Editorial: Taking of Ryukyuan bones for anthropology must be investigated and their return debated

February 17, 2017 Ryukyu Shimpo

Our ancestors’ bones were taken from the tombs where they slept, and have remained unreturned for more than 75 years. This is unacceptable even if they were allegedly taken for research purposes.

It has been discovered that bones of at least 26 people taken by anthropologists conducting research in the Mumujana tombs in Nakijin Village in 1928 and 1929 are being stored at Kyoto University. Remains of another 33 people are being stored at Taiwan University. There are also other cases of bones being taken. We must make it a priority to uncover all the facts as quickly as possible.

The bones from the Mumujana tombs were taken by Takeo Kanaseki, an anthropologist and assistant professor at Kyoto Imperial University. He wrote a book titled “Ethnographic Study of the Ryukyu People” detailing his research in Okinawa and collection of bones. A study by the Nakijin Board of Education confirmed that Kyoto University and Taiwan University still have the bones that were taken by Professor Kanaseki, who subsequently moved to Taiwan University.

The taking of remains from Okinawa by anthropologists must be considered in view of the trends in anthropology at the time.

Physical anthropology and comparative anatomy, which were born in 19th century Europe, used the study of the bones of prisoners and colonized peoples to reveal differences between races and the process of evolution. When anthropology first came to Japan, researchers introduced European methods and attempted, through their work, to reveal the superiority of the Japanese.

We must not overlook the fact that this research served to support modern Japan as it pursued its own colonial policy in competition with the great European powers. Japanese researchers collected remains of Ainu, Taiwanese and Korean people whose lands were forcefully taken over as part of Japan, and used the fruits of their research to justify Japan’s domination by force. Since the end of World War II, there have been critiques of the anthropology’s complicity in colonialism.

The collection of bones from Okinawa should also be thoroughly investigated. After the facts are uncovered, we must discuss whether the bones should be returned and how they should be preserved. The Ainu movement for the return of remains serves as a reference.

Since the 1980s, when the Hokkaido Former Aborigines Protection Act was abolished and the opportunity to call for self-determination increased, a movement calling for the return of Ainu remains became active. Descendants of the deceased filed a lawsuit against the Hokkaido prefectural government demanding the return of the bones.

The Ministry of Education is carrying out a survey of remains stored at universities in Japan. By 2020, the government plans to build a memorial facility in Hokkaido for bones currently held at twelve Japanese universities.

The collection of bones severely harmed the dignity and culture of Ainu and Okinawan people. The Japanese government and research institutions should express remorse by thoroughly investigating where Ryukyuan remains are being stored and making the truth known to the public.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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