NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – A tiny but earnest movement is underway to seek independence for Okinawa and the other islands in the Ryukyu Islands chain.
The Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans, which represents native residents of the islands, said in its charter that “By gaining independence from Japan and removing all military bases from our islands, we Lew Chewans wish to achieve our long sought-after goal of becoming a sovereign island of peace.”
The chain, which belongs mostly to Okinawa Prefecture, was ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th century to the 19th century. The Japanese first invaded the islands in the early 17th century, eventually annexing them in the late 19th century.
The calls issued by Lew Chewans, or Ryukyuan people, to remove U.S. military bases from Okinawa Prefecture have long been ignored by the central government, laments Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor at Ryukoku University in Kyoto and co-founder of the group.
“If we become independent, we can eliminate the military bases as our own choice,” he said.
Matsushima, 51, founded the group jointly with four other people including Shinako Oyakawa, a 34-year-old lecturer at Meio University in Nago, Okinawa, last May. The group has more than 250 members so far.
Independence for the Ryukyu Islands has largely been downplayed in Japan as “a topic of pub conversations,” Matsushima said.
“We accept that fact, but even pub talk helps the issue move forward,” he added.
The question of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, for instance, had been a popular topic in pubs among Scots, said Matsushima, who witnessed the referendum on the issue in Scotland last September.
People for and against Scottish independence discussed the issue “on the street in a level-headed manner,” Matsushima recalled.
Many of those in favor of independence called for the removal of the Clyde naval base, home port for the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines. Matsushima, who wore a “Yes” sign on his chest while in Scotland, said many in the pro-independence camp were aware of the huge U.S. military presence in Okinawa and welcomed his visit.
“I was impressed and encouraged by the mature debate,” he said, even though the Scottish people voted to remain within the United Kingdom.
Matsushima, whose main area of study is economics, said Okinawa is no longer dependent on U.S. military bases to support itself.
American military bases occupy 10 percent of Okinawa’s prefectural land and 18 percent of the island itself. But the bases contribute only an estimated 5 percent of its gross domestic product, while job opportunities and tax revenues in areas since returned by the U.S. military have risen sharply, Matsushima said.
Critics question his group’s movement, saying the central government would never approve independence for the Ryukyu Islands.
“Japan’s approval is unnecessary in the first place,” Matsushima argued.
The U.N. Charter and the International Covenants on Human Rights recognize that all peoples have the right to self-determination. Okinawa can “declare its independence and apply for U.N. membership if the prefectural assembly decides on the motion and wins majority support for it in a referendum,” Matsushima said. “We will then increase the number of countries that recognize us as a nation. That’s all we will have to do, though the process will be slow.”
Born on Ishigaki Island, southwest of Okinawa, Matsushima finished graduate school at Waseda University and worked as a researcher at the Japanese Consulate General in Guam and the embassy in Palau.
Despite having a population of around 20,000 compared with Okinawa’s 1.4 million, Palau was “duly respected” internationally as an independent island nation in the western Pacific Ocean because of its nonnuclear constitution, Matsushima said.
His group envisions creating an unarmed, neutral country, with each island in the arc from Amami to Yonaguni deciding whether to join. It could stand on its own feet economically by becoming a trading base like the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, he added.
Since its establishment, the group has been criticized from certain quarters. A commentary published in the Chinese media that favored independence for the Ryukyus led to accusations that the association is aiding China’s “attempt to invade” Japan.
Kiyoshi Nakamura, an Okinawa-based author, supports the group’s cause but questions its stance of limiting members to people whose ethnic roots are in the Ryukyus.
“I cannot accept that the Ryukyuans are defined by blood,” he said.
While Matsushima’s group has been growing in popularity, the push for independence itself isn’t new.
In 1970, a political party named the Ryukyu Independence Party was formed in Okinawa but failed to win widespread support from the local people. It changed its name to the Kariyushi Club in 2008 and is still seeking an independent Ryukyu.
Meanwhile Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga maintains he will oppose the plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma elsewhere in the prefecture “based on Okinawa’s right to self-determination.”
Matsushima has high hopes about Onaga’s stance and said the right to self-determination is not limited to political issues like the Futenma base plan.