Having long been an observer of Okinawan history, I have always been keenly aware of how strongly the politics and social transformations of East Asia, particularly Northeast Asia, have affected Okinawa.
In that regard, Okinawa has had four historical turning points. The first was from the end of the fourteenth century to the beginning of the fifteenth century, caused by the establishment of the Ming Dynasty ( 1368-1644 ), which had hegemony in China. In Japan, the Muromachi Shogunate was established, and in Okinawa, which had the same cultural base as Japan, local clans competed against each other to establish single rule. However, it was not Japan but China that established close contact with Okinawa, which was undergoing civil war. The Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled Okinawa made the decision to become a tributary state of China and steered its wheels toward China. Thus, with support from China, the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom ( the first independent nation in Okinawa ), began. After establishing its China relationship as the main axis of its diplomatic policy, the Ryukyu Kingdom started to build its status as a marine nation whose domain of diplomatic and trading activities stretched to East and Southeast Asia.
The second turning point in Okinawan history was from the end of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century, in which two large East Asian countries, China and Japan, began to exert a strong influence on the island. The relative national power of China and Japan manifested as different influences on the Ryukyu Kingdom itself. While the Ming Dynasty was declining in China, in Japan, a strong feudal nation-which later became the Tokugawa Shogunate-was emerging through civil war. In the spring of 1609, Tokugawa Ieyasu allowed 3,000 soldiers of the Satsuma Clan to invade the Ryukyu Kingdom. They were victorious and took occupation of the land, which fell under the strong control of the Japanese feudal nation, despite its status as a tributary state of China. The rulers of the Ryukyu Kingdom faced a difficult time in which they had to maneuver carefully between these two large countries.
However, their careful navigation eventually failed. The third turning point for Okinawa came in the spring of 1879 ( Meiji 12 ), when the Meiji government, which was abolishing feudal clans and establishing prefectures, established Okinawa prefecture by force, denying the historical fact that the Ryukyu Kingdom had been an independent country and a tributary state of China ( Qing Dynasty ). Islands that had belonged to the Ryukyu Kingdom were completely put under Japanese control, thus setting what is now the southern border of modern Japan. For its part, China was facing the decline of its empire as well as waves of Western imperialism. It could not find any effective way of ridding Okinawa of the Japanese initiative. The Japanization of Okinawa thus began. Its land became a poor, marginalized southern prefecture of Japan.
The fourth turning point was the rapid, dramatic transformation of Okinawa into a military base. This occurred through several drastic experiences: the ground battle between the Japanese and American forces competing for Okinawa, which was ostensibly Japan's "outer trench," Japan's defeat and occupation by America, the birth of East Asian socialism, the escalation of the Cold War, and the rapid fortification of Okinawa by America in exchange for the Japanese postwar economic development and membership in the Western bloc. Through this fourth turning point, the islands of Okinawa-formerly a marginal area of Japan-transformed dramatically into the cornerstone of American military strategy towards socialist countries like China and North Korea.
When we examine these four turning points, two important aspects emerge. The first is that shifts in the East Asian political situation, especially those in Northeast Asia, have defined Okinawa's very existence. Throughout periods in Okinawan history-the period in which Okinawa developed its unique character as an independent marine nation, the period in which Okinawa fell into the position of subsidiary nation of China and Japan, the period in which Okinawa was singly governed by Japan, and the period in which Okinawa was endowed with the position of symbolizing the relationship between Japan and America-the power to define Okinawa's position has always rested with the intentions of superpowers such as China, Japan, and America, which were concerned with East Asia. Okinawa has always been used, and in turn defined, by these major powers.
Another important historical factor is that the latter three turning points were a result of political instability and reorganization in East Asia. The background of East Asia has always influenced Okinawa. The relaxation and reorganization of the East Asian order, such as the tributary system, caused the Satsuma Clan invasion. The crisis in China caused by the European invasion and colonization prompted the absorption of Okinawa by Japan, and East-West tension created a potentially explosive situation that ultimately erupted, eventually transforming the island of Okinawa into a military base.
Military Bases-A Heavy Burden for Okinawa
By looking back on Okinawan history, we can also see into the future. The Okinawan people hope to create a total, stable, and multilayered structure in East Asia, or an "East Asian Community." With the support of this "East Asian Community," Okinawa will have a kind of soft power with which it will be able to play a unique role as a representative of Japanese society, while also acting beyond the national framework of Japan.
Let us consider the possibility that the "East Asian Community," could unite in an "Axis of Marginal Regions' Solidarity" for stability and support. In other words, islands such as Taiwan, which faces mainland China, Cheju Island, which faces the Korean Peninsula, and Okinawa, which faces Japan, could establish a network and endow the "East Asian Community" with multilayered connections beyond the bonds of nations.
This year, Dr. John Chuan-Tiong Lim, a scholar of international politics and an assistant professor at Ryukyu University, wrote a report called Marginal East Asia: The Establishment of a New Regional Concept. In his paper, he defined Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Okinawa as "Marginal East Asia" facing "Central East Asia," China and Japan. Dr. Lim discussed the possibilities of this new regional concept. We should look forward to more presentations and discussion of this topic, as well as further exploration of Dr. Lim's work.
Regardless as to whether or not such a system is adopted in the future, the "East Asian Community" will not be able to create a more flexible and stable international order until it makes regional solidarity its foundation. Until then, Okinawa will not be freed of its old, entangled "historical problems," nor will it be able to reveal its own unique reason for being.
However, we are not living in the future. We are still on the road of progress in which we are steadily taking steps toward achieving our dreams.
In reality, our situation is complicated and full of contradictions. For example, American military bases in Okinawa have been a heavy burden for the Okinawan people, and many residents of Okinawa have long called for their reduction and withdrawal. The American and Japanese governments bear the serious responsibility of how to maintain a balance between decreasing Okinawa's burden and maintaining the power of military deterrence. Accidents such as the crash of a marine helicopter into Okinawa International University ( on August 13, 2004 ) show that a plan of action for the rapid withdrawal of the military bases is urgently needed.
Still, there are differences of opinion about this issue. One Taiwanese historian, an opinion leader in the Taiwan Independence movement whom I respect, expressed his honest feelings based on his deep understanding of the situation of Okinawa. He told me, "I understand the feelings of the Okinawan people very well. But for Taiwan, the American military bases in Okinawa play the role of a deterrent against a military threat from mainland China. To the Taiwanese, the American military bases in Okinawa are such a necessity that it is difficult for us to support their withdrawal or reduction." I heard the same opinion from Korean historians in Cheju Island and Seoul. "Although we sympathize with the situation of the Okinawan people, we can't help but feel that the deterrent created by the American military bases in Okinawa is necessary to prevent a crisis on the Korean Peninsula," they said.
Needless to say, one of the main countries of concern to Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula is China. Although I have met and exchanged opinions with Chinese historians many times in China, mainly in Fujian Province, we have never discussed this issue. I know many Chinese historians, with whom I have close relationships. Some of them have even stayed in Okinawa for over a year. Nevertheless, we have carefully avoided talking about political issues, despite the fact that we have had heated conversations about concrete historical issues. The reason we avoid this topic is our understanding that China does not yet guarantee freedom of speech.
Cultural Exchange Activities With China: Opening the Door to the "East Asian Community"
China holds one of the keys with which the doors to the dream of an "East Asian Community" will be opened. Although the mass media has focused on China's high economic growth ( and the national upswing centered around the Beijing Olympics of 2008 ), the reality remains that political freedom and freedom of speech are not yet guaranteed. Information on the People's Liberation Army, which supplies China's strong military power, is not available to the public. Furthermore, concrete ideas about the security plans and aims of the PLA have not yet been revealed.
Therefore, as many intellectuals point out, it is important to encourage China to share international responsibility by prompting it to be an important member of global society. Through this process, I expect that China will take a flexible attitude in its treatment of the problem of Taiwan, which is a country that will play an important role in the marginal region axis. We should avoid worsening the China-Taiwan relationship by putting pressure on China.
Also, needless to say, Japan should play an important role in prompting China to participate in and share the responsibility of a global society. Japan should use a highly effective method to take action, maintaining contact with the United Nations and related counties.
Okinawan scholars and researchers have undertaken various activities with China over the past twenty years, based on an understanding of Okinawa's 500-year-old history with China. The current fruits of these labors have exceeded expectations. In the field of history, the Chu-Ryu Kankei Kenkyujo ( China-Okinawa Relationship Research Center ), opened at Fujian Normal University in Fujian Province to study the history of exchange between China and Okinawa. Also, the Fujian Provincial Museum ( Fuzhou ) and the Quanzhou Museum of Overseas Communication History ( Quanzhou ), have permanent exhibition corners on the theme of Okinawa. The First Historical Archives of China ( Beijing )-the biggest historical archive in China-has made an alliance with the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education. They have not only exchanged historical materials but have also sponsored symposiums alternating between Okinawa and China. Furthermore, the foundation that maintains Shuri Castle Park in Naha has lent financial support to the Beijing publication of numerous historical documents on Okinawa housed in China's First Historical Archives. Last summer, the exhibition "The Treasures of Okinawa" from Beijing's Palace Museum was held in Okinawa, featuring masterpieces created by Okinawan craftsmen and gathered by the Ryukyu emperors to pay tribute to the Chinese emperors. Through this exhibition, the Okinawan treasures returned to their birthplace.
In closing, I would like to emphasize the fact that Okinawa has played the role of mediator between China and Taiwan, helping to create opportunities to deepen their relationship. In 1986, historians from Okinawa and Taiwan collaborated on holding "The First Okinawa-China Historical Relationship International Academic Conference" in Taipei. Every two years, the conference is held alternately in Naha and Taipei.
Eventually, Okinawan scholars proposed that Taiwanese scholars invite scholars from mainland China to the conference as well. We also suggested holding the conference in Beijing and Fujian in addition to Naha and Taipei. The Taiwanese scholars agreed. Since then, scholars from each city have attended the conference and maintained periodic academic exchange.
Of course, this international academic exchange is a small step. But for me, as one of the promoters of this conference, it is an important project through which the dream to establish an "East Asian Community" and an "Axis of Marginal Regions' Solidarity" will become a future reality.
S. A. Mick McClary, P.O. Box 6245, Great Falls, MT 59406
page revised 1-26-08