Japan from the inside out

Young Okinawa: Moving closer to Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 1, 2007

If Japan were a fairy tale family, Okinawa would be the poor stepsister. Originally called the Ryukyus, Okinawa Prefecture consists of island groups that extend from just south of Kyushu to just north of Taiwan. They were an independent kingdom for centuries, though paid tribute first to China and then to the Satsuma domain on Kyushu (now Kagoshima Prefecture). Their indigenous culture, including their language, food, music, dance, architecture, and religion, is markedly different from that of the rest of Japan. It’s also known as the birthplace of karate.

They’re even separated geographically from the rest of the country. The four main islands of Japan are relatively close to each other, but the flight from Kyushu airports to the prefectural capital of Naha (Japanese only) takes about an hour. Their southern location gives them a Caribbean climate, and they are a favorite vacation destination for Japanese in the fall, winter, and spring.

People often say “the stars were in alignment” when things go well. Well, since the mid-19th century, the stars have been so out of whack for Okinawa it’s as if they were scattered by a drunken sailor staggering back to his ship after his first shore leave in months.

Japan annexed the islands outright in 1872, the year they reorganized the domains of the feudal lords into prefectures to create a system of modern local government. But they left Okinawa out of the prefecture system until 1879. Largely rural, it has always had the lowest per capita income of all Japan’s prefectures.

Then came the war. The American invasion of the islands in the spring of 1945 was the largest amphibious operation in military history. In addition to the butchery the opposing armies inflicted upon each other, more than 140,000 Okinawan civilians—one-third of the population—were killed. One-third of the survivors were wounded. Imperial Japanese propaganda convinced many Okinawans that the Americans were barbarians, so they committed suicide rather than ask the GIs for chocolate, often with entire families jumping off a cliff. More than 90% of the buildings on the main island were destroyed.

It didn’t end there. During the occupation after the war, the Americans appropriated the best land for their military installations, and they still occupy more than 10% of the prefectural land area. The occupation of Japan ended in 1951, but the Americans continued to govern Okinawa until 1972, when it was handed back to Japan.

In light of Okinawa’s long tradition of independence and the Japan annexation that has often brought more misery than benefits, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to know that an independence movement has long simmered on the islands. A recent prefectural governor alluded to it as the long-cherished dream of all Okinawans, and roots musician Shokichi Kina, one of the most well-known Okinawans in Japan, and now a member of the Upper House of Japan’s Diet, openly advocates it.

That’s why it was even more surprising that a recent survey conducted by a team from the University of the Ryukyus found the sentiment for independence a lot lower than was suspected, particularly among young people.

The Okinawa Residents’ Identity Survey 2006 discovered that 78% of those Okinawans surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 were opposed to independence. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than the total of 65% for all respondents. The people favoring independence gave as their primary reason the difference in political, economic, and social conditions from the rest of Japan, as well as a different historical experience. The foremost reason for those opposed was that Okinawa did not have the capability to be independent.

When asked about their identity, 57% of the young people said they were both Okinawan and Japanese, a far higher total than the 40% figure for the entire population. Just 20% considered themselves Okinawan only, substantially less than the overall total of 30%.

This survey has been ongoing for three years, and the team also conducted similar identity surveys in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao. Interestingly, one of the questions asked respondents to imagine a sports competition between a local team and a national team. (This is not hard for Okinawans to imagine; it happens twice a year at the wildly popular national high school baseball tournaments in Japan in the spring and summer.)

The surveyors then asked the people from the four island groups which team they would root for. A total of 94% of the Okinawans said they would root for the local team, while the other totals were 90% for Taiwan, 68% for Hong Kong, and just 47% for Macao.

While the independence or separatist movements for many ethnic minorities throughout the world continue to accelerate, and with other groups (or their professional lobbies) demanding special “rights”, it is fascinating that younger Okinawans are moving instead toward integration with the rest of Japan, despite the misfortunes their association with the country has brought them.

Here’s hoping that after all these years, the stars finally start to line up for them.

Postscript: Try this site for more on Okinawan culture. Here’s another nice site for all things Okinawan. And this is a museum site about the Battle of Okinawa. I’ve added all three to the right sidebar.

6 Responses to “Young Okinawa: Moving closer to Japan”

  1. In Okinawa how many people actually speak the native Okinawan language?

  2. ampontan said

    There are about 1.5 million people in Okinawa. Some sources say that the language of daily use in the community for most people under 60 is actually no longer the Okinawan language (or languages), but Japanese with an Okinawan accent and native terms and phrases mixed in.

    Japan has a lot of dialects that are often mutually incomprehensible, but everyone in the country understands and can use standard Japanese. Any Okinawan language would be used only among Okinawans.

    When the Mayor of Naha stands up and gives a speech, even in Okinawa, he speaks in standard Japanese.

    That might be one reason why young people are less interested in an independent Okinawan identity.

  3. […] blogs about the history and identity of Okinawan in relation to Japan. Oiwan […]

  4. richard said

    I have seen many exciting Okinawa dances and costumes in festivals. I like their Lion dance and dynamic drum beating. Their culture, clothing and dances are quite different from rest of Japan.

    They look more Chinese or Taiwanese than Japanese. One of the Okinawa weapon got a world wide popularity by American Chinese Bruce Lee. The name of the weapon is Nanchaku.

    Okinawa suffered the terrible consequence in war time more than rest of Japan. Even in present days, their economy is weaker. They have to shoulder the burden of the US navy base. Locals prefer them to move out to other part of Japan.

    I think Tokyo is more responsible for economic development for this island. For the new generation, rising living standard will promote the mutual understanding with rest of Japan.
    However not everyone will interest in being a second class citizen.

  5. Samantha said

    I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Okinawa. My father was a Marine, my mother a native Okinawan. I knew both Okinawan and Japanese when I was younger but when I was 5 we lived in the states for about a year and a half. During that time, my mother experienced culture shock and since I didn’t speak English and went to school, pressure from the teachers to integrate me, my mother did the worst thing ever and only spoke English to me. I don’t remember to much, but that it was pretty traumatic and scary. I now no longer know any Okinawan or Japanese even though we moved back to the island when I was 6 until I turned 10. I’m considering getting Rosetta Stone to relearn Japanese, but my roots are Okinawan and I desperately want to learn that and teach it to my children. Does anyone know where I could learn this or do I have to move back and speak with the older generations?

  6. ponta said

    Does anyone know where I could learn this or do I have to move back and speak with the older generations?

    Moving back and speaking with the older generation is a good idea.
    I think there are younger generations who know both Okinawan and Japanese and among them there are people who can also speak English. So you might want to ask the Japanese you meet on the Internet where he/she is from.
    (I checked wikipedia, it seems the okinawa dialect for young generation is different from that for the older generations.

    Other people who I think might give you a good advice are, for instance Masahide Ota, who served as governor of Okinawa prefecture and had studied at American university and Darin, who had studied at Okinawa.

    The telephone # is listed.

    And here is a web translator from a standard Japanese to Okinawa dialect.
    (I am not sure how accurate it is, I know only Tokyo dialect.)
    And some dictionary

    just my two cents.
    I am sorry I can’t give you a good advice. hope someone else will give you better one.

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