Image Above: Chinese investiture envoys (冊封使) arrive in Ryûkyû. Detail from a scroll painting by Yamaguchi Suiô. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.
I don’t know how new a development this is – there have probably been people here and there saying things all along – but in recent days it has become a lot more prominent in English-language news that some Chinese nationalists1 have been calling for Okinawan independence from Japan. Some have gone further, saying Okinawa should be “returned” to China, a truly absurd concept, but I’ll get to that. Of course, much of this comes out of pro-PRC nationalist fervor, anti-Japanese sentiment, and a desire to further the PRC’s national interests. There may be Chinese citizens with a genuine sympathy for the Okinawan people, and an interest in seeing Okinawan independence for the benefit of the Okinawan people, but I don’t think those are the Chinese we’re talking about here.
Chinese/Japanese sovereignty disputes over the Senkaku Islands (C: Diaoyu Islands) have heated up a bit recently, and it would seem that these ideas about Okinawa have come along with it. Many Chinese, it would seem, figure, as long as they’re pushing for Chinese claims to these tiny, insignificant islands that happen to be surrounded by great fishing waters and underwater natural gas deposits, they might as well push further, to argue Chinese claims for the whole Ryukyu Islands chain as well.
I should point out that, in the words of the Financial Times of London, “the Chinese government has offered no [formal/official] endorsement of such radical views.” This is all just individual nationalists expressing their own personal views, not, as yet, anything representing the official position or attitude of the Chinese government (except, of course, insofar as that the government determines the curriculum, and through that citizens learn a twisted version of history, and then speak or act upon the attitudes and understandings obtained through that education). Yet, these do include military officers and government officials, not just random people on the streets.
A week ago, RocketNews24, a sort of aggregator site of Japanese news translated into English, reported on comments made by one particular Chinese officer, a Major General Jin Yinan. Jin speaks of “China’s rightful ownership of all Okinawa too.” What exactly his logic is, is left unclear, but one can easily imagine that he is not alone in holding these opinions. He is not quoted in this article as going so far as to say anything about former Chinese direct control over the Ryûkyû Islands (which China, in fact, never exercised or claimed to), nor even explicitly saying anything about the tributary relationship between the Ryûkyû Kingdom and Imperial China. However, he notes that when Japan formally annexed Okinawa and abolished the Kingdom in 1879, “they threw out all links to China like the Qing Dynasty [dating system] and the Chinese writing style.” These two points are true, as this event severed Okinawa’s tributary relations to Qing China, and with no Ryukyuan king any longer, ended the tradition of the Ryukyuan King being formally invested by the Chinese Emperor. All of Japan, including Okinawa, was now under the Western calendar (albeit with Japanese imperial year).2 With the kingdom abolished, the bureaucracy of the royal government went with it, along with the scholar-aristocrat-bureaucrat class, steeped in the Confucian Classics and models of Chinese government, which ran it. It makes sense that writing in Chinese would have severely declined in Okinawa at this time, though I don’t recall reading anything explicitly discussing the matter; as the scholar-aristocrat class was abolished, they all became equal “citizens” with all the former peasants/commoners, and as the nationwide Japanese national education system was put into place in Okinawa, everyone would have begun writing more exclusively in Japanese.
But, getting to the point, the idea of Chinese historical claims to Ryûkyû is essentially absurd. China never landed troops in the Ryûkyûs, never deployed Chinese bureaucrats/administrators to administer the islands as a colony or a province, but only received tribute from a kingdom that paid ritual obeisance to the symbolic authority of the Chinese Emperor. Even in the 1870s-80s, the pro-China faction in Okinawa was never arguing that the Kingdom “belonged” in any way to China, or that they wanted to be annexed by China, but only that they wished to be allowed to continue their traditional tributary relationship. I’m not positive exactly what kind of rhetoric was used at the time by the Chinese, though, who might in fact have claimed back then as well that the Ryukyus “belonged” to China.
Not that I am saying that the samurai domain of Satsuma in 1609, or the Empire of Japan in 1879, were morally or ethically in the right to do what they did, in 1609 militarily invading Ryûkyû and subordinating it to Satsuma’s authority (controlling the kingdom’s foreign relations, demanding taxes, etc.), and then in the 1870s abolishing the kingdom, annexing its lands, sending mainland Japanese administrators to govern the islands, and imposing various sorts of assimilation policies aimed at wiping out Ryukyuan identity, transforming the Ryukyuan people into homogeneous Japanese citizens. If we want to talk about formerly independent kingdoms that have been conquered, Japan has no more “right” to the Ryukyus than England has to Wales and Scotland, except by law of conquest. The Okinawans have been wronged by Japan, most certainly, historically, and if anyone were arguing for Okinawan independence on the merits of that Okinawa used to be independent, and should be again, for the rights and benefits of the Okinawan people, that would be one thing.
But, here we are talking about arguments made for Chinese national interests, and I don’t think that the interests of the Okinawan people really enter into it, in the arguments of these Chinese nationalists. The Financial Times of London reports on and discusses a more widespread, and varied, set of arguments, in an article entitled “Chinese Nationalists Eye Okinawa,” focusing not only on Major General Jin. (My thanks to Tobias Harris for pointing out this article to me.)
They quote one Japan specialist from a Ministry of Commerce think tank, a Mr. Tang, who says, “When I was in Japan, I didn’t even know that the Ryukyus were once ours.” This goes back to what I was saying above, about how China never actually owned or controlled or even claimed to administer or govern the Ryukyu Islands. It was merely a tributary relationship. Fortunately, the Financial Times is on top of things, and makes the counterpoint that needs to be made:
“Once you start arguing that a tributary relationship at some point in history is the basis for a sovereignty claim in the 20th century, you start worrying a lot of people,” says June Teufel Dreyer, a China and Japan specialist at the University of Miami. “Many, many countries had tributary relationships with China.”
Of course, in light of Chinese control of Tibet, Uyghur lands, and numerous other lands that historically belonged to other peoples, Chinese arguments that Japan has no “right” to Okinawa and should return it seem especially hypocritical. If Okinawa deserves independence based on the fact that it was independent prior to 1879, then what about Tibet, which was independent up until 1959?
(1) Not “Nationalists” as in the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang), who opposed the Communists in the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s-40s, and who fled to Taiwan in 1949, but ‘patriotic’ Communists expressing ‘nationalistic’ sentiments.
(2) Japan adopted the Western calendar in 1873. Gone were the days of “the 3rd lunar month, 13th day, day of the ox, hour of the rat [３月１３日丑・子の刻].” Now, when it was Tuesday January 15th, 1879 in London, or in New York, it was “the 12th year of Meiji, first month, 15th day, Tuesday [明治１２年正月１５日火曜日]” (Or 16th day, what with time zones and all that).