Editorial: Critics of “indigenous people” designation must recognize history of annexation and oppression

April 29, 2016 Ryukyu Shimpo

Japan’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Seiji Kihara has said that he wants to urge the United Nations to amend and effectively withdraw a recommendation that describes Okinawans as an indigenous people and encouraged the Japanese government to protect Okinawan language, culture, and history.

Kihara claims that the UN recommendation “differs from the Japanese government’s position” and “does not accurately reflect the realities of our country.” However, a look at the modern and contemporary history of Ryukyu/Okinawa shows that Kihara’s position itself is highly problematic.

With the “Ryukyu disposition,” the Japanese government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom using military force. At the time, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a sovereign state recognized under international law that had signed amity treaties with three other countries: the United States, France, and the Netherlands.

The Japanese government has avoided making a decision about whether it recognizes that the Ryukyu Kingdom was a sovereign state. Nonetheless, Kihara took it upon himself to urge the modification and withdrawal of the UN recommendation on the grounds that it “differs from the Japanese government’s position.” Does the Japanese government not need to clarify its position on the status of the Ryukyu Kingdom before a government official is able to make such a statement?

The designation of “indigenous peoples” referred to in the UN recommendation was developed by the United Nations and the international community to provide relief to minorities suffering from discrimination and human rights violations. The recommendation emphasizes the fact that Okinawan people were robbed of their land rights.

This is the fourth time the United Nations has recommended that Okinawans be recognized as an indigenous people. It is based on the reality of the Ryukyu disposition, acknowledges Japan’s subsequent rule over and oppression of Okinawa, and urges rectification of the situation. Such rectification would also apply to the human rights violations associated with the concentration of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

Many different opinions exist regarding the term “indigenous people.” The Tomigusuku City Council has demanded withdrawal of the UN recommendation, saying that “Okinawans are Japanese, and are by no means an indigenous people.”

But the UN recommendation, which urges the government to deal with issues of discrimination based on a definition of “indigenous people” that focuses on protecting minorities and land rights, has validity. It should be respected, given the international community’s experience of fighting against colonial rule and for restoration of the right to self-determination. It is wrong-headed to criticize the recommendation based solely on narrow conceptions of race and ancestry.

To demand the modification and revocation of the recommendation is tantamount to announcing to the international community that Japan intends to ignore the structural discrimination that long caused Okinawa to suffer. It is rather the government’s duty to put the terms of the recommendation into practice and alleviate structural discrimination against Okinawa.

LDP Diet member Masahisa Miyazaki’s views are also problematic. In his question to Kihara, Miyazaki suggested that the UN recommendation “amounts to a plot to create ethnic divisions.” This assertion runs counter to the Okinawan people’s demand for relief from discrimination. It also shows a lack of understanding of Okinawa’s modern and contemporary history. Is his statement itself not a plot to create divisions among Okinawans?

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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