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Ryukyu Islands - History

It is said that, in the middle of the twelfth century, the Minamoto general, Tanetomo, exiled to the island of Idzu, made his way thence to Loochoo and, having quelled a civil war then raging in the islands, placed his son Shunten on the throne. Loochoo began to pay tribute to China as early as the first year of Hung-wa of the Ming dynasty (1372). She entered into a similar relation with Japan during the period of the Ashikago reign (1451). Under the Loo-Choo Kingdom (1429-1879), missions were sent to Southeast Asia to obtain goods for its tributary trade with China.

By entering into close trading relationships with both China and Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Ryukyu Kingdom enjoyed a lengthy period of prosperity in the years before 1609. As George Kerr notes in his book Okinawa: The History of an Island People, "the islands were independent. They were in constant communication and at peace with neighboring states. Okinawans were in the happy position of freedom to adopt what they wanted, and to remain indifferent - or at best mildly curious - about foreign artifacts and institutions for which they felt no pressing need. China loomed as the neighbor of unquestioned superiority, and Okinawans were in close and constant communication with Japan, but were overwhelmed by neither." Many Okinawans today regard this period as the Golden Age of their history, and view it as a basis for their belief that China sees Okinawa a place entirely separate from Japan.

The Golden Age ended in 1609. When the Loochoo government, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, neglected its tributary duties to Japan, Shimazu, the lord of Satsuma, in the fourteenth year of the Keicho era (1609 AD), sent an expedition to the island, and brought its king to Satsuma. Since this event, Japan has claimed sovereignty over Loochoo. The Satsumas then over the lucrative trade with China through Okinawa, continuing it despite the Tokugawa Shogunate's closed country (sakoku) policy. The Satsumas of southern Kyushu extracted increasingly burdensome tributes. Even after it was invaded by the Satsuma domain in 1609 of Tokugawa-period Japan, Loo-Choo continued to dispatch tribute envoys to Qing China.

After Commodore Perry and his black ships helped trigger the Meiji Restoration, Japan began vigorously securing and expanding its borders. When Commodore Perry came to Japan, he asked the Japanese commissioner to open Napa-Keang, the capital of Loochoo, for American ships. The reply was that "Loochoo is a very distant place, and a definite answer cannot be given." From this answer the Commodore, inferring that he could freely enter into treaty negotiations with Loochoo, as if it were an independent kingdom, concluded a treaty of amity on his way home, on 11 July 11 1854. This example was followed by France and by the Netherlands.

After the Restoration in 1868, the imperial government, being busily occupied with the Korean question did not concern itself with Loochoo until June 1872, when the Loochoo government reported to Governor Oyama, of Satsuma, the massacre of the shipwrecked Loochooans at Formosa. The government, availing itself of this opportunity, ordered Sho-tai, king of Loochoo, to proceed to Tokyo in order to offer congratulations to the Mikado upon the Restoration. The king excused himself on the ground of illness, but sent the young prince, who arrived at Tokyo on 13 September 1872. The prince being respected more than the ordinary daimio, or nobility, he was received, with his suite, by the department of foreign affairs.

In 1872 Japan formally abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and annexed Okinawa, over Chinese protests. Okinawa pleaded with China and the United States to intervene. In September 1872, by successive imperial ordinances, Sho-tai, king of Loochoo, was privileged to join the Kazoku, or noble class, with gifts of a residence in Tokyo and 30,000 yen; the originals of his treaties with the United States, France and the Netherlands he was ordered to hand over to Japan; and all diplomatic affairs were directed to be in the future administered by the Japanese foreign office. When Mr. De Long, the American minister at Tokyo, inquired as to the effect of these measures on the treaty relations of Loochoo with the United States, the reply was made that the provisions of the treaty would be observed by Japan. In September 1873, Japan, at the request of the Italian government, granted most-favored-nation treatment to its subjects in Loochoo.

When, in 1873, the crew of a wrecked Ryukyuan junk was barbarously treated by the Formosan aborigines, the Yedo Government at once sought redress from Peking. But the Chinese paid no attention to this demand until a force of Japanese troops had made a punitory visit to Formosa, and China, recognizing that her territory had been invaded, lodged a protest which would probably have involved the two empires in a war had not the British minister in Peking intervened. The arrangement made was that China should indemnify Japan to the extent of the expenses incurred by the latter in punishing the aborigines.

After the Formosan affair in 1874, another complication arose between Japan and China, concerning the Loochoo Islands. The political status of the islands had, like that of Korea, been very obscure. These petty kingdoms in Asia, though they maintained de facto independence, had feebly preserved their existence from absorption by neighboring empires through their tributary relation to Japan and China.

The expedition of Formosa in 1874 was insignificant in itself, but the incident derived vicarious interest from its effect upon the relations between Japan and China in connexion with the ownership of the Ryukyu Islands. Lying a little south of Japan, these islands had for some centuries been regarded as an appanage of the Satsuma fief, and the language spoken by their inhabitants showed unmistakable traces of affinity with the Japanese tongue.

A fact collaterally established by the Formosan affair was that the Ryukyu Islands belonged to Japan, and, in 1876, the system of local government already inaugurated in Japan proper was extended to Ryukyu, the ruler of the latter being pensioned. China now formulated a protest. She claimed that Ryukyu had always been a tributary of her empire. But China's interpretation of "tribute" was essentially unpractical. "So long as her own advantage could be promoted, she regarded as a token of vassalage the presents periodically carried to her Court from neighbouring States, but so soon as there arose any question of discharging a suzerain's duties, she classed these offerings as an insignificant interchange of neighbourly courtesy."

By the settlement of the Formosan trouble in 1874, China tacitly recognized the sovereign rights of Japan over the Loochoo Islands. Although these facts confirmed the political dependence of the Loochoo Islands on Japan, de facto and de jure, Japan had not interfered with their tributary relation to China. After the Formosan affair, however, the Japanese government decided to annul this relation. By ordinances in 1875 and 1876, a governor was installed, protected by military guards; the king was required to renounce his Chinese investiture as well as the payment of tribute to China, and to substitute the Japanese calendar for the Chinese; and the Japanese courts were ordered to administer justice in the islands. The pro-Chinese officials were unwilling to renounce their Chinese allegiance, and envoys were sent to China and Japan to solicit the privilege of bearing a joint allegiance. The appeal was rejected by the Japanese government, and the young prince, the Loochoo envoy, applied in vain, in 1876, to the ministers of the United States, Netherlands, France and China at Tokyo, to exercise their good offices.

In 1878, two commissioners from Ryukyu asked the ministers of the United States and other treaty powers at Tokyo to request their countries to exhort Japan to allow Ryukyu "to remain in every respect as before." In 1878 the Chinese government, which did not desire to act alone, solicited the good offices of the United States. Japan declined to make even the slightest concession. By a proclamation in March 1879, she incorporated the islands into the general administration, and, by a proclamation in 1880, she assumed liability for the public debt of the islands contracted since 1844.

The United States Government assured both powers of its readiness to extend its good offices for the maintenance of peace, if they should deem it desirable. But, by mutual consent the matter was left to the consideration of ex-President Grant, who visited China and Japan in 1879. His unofficial and personal advice was that China accept the Japanese contention in the matter, and he suggested that high commissioners be appointed to adjust the difficulties by treaty.

Undoubtedly Ryukyu, from time to time, had followed the custom of despatching gift-bearing envoys to Peking, just as Japan herself had done. But it was on clear record that Ryukyu had been subdued by Satsuma without any attempt whatever on China's part to save the islands from that fate; that thereafter, during two centuries, they had been included in the Satsuma fief, and that China, in the settlement of the Formosan complication, had constructively acknowledged Japan's title to the group. Each empire asserted its claims with equal assurance, and things remained thus until 1880, when General Grant, who visited Japan in the course of a tour round the world, suggested a peaceful compromise. A conference met in Peking, and it was agreed that the islands should be divided, Japan taking the northern part and China the southern. But at the moment of signing the convention, China drew back, and the discussion ended in Japan retaining the islands, China's protests being pigeonholed.

Mr. Shishido, the Japanese Minister at Peking, was appointed a high commissioner to negotiate such a treaty in the summer of 1880, and after three months' effort a draft was agreed upon. It was agreed that the islands should be divided, Japan taking the northern part and China the southern.But the signature was delayed, and finally the matter was again referred to the Chinese Superintendents of Trade for consideration and report. After waiting three months after the completion of the treaty, Mr. Shishido decided to retire from Peking, and this attempt to settle the matter came to an end. Later, in 1881, China sent a minister to Japan to discuss the subject, and the next year both governments desired the good offices of the United States, but nothing was accomplished, and the pressure of other foreign complications caused China to recognize tacitly the status quo. The discussion ended in Japan retaining the islands, China's protests being pigeonholed.

Four-party discussions dragged on for decades until the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, which settled the issue in Japan's favor as far as the western powers were concerned. Japan instituted a top-down assimilation program for Okinawa that gained momentum when met by a bottom-up assimilation movement following Japan's success in the Sino-Japanese War. Practical-minded Okinawans became convinced they would benefit from closer identification with Japan. Early editorials of the Ryukyu Shimpo, dating as far back as 1893, asserted that Okinawa could develop only by fully assimilating with Japan.

Over the following 50 years, many Okinawans saw military service, including during the battle for Okinawa, as a chance to prove they were true Japanese. However, the battle, which killed perhaps a third of the Okinawan population, came as a shock to most of the survivors, who experienced or heard stories of atrocities against Okinawans by Japanese troops. In the years after the war, a home-grown historical interpretation of the battle took solid root in Okinawa, which holds that Tokyo had always intended to sacrifice Okinawa in a battle designed to consume as many U.S. forces as possible, to stall and weaken an eventual attack on the mainland.

From the military conquest during World War II in 1945, until May of 1972, the United States exercised full control over the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is the largest. Following their surrender, these islands were treated as separate and distinct territory for the purpose of occupation, rather than as an integral part of Japan. Unlike other occupied territories, which were administered jointly by the Allied Powers, the occupation of the Ryukyus continued under exclusive American jurisdiction under powers derived from the peace treaty with Japan, when made. After an initial period of military government, however, considerable control was returned to local institutions, and Japan's residual sovereignty was acknowledged.

Executive Order No. 10713 [22 F.R. 4007, U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News, p. 903 (1957)] established a dual system of government in the Ryukyus for the duration of American occupation. The local administration consisted of the Central Government of the Ryukyu Islands, with a one-house legislature of 29 representatives elected directly by the Ryukyuans. The Order also provided a Civil Administration under the Department of Defense. The Secretary of Defense was to appoint a High Commissioner, a member of the military, under whom was organized the so-called United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR) to aid in governing the Islands. A measure of coordination between the two administrations was accomplished by the High Commissioner's appointment, after consultation with the legislature of a Ryukyuan Chief Executive. According to Executive Order 10713, one of the principal objectives of the occupation government was to promote the economic and cultural welfare and advancement of the Ryukyu inhabitants.

During this period, U.S. forces forcibly seized land for bases. By the early 1960s, a movement advocating reversion to Japan began among Okinawans, leading to large-scale demonstrations against the U.S. administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Okinawa reverted to Japan May 15, 1972.

The reunion was a victory for all Okinawans (though many were dismayed at the remaining numbers of U.S. facilities and forces), and anti-U.S. protests were dramatically reduced following reversion. With reversion, the Government of Japan sharply increased infrastructure development, and the general standard of living greatly improved. However, in the years since 1972, many Okinawans have called for lessening the island's economic dependence on Government of Japan transfer payments. Okinawa remains the poorest prefecture in Japan, with the highest unemployment rate in Japan, and many argue that Okinawa needs to become more economically independent.

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Page last modified: 17-07-2013 18:54:20 ZULU