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On March 29, 1879, the king of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Shō Tai, and his retinue
made their way sadly through the gates of Shuri Castle, the seat of Ryūkyūan royal
power for almost five hundred years, for the last time. Shō Tai had no choice but to
surrender his castle to Matsuda Michiyuki who, representing the Meiji government,
arrived in the island kingdom with a combined Japanese military and police force of
400 to impose a final settlement to the question of the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s relationship
to Japan. The eviction was symbolic of the indignities that the kingdom was subject to
in the last days of its existence, capturing as it did—and in a most visible manner to
the kingdom’s inhabitants and the king himself—the loss of Ryūkyūan political
autonomy that accompanied the islands’ incorporation into the modern Japanese
nation-state as its southernmost territory, “Okinawa Prefecture.”
Until their incorporation into the Japanese nation-state as Okinawa Prefecture,
the Ryūkyū Islands were the autonomous Ryūkyū Kingdom, ruled by the Shō dynasty
of kings from their seat of power, Shuri Castle. Before unification in the mid-15th
century, the Ryūkyū Kingdom was divided into three competing power blocks:
Hokuzan, Chūzan, and Nanzan. Shō Hashi of Chūzan unified the kingdom in 1429
and established the capital at Shuri. The Ryūkyū Kingdom was a vassal of the Ming
Dynasty and the tribute trade that came from this relationship was the basis of the
kingdom’s prosperity as an entrepot. The Shō kings also derived much of their
political legitimacy from this relationship with the Chinese empire. Despite its payment
of tribute to China and the significant Chinese influence in its cultural, economic, and
political life, the Ryūkyū Kingdom maintained a high level of political autonomy. In
addition to Korea, Siam, and Southeast Asian polities as far as Java, the kingdom
maintained relations of trade and cultural exchange with Japan, with whom it
coexisted as independent polities. This period of Okinawan history, known as the
period of “Kō Ryūkyū” (old Ryūkyū), saw the emergence and flowering of the Ryūkyū
Kingdom’s unique social, political, and cultural identity and its rise as an important
node in what Hamashita Takeshi and Kawakatsu Heita have called the “intra-Asia
trade system” (ajia ikinai kōei ken).[1]
In 1609, Satsuma domain on Japan’s southernmost island invaded the kingdom
on the pretext that the kingdom failed to pay proper respect to the new shogun,
Tokugawa Ieyasu. Satsuma’s forces sacked Shuri Castle and kidnapped the king,
Shō Nei, to Kagoshima.[2] The settlement, when it came, had two parts. The first
demanded that the Ryūkyū court declare that it had been Satsuma’s dependency
since “ancient times,” and acknowledge that Satsuma’s invasion was proper
punishment for the kingdom’s inattention to the rules of obligation that governed that
relationship. Secondly, Satsuma monopolized the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s lucrative tribute
trade with China and forced the kingdom to keep up an appearance of independence
in order to continue this trade. This resulted in a state of “dual vassalage” (ryōzoku)
for the Ryūkyū Kingdom: alongside the kingdom’s existing arrangement as a tributary
state of the Chinese empire, the kingdom came under Satsuma’s economic and
political domination, and this arrangement of doubled subordination continued into the
mid-19th century.[3] However, after the establishment of the modern Japanese nation-
state in 1868, the Japanese government began, in 1872, a process known later as
the Ryūkyū shobun (often translated into English as “Ryūkyū Disposition”) to formally
incorporate the Ryūkyū Kingdom into the borders of modern Japan.[4] Shō Tai’s
removal from Shuri Castle was the final, signal moment of this 7-year process that
marked the end of the Ryūkyū Kingdom and the beginning of islands’ life as Okinawa
Following his removal from Shuri Castle, both the Japanese government and the
now-defunct Ryūkyūan court moved to control Shō Tai’s physical body. The Ryūkyūan
kingship was evidence of the kingdom’s close relationship with China and constituted
a prominent marker of the kingdom’s difference and autonomy from Japan. The
removal of this marker of difference was vital if the kingdom’s incorporation into
Japan was to be complete, and Shō Tai’s eviction was an attempt at the visible
rejection and destruction of this sign of difference.[5] The Japanese government’s
Council of State (Dajōkan) impressed upon Matsuda that he was to brook no
negotiation whatsoever on the question of Shō Tai’s eviction from the castle or his
removal to Tokyo.[6] On their part, Shō Tai and his court tried their best to delay the
move on the grounds of Shō Tai’s illness, a final attempt to assert a modicum of
control over a situation that was so clearly out of their hands. But these efforts were
to no avail; Shō Tai boarded a ship for Tokyo on May 27, 1879, after government
doctors declared that travel would not aggravate his “chronic mental illness” (mansei
no seishinbyō) and could benefit his sickened body and mind.[7] In the frame of Ernst
Kantorowicz’s theory of kingship, Shō Tai’s eviction and his forced relocation
compressed the king’s political body into his physical one, and became a
demonstration of the Japanese state’s authority over both.[8]
Yet even as the Japanese government was concerned with controlling Shō Tai’s
physical body, it was equally interested in the site of Shō Tai’s power, Shuri Castle. In
the days leading up to Shō Tai’s removal from Shuri Castle, Japanese military and
police forces were stationed at the castle’s various gates for “protection” and to
maintain surveillance over the things that the Ryūkyūan court was moving out of the
castle.[9] The day before the deadline, Matsuda gave Captain Masumichi Kunisuke
formal orders to occupy and secure Shuri Castle after Shō Tai’s departure. The
Japanese state’s intention to control both the Ryūkyūan king and the site of his power
was not unexpected, since the Japanese state must have been aware of the potential
that Shuri Castle, as the political and sacerdotal center of an autonomous Ryūkyū
Kingdom, had for becoming a rallying point for opposition, and they were mindful of
the need to exert explicit control over the sites and symbols of the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s
political autonomy.
There was an irony to how Okinawa’s incorporation into the Japanese nation-
state should have been sealed by the expulsion of the Ryūkyūan king from Shuri
Castle, a symmetry of movement marking the beginning of a new phase of
asymmetrical relations of Okinawa’s subordination in the Japanese nation-state.
However, that Okinawa’s incorporation into Japan should have been encapsulated in
Shō Tai’s departure from Shuri Castle is significant in another way. It foreshadowed a
dynamic, one that persists into the present, that tied place to place—the castle to
Japan—and prefigured the central place that Shuri Castle, and the cultural heritage
that it was the best example of, would come to play in creating, maintaining, and
negotiating Okinawa’s position with the Japanese nation-state.
Okinawa’s incorporation into a subordinate position in the Japanese nation-state,
and the role that Okinawa’s cultural heritage, especially Shuri Castle, plays in
creating, maintaining, negotiating, and resisting that position are the subjects of this
book. It argues that Okinawa’s cultural heritage has been—and continues to be—an
important tool with which the Japanese state and its agent, the United States during
its 27-year rule of the islands (1945–1972), and the Okinawan people articulated and
negotiated Okinawa’s relationship with the Japanese nation-state. For these three
groups, Okinawa’s cultural heritage was a powerful way to utilize the symbolism of
material objects to manage and represent the islands’ cultural past for their own
political aims. The Japanese state, its agents, and American authorities sought to use
Okinawa’s cultural heritage to control, discipline, and subordinate Okinawa. For
Okinawans, their cultural heritage gave them a powerful way to resist Japanese and
American rule, and to negotiate a more equitable position for themselves. At the
same time, however, Okinawan strategies to deploy their cultural heritage politically
are deeply intertwined with, and to a significant extent enabled by, precisely those
Japanese and American attempts to govern Okinawa through its cultural heritage.
The political role that Okinawa’s cultural heritage played is thus a window into a wider
process of how nation-states and other political formations make themselves
acceptable to the people they rule, how the ruled seek out the spaces to make claims
of their own, and how cultural pasts, once they are made usable, are implicated in
these processes.
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture and is made up of 160 islands that
stretch across 250 miles of ocean from the south of Kyushu to the north of Taiwan.
The largest of these—Okinawa’s main island, Okinawa hontō, with the prefectural
capital of Naha—is the prefecture’s political and economic center on which more than
92% of the prefecture’s 1.4 million people live. The old royal capital of Shuri lies
several miles north of Naha and its landscape is dominated by Shuri Castle, which sits
atop a hill and overlooks the cities old and new with its vermillion architecture and
imposing ishigaki-stone walls. Visitors to the castle begin at the bottom of the hill,
where after winding one’s way upwards through a series of gates—Shureimon,
Kankaimon, Zuisenmon, Rokkokumon, Kōfukumon, and Hōshinmon—they enter the
courtyard (the una) and face Shuri Castle’s the main hall, the seiden (figure I.1),
flanked by the Hokuden and Nanden halls. The main hall houses the elaborate throne
room and is a double-roofed building with magnificent dragons at the ends of its roof
ridge. Dragons also adorn the elaborately carved bargeboard over the hall’s porch,
and two dragon pillars face each other across the stone staircase that leads to the
hall’s entrance.

The seiden (main hall) of Shuri Castle, Okinawa.

Shuri Castle is one of many gusuku that dot Okinawa and its surrounding islands,
but it is the only one to be fully restored.[10] While the exact date of its construction is
unknown, it is generally accepted that Shuri Castle was built during the period of
gusuku construction in the 13th century, and that Shō Hashi (1372-1439) of Chūzan,
who unified the kingdom in 1429, designated Shuri Castle as the seat of his power.[11]
Shuri Castle’s main hall was designated a “national treasure” (kokuhō) of Japan in
1925, but it was completely destroyed in the last days of the Battle of Okinawa by
devastating American bombardment, in part because the 32nd Imperial Army had
tunneled its headquarters into the hillside beneath the castle. After the war, the
University of the Ryukyus, the islands’ first tertiary institution, was built on the castle’s
site during American rule of Okinawa. Shuri Castle was rebuilt in time to
commemorate the 20th anniversary of Okinawa’s Reversion to mainland control in
1992. In 1999, Shuri Castle, together with eight other properties in the prefecture,
was inscribed UNESCO’s World Heritage List as Japan’s eleventh World Heritage
Despite theoretically being as equal a member of the Japanese nation-state as
Japan’s other 46 prefectures which Okinawa refers to collectively as the “mainland”
(hondo), Okinawa’s relationship with the Japanese nation-state is highly contested.
The history of Okinawa Prefecture since its establishment in 1879 to the present has
been a history of domination by the mainland, in which the prefecture continues to
inhabit a subordinate position, and Okinawans continue to struggle for a more
equitable position for themselves. Whether in the outright discrimination of Okinawans
as “backward” in the prewar period, or the sacrifice of the islands to stave off the
invasion of the mainland in WWII which resulted in the only land battle on Japanese
soil and the death of a third of its civilian population, the mainland has repeatedly
demanded that Okinawa make sacrifices not asked of any other part of Japan.
Okinawa’s current overwhelming burden of 75% of American military facilities in
Japan today despite comprising only 0.6% of Japan’s total land area is only the latest
—and most obvious—manifestation of the prefecture’s subordinate position, and it
illustrates the contours of the problem. The asymmetry of the relationship manifests
not only in the objective reality of Okinawa’s militarized everyday, but also in the
mainland’s—both the state and the Japanese public in general—entrenched refusal to
consider Okinawa’s point of view, that combines of a lack of political will to
meaningfully attempt to engage with Okinawa’s many legitimate grievances and the
expectation that Okinawa should, as a member of the Japanese nation-state, accept
conditions that the mainland dictates.[13]
Importantly, rather than a temporary imbalance in policy, Okinawa’s unequal
relationship with Japan has been historically produced and structurally consolidated
over the course of the long trajectory of Japan’s domination of the islands, beginning
with Satsuma’s invasion in 1609, and continuing with important differences after the
Ryūkyū Kingdom’s formal incorporation as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. Takara
Kurayoshi argues that Satsuma’s 1609 invasion of the Ryūkyū Kingdom was the first
of a two-stage process in which the kingdom was absorbed into the structure of the
Japanese polity as “a foreign polity within the bakuhan system” (bakuhan seido no
naka no ikoku).[14] The establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 marked the
second stage of this process of incorporation that was a repetition of the attempt to
incorporate the islands, but it also introduced new schemes of Japanese domination,
configured to achieve different aims. The Akutagawa Prize-winning Okinawan-born
novelist Ōshiro Tatsuhiro suggests that while Satsuma’s invasion affected the
Ryūkyūan court and aristocracy, the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture exposed
all of the islands’ inhabitants to Japanese rule; Tomiyama Ichirō suggests a much
deeper connection as developing after 1879 when he argues that the discrimination
against Okinawa after the establishment of the prefecture was a logic inherent in the
foundations of modern Japanese society itself.[15]
One way to understand Okinawa’s place within the Japanese nation-state is in
terms of Japan’s career as a colonial empire. Tomiyama suggests that for the
inhabitants of the Ryūkyū Islands, “becoming a member of the modern Japanese
nation-state was nothing other than the start of being on the receiving end of colonial
domination.”[16] In a similar fashion, Oguma Eiji examined how logics and practices of
Othering commonly deployed in colonial structures of domination produced “Okinawa”
and “Okinawans.”[17] Nakano Yasuo’s observation that the Japanese state’s
annexation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom was the forerunner of Japan’s colonization of

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