In June 1873, Japanese Foreign Minister Soejima Taneomi and Yanagihara Sakimitsu (Japanese Diplomatic Minister in China) met with Chinese officials to discuss, in part, an incident which occurred in late 1871, in which a number of people from the Miyako Islands (in the Ryukyus) were shipwrecked in Taiwan and killed by Taiwanese aborigines. Because of the complex relationships between China and Japan, and Taiwan and the Ryukyus, this incident, and the events which it spurred, allow us a fascinating glimpse into conceptions of international relations at this time; in a journal article entitled “The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an ‘Indigenous People’ in East Asia,”1 Uemura Hideaki walks us through the discussions between the two countries, some of the actions taken by each side, and most importantly the conceptions of international order which guided both countries in their actions in this dispute.
When Yanagihara brought up the subject of the 1871 incident in that 1873 meeting, Foreign Minister Mao Changxi responded that the Taiwanese aborigines were beyond the control of the Qing government, and that those killed were Ryukyuans and not Japanese, and that therefore China owes Japan nothing. Furthermore, he asserted, Ryûkyû “belongs” to China. Now, it’s true that the Ryûkyû Kingdom had been paying tribute to China since 13722, but it is also true that Ryûkyû was considered a vassal by the Japanese samurai domain of Satsuma, and had been under Satsuma’s control in various ways since 1609 – its foreign relations circumscribed by Satsuma authorities; taxation and tribute payments; tribute missions sent to the shogunal capital of Edo; etc. Satsuma would assert that Ryûkyû had been subordinate to Satsuma since the early 13th century, when a governor of Satsuma was first named “Lord of the Twelve Southern Islands,” but in fact Satsuma exerted no direct control whatsoever over Ryûkyû, nor received any tribute or taxes, until after 1609.
Returning to the point, Uemura helps us, perhaps, begin to understand what was meant by the assertion of Ryûkyû “belonging” to China, by providing us some other comparative examples. Yanagihara had asked at that same meeting about China’s relationship to Macao, to which Foreign Minister Mao responded that Macao had been “lent” to the Portuguese and not given back. In other words, Macao “was under effective [Portuguese] rule, but authority and territorial rights lay with China” (Uemura 110). As Uemura points out, this way of thinking, that a given territory is irrevocably a rightful part of a country’s territory, no matter how it was taken away or who rules it, is not dissimilar to current Japanese attitudes about the so-called “Northern Territories” – the islands of Sakhalin and the Kuriles, governed by Russia but claimed by Japan.
It gets even more interesting. When questioned by representatives of the US, Chinese officials stated that “Korea belonged to China, but that it did not participate in domestic administration … that Korea paid tribute to China, but China did not participate in Korea’s ‘rights to war and peace.'” (Uemura 110).
Attempting to apply the Western international law concept of terra nullius within the East Asian system, the Japanese, who had been introduced to the concept by American policy advisors, argued that Taiwan, or at least those sections of it dominated by aborigines and outside of the ”de facto” effective control of Qing administration, was kegai (化外), or “outside of the realm.” The Chinese, despite having admitted that they did not have effective control over those areas, rejected the idea that these areas were terra nullius and free for the taking (by Japan). Employing the traditional concepts of tributary relations, China asserted that all of Taiwan, including the aboriginal areas, were 属地 (J: zokuchi), meaning vassal or dependency lands.
We see a clash again between the traditional Japanese and “modern” Western concepts in Japan’s justifications for annexing the territory of the Ryûkyû Kingdom in 1872 as, at this time, for a brief period, “Ryûkyû han” 琉球藩. International law would have stated that claims to historical territoriality, i.e. that Ryûkyû is somehow inherently part of Japan as always has been, would have to be backed up by proof that the Japanese had been exercising effective rule in Ryûkyû, and/or that the Ryukyuans themselves considered themselves to be Japanese subjects. Neither of these was really the case in the eyes of whichever Western policy experts might have been watching, but in the Japanese view, Ryûkyû’s status as a subordinate/vassal/dependency state, a ”zokkoku”, meant that it fell under “effective Japanese rule.”
I don’t have any full answers here, and I know it feels weird to just end it here. But, basically, I just wanted to share a few bits that I found in this article, glimpses at the terminology employed at this time, and how traditional East Asian concepts and “modern”/Western concepts of international relations and international law interacted. I may come across more and incorporate it into this post later…
(1) Uemura Hideaki. “The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an ‘Indigenous People’ in East Asia.” Japanese Studies 23:2 (2003). pp107-124.
(2) From 1372 until the 1420s, it was the separate Okinawan kingdoms of Nanzan, Hokuzan, and Chûzan which sent tribute. Chûzan conquered the other two in the 1420s, establishing the so-called “Ryûkyû Kingdom,” and continued sending tribute.