Will China attack Japan? An archipelago of dissent

Tokyo urged Okinawa residents to commit mass suicide during the war. There were gruesome scenes when a panicked father preferred to kill members of his own family and finally himself, rather than surrender to the Americans.

When Chinese Premier Li Qiang was receiving members of a Japanese economic organisation in early July 2023, he pointed to Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki for a commemorative photograph in the most prominent position to his left. The incident caught the attention of the Japanese, after all, senior figures were among the delegation, led by 86-year-old Yohei Kono, a former parliamentary speaker who stood to Li Qiang's right. In Chinese diplomacy, small gestures often weigh more than official declarations. What game is Beijing playing?

The Japanese media were quick to recall an article that had appeared on the front page of the regime's 'People's Daily', even a month earlier. It was a report on Xi Jinping's visit to the new headquarters of the State Archives, during which the head of the institution presented the leader with documents proving the historical links between the Kingdom of Ryukyu and China. Xi showed great familiarity with the subject - after all, he had held high office in the east coast city of Fuzhou for a dozen years, from where a number of families had moved to Riukiu centuries ago. These people, to pay homage to their ancestors, would later visit their hometowns, as commemorated in a local museum.

As it happens, the islands that make up Okinawa (the largest of which bears an identical name) form an important part of the former Kingdom of Rukiu, which remained a vassal state of the Middle Kingdom for nearly five hundred years. This territory, ethnically a mixture of different peoples of Asia, was part of the sinocentric Tianxia ('everything under the heavens') order, which covered much of the Far East.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The Japanese are therefore entitled to ask whether there is historical revisionism behind the honours bestowed in China on the governor of Okinawa, who was also invited to visit Fuzhou. This takes on added significance at a time when the geo-strategic importance of the Japanese archipelago, lying between Taiwan, China and the main islands of Japan, is growing. While valuing Okinawan elites, Beijing is also obviously aware of their complex relationship with the authorities in Tokyo.


Chinese vassal status required the people of Riukiu to pay tribute and bow to the emperor. However, they were able to retain their distinct culture, including beliefs and language. In addition, the islands were renowned for their extensive trade contacts throughout the region. In the early 17th century, however, the Japanese arrived there and subjugated the archipelago. From then on, for nearly three centuries, the kings of Riukiu would play a double game: while formally bowing to the Chinese emperor, they remained under the actual control of the shogun. This format would prove useful for Japan, especially during a period of self-imposed isolation, when trade with China would be conducted through Riukiu.

In 1879, the archipelago, with the blessing of the USA, is officially incorporated into Japan. Having lost his insignia, the king and his entourage settle in Tokyo and Riukiu, renamed Okinawa, becomes one of Japan's prefectures. This takes place during the turbulent Meiji period, when Japan is rapidly establishing a modern state and soon embarks on colonial conquests. For China, on the other hand, the same time marks the gradual decline of the empire, failed attempts towards modernisation and decades of chaos. ODWIEDŹ I POLUB NAS It is worth pausing at this historic moment, as it may yet prove to be vital to the future of the entire region. In fact, ten years ago, shortly after Xi Jinping took power, the same People's Daily published an article by two well-known historians Li Guoqiang and Zhang Haipeng, which questioned the legality of Japan's takeover of the archipelago. Although the authors do not explicitly claim that it belongs to China, they do consider the option of 'Riukiu' becoming independent. It should be added that the phrase "independent Riukiu" has been circulating freely on the censored Chinese Internet.

Japan, with international law behind it, strongly protests against such views. Its dispute with China concerns only a few other Sentak islands of 7 sq km. In Tokyo, Mao Zedong's statements about Okinawa's Japanese affiliation are also invoked. Today's Chinese leader, however, seems to be trying to situate the issue on a different plane - such as Vladimir Putin is doing by imposing a personal interpretation of historical events to justify the contemporary policy of the Russian state.

It used to be the case that Chinese emperors of the Ming or Qing dynasties did the same, ordering the rewriting of old documents to legitimise their power or sinocentric order. It is in this light that Xi Jinping's recent speech at the Archives should be seen. He stressed the need to " collect and sort documents from the past in such a way as to pass on the legacy and ensure the proper development of Chinese civilisation".


To the average Japanese today, Okinawa is mainly associated with the turquoise ocean and holidays under a palm tree. In reverse, the image is no longer so idyllic: the Okinawan people have often felt carried away by the rest of the country. Historically, the list of wrongs includes forced Japaneseisation involving the eradication of the local language. Today, the lack of investment, for example, is a problem - Okinawa has traditionally remained the poorest prefecture in the country. However, mutual relations are overshadowed especially by the Second World War and its effects on the archipelago.

More than 240,000 people died during the fighting for Okinawa (April-June 1945), which was intended to act as a bulwark against the invasion of the Japanese islands by US troops. Among them were 77,000 soldiers of the Japanese army (into which young people from Okinawa were also conscripted), 14,000 Americans and about 150,000 civilians - a quarter of the prefecture's population. The latter lost their lives not only at the hands of the enemy.
Japanese military base on Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture. Photo: Issei Kato / Reuters / Forum
The Japanese authorities, creating a degenerate image of American soldiers who were supposed to treat prisoners of war in a barbaric manner, induced civilians to commit mass suicide. There were gruesome scenes when, for example, a panicked father preferred to kill members of his own family and finally himself, rather than surrender to the Americans. Fanaticism in defence of Okinawa was to be one of the arguments that convinced Truman to use nuclear weapons against Japan.

The inhabitants of the archipelago, especially the older ones, still carry with them the feeling that the injustice suffered at that time was never given due recognition by the country's political elite. For the left and mainstream public opinion, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become symbols of the wartime martyrdom of the Japanese people, while the right is rather reluctant to revisit the circumstances that caused the suicidal deaths of many ordinary people.

The trauma of war is not easily erased. The exhumation of victims in Okinawa has been going on continuously for more than seven decades.

Last year, 365 people were added to the list, bringing the total to 242,046. Daily life is also made miserable by the defusing of unexploded ordnance, with which the local soil remains infested. A few months ago in the prefectural capital, a shell found forced the partial evacuation of a hospital, and where the condition of the patients precluded this, the windows of the rooms were boarded up.


In 1952, the US ends its occupation of Japan, but this does not apply to Okinawa, which becomes the US military's hub for the whole of East Asia. For the land allocated for the construction of bases, the rightful owners often received negligible compensation. The fate of the natives, moreover, looked particularly miserable, even against the backdrop of the war-ravaged rest of the country. As a result of the destruction or loss of land, many still wandered without a roof over their heads long after 1945. Hunger pushed even ordinary people to steal food, and prostitution was often an important source of income for the family budget. During the Vietnam War, when many American soldiers came here to convalesce, 10,000 women were engaged in prostitution.

The dominance of the Americans in the archipelago was unquestionable: they were the winners, they had the money and they gave the locals jobs in servicing the bases. The popularisation of baseball, fast food and Christmas celebrations there, on the other hand, can be seen as an influence of US softpower. Over the decades, there has certainly been an accumulation of cases of arrogance and even serious infractions of the law on the part of the soldiers, but the locals also emphasise their often friendly attitude. Especially towards the female sex: tens of thousands of Americans will return home having married an Okinawan woman. Others, however, treated male-female relations more frivolously. Governor Tamaki, for example, never met his American father. The number of such abandoned children was estimated at four thousand in the late 1990s.

In 1972, Okinawa returns to Japan, but together with the US military. Today, about half of the 55,000 US troops in Japan are stationed in the prefecture, and they occupy 70 per cent of all bases, despite Okinawa being barely one per cent of the entire country. The noise of military helicopters and U.S. Army vehicles on the streets are a daily reality here.

Successive governors of Okinawa have unsuccessfully advocated to the authorities in Tokyo for a more even distribution of US troops across Japan. Other prefectures, however, are not budging in their acceptance, and the archipelago's strategic location also stands in the way. Only a decision has been made to move the central Futenuma base to the more isolated location of Henoko - but this is being heavily delayed. Residents are protesting against the environmental encroachment in the designated area, which is also said to contain the remains of war victims awaiting exhumation.

In June 2023, at a ceremony to mark the next anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa, Prime Minister Kishida declared that the prefecture would be relieved of its defence costs. Such promises, however, are now a ritual and few people believe them. Rather, it seems that Okinawa, before dealing with the consequences of the previous war, must prepare for the next one.


At the same ceremony, Governor Tamaki, recalling the war trauma, criticised plans to deploy long-range missiles in the archipelago, as envisaged by Japan's new security strategy. At the end of July, meanwhile, the authorities there announced the creation of evacuation sites and shelters, the largest of which, located in the basement of a gymnasium, will accommodate 4,500 people. Japan is thus definitively moving away from post-war pacifism, and Beijing's increasingly aggressive policy is primarily behind this.
Today, Okinawa's geo-strategic importance derives primarily from its proximity to Taiwan, which is threatened by Chinese invasion and to which Tokyo, in an increasingly less veiled manner, declares its readiness to support. At the same time, the Japanese archipelago is an important link in the 'first chain of islands', restricting the Chinese from free access to the Pacific. All this arouses Beijing's undisguised irritation. One example is the recent manoeuvres of the Chinese army between the Okinawa islands. In addition to the famous aircraft carrier 'Liaoning', nearly two hundred fighters took part.

But won't challenging Japan's rights to the archipelago prove counterproductive? Tokyo, after all, is arming itself in earnest, and resentment there towards China is at a historic high today.

However, it is the imperial archives that provide the perspective for China's diplomatic endeavours, not the current public mood or even the policies of the incumbent US president, who may be followed by someone with different views. In Beijing's view, the order that took shape in East Asia after 1945 is anachronistic and artificial. The natural order is one where the Middle Kingdom dominates and where there is no place for the United States. A reflection of this understanding of international politics shines through in the Sino-Russian document signed just before the start of the Beijing Olympics. Xi Jinping himself, meanwhile, heralds geopolitical changes that 'happen once every hundred years'.

China, under his leadership, therefore believes that it has history on its side and that its growing power will, sooner or later, force Washington and other countries in the region to accept this fact and take their rightful place in the Sinocentric hierarchy. On an ad hoc basis, there is nothing to prevent them from making friendly gestures to the authorities or the people of Okinawa - they would certainly be pleased to receive some additional funds to develop their economy.


On the southern tip of Okinawa Island stand black granite plaques commemorating those killed in 1945. The names of members of the local community as well as soldiers of the two warring armies are engraved there. The plaques are shaped like waves advancing towards the waterfront. This is because the tradition of the Riukiu islands is that the ocean, which unites different nations, is a symbol of peace. What remains to be decided is who is to be the guarantor of this peace and under what conditions.

– Piotr Bernardyn

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: Shisa, a traditional Okinawa art motif, a cross between a lion and a dog, whose image is supposed to protect the inhabitants from evil. Photo: Issei Kato / Reuters / Forum
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