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Opinion: Free the Lewchew Islands from Japan

On May 8, Japan’s government lodged a “strong protest” with the Chinese government over an article that had run in the People’s Daily in which two academics questioned the basis of Japan’s sovereignty over the Lewchew 琉球 (in Japanese, Ryukyu) islands. The Chinese side of course rejected the protest, and opinion columnists the world over have been weighing in. The current press furor has produced exciting developments in Lewchew’s main island of Okinawa, where in May 15 two professors have founded the “Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of Lew Chewans”. Already, there exists in Lewchew rising tensions between natives and nationalist Japanese, a latent history of cultural and linguistic abuse of Lewchewans, and a culture of protest upon which independence campaigners can piggyback. The only missing ingredient in this karmic tinderbox of anti-Japanese sentiment is  international diplomatic support for Lewchewan separatists, which does not seem to be forthcoming from China. The Wall Street Journal soberly notes that “individual commentaries”, such as those in the People’s Daily, “don’t necessarily reflect the views of top political leaders, and Beijing officials on Wednesday gave little indication that the commentary represents a potential shift in policy.”

So if the Lewchew independence issue is some grand scheme by China’s government to advance its claim in the simmering Diaoyu Islands dispute, then the strategy is not very effective, because the direct connection between the Lewchew and Diaoyu issues is not obvious. It is more likely, as foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says, that “The article by Chinese scholars reflects the attention paid by the Chinese public and academics toward the Diaoyu Islands and their history” [emphasis added]. Hua might have better referred to the “history surrounding” the Diaoyus, or the history of Japanese imperialism, since China’s official position is that the Diaoyu Islands are not part of the Lewchew chain. Indeed, the relevant bit of 19th-century history is not disputed between Tokyo, Beijing, or Taibei: While the Empire of Japan annexed the independent Lewchew Kingdom in 1879 to create Okinawa Prefecture, the Empire only annexed the Diaoyu Islands to Okinawa 16 years later, in 1895. For a nation with a historical memory past 100 years, this distinction between Lewchew and Diaoyu is as clear as day.

The raw nerve that connects this historical issue to Sino-Japanese relations today is a treaty from 1895, in which China’s last dynasty relinquished claims to the Lewchews under duress, after losing a war with the island nation that marked the beginning of imperial Japan’s long and bloody march across Asia. The contrast between the Chinese press’s frame of a rapacious and remilitarizing Japan and the Western press’s frame of an aggressive and rising China account for much of the perception gap between the respective publics. Here, China’s Leninist form of government is not to blame: similar claims by Japan on South Korean-administered islands have driven some citizens of that peninsular democracy to cut off their own fingers and decapitate birds in anxious ceremonies to ward off the ghost of Japanese rape and occupation of their land. The decades-old crimes of the Japanese Empire remain relevant in East Asia not only because of lingering territorial disputes, but also because of insincere apologies, revisionist statements, and a lack of compensation and recognition to the many victims of Japanese enslavement, torture, and genocide. All of these unresolved historical issues remain open to Japan as “confidence-building measures” towards resolving its disputes with neighbors, if Tokyo will take them.

On the other hand, if Lewchew succeeds to secede from Japan, then international law and precedent will dictate that independent Lewchew keep its current (Okinawa Prefecture’s) boundaries, which currently encompass the Diaoyu chain. Ukraine, by analogy, kept control of the originally Russian Crimean peninsula after separating from the Soviet Union in 1991, giving greater international consequence to then-minor border adjustments made while both Russia and Ukraine were Soviet Socialist Republics. However, the independence of Lewchew would still serve China’s interests, since the newly-minted country is much more likely to peacefully negotiate its territorial disputes than is the right-wing government in “Yamato”. 17 out of the 23 territorial disputes between China and its neighbors since 1949 have already been settled; most often through China peacefully giving up claims to 50% or more of the disputed territory. The most violent or intractable disputes, M. Taylor Fravel notes, involve China’s “most militarily capable neighbors” like Japan, with which China cannot “negotiate from a position of strength.”

China’s strength, it is often remarked, comes from its many and clever people. If the tyrannical government in Beijing would just release its death grip over the naturally industrious Chinese – or so the free-market fantasy goes – then the country would soon achieve first-world standards of prestige and prosperity. For Western policymakers, there’s a delicious dilemma here between trying to increase the amount of “free speech” in China across-the-board, as is the avowed policy of the US and other liberal democracies, and trying to suppress nationalist voices in the Chinese press. It is only in rare moments like these, when the engineers in Zhongnanhai ever-so-slightly lift a finger off the censorship apparatus to unleash a torrent of righteous anti-Japanese fury, that elites in Tokyo and Washington realize how much their interests lie in stemming Chinese “people power”. Anti-communist contenders for China’s soul like the Falun Gong movement are ready to pounce at the opportunity of relaxed censorship to re-open historical controversies over the cession of historical Chinese land. “Unrealistic” or revived claims to territory can quickly surface to trouble diplomatic waters, as China has painfully found in the South China Sea.

As for the obvious repartee that Beijing’s support for freedom-loving Lewchewans might embolden splittists on its own soil, the People’s Daily is naive to say that “As long as significant economic and social setbacks do not take place in the country, the threat of separatism [in China] is set to diminish.” Short of ethnic cleansing, no government has found a reproducible formula for permanently neutralizing the threat of ethnic separatism on its soil. Guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, as are often redundantly proposed for China’s Tibetans, have proven no panacea for the fiercely-independent and ever-more-demanding Quebecois. As for civil liberties, the Scots, who are due for an independence referendum in 2014, enjoy not only the fabled “rights of Englishmen”, but also even some rights denied to Englishmen, like free university education. Separatism exists within that fuzzy realm of beliefs and feelings, rather than facts and rights, and the success of separatist movements is highly related to the openings and opportunities provided by the great powers towards dismantling their rivals.

For good or for ill, playing with separatists is part of modern-day adversarial statecraft. American arms and training in guerrilla warfare sustained Tibetan separatist rebels during the 1958-64 troubles, with consequences for China that last to this day. Less than five years ago, in 2009, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and National Press Club hosted Xinjiang-independence media darling Rebiya Kadeer to advise its politicians. In 2012, Kadeer’s terrorist-sympathizing diasporic nationalist organization held its annual convention in Japan, while taking part in the time-honored reactionary Japanese ritual of honoring World War II war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine. The world’s most famous ethnic separatist, the Dalai Lama, has visited Japan with permission in 2009, 2011, and 2012, where he has most recently attacked the Chinese government’s approach to domestic unrest and used the Japanese name for the disputed Diaoyu island chain, “Senkaku”. Clearly, these power games are not simply about “freedom” for anybody: be they the Tibetans, the Lewchewans, or the Kurds.

China could now only grant any sort of recognition to Lewchewan separatists at enormous diplomatic risk to itself. But a groundswell of support from citizens and netizens would provide the Chinese government with the cover it needs to take more “moral” stances against foreign instigators of domestic unrest, like to support Kurdish freedom-fighters and to recognize the Turkish-perpetrated Armenian genocide. Most Americans and Britons who have an opinion about it think that Tibet should be independent from China, and in the US, “Tibet support” among Senators is not only bipartisan, it is unanimous. As a result, strategists for the Bush White House pushed the President to give the Lama diplomatic accolades in 2007 in order to avoid being seen as “appeasing” China (note the Nazi terminology). It’s a rare conversation with an informed China-basher that Tibet and Xinjiang do not appear as Exhibit A of the inhumanity of the Chinese. The time has come to turn the tables, and to shout at every opportunity, and just as arrogantly: Free Lewchew! The hearts of Chinese everywhere are with you!

[James Carroll is currently a guest contributor to Hidden Harmonies.]

  1. N.M.Cheung
    May 22nd, 2013 at 18:27 | #1

    While the article questioning the Japanese sovereignty over Ryukyu Islands was factually correct, I don’t think China is ready to play this card but more as irritant to Tokyo. China is in fact challenging San Francisco Treaty as incompatible with Cairo and Potsdam Declarations, of U.S. unilaterally disposing territories under her administration for Cold War rewards to Japan. The dispute on Diaoyu Islands flared up more because of Japanese internal politics rather than at China’s instigation. China much prefer the issue frozen at status quo of unresolved, but the Japanese internal politics forced China to take a strong position which West may see as overplaying her hand but China views as necessary.

    As Xinjiang is concerned. China has used demobilized soldiers as pioneers in opening up the resources there. I think the ethnic tensions are mostly in far west near the borders. With the economic reforms the movement of populations is accelerated. Some may consider it as cultural genocide, but I consider it as a side effect of Capitalism similar to the movements of U.S. populations west did to native culture.

    As for Tibet, Dalai Lama “14” is in his 70s, I expect in 10 years or less he’ll be reborn. He may wish to reborn in India but I doubt it makes any difference, his influences will diminish. If he’s wise he would return to Tibet while he’s still can have bargaining power. Anyone know about anything about geography would know independence for Tibet is not in the card. With coming climate change, the water resources in Tibet will be paramount, both Xinjiang and northern China will need it. High altitude and military control deterred any immigration until recently. As with Xinjiang search for money and profit and slight push by government will accomplish it. Tourism will destroy more than any sword.

  2. pug_ster
    May 23rd, 2013 at 04:10 | #2

    Good article. As the US’ power is declining around the world, this is probably the last desperation of the US against China with its ‘Asian Pivot’ strategy by empowering Nationalist governments in Japan and the Philippines to go against China. Slowly but surely, China is gaining influence and allies in the Pacific region and out of US’ hands. China and Taiwan’s relations has never been closer. The US and the West has gotten so desperate that they decided to ‘normalize’ relations with Myanmar so they can try to go against China’s grasp, but it is not working to their plans. Give it more time you will see more countries in the Asia region going to China’s side instead of the US and the US has to renegotiate with China with power sharing in the region.

  3. Zack
    May 23rd, 2013 at 06:39 | #3

    and as if to illustrate the US grasping at straws i offer two pieces of evidence

    1) the US Fed’s unilateral attack on gold assets as a way to safeguard the US dollar’s role as reserve currency-to no avail though, gold prices recovered quickly and gold buyers across China and India resuscitated the price of gold.

    2) the USG under the Obama administration has been forced to ‘hedge’ for the possibility of pivot failure by the emergency and surprise ‘Obama/Xi meet in June’. Why such short notice? why not wait til later formal dialogues? Because urgent matters which require Chinese help can’t wait, namely the crappy economy, restive peasants and vassals (looking at you, Abe).

    Add to that the stalled nature of the TPP and the intransigence of American agents in the EU against Chinese overtures of free trade, and you realise the US and pretty much the anglo-american elite are fighting a desperate rearguard action against the impending domination of the Chinese economy, followed by Chinese culture and influence. Even the Australians know which side their bread’s buttered and have acted accordingly, endorsing China’s rise in their new white paper.

  4. pug_ster
    May 23rd, 2013 at 07:27 | #4


    The Obama/Xi meet in June is an example of Obama’s half-assed foreign policy. Other half-assed foreign policy is trying to ‘convince’ China to get rid of the North Korean regime, but failed. After funding islamo terrorists in Turkey to try to overthrow Syria’s Assad’s regime, now they are having second thoughts. After pushing The Philipines and Japan on the China’s ‘sovereignty issue the US has to be forced to backtrack. The US warmed relations with Myanmar and hoping to have them to go against China but failed. Don’t forget what the US did in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be the next group of terrorists fighting against the US. The list goes on and on. Obama’s administration is trying to bite more than they can chew and it is costing them dearly, which is why Obama is such a monumental failure when it comes to foreign policy.

  5. Black Pheonix
    May 23rd, 2013 at 08:34 | #5

    As Jon Stewart implied with 1 of his comedy bits, Obama has too many campaign workers, and not enough actual government workers.

    *Which is another way of saying: Obama, like most Western Politicians, is all about talking his way into promotions, and then not actually doing any work.

  6. Black Pheonix
    May 23rd, 2013 at 09:04 | #6

    1 point of dispute with the article:

    “On the other hand, if Lewchew succeeds to secede from Japan, then international law and precedent will dictate that independent Lewchew keep its current (Okinawa Prefecture’s) boundaries, which currently encompass the Diaoyu chain.”

    I think not.

    Okinawa’s “current boundaries” is far from clear in the view of “international law”. Okinawa/Lewchew if it become independent, it can only inherit the same rights AND disputes of boundaries from before.

    Just because a territory becomes independent (if recognized), does not mean that all of its previous disputes are completely forgotten.

  7. May 23rd, 2013 at 10:42 | #7

    @Black Pheonix

    1 point of dispute with the article:
    “On the other hand, if Lewchew succeeds to secede from Japan, then international law and precedent will dictate that independent Lewchew keep its current (Okinawa Prefecture’s) boundaries, which currently encompass the Diaoyu chain.”
    I think not.

    I agree.

    Actually, even within Japanese court document, in a case filed between Taiwan and Liuqiu when both were part of Japan over whether Diaoyu fell within Taiwan or Liuqiu’s jurisdiction, it was determined to fall within Taiwan.

    So even within Japanese history, Diaoyu belong to Taiwan.

    The fact that Taiwan isn’t administered under Japan today shouldn’t change the boundary, in my opinion. Diaoyu belongs to Taiwan. And whether it belongs to China or Japan depends on the status of Taiwan. Period.

  8. May 23rd, 2013 at 10:47 | #8

    By the way, I intend to translate this article this week.


    It contains the text of an article that has caused much hoopla in Japan

  9. Charles Liu
    May 23rd, 2013 at 15:15 | #9

    This line of thoughts may have unintended consequences. Sure Ryukyu Kingdom historical territory did not include Diaoyutai, but its did included Taiwan.

  10. May 24th, 2013 at 09:12 | #10

    @Charles Liu

    I am lost. By what logic, narrative, or facts can one argue that Taiwan historically belonged to Ryukyu Kingdom?

  11. Charles Liu
    May 24th, 2013 at 13:00 | #11


    I’m refering to the historical argument. If you look at historical map of Ryukyu, Taiwan is part of Ryukyu, not China:


  12. May 25th, 2013 at 00:48 | #12

    @Charles Liu

    You must not be reading the maps right. None of the maps purport to show what you claim. I also don’t find any creditable narrative to ever say Taiwan is part of the Ryukyu empire. It’s not in anyone’s history.

    Now, in general, I agree resting purely on history to justify political solutions shows a political bias in a way. I mean it is status quo, I suppose. Is there anything wrong with being revisionist vs. status quo? I don’t know. As long as either story has pull, either has legitimacy.

    Who cares if at one time North America did not belong to Europeans? That history has been revised – and the old history no longer has pull.

  13. James
    May 25th, 2013 at 12:32 | #13

    The editor of Foreign Affairs magazine made a relevant comment in the New York Times today.

    Jonathan Tepperman :
    “The best thing that could happen for Asia today would be for Japan to apologize once and for all in a manner that is as clear, comprehensive and un-nuanced as possible. This means doing something like what Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany did in 1970 when he fell to his knees before a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, or when President Richard von Weizsäcker recognized the principle of Germany’s “collective responsibility” a decade later.

    “… Japan likes to point out that it has already apologized multiple times for its misdeeds, and that it has even paid compensation in some cases. This is true. But it’s also true that various Japanese politicians, catering to their conservative and contrition-weary base, continue to undermine those apologies by questioning them and the historical record.

    “When I interviewed Abe in Tokyo two weeks ago he was carefully opaque on whether Japan had been the aggressor in World War II, and defended the right of Japanese leaders to visit Yasukuni Shrine (where 13 Class-A war criminals are buried) by comparing it to America’s Arlington National Cemetery.”

    Tepperman’s main thesis is that historical denialism turns small problems, like that of the Diaoyu Islands, into big ones. Zhou Enlai did make a tacit agreement with his Japanese counterpart in 1972 to shelve the Diaoyu dispute for the sake of peace. There is also a tacit agreement across the Taiwan Strait not to change the status quo, which is based on a shared historical understanding of the “Republic of China” as “China”. The importance of history to the culture of China is well-documented, such that many authors have suggested that the Chinese live under a “tyranny of history”.

    Thus, a shared understanding of history can solve many other intra-Chinese disputes, rather than just those with Japan. For example, a well-known stumbling block in negotiations between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Central Government of the PRC is the Lama’s refusal to acknowledge that Tibet was historically part of China. But that subject is complex enough to warrant its own blog post.

  14. pug_ster
    May 25th, 2013 at 16:34 | #14


    The big difference between what Japan and Germany did after WWII was Germany had its de-nazification campaign to do away anything related with the atrocities with the Nazi Germany government. Of course, the US didn’t push Japan in doing the same, instead supported many of its criminals responsible for the war crimes.

    I do give some credit that the Japanese government does try to get away from its gruesome past, but does a half-assed job in doing it. Now Abe is trying to embrace its past of the atrocities of imperial Japan which infuriates the Koreas and China.

  15. James
    June 1st, 2013 at 08:27 | #15

    Collective editorial by the Taiwan-based China Post, May 29. “East China Sea peace may lie in independent Ryukyus”.

    Chiang Kai-shek did make a mistake at the Cairo conference in 1943.

    He succeeded in getting U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to agree to make Japan restore Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores to the Republic of China, but rejected Roosevelt’s suggestion that the Ryukyu Islands be placed under Chinese trusteeship after World War II.

    …Had he suggested independence, Roosevelt would have more than gladly agreed just as they did on the independence of Korea, a kingdom before it was annexed by Japan like the Ryukyus in 1915.

    …In 2005, British-Chinese Lim John Chuan-tiong, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus, conducted a telephone poll of Okinawans aged over 18. He obtained useful replies from 1,029 people. Asked whether they considered themselves Okinawan, Japanese or both, the answers were 40.6 percent, 21.3 percent and 36.5 percent, respectively. When asked whether Okinawa should become independent if the Japanese government allowed (or did not allow) Okinawa to freely decide its future, 24.9 percent responded that Okinawa should become independent with permission, and 20.5 percent agreed in the case of no permission from the Japanese government. Those who believed Okinawa should not declare independence were 58.7 percent and 57.4 percent, respectively.

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