The islands of Okinawa offer subtropical resorts, original delicacies and a distinct culture.
“The land of longevity,” Okinawa has produced many singers and celebrities, including Namie Amuro, Speed, Rimi Natsukawa, Yu Yamada and Kurara Chibana.
May 15 marks the anniversary of Okinawa’s 1972 return to Japan after nearly 30 years of being under U.S. control after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Japan first took control of Okinawa at the end of the 19th century — before then it was the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Following are some questions and answers about Okinawa’s history and current situation:
How many islands make up Okinawa Prefecture?
Okinawa encompasses 160 islands, 49 of which, including the islands of Okinawa, Kume, Miyako and Ishigaki, are populated and 111 are uninhabited.
The Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan, are also considered part of Okinawa’s territory.
What is the difference between the names Ryukyu and Okinawa?
China is believed to have originally referred to the islands as the Ryukyus, whereas Japan adopted the name Okinawa.
What languages are spoken there?
In general, the Ryukyuan dialect is divided into five groups — Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawan, Yaeyama and Yonaguni.
In February, UNESCO announced there were about 2,500 languages worldwide in danger of becoming extinct. According to UNESCO, Japan had eight endangered languages, including the five Ryukyuan groups, Ainu in Hokkaido, Amami in Kagoshima and Hachijo in Tokyo.
When did Okinawa become an independent kingdom?
In the 14th century, the region was divided into three principalities — Hokuzan (Northern Mountain), Chuzan (Central Mountain) and Nanzan (Southern Mountain). But in 1429, King Sho Hashi unified the three and the Ryukyu Kingdom was born.
For nearly 200 years, the kingdom prospered through maritime trade as the central location between Japan, China (Ming Dynasty) and Southeast Asia. The Ryukyu Kingdom especially flourished because of the tributary relations it had with the Ming Dynasty, which had limited trade with only China.
But in the latter part of the 16th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom began to decline as the Ming Dynasty weakened, and the arrival of Europeans, including the Spanish and Portuguese, led to a weakening of the trade limits.
In the early 16th century during the Tokugawa shogunate, the Satsuma feudal domain led by the Shimazu family, based in present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom. While the Satsuma domain incorporated some of its territory, it also let the rest of the kingdom maintain a certain level of autonomy as a formality.
Why didn’t the Satsuma just take over the whole kingdom?
According to Kazuo Umezawa’s “Korenara wakaru Okinawa no Rekishi Q & A” (“Understanding the History of Okinawa Q & A”) by Otsuki Shoten Publishers, the Ming Dynasty prohibited trade with Japan at that time and the Satsuma used the Ryukyu Kingdom’s tributary relationship and independence to forge trade relations with China. So even though Ryukyu was still an independent kingdom, it was in subordinate relations with China and the Satsuma.
When did it become a part of Japan?
Following the Meiji Restoration, the government first ordered the kingdom to become a domain, placing the region under direct leadership of Japan. Okinawa was officially established as a prefecture in 1879, bringing an end to the 450 years of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Like the Ainu in Hokkaido, Ryukyuans had their own culture and traditions, many of them suppressed by the Meiji government. For example, women had tattoos on the backs of their hands that were said to be a sign of adulthood and a talisman to protect them from evil. These were banned in 1899.
Children were prohibited from speaking in Okinawan dialects in school. From the beginning of the 20th century they were forced to wear dialect cards as punishment if they spoke the Ryukyu language.
What happened to Okinawa after World War II and the Occupation?
Following the 1945 battle of Okinawa, the U.S. military took over the prefecture and placed it under its administration.
After the war, all of Japan was under the Occupation until the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into force. Signed in 1951, the pact took effect on April 28, 1952, which became the day of independence for Japan. But for Okinawa, it was a day of “humiliation” because it was completely separated from the mainland and remained under U.S. control.
Why did the U.S. keep Okinawa under its control even after the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty?
There are various theories, according to Hideaki Uemura, head of the Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization Citizens’ Diplomatic Center for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One is that Okinawa was of great strategic importance during the Cold War, he said.
“It was a spot where the U.S. could contain socialist countries like China and North Korea, and it wasn’t a bad spot for containing the former Soviet Union, either,” Uemura said. “But also it was an area that the U.S. could possibly own forever if handled cleverly, because Okinawa carried its own original ethnicity and history, and the Okinawans had been discriminated against by the Japanese people.”
Anti-U.S. sentiment, however, grew stronger. In 1971, President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato agreed on Okinawa’s reversion to Japan and on the continued U.S. military presence in the prefecture.
After 27 years of U.S. rule, Okinawa became a part of Japan again on May 15, 1972.
But to this day, the large U.S. military presence has been a bone of contention with locals.
How does the U.S. military presence in Okinawa compare with that of mainland Japan?
According to the 2008 defense white paper, Okinawa hosts about 74 percent of all U.S. military installations, even though its land area is less than 1 percent of the whole nation.
Are there Okinawans who do not wish to be a part of Japan?
Yes. Because of Okinawa’s past as a kingdom, some advocate Ryukyu independence. But there are also Okinawans who wish to be assimilated with the mainland.
Is it true that by prefecture, Okinawa has the lowest annual income?
Yes. According to the Cabinet Office, the average annual income per resident of Okinawa in 2006 was ¥2.09 million, placing the prefecture at the bottom of the list of 47.
The average income per person nationwide was ¥3.07 million, and Tokyo topped the list by a wide margin with an average of ¥4.82 million. The oldest available data were from 1990, and Okinawa has remained the lowest since then.
How has the U.S. military presence affected Okinawa’s economy?
Those in favor of the bases stress that their presence has helped stimulate the economy in various ways, including creating employment.
“But from a human rights point of view, I think Okinawa’s potential to grow is being blocked by the bases. This is why the prefecture has to rely heavily on government subsidies,” Uemura said.
He noted that 70 percent of the town of Kadena, for example, is made up of U.S. bases and “it is impossible to create a business development plan separate from the bases.”