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Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

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Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.

I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?

This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.

Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that

It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1

Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.

Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?

A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”

The Ryukyu Islands, on a map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.

Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.

But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.

Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.

For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.

But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.

1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.

2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.

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