100th Anniversary of the 3/1 Korean Independence Movement and Okinawa

Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Editor, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

“Here, our people demand that Japan and each nation of the world provide us an opportunity for self-determination. We hereby declare that if our demand is not met, we will attempt to achieve independence by taking free action for our people’s survival.”

These are the concluding sentences of the 2/8 Independence Declaration, dated February 8, 1919, drafted by a group of Korean students who were studying in Japan when Korea was under Japan’s colonial rule. The declaration sparked the 3/1 Independence Movement three weeks later in their homeland. I had the opportunity to attend a 100th anniversary ceremony for the declaration held at the Korean YMCA in Tokyo on February 8, 2019.

The language of the ceremony was Korean, but a representative from the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) addressed us in Japanese, saying, “To the Japanese people who took the courage to be here today…” Hearing that, I realized it hadn’t taken any courage for me to be there.

The ceremony was held to reflect on the history in which Japan, following its opening of the country, took steps to conquer Korea; specifically, the history in which, according to the 2/8 Independence Declaration, Japan’s “administration, court, police and other authorities violated the human rights of Korean people, established a discriminatory relationship between our people and the Japanese both in public and in private, provided inferior education to our people, and attempted to eternally use our people as servants of the Japanese.”

The words of Mindan’s representative made me feel ashamed, as I realized that I was sitting at the ceremony without sufficiently feeling the weight of this history.

After that, I stayed in Tokyo until March 1, the 100th anniversary of the 3/1 Independence Movement of 1919, in which two million people participated across Korea. Of the events I attended in honor of the anniversary, one that particularly moved me was a lecture held in Yokohama titled “Korean Women Who Resisted Colonialism” by Song Younok, professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin Unversity. There were so many women like Kim Maria, who participated in the 2/8 Independence Declaration, then later got arrested and underwent terrible torture. Song emphasized that women’s participation in the movement meant that they had to be ready to accept sexual torture and that even if they survived, they would have to persevere judgement in a society bound by Confucian values. I thought that it’s easy to praise the courage of these women, but I wondered if I would have been able to do what they did? I did not have an answer. There would have been no suffering like that to begin with if it were not for the Japanese colonization. All I can do is express my deepest respect for those women.

This March marks not only the 100th anniversary of the 3/1 Independence Movement but also the 140th anniversary of Japan’s forceful annexation of the Ryukyus on March 27, 1879, when the Meiji government destroyed the kingdom that had ruled there for nearly five centuries. The modern nation of Japan deprived the Ryukyu people of their ancestral languages, beliefs, culture, and pride, just as it did in Korea. The 100th anniversary of 3/1 and the 140th anniversary of 3/27 are connected, and Japanese people need to deeply inscribe both these histories into their minds.

Colonialism in both regions is still ongoing, and at its root is Japan’s alliance with the biggest military threat in the world–the United States. The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty thwarts unification and independence of Korea and concentrates military bases in Okinawa.

In a prefectural referendum held in Okinawa on February 24, over 70 percent of those who (with 52 percent of eligible voters participating in the referendum) opposed the construction of a new U.S. Marine base in Henoko. It was a reaffirmation of what we all knew already, but for many Okinawans, this referendum signified an expression of their demand to the Japanese government for the right to self-determination.

Ironically, on the very day of the referendum, something happened that symbolized Japan’s colonialism against Okinawa. A national ceremony in Tokyo to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s emperorship had an Okinawan singer perform a Ryukyu-style song the lyrics of which were written by Emperor Akihito and the music of which was composed by Empress Michiko. I could not believe my eyes.

Canada, where I live, is a nation built on the first peoples’ land by English and French colonists, of which the head of state is the Queen of the United Kingdom. Canada designates a Governor General as representative of the Queen. If, for example, the Governor General of Canada had an indigenous artist perform an indigenous-style song that she wrote herself in an indigenous language for her own celebration, that would be regarded as an act of cultural appropriation and would undoubtedly cause an uproar of criticism across the nation.

At the emperor’s ceremony, Abe even unabashedly led a “Long Live His Majesty Emperor (tenno heika banzai)!” chant. What has this country learned from the history of the Empire of Japan?

However, there was hardly any criticism of this from Japanese “liberals.” Why? Is it not because of the “emperor taboo”? Japan expanded its empire under the name of the emperor. Any discourse on Japan’s colonialism cannot be separated from the emperor system. As long as it is considered taboo to criticize the emperor system, and as long as society as a whole suppresses any discussion or question regarding it, we cannot call this country a democracy.

As we reach the 100th anniversary of the Korean 3/1 Movement and the 140th anniversary of the 3/27 Ryukyu annexation, I feel that there is a long way ahead for Japan to overcome its colonialism, but I, with clear awareness of historical responsibility as a Japanese person, want to learn from history, and want to be part of an effort to build a peaceful future with my fellow Asians.

Above is the gist of the speech I gave at a big rally to commemorate the 100th anniversary of 3/1 in front of the Studio ALTA building in Shinjuku, Tokyo, as I was deafened by the angry yells of right-wingers who were there to sabotage us. I felt like I was standing at the entrance to an endless journey of learning.

This is an English version of the author’s article, the 24th of her column series Norimatsu Satoko no me, which appeared in Ryukyu Shimpo on March 10, 2019.


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