Last Friday, the Ryūkyū Shimpō published an article by Aragaki Tsuyoshi on the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Amity between the United States and the Kingdom of Ryūkyū. Much thanks to Fija Byron for sharing it on his blog; ippee nifee deebiru, Fija shinshii. Here is my rough translation; my apologies for any mistakes or imprecise translations. Links are my own.
Today, 160 years since the signing of the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity
The Overthrow of Ryūkyū was Illegal under International Law
Still Today, Investigation into a Return to Sovereignty is Possible
Regarding the forced annexation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom by the Japanese government in 1879, an event known as the “Ryūkyū shobun,” scholars of international law have expressed an opinion that, as Ryūkyū had treaties of amity with the United States and two other countries, this annexation clearly was illegal under international law. Based on the fact of the treaties, the researchers point out that “Ryūkyū was independent under international law, and was not a part of Japan.” That soldiers and police surrounded Shuri Castle and captured the king, Shō Tai, as part of the “establishment of Okinawa prefecture,” constituted the act of “coercion of the representative of [another] State,” which was prohibited under the conventions of international law of the time. Taking the 51st article of the Treaty of Vienna, which codifed customary law, as a basis, they expressed the perspective that a demand could be made to retroactively acknowledge that sovereignty equals the guarantee of rights of self-determination.
[According to the wording provided on the Organization of American States’ website, article 51 of the 1969 Treaty of Vienna states, “The expression of a State's consent to be bound by a treaty which has been procured by the coercion of its representative through acts or threats directed against him shall be without any legal effect.”]
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not Deny
In response to the opinion offered by these researchers touching upon international law, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated “regarding the meaning of the ‘Ryūkyū shobun,’ there are many opinions. There is not recognition of an established definition. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is difficult to say anything definite,” not denying the researchers’ assertions. They answered the Ryūkyū Shimpō’s question in writing.
This July 11 marks 160 years since the signing of the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity in July 1854. Ryūkyū signed similar treaties with France in 1854, and with Holland in 1859. The opinion that, touching upon these three treaties, the Ryūkyū Shobun was clearly in violation of international law, could become something used to support a re-energized debate over self-determination in Okinawa.
The researchers who expressed this opinion were Prof. Uemura Hideaki of Keisen University, and Prof. Abe Kōki of Kanagawa University, chair of the International Human Rights Law Association. They responded for this article.
Prof. Uemura points out “the Ryūkyū Shobun was in violation of article 51 of the Treaty of Vienna.” He emphasized that after depriving Okinawa of its sovereignty, the colonialist rule over Okinawa, the land war between Japan and the United States that the local people got caught up in, the annexation by the United States, the problem of US military bases even after the reversion to Japanese control, as well as responsibility for many other various infringements or violations of rights, the Japanese and American governments can be pressed, questioned, based on Article 51.
Furthermore, considering the meaning of the word “amity” [friendship] in the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity, “we can also question the responsibility of the United States for silently permitting the Japanese government’s illegal annexation of Ryūkyū, demand an apology, and demand the establishment of a US-Ryūkyū committee aimed at resolving the military bases issue,” he said.
In fact, an official apology was already issued in 1993 by President Clinton and the US Congress at that time, acknowledging the illegality under international law of the US takeover of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi one hundred years earlier, in 1893, after Native Hawaiians pursued that issue based on the fact that the Hawaiian Kingdom had signed treaties with the United States and several European powers.
Abe pointed out that “there is a possibility that Japan annexed Ryūkyū unjustly, without a basis in legality under international law.”
In truth, I have no idea whether this is the first time that someone has made such an argument; that is to say, I have no idea how significant this news is. To be sure, I am doubtful that anything much will come of it, especially since the argument, in my humble opinion, seems quite weak. I am in no way an expert in law, let alone international law, but for what it’s worth, it seems to me that a 1969 Treaty claiming to codify customary law of the vague recent (or not quite so recent) past is really nothing like pointing to treaties or laws of the time, as explicitly codified at the time. For example, in the case of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, it is my understanding, though this may be incorrect, that very explicitly at that time, it was already established in US law that the US could not annex foreign territory unilaterally by an act of Congress, but required a treaty or some other arrangement in which the foreign territory, in this case Hawaiʻi, formally surrendered its sovereignty. And furthermore, that there might be something in the US Constitution (though I don’t know which Article or section specifically) which might explicitly render what was done to Hawaiʻi illegal. In any case, the point is, pointing to a 1969 Treaty makes for a weaker argument than pointing to the letter of the law as it explicitly stood in 1879.
Besides, given the numerable complex and very real obstacles to a return to sovereignty, just on a very practical level, not to mention that polls continue to show that the majority of people living in Okinawa support remaining part of Japan, I imagine it quite unlikely this really marks the beginning of any real significant change. Even so, I’m excited to see this published simply because it adds to the visibility of the issue, and might possibly stimulate revived or expanded discussion. Or, at the very least, if absolutely nothing else, it gets people thinking for a moment about history that goes further back than just a few decades ago.