Nearly a century ago and in the name of academic study, a Kyoto University associate professor took the remains of more than two dozen residents of what is now Okinawa Prefecture, including the remains of a Ryukyu king.

Now, their descendants are suing the university, calling for the repatriation of the remains of 26 bodies stored at the Kyoto University Museum in the first case of its kind.

But as the case proceeds, it has raised a larger issue: whether or not the Kyoto District Court will make a judgement about the Ryukyu people as indigenous. With Japan only officially recognizing the Ainu, an ethnic minority based mainly in Hokkaido, as indigenous people, what the court rules in this case about the Ryukyus could be a first legal step toward the government eventually declaring them as indigenous.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs claim an associate professor at what was then called Kyoto Imperial University stole ancestral bones from the Momojyana tomb in the village of Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture, in 1929 for research.

“Inside this tomb were the bones of my ancestors,” Tsuyoshi Tamagushiku, a plaintiff and descendant of one of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s kings, told a news conference on May 27. “According to traditional Ryukyu customs, the bodies are placed inside a cave, rather than being buried underground.”

The whereabouts of the remains was unknown to Okinawans until 2017, when Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor at Okinawa’s Ryukoku University, learned about their existence and contacted Kyoto University to find out more.

In September 2017, however, the university sent him a letter saying they would not respond to his inquiries and asked that he not visit in person.

A lawsuit is seeking the return of human remains taken from the Momojyana tomb by a Kyoto University professor in 1929. | COURTESY OF YASUKATSU MATSUSHIMA
A lawsuit is seeking the return of human remains taken from the Momojyana tomb by a Kyoto University professor in 1929. | COURTESY OF YASUKATSU MATSUSHIMA

Matsushima was angered by the response and, through an Okinawan member of the Diet, received word from the education ministry that Kyoto University had admitted that the remains from the Momojyana tomb were among their collection. The ministry oversees the university.

Although Matsushima asked the university to provide a detailed list of the remains, Kyoto University has rejected the request and has not acted on another request to establish a working team, Matsushima told the May 27 news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Eventually, Matsushima, Tamagushiku and other plaintiffs launched a lawsuit against the university in December 2018, seeking the return of the remains of 26 bodies.

For Matsushima and the plaintiffs, the root of the problem lies in discrimination against the Ryukyuans and the history of the region.

“Japanese imperialism and colonialism against the Ryukyu people are the social background of this problem. Ryukyu are an indigenous people and we have different religions and burial customs from those of other Japanese,” Matsushima said.

Between 1429 and 1879, most of what is now Okinawa Prefecture was known as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom and ruled by the Ryukyu monarchy, which had unified the islands. During this period, the kingdom had diplomatic ties with China as a paid tributary. It also established its own maritime trading system throughout East and Southeast Asia, and its people were considered different from mainland Japanese.

The kingdom’s independence ended with Japan’s colonization of the islands in 1879 and the creation of Okinawa Prefecture. The Ryukyuans, with a different language, customs and a long tradition of independence, faced severe discrimination by mainland Japanese.

Fierce fighting on Okinawa during the final months of World War II in 1945, followed by the U.S. Occupation of the islands that lasted until 1972, added to a sense in Okinawa that its people were outcasts.

One of the plaintiffs filing a lawsuit seeking the repatriation of remains taken from the Momojyana tomb prays at the tomb in Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture, in April 2019. | KYODO
One of the plaintiffs filing a lawsuit seeking the repatriation of remains taken from the Momojyana tomb prays at the tomb in Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture, in April 2019. | KYODO

In arguing the court case, the plaintiffs are using both domestic laws of the time — that it was illegal to remove human remains from a cemetery without consent — and a nonbinding U.N. declaration. Article 12 of the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) gives indigenous peoples “the right to the repatriation of their human remains.”

But the difficulty with the U.N. declaration is that the Japanese government does not formally recognize Ryukyuans as indigenous people.

“The lack of official recognition of the Ryukyu peoples as indigenous is probably the largest factor at stake here. Also, the UNDRIP is not a treaty, but rather a non-legally-binding declaration. So I’m afraid the courts would be even less compelled to treat it as a basis for a legal decision,” says Jeffry Gayman, an educational anthropologist and Ainu expert at Hokkaido University.

“The ruling which led to the repatriation of Ainu remains from Hokkaido University to Urakawa village in 2016 was based on an out-of-court settlement. The arguments of those plaintiffs were based more on communal customs than on a pre-established right associated with international legal norms,” he added.

Kyoto University, however, takes a different view of how the remains were obtained.

“For its part, the university does not consider that the bones were obtained illegally. Moreover, it is storing them in a manner appropriate to their preservation,” said David Hajime Kornhauser, director of global communications at Kyoto University in an email response.

Momojyana tomb in Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture | KYODO
Momojyana tomb in Nakijin, Okinawa Prefecture | KYODO

The plaintiffs hope the Kyoto court will at least describe the Ryukyuans as indigenous when it rules on their case, to help lay the groundwork for future government recognition.

Such a victory would not be without precedent. In March 1997, the Sapporo District Court ruled that the Ainu should be granted recognition as an indigenous people of Japan and therefore entitled to the protection of their distinct culture, which helped pave the way for the 2008 Diet resolution.

In June 2016, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which operates under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, urged Japan to consider recognizing the Ryukyu people as indigenous and take steps to protect their rights. Tokyo responded that there was not a widespread understanding in Japan that people from Okinawa are indigenous and that citizens from Okinawa are Japanese with equal rights.

Despite the lack of legal recognition in Japan, plaintiff’s efforts to have their ancestral remains returned have already been recognized at one university abroad. Some of the remains taken in 1929 ended up at National Taiwan University. At the time, Taiwan was a Japanese colony.

The university returned 63 sets of human remains in March 2019 to the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education. However, the board is still holding on to the remains for research purposes despite requests by descendants to have their ancestors’ remains handed over for a traditional burial.

“It pains me to know that my ancestors are the subjects of scientific examination,” Tamagushiku said. “Even to this day, pilgrimages are made to the Momojanya tomb. I want the bones returned to the tomb so my ancestors can rest in peace.”

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