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History of Okinawa

History of Okinawa

Table of contents
1 Okinawan history up to 1945
2 The crucial year 1945
3 After 1945

Okinawan history up to 1945

Large parts of this history come from George Feifer's history of the Battle of Okinawa (references).

When Commodore Perry visited Okinawa in 1854, he noted:

It would be difficult for you to imagine the beauties of this island with respect to the charming scenery and the marvelous perfection of cultivation.

Sadly, the island's history has not been all as pleasant as that scenery.

The source of modern-day Okinawans is disputed. Evidence suggests the island was never part of formal Japanese territory until annexation in 1872. The earliest inhabitants were likely descended from crossovers via a prehistoric land bridge from modern-day China, with a later mixture of Malaysians, Micronesians, and Japanese.

Early Chinese visitors noted the hospitality of the islanders, and its brutal poverty.

Pressed between two powerful neighbors — China and Japan — it suited them well to be polite. After the European explorers of the 19th century, they had greedy Dutch, Portuguese, English, and others, who always noted the hospitality of the natives.

The Okinawan language seems to be a scion of Japanese, having split off long ago.

The dominant economy was farming of sugar cane, and later on, the potato, without which far more Okinawans would have died in the 1945 battle. Other farmed items include guava, banana, papaya, and tobacco.

Okinawans were not always poor. In the fifteenth and sixtenth century, they traded from Java to Japan, to China and Korea.

At about the end of the sixteenth century, the Japanese feudal leader ordered Okinawa to give men and arms for a Chinese invasion. Okinawans generally opposed military adventures; there is a widespread (and possibly false) story that during the huge (and failed) Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, that the Okinawans refused to help the Mongols, being later ravaged by them. Nor did they wish to ruin their Korean trade; the Japanese planned its attack via this peninsula. They did not wish to offend China, to whom they had strong trade and cultural ties.

The attack went without Okinawa's help, and the Japanese ruler meanwhile died. There was a ferocious battle of succession; the Shimazu family of Kyushu Island won — the Satsumas, the Okinawans nearest Japanese neighbors.

The Shimazu's wanted Okinawa's trade, and wanted favor with the regime in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), and the Okinawans (presumably) had not paid respects to the new regime in Kyushu. Permission to punish Okinawa was granted the rulers in Edo, doubtless happy that the murderous Satsuma clan was causing trouble elsewhere, to the south — not north in Tokyo.

The Okinawan invasion was in 1609. Three thousand men and more than one hundred war junks sailed from Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu. The Okinawans were nearly weaponless; many treasures were taken to Kagoshima.

The Satsuma rulers never permitted Okinawans to own arms, leading to Okinawa's most famous contribution to world culture — karate (below).

The Satsumas enacted crippling taxes, taking over the island trade; we note Japan had been closed in 1636. Okinawans sometimes couldn't eat the fish they caught.

After Perry's "black ships" came by, the Meiji Restoration proceeded after the Meiji Emperor attained the throne in 1867. Tokyo told China that Okinawans were Japanese — dubious at best. A pawn in a great game of chess, the weaker Chinese gave in, though the ignored Okinawans themselves would have preferred Chinese rule to Japanese.

The island were formally annexed to Japan in 1879, the monarchy in Shuri Castle abolished. While they were ostensibly Japanese, Okinawans experienced (and sometimes still do) extreme racism. The island grew poorer.

As a side note, the mongoose was introduced from India in 1910 to control the poisonous habu snake.

Tokyo mandated Japanese language in the slowly-expanding school system, wanting to render the islanders Japanese citizens. By 1939 there was compulsory military training. Some educated Okinawans wanted to end Okinawa's culture and become Japanese. As the Japanese rolled from one military victory to another from 1931 to 1941, when they made the arguably worst military mistake in all history at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese did seem God's chosen people; perhaps the Japanese would one day sit astride the entire world. Had they attached themselves to the right master?

Into the 1940s, Okinawans were fed a constant stream of propaganda. By 1944, Okinawans were befuddled by their Japanese masters. There were wartime shortages, women were raped, and civilian products commandeered for military use.

Long subject to typhoons, powerful neighbors, and disease, they now faced a new and truly deadly enemy — the Americans.

The crucial year 1945

The year 1945 was defined by the Battle of Okinawa (which see), and the consequent annexation of Okinawa by the Americans.

The Battle of Okinawa, fought in 1945, was one of the last major battles of World War II, claiming the lives of an estimated 120,000 people. Okinawa was the only place where there was a land battle in Japan during WW II, and it was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. In addition to the Japanese military people who died fighting in the Battle of Okinawa, more than one third of the civilian population, 100,000 people, died. The Okinawa victims were not only killed by bombs and shells, but also by the Japanese military.

The Americans were under strict orders not to harm civilians, but there were atrocities such as the Cave of the Virgins, where many Okinawan school girls were killed. ((Were they killed or did they commit suicide? I was stationed on Okinawa from 1975 to 1977 and I recollect stories told by locals that the school girls jumped off of the cliffs for fear of being raped by the "invaders". A fear put into their heads by the Japanese and not by American GI comportment or behavior.))

The island was occupied by the United States as a result of World War II.

After 1945

This history is at the present writing still fragmentary; any knowledgeable persons would be welcomed to contribute more.

On November 21, 1969 US President Richard Nixon and Japanese Premier Eisaku Sato agreed in Washington, DC on the return of Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972. Under terms of the agreement, the US retained its rights to bases on the island, but those bases were to be nuclear-free. The United States military still controls about 19% of the island, and this presence is subject to much controversy: while the Americans give jobs to the locals and pay much rent on land, some Americans have committed serious crimes on the island. ((And some Americans have been accused of committing crimes when in fact they were "set up" by factions interested in getting the US forces removed from Okinawa.)) ((Not an indictment of the text you have here but of the way in which you present the facts. They seem to be somewhat slanted against the US. Understandibly perhaps, but slanted nonetheless.))

Okinawa remains the poorest prefecture of Japan as of this writing (August 2003).