Indigenous Peoples Decry Militarism in the Pacific | United Nations Human Rights Council 47th session, June – July 2021, Geneva, Switzerland. Featuring Indigenous peoples from the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), the Mariana Islands (Guam and CNMI), and the Hawaiian Islands. Sponsored by Incomindios, a non-governmental organization in partnership with the Economic and Security Council of the United Nations. Co-sponsored by the Koani Foundation and the Peace For Okinawa Coalition. Special thanks to Our Common Wealth 670 and the Ryukyu Independence Action Network for their assistance.
Done in partial completion of of the PhD in History program at Liberty University
As part of my studies in the Ph.D. in History program at Liberty University, Dr. Joseph Super offered valuable feedback regarding my lecture on the History of Okinawans in Hawaii. His first question was why was there a large gap in time between Kalakaua’s request for workers in 1881 and 1900 when the first Okinawans finally migrated to Hawaii. This is a good question that deserves addressing.
Though Japan had annexed Ryukyu in 1879, and in 1881 Kalakaua requested migrants come to Hawaii, Ryukyuans were not immediately drawn to the offer. They were still trying to restore their independence, or to at least advance their rights and well-being through negotiations with Japan. Japan’s attempts following the annexation to eliminate Ryukyu culture, language, history, and religion were met with open hostility, and even spurred Ryukyuan resentment towards Japan.1 Thus the priority of most Ryukyuans at the time immediately following annexation was not to migrate, but to try and improve their situation.
As mentioned in the video, some Ryukyuans did migrate to China during or immediately following the annexation process. They did this in order to try and get the Chinese government to help restore Ryukyu’s independence.2 China at the time, though, was going through several internal and external crises of their own and was unable to help. China itself would soon be colonized by Britain, France, Russia, and Japan, and then fall into a disastrous civil war.
The first Ryukyuans finally did migrate to Hawaii in 1900. Those who did were generally not the adults who had lived through the annexation, but their children who had come of age and found their job prospects nil due to Japan’s abolishing of the Ryukyu government as well as the land redivision, leaving them with few fields to work or ocean resources to harvest, as had been the norm since time immemorial.3 Most Okinawans who migrated to Hawaii were in their late teens or early twenties and found the plantation work in Hawaii to be their best option – or in some cases, their only option.
Dr. Super’s next critique was that I put significant time and attention into dispelling the false reasons that sparked the Ryukyu diaspora. I was aware of this, but I nevertheless believe it to be necessary and important. The false reasons mentioned in the video have been well-propagated, including in some of the most popular books about the diaspora, and had I not taken the time to dispell these fallacies it would surely give way to much questioning and criticism. Normally I would not devote such time and attention to dispelling false information in an overview history lecture, but in this case I believe it was necessary.
Kerr’s false reasons for migrating are highly damaging for Ryukyuans even in the present day because it advances the notion that Ryukyuans must rely on foreign nations (a.k.a. colonization) for our economic well-being. This continues to have a significant impact on most of the issues Ryukyu currently faces. In other words, I think Kerr’s bias is in favor of the military colonization of Ryukyu as can be seen in his derogatory and inaccurate descriptions of some of Okinawa’s characteristics, thus justifying the ongoing military occupation of Ryukyu by Japan and the United States.
I should mention that I do not believe all of Kerr’s work is inaccurate. He generally did a good job of demonstrating Ryukyuans as an independent nation. Had he simply stopped at this, he would probably be fondly remembered by Ryukyuans. Instead, his frequent use of words such as “primitive,” “barbaric,” and “semi-civilized” to describe Ryukyuans is indicative of his bias, his lack of historical empathy, and his lack of understanding of Ryukyu.
I plan on later doing a detailed critique of Kerr’s best known work, Okinawa: History of an Island People.
I think that all people, including historians, naturally have a bias and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. As Dr. Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua told me, “All scholars (and people in general) have biases. Some scholars are aware of and up front about our biases and positionality. Others are not, and that is a reflection of their privilege.”
Academic studies about large nations are usually not detrimental to their survival or well-being, even if they contain some errors. For indigenous people, though, an inaccurate study can have a profoundly damaging impact on their day-to-day lives and even jeopardize our survival. Indigenous peoples such as Ryukyuans do not have the luxury of tolerating false information propagated by others that is harmful to the nation.
Overall Dr. Super’s feedback was helpful and will be useful when creating future lectures.
1Kerr, George. Okinawa: History of an Island People. Singapore: Charles E. Tuttle Company. 1958.
All Ryukyuans (Luuchuuans) trace their genealogy back to Amamichuu, the matriarch of the Ryukyu Islands, and her husband Shinirichuu.1 According to tradition and the Umuru Usooshi (Omoro Sooshi – the written compilation of ancient Ryukyu oral traditions), Amamichuu was sent by God (Chinmamun, in the Okinawan language – literally, “Heaven’s Emperor” or “Heavens Supreme Lord and Protector”) to populate the Ryukyu Islands. Legend has it that God placed them on Kudaka, which is one of the close neighboring islands just to the east of Okinawa Island. The date of this event is not known, though modern archeological evidence suggests the Ryukyu Islands were populated as early as 32,000 B.C.2 To this day Kudaka is considered one of the most sacred locations in all of Ryukyu, and Ryukyuans regularly make pilgrimages there to pay homage to their ancestors and give thanks to Heaven for bringing them to Ryukyu.
My ancestors lived in the town of Yuntanja, or Yomitan, located around the west-central part of Okinawa Island. During the early 1400s Yuntanja had a leader known as Gusamaru (or Gosamaru) who proved to be extremely well-liked by the public as well as a capable leader and engineer.3 Around the year 1440 Gosamaru was asked by the Ryukyu Kingdom court to move to Nakagusuku to improve its castle and region. Several families from Yuntanja, including my own, chose to follow Gosamaru to Nakagusuku.4 My family genealogy can be found in the ancient records stored in the Nakagusuku Village and Yomitan Town archives. As with most Ryukyuans, my written genealogical records can be traced back to around 1,000 years ago.
Ryukyu experienced two golden ages, the first around the 15th – 16th centuries, and the second between the 18th – 19th centuries.5 Around the 15th century Ryukyu banned weapons in order to promote peace, and Ryukyu had friendly diplomatic relations with all of its neighbors. Ryukyu became a center for international trade, particularly with China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and modern day Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Ryukyu government had requested that China send people to assist with the Ryukyu government administration, to teach Chinese studies to Ryukyuans, and to act as diplomats between Ryukyu and China. In 1392 the famous 36 Min Families arrived in Ryukyu from Fujian, China. They were given the district of Kuninda (Kumemura), located close to the royal court at Shuri, to inhabit. Overtime these Chinese scholar-bureaucrats eventually intermarried and assimilated into Ryukyu society, and today many Ryukyuans can trace partial lineage back to them.
In 1879 Japan invaded Ryukyu using modern Western-style military weapons, and annexed it against the will of the Ryukyuan people. Japan, of course, went on to do the same to many other countries, such as Korea, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and more. The annexation devastated Ryukyu’s economy. Ryukyuans, who up until this point had been wealthy and prosperous, suddenly found themselves living in poverty. Particularly impacted were the government workers of the Ryukyu Kingdom, who now found themselves out of a job. This sparked the Ryukyu diaspora, in which thousands of Ryukyuans would flee into exile overseas to China, Hawaii, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and elsewhere between the late-19th through the mid-20th centuries.
Meanwhile the Hawaiian Kingdom found itself in a crisis due to the massive decline in the Hawaiian population. Hawaii’s King Kalakaua worried that his people would eventually become outnumbered by haole (foreign, or white) settlers who were attempting to colonize and take over the Hawaiian Islands. Kalakaua saw Asians and Hawaiians as cousins, and requested that Asians and Pacific Islanders come to Hawaii to help replenish the Hawaiian population and assist the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1881, just two years after the annexation of Ryukyu, Kalakaua traveled to Japan where he met with the Meiji Government, and requested that Japanese and Ryukyuans migrate to Hawaii, to which Japan agreed.6
In 1893 a small group of white American businessmen conspired with the United States Ambassador to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom monarchy and establish their own oligarchy in what is often considered the single most traumatic event in Hawaiian history.7 Hawaiians to this day have struggled to re-establish Hawaii’s de facto independence.
The first Ryukyuans would arrive in Hawaii in 1900.8 Ryukyuans in Hawaii are often called Okinawans, or Uchinaanchu, since the majority migrated from Okinawa Island. In 1907 my great-grandfather Seitoku Fija (Higa) arrived in Maui from Nakagusuku.9 Ten years later my great-grandmother, Kamata Fija (Higa) would also arrive.10 They would eventually move to the Hakalau plantation village, located on the Island of Hawaii. Like most Okinawans, they would send money back home to their families in Ryukyu. Eventually they saved enough money and moved to the Island of Oahu. To this day Okinawans in Hawaii maintain thriving communities and relations with our friends and relatives in Okinawa.
Armstrong, Nevins Williams. Around the World With a King. New York: FA Strokes. 1904.
Coffman, Tom. Nation Within. Duke University Press: 2003.
Nakagusuku Village Historical Records.
Omoro Sooshi. 1531.
Sai On. Chuzan Seifu. 1697.
Sho Shoken, Sai Taku. Chuzan Seikan. 1650.
Hawaii Tomari Doshi Kai History Book.
Kyuyo. Tei Heitetsu, et. al. The Ryukyu Kingdom. 1745, 1876.
Uchinanchu: A History of Okianwans in Hawaii. University of Hawaii Press. 1981.
Yomitan Town Historical Records.
Yousuke Kaifu, Masaki Fujita. “Fossil record of early modern humans in East Asia.” Quaternary International. Volume 248, 18 January 2012, 2-11.