to break away, to redraw the boundaries around themselves and Japan, to where they see their rights, their language, their culture and their lands in a different way, as no longer belonging to Japan or depending upon Japan.

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