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.
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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.
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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.