My thanks to Brad Roth for pointing me to a recent New York Times article on activists in Okinawa seeking secession from Japan. Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu island chain. The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent or semi-independent state until annexed by Japan and renamed the Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. It was occupied by the Allies in World War II and was administered by the U.S. from 1945 until 1972, when it was returned to Japan. (For more on the history of Ryukyu/ Okinawa, see, for example, John Michael Purves’ website.)
According to another article from Asahi Shimbun, arguments for independence are based on an “anti-reversion theory,” that was argued at the time of the U.S returning the islands to Japan in the early 1970’s. “The theory stated that it is an illusion to believe Okinawans can live a peaceful life under Japanese sovereignty.”
A thread running through the Times article is that although the independence movement has been, and is still, relatively small, it is now gaining more attention, getting some modest political traction, and is being taken more seriously than it has since the end of the U.S. administration of the islands.
Why? Because the secessionist movement is becoming increasingly relevant to both the U.S. and China. Consider the implication for U.S. military bases:
“Until now, you were mocked if you spoke of independence,” said one speaker, Kobun Higa, 71, a retired journalist whose book on the history of the tiny independence movement has become a hot seller online. “But independence may be the only real way to free ourselves from the American bases.”
Mr. Higa and other advocates admit that few islanders would actually seek independence for Okinawa, the southernmost Japanese island chain, which is home to 1.4 million residents and more than half of the 50,000 American troops and sailors based in Japan. But discontent with the heavy American presence and a growing perception that the central government is ignoring Okinawans’ pleas to reduce it have made an increasing number of islanders willing to at least flirt publicly with the idea of breaking apart in a way that local politicians and scholars say they have not seen in decades.
According to Asahi Shimbun, “Okinawa Prefecture accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass, but it hosts 74 percent of all U.S. military bases in the country.”
As for China, various activists for Okinawan statehood say that the independence movement:
still has the potential to complicate Japan’s unfolding contest with China for influence in the region.
That struggle expanded recently to include what appears to be a semiofficial campaign in China to question Japanese rule of Okinawa. Some analysts see the campaign as a ploy to strengthen China’s hand in a dispute over a smaller group of islands that has captured international headlines in recent months. Some Chinese scholars have called for exploiting the independence movement to say there are splits even in Japan over the legitimate ownership of islands annexed during Japan’s imperial expansion in the late 19th century, as Okinawa and the smaller island group were.
China/ Japan diplomacy concerning Okinawa is a topic that Julian has previously explored.
While independence movements may become part of geopolitical chess games, they tend to be motivated by much more local concerns. The relationship of Okinawa to the political leadership in Tokyo is clearly a major driving force for the independence movement. Even the U.S. base issue may be best understood less as a geopolitical question, but an issue of budget allocations within a state. According to Asahi Shimbun, one of the independence leaders decided to start his group
after he heard about a meeting of prefectural governors in 2010. At the meeting, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima demanded that central and local governments significantly reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. military bases, but almost no governors supported him.
“To achieve a breakthrough on the bases issue, discussions on the option of independence are necessary,” said Matsushima.
I’m not convinced that all politics is local, but secessionist movements usually are. Moreover, they often include very personal issues of identity.
According to the New York Times, there is renewed interest in the Okinawan language and in arguments claiming a distinct Okinawan ethnic identity. This reinvigoration of linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identity can drive secessionist claims, but they are also at times spurred on by calls for independence. (For a short history on language politics in Okinawa, see this.)
What I find especially interesting is this Venn diagram of overlapping interests and intents. Some calls for independence movement may actually be motivated by domestic budgetary politics. But this then overlaps with U.S. security concerns in Asia. And the existence of a secessionist claim also overlaps with China’s interest in the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands (See also, this.). And, lest we forget, there is probably a group of people that honestly believes that their national identity is being frustrated by being part of Japan.
That’s a lot of political interests converging on a few small islands. It will be interesting to see whether and how much the independence movement dissipates if Tokyo grants budgetary relief to Okinawa Prefecture. Stay tuned…