Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Ryukyu and National Identity

A healthy majority of the people of the Ryukyu Islands supported their 1972 reversion to Japan as Okinawa instead of seeking independence. After all, Ryukyu had been an independent state until it was conquered by the Satsuma-han (now Kagoshima Prefecture, not the Tokugawa Dynasty in Edo/Tokyo that was ostensibly the quasi-sovereign of the national government) in 1609. Even then, it was allowed to maintain the façade of an independent state, a pro forma vassal state to both the Satsuma-han and China. Just as important, standard Japanese and the Ryukyu dialect, or the set of Ryukyu dialects, would easily have qualified as separate languages (heck, the Kagoshima dialect would have too, but let’s leave that aside for now), and the Ryukyu culture back then was at least as strongly sand directly influenced by Chinese culture as it was by Japanese culture (which turn was strongly and directly influenced by Chinese culture, but I’m not going to make this narrative no more complicated than I have to).

I used to chalk the 1972 outcome up to the success of three quarter-centuries of education and indoctrination in submerging sentiments of nationhood. There’s certainly that, but an online exchange with a couple of friends about Korea and Taiwan got me to also wondering: What if there hadn’t been much of a sense of national identity to begin with?

The gist of the exchange with Robert Dujarric and Michael Cucek was that imperial Japan gave colonial peerages to high nobles in Korea but did not do so in Taiwan because the latter, as an outlying territory of China largely populated by historically recent immigrants, did not have its own native aristocracy to be coopted or a national identity to be subsumed. Now, the lack of national identity among the Taiwanese also explains the lack of enmity—indeed, nostalgia, even—among the pre-Kuomintang locals towards the Japanese occupation. And here, the point Michael made that the Ryukyu nobility was also inducted into the Japanese peerage has salience. Ryukyu was an independent, if vassal, state until the 19th Century with its own distinct culture. Was less than a century of subjugation enough sufficient to sublimate any sense of Ryukyu as a source of national identity in the majority of the residents there? Or had there not been a widely shared sense of national identity in the first place?

Put yourself in the shoes—or rather the straw sandals, if that—of the medieval serf in one of the Ryukyu Islands. You are certainly aware of your landlord, most likely your landlord’s master and so on and likely whomever rules that island. Heck, you might even be dimly aware of the existence of the House of Sho or whichever holds sway in Shuri on the main island. But most of the last group of people and their immediate retainers have very little presence if any in your life because the modern-era media does not yet exist and the “government” provides few public services. You may take up arms to fight a war to protect your home and hearth, but not out of any sense of duty to a motherland whose seat of ultimate power lies…somewhere. For you and your descendants, for the descendants of perhaps most of the people on the Ryukyu Islands, Japan will be the only source of national identity that they will ever have. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the majority of the people of Ryukyu never sought independence after the American occupation.

This is not to say that the rest of Japan was much different. Indeed, one of the first acts of the new Meiji government was to send proselytizers to the four corners of the archipelago to tell the common folk that they were citizens of a country named Japan presided by a “Son of Heaven” who dwelt in Tokyo.

That must have been the case for the Korean serfs too, as well as the hereditary slaves and anyone else outside the yangban aristocracy there. Why then, do Koreans work so assiduously to align their national myths with China’s, when the experience of their forebears hade far more in common, if in the case of national subjugation with the Ryukyu Islands, if in the case of forced wartime labor or the comfort women with that of the people who called Taiwan or the Japanese archipelago home? I have some thoughts around this question too, but they are not yet gathered sufficiently to put them down in writing, even tentatively in blog-post form.

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