private apartment king

What is the meaning of Okinawa within the larger frame of East Asian politics, and why has it proved such a thorn in Tokyo’s and Washington’s sides? The island is the largest of the Ryukyu chain, a broken necklace of coral reefs and rugged, volcanic islets that curves for some 700 miles across the East China Sea, from just below the tip of Kyushu in the north to Yonaguni in the far south, from which on a clear day one can see Taiwan. The Ryukyus were settled by the same mix of seafaring peoples that populated the southern islands of Japan, and the languages have a common parent-stock. Okinawa itself is about 70 miles long, and rarely more than seven miles wide; it lies in the typhoon path, some 400 miles from the coast of China’s Fujian Province, 800 miles south of Tokyo, roughly on the latitude of the Florida Keys. Granite slopes, green with sub-tropical vegetation, rise from clear seas; there are spectacular natural anchorages. The soil is poor, and what little cultivable land there is yields a hard living. Yet for centuries the island thrived as a way-station for maritime trade along the eastern Pacific. Intrepid Okinawan mariners ventured down to Indo-China and up to the Yellow Sea.

Envoys from the Ming Emperor had first reached Okinawa in 1372, and actively encouraged the island’s trade. Ryukyuan leaders thenceforth participated in the rituals of the Chinese tribute system: travelling every two years to the Imperial court to make their kowtows, and be royally fêted in return, while taking advantage of the many opportunities for informal trading along the way. Tributary gifts were supposed to be native produce, but an exception was made for the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had so few resources of its own—sulphur, copper, shells—yet could offer such dazzling luxury imports. The warehouses in the harbour town of Naha stored rare timber, spices, incense, ivory and sugar from the Indies and beyond; swords, textiles, ceramics, Buddhist texts and bronzes from Korea or Japan to be shipped to China; brocades, medicinal herbs and minted coins going the other way.

The sailors brought stringed instruments and dances from Malacca and the Indies which the islanders adapted to their own legends. Ryukyuan masonry became a high art, the heavy local stone carved into sturdy yet graceful ramparts and bridges. Above the harbour, the palace complex of Shuri Castle commanded a panoramic view over the ocean and the distant islands. Its steep stone walls and ceremonial gateways enclosed lacquered reception halls, gardens, shrines and the private apartments of the king, his wives, courtiers and concubines. The leading English-language historian of the island, George Kerr, has described the sophisticated society created by a population of perhaps 100,000:

It was a toy state, with its dignified kings, its sententious and learned prime ministers, its councils and its numerous bureaus, its organization of temples and shrines and its classical school, its grades in court rank and its codes of law, all developed in an effort to emulate great China. [26]

The Ryukyu Kingdom’s trade with Japan—the only power in the region to defy Imperial China—was supervised on the Shogun’s behalf by the Daimyo of Satsuma in southern Kyushu. This involved a second set of tributary relations. In the 1590s, the King of Ryukyu politely declined to support Hideyoshi’s planned assault on Korea and China. As a reprimand, the Daimyo launched a hundred-strong armada of war junks against the island in 1609. His forces looted Shuri Castle and took King Sho Nei prisoner. The terms of his ransom were an annual tribute, amounting to nearly a quarter of the tiny kingdom’s revenue, to be paid in perpetuity to the daimyo of Satsuma. In addition he would henceforth control all the Ryukyu Kingdom’s overseas trade—and, after 1634, exploit it freely to circumvent the Tokugawa Shogunate’s seclusion edicts, which closed off trade to the rest of Japan. The Ryukyuans turned to Peking for help, but the enfeebled and embattled late Ming court felt neither obliged nor able to inconvenience itself for a subordinate state. [27] Ryukyuan merchant shipping declined, weakened not only by Japanese rake-offs and the disruptive effects of the Manchu take-over in China, but by European penetration of the East China Sea, bringing with it missionaries, guns and demands for trade.

By the early 1800s, Western interests—American, Russian, British, French—were converging on Japan, hoping to prise open its ports by diplomacy or force. The Ryukyu Kingdom was an obvious—and defenceless—launch pad for such an attack. In 1853 Commodore Perry dropped anchor in Naha, hoping to establish a military base. The White House thought it would be ‘inconvenient and expensive’ to maintain such an outpost, however, and the Commodore sailed on to Edo and a larger prize, having granted the little state recognition with the 1854 Ryukyu Kingom–United States Friendship Treaty. From Japan’s vantage point, too, securing Okinawa was the rational first step in a modernizing imperialist expansion that would soon encompass Formosa and Korea. Within five years of the Meiji Restoration, Tokyo had asserted its sovereignty over the Ryukyus and—through a show of arms on Formosa—extorted recognition of this from China. When Shuri demurred, a garrison force was dispatched to the island and a powerful Home Ministry bureau opened there. In 1879 the now-powerless Ryukyuan throne was abolished and an Okinawan Prefecture established, under the command of a Tokyo-appointed Governor. The deposed king was held under restraint in Tokyo until his death in 1902. [28]

Imperial rule brought a levelling down for Okinawans as the local aristocracy was displaced by arrogant officials from the north. Land reform in the early 1900s abolished the communal village-allocation system in favour of private ownership, creating tens of thousands of landless labourers. Sugar-cane plantations, run by a monopoly corporation whose principal shareholders were the Imperial Household and the Mitsui and Mitsubishi Companies, came to dominate the local economy. Japanese modes of dress and speech were made compulsory; state Shinto and the Emperor cult were imposed; portraits of the Emperor and Empress hung in every public building. Eventually, in 1920, Ryukyuan representation in the Diet was put on the same footing as that of the rest of the country. Okinawans suffered severely during the inter-war period and Great Depression, which has passed into memory as the time of sotetsu jigoku or cycad hell, when people were reduced to eating the fruit or bark of the cycad, a palm-like but toxic tree. They played little role, however, in the militarization drive of the 1930s or invasion of China in 1937. The minimum height and weight requirements for the Imperial forces were above the average for Ryukyuan males, and during the Second World War they were largely confined to the labour corps. [29]

Facing defeat, Hirohito ‘sacrificed’ Okinawa in a bid to preserve the Emperor System and the home islands, while treating for surrender terms. The Allied land assault was launched in April 1945: the ancient walls of Shuri Castle were subjected to continuous bombardment from air and sea for sixty days, while half a million US troops poured onto the island, five times the size of the defending force. To the Imperial Japanese Army, distraught Okinawans were either a nuisance—competing for scarce resources, hindering troop movements—or a threat, suspected of spying because of the incomprehensible dialect they spoke. In the most extreme cases, grenades were distributed and the people were called upon to sacrifice themselves in ‘collective suicides’. At the same time, many trying to hide in the island’s caves were incinerated by American flame-throwers. More than 200,000 people, half of them civilians, died in the rain of fire and steel. After the cynical nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had secured an already prostrate Japan’s unconditional surrender, Okinawa became ‘an immense, neglected military dump’:

Towns and villages were rubble heaps; tens of thousands lived in caves, tombs, lean-to shacks, or relief camps … Farmers became air-base labourers; fishermen became truck-drivers; the old aristocracy disappeared. Cast-off GI clothing, American soft drinks, cigarettes and canned goods supplied a new luxury trade for a totally impoverished people. [30]

The memory of 1945 is seared into Okinawan identity and has shaped responses to the security agenda foisted upon the island ever since. Their outrage is especially stirred by attempts to sanitize history, as happened under Koizumi, by deleting from school textbooks their memories of the compulsory mass suicides under the bayonets of the Imperial Army, and the final orders from Tokyo to abandon all thought of survival. They learned, and refuse to forget, that neither the Japanese nor the American armed forces were there for their defence.

—  Gavan McCormack, ‘Obama vs Okinawa’.  New Left Review 64, July-August 2010