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Okinawa & the Southwest Islands

History

For centuries, Okinawa and the Southwest Islands were ruled by aji (local chieftains), who battled for control of small fiefs, and struggled among themselves for power and fame. In 1429, however, the islands were united by Sho Hashi of the Chūzan kingdom, which led to the establishment of the Ryūkyū dynasty. During this era, Sho Hashi increased contact with China, which contributed to the flourishing of Okinawan music, dance, literature and ceramics. In this ‘Golden Era’, weapons were prohibited, and the islands were rewarded with peace and tranquillity.

With no weapons and little means of defence, the Ryūkyū kingdom was not prepared for war when the Shimazu clan of Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima) invaded in 1609. The Shimazu conquered the Ryūkyū kingdom easily, and then established severe controls over their trade. While the rest of Japan closed its doors to the world prior to 1853, the Shimazu sustained trade with China under the guise of the Ryūkyū kingdom. The islands were controlled with an iron fist, and taxed and exploited greedily for the next 250 years.

With the restoration of the Meiji emperor and the abolition of the Japanese feudal system, the Ryūkyūs were annexed to Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. However, life hardly changed for the islanders as they were treated as foreign subjects by the Japanese government, just as they had been by the Shimazu. Furthermore, the Meiji government stamped out local culture by outlawing the teaching of Ryūkyū history in schools, and establishing Japanese as the official language.

As a consequence, Ryūkyū islanders paid a heavy price for their new citizenship in the closing stages of WWII as Okinawa became the only battlefield on Japanese soil. By the time the Battle of Okinawa was over, 12, 500 US soldiers and an estimated quarter of a million Japanese had died. Even today, many locals feel that Okinawa was sacrificed to save the mainland.

The post-war history of the region has been characterised by the collusion between Washington and Tokyo, which has transformed the island of Okinawa-hontō into one of the most heavily armed places on earth.