The Ryukyu Independence Study Association was established May 15, the 41st anniversary of the island prefecture's return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 after almost 30 years of U.S. control. According to the founder, a university professor, the organization will largely function as a research institute studying independence movements around the world, such as in Scotland, and debates over Japanese claims to the Ryukyus in anticipation of possible autonomy.
Claiming just 100 members, the group is far from establishing any sort of political clout. Still, its efforts mark the first attempts at autonomy for the Ryukyu islands in many years. Separatist sentiments have occasionally welled up ever since Japan annexed the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom in the late 19th century, transforming it into Okinawa prefecture. The movement re-emerged after World War II, particularly during the 1970s when the Japanese reassumed control over the Ryukyus from the United States, which had occupied them since 1945. This promoted movements for a fully independent Ryukyu state. In recent years, such sentiments had been reduced to calls for a Ryukyan cultural revival. Today, a majority on the island does perceive itself as different from mainland Japanese, but those supporting Ryukyan independence still account for only a small minority of islanders.
The new organization could tap into islanders' resentment against perceived Japanese discrimination and against the presence of U.S military bases. Okinawa is home to more than two-thirds of the total U.S military deployment in Japan, a frequent source of angst on the island.
Renewed calls in China for supporting the Okinawan independence movement come as academics in China are intensifying arguments in favor of Chinese sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands based on historical claims. A May People's Daily article called for reconsideration of Japan's historical claim to the Ryukyu islands. In a lengthy discussion, the authors argued that Ryukyans had maintained an independent kingdom that paid tribute to the Ming and Qing dynasties of China until Japan annexed it during its period of aggressive expansion in East Asia. The article also questioned the legitimacy of the postwar agreements that saw the United States return the Ryukyus and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to Japan, all of which are now part of Japan's Okinawa prefecture. A series of academic publications subsequently echoed this call, reflecting the increasing nationalist sentiment in the East China Sea.
By placing Okinawa in the same category as other island territorial disputes in the region, Chinese commentators are primarily attempting to put Japan on the defensive, forcing Tokyo to defend the legitimacy of its core territories. They also hope to encourage the small base of anti-Tokyo opinion in the Ryukyus.
This sparked a strong Japanese response, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling on the world to reject any Chinese claim to Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu islands. The U.S State Department echoed this call, expressing support for Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa. Meanwhile, Japanese academics produced the 1964 statements of a Chinese diplomat adhering to guidelines set by Mao that gave Chinese support for restored Japanese sovereignty in the Ryukyus and in the Northern Territories, known as the Kuril islands in Russia.
Broadening the Chinese focus on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to questioning control of the Ryukyu islands is risky. China faces its own separatist problem in the buffer regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, movements foreigners including Japan could support. Those movements already have considerably more momentum than the small movement in the Ryukyus. Nonetheless, support for Ryukyan independence could give Beijing another tool for use in its dealings with Japan.