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The Okinawa Factor in Japan–China Relations

Dr Arnab Dasgupta is a Research Analyst in the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 04, 2023

    On 3 July 2023, a delegation of 80-odd members of the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade, led by former House of Representatives speaker Yohei Kono, visited Beijing for a four-day trip to meet with senior Chinese officials.1 Among the delegation was Denny Tamaki, Governor of Okinawa prefecture, Japan’s southernmost set of islands. During the visit, Tamaki paid his respects at the collective grave of people from his prefecture interred on the outskirts of Beijing. The graves are of people who died due to various causes during the later half of the Qing dynasty (1636–1911).2 Tamaki then headed to Fujian province in the south of China, where he met local Communist Party officials, including the governor of the province.3 After returning to Japan, he expressed satisfaction with his visit, and prayed for good relations to continue.

    Tamaki’s visit may mark a unique case of Japanese subnational diplomacy, but his itinerary has raised quite a few eyebrows in Tokyo. This is because his comments at the gravesite mentioned above were quite unexpected. Tamaki promised to “inherit and firmly maintain ties between Okinawa and China” in order to create a “peaceful and rich era”. Earlier, before departing for Beijing, he commented that he intended Okinawa to “maintain connections with various countries” instead of “being concerned about increasing tensions”.

    These statements echo the June 2023 remarks by a former governor of Fujian province, President Xi Jinping, who in a visit to the national archives of China flagged the historical ties between Fujian province and Okinawa, then known as Ryukyu.4 Xi also expressed hope for the future relationship between the two.

    Some sections of Japanese political and policy circles are concerned that China might be positioning itself to eventually raise doubts about Japanese control over Okinawa , or  claim Okinawa  as “traditional Chinese territory” . To be sure, there is merit to these speculations, as this is the same strategy China has used before in its territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea reefs, and with Tibet in the middle of the 20th century. However, just the act of questioning Japan’s sovereignty over these islands may be enough to significantly destabilise Japan’s security posture and divert significant resources away that could deter China from invading Taiwan. Furthermore, a closer look at Okinawa’s history reveals that the problem, such as it is, is partly one of Japan’s own making. This is because, until 1872, Okinawa was not Japanese territory at all.

    Okinawa’s Complex History

    Okinawa was originally known as Ryukyu (Luchu to the Chinese) and was an independent kingdom under its own government. In the 15th century, the kingdom rose to prominence as a trade hub between the Japanese and Chinese empires, and entered into tributary relations with both Ming China and later the feudal samurai lords of the Satsuma domain (presently Kagoshima prefecture) in Japan.

    The small island kingdom was able to maintain its de facto independence for almost 500 years, until Western ships began appearing near Japanese shores, collapsing the mainland’s military government and its policy of sakoku, or National Isolation. A newly revamped Empire of Japan, seeking to secure its rear flank and eager to acquire an overseas empire of its own, invaded and occupied Ryukyu in 1872, ending its independence by annexing the country as Okinawa prefecture in 1879.

    Even before the Second World War, Japanese policies of assimilation, such as banning the Okinawan language and dress, were unpopular among the people of the islands. However, it was in the heat of the Second World War that Okinawa endured its toughest trial, in the form of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, also called the ‘typhoon of steel’. Over 12,000 American and 1,00,000 Japanese servicemen lost their lives, alongside 1,00,000 Okinawan civilians, most of whom were ordered to kill themselves by the Japanese military.5

    After the war, Okinawa remained under the control of the victorious United States for more than 20 years beyond the San Francisco Peace Treaty that officially ended the American occupation in the rest of the country. Even after reversion in 1972, the Okinawan islands, representing less than one per cent of the total Japanese landmass, played host to over 70 per cent of US forward bases placed there to protect the Japanese mainland from external attack.

    As a result, the islands became home to an active anti-war movement, alongside other left-wing ideologies. The US bases became especially objectionable after several crimes committed by US servicemen in Okinawan cities, such as the rape and murder of a high school girl in 1995, galvanised a profound sense of antipathy and alienation among an already disaffected populace. Many Okinawans today are hesitant to identify with the mainland, and remain opposed to Tokyo’s security concerns.

    The constant military movements impact  the residents’ physical and mental well-being, as well as the tropical ecosystem of the islands.6 Okinawa is  the poorest prefecture in Japan, with an unemployment rate of over 3.2 per cent in 2022, as compared to the Japanese average of 2.64 per cent.7 Further, the placement of advanced missile interceptor systems such as Patriot-3 batteries around the islands has raised the anxieties of locals, as these are sure to be targeted in the event of a conflict.

    China’s goals

    It is these anxieties that China wishes to exploit. By cultivating a sense that Okinawans are an independent entity, the Chinese may be able to stoke opposition to the bases, and embolden anti-base activists to oppose the facilities more stridently. They could also encourage the Okinawans to seek alternative sources of investment and trade from Chinese sources in order to counter the tight financial control exercised by Tokyo, enabling Okinawa to stand up to the latter in matters of national security. Should Japan oppose this or place artificial controls on Okinawan investment, China could easily make the case that Japan’s control of the islands is coercive after all, and help to dent Japan’s image in the eyes of the international community, as any controls would effectively violate Japan’s democratic norms.

    More insidiously, in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, Okinawa, which is only 628 kilometres away, must be taken out of the picture.8 In this, the nuisance value of the anti-base movement plays a vital role, as it may cripple Japan’s response to the attack by means of strikes and other demonstrations. Statements made by Governor Tamaki already paint such a picture: in an interview he gave to Global Times, he said that he “cannot allow Okinawa to become an easier target for attack simply because U.S. military bases are concentrated here”.9 In this sense, a divided Okinawa hampers the rapid movement of Japanese Self-Defence Forces to some extent, even if it may not hamper US forces.


    If Okinawans’ genuine concerns are to be assuaged, an acknowledgement of Japan’s ethnic diversity would go a long way. The government made a good start in 2019 by acknowledging through legislation that the Ainu community of Hokkaido are the indigenous inhabitants of Japan.10 A similar legislation that notes Ryukyu’s independent history and acknowledges mainland Japanese assimilation policies as oppressive would take the sting out of several points of criticism. Additionally, in order to prevent the base issue from festering, Japan could  consider moving a sizeable number of US bases out of the prefecture to other places around the Japanese mainland. Doing so would not only lighten the burden currently borne by Okinawa, but also improve national security, as dispersed bases in multiple locations would make it harder for China to launch missile strikes against them.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.