November 30, 2013 by Water Wisdom
Behind the row over a bunch of Pacific rocks lies the sad, magical history of Okinawa
A CLUTCH of five uninhabited islets and three rocks, cast adrift out in the currents of the Western Pacific, recently demonstrated their power to convulse East Asia. China, which (along with Taiwan) claims them, calls them the Diaoyu islands; to Japan, which controls them, they are the Senkaku islands. In September the Japanese government bought the three islets it did not already own from their private landlord. That set off a storm of protests in China, a slump in Japanese exports to China and in Chinese tourists to Japan, and incursions by Chinese vessels into the waters around the Senkakus.
In theory, ownership is straightforward. But out in the ocean, things are not so clear. The question of who the islands belong to is obscured by the fog of history, and many furlongs of water.
The Senkakus have long been known to sailors from the Okinawa chain of islands, and Okinawa is part of Japan. But Okinawa was once an independent kingdom, a peaceful place which avoided conflict with the two great powers on either side of it by paying tribute to both. And the islands’ geography is as ambiguous as their history. The Senkakus are closer to Japan than to China, but they lie on the edge of China’s continental shelf, just as it plummets into the Okinawa Trough, 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) at its deepest. China insists the trough proves that the continental shelves of China and Japan are not connected, and that the trough “serves as a boundary between them”. Japan understands geography differently: the trough is a mere “incidental depression”.
Japan’s diplomats say their country “discovered” the islands in 1884. In early 1895, when the government had ascertained that the islands were terra nullius, that is, a no-man’s-land controlled or claimed by no one, it annexed them. A man from Fukuoka, Tatsushiro Koga, was given leave to “develop” the islands. Koga brought in some 200 Okinawans. They processed katsuobushi—dried, smoked bonito, out of whichdashi, a staple stock in Japanese cooking, is made. And they caught the short-tailed albatross, which bred there, selling the prized feathers for down. The last of Koga’s employees left in 1940. (No family is so closely associated with the near-extinction of a once-abundant species.)
After Japan’s defeat in the second world war, America took control of Okinawa prefecture, including the Senkaku islands, which it liked to bomb, for practice. Only in 1972 did it hand the whole lot back to Japan, which it said still had “residual sovereignty” over the Senkakus. Case closed, says Japan: there is no territorial dispute at all. Its arguments are couched in the hard, cold legal language of modern nation states. But the Japanese do not mention that in 1895 Qing China lay prostrate, defeated the previous year by an aggressive, expansionist and rapidly Westernising Japan. As part of the spoils from that war, Japan took Taiwan, a hop and a skip from the newly annexed Senkakus.
China’s claims, by contrast, are redolent of the old China-centred world that shattered in 1894-95. It was a world in which status and stability in relations across Asia were regulated through a system of tributary states acknowledging Chinese centrality. Everything had its place—including the Diaoyu islands. In 1893 the Empress Dowager Cixi bestowed on a doctor in the imperial household the right to collect from them a prized medicinal herb.
Only in China would gathering sea lavender count as evidence of possession. But the Chinese also say that the Diaoyus have been part of the Chinese order since at least the Ming dynasty. They are recorded in “Voyage with a Tail Wind”, published in 1403, a portolano recounting a journey from Fujian province to Ryukyu, the old name for the Okinawa chain of islands. By the following century, in “A Record of an Imperial Envoy’s Visit to the Ryukyu Kingdom”, Chinese names were given to all the islets in the Diaoyu group. Japanese diplomats do not bring it up, but the great Japanese military scholar, Shihei Hayashi, followed convention in giving the islands their Chinese names in his map of 1785, “A General Outline of Three Countries” (see map). He also coloured them in the same pink as China.
But what is so special about these damn rocks that pulls these two countries to them? It is next to impossible to get a first-hand look at the Senkaku islands. Though it denies any territorial dispute, Japan still hopes to avoid rows with China over them. The coast guard seeks to stop not only Chinese patriots but also Japanese right-wing nuts from grandstanding on the islands. They are, in effect, out of bounds, an enforced terra nullius.
Descriptions of the islands are rare. Captain Edward Belcher of HMS Samarang visited them in March 1845. They awed him. They had “the appearance of an upheaved, and subsequently ruptured mass of compact grey columnar Basalt, rising suddenly into needle-shaped pinnacles, which arc apparently ready for disintegration by the first disturbing cause, either gales of wind or earthquake.” His description provided the English name: the Pinnacle group. Half a century later, the Japanese quietly took this name and fashioned out of it a Japanese one for their virgin isles: Senkaku, or “Pinnacled Pavilions”.
The islands were filled with the deafening cries of breeding boobies, terns and the “Gigantic petrel”, by which Belcher presumably meant the short-tailed albatross. (For an overexcited moment he thought he had rediscovered the dodo.) He also found the wrecks of junks, and the palmetto shelters of castaways.
Belcher reported a strong current washing through the islands, threatening to sweep theSamarang on to the reefs. It was the Kuroshio, the “Black Stream” in Japanese on account of its dark colour, as powerful a conveyor belt in this part of the Pacific as the Gulf Stream is in the Atlantic. Old Chinese accounts talk of the Heishuigou, a “Black Water Trench”, beyond the Diaoyu islands—the Okinawa Trough. It was a liminal zone to the Chinese, an awesome threshold to be crossed: a place of high turbulence, thanks to the Kuroshiochurning along the edge of the shelf. In those days it was usual for the Okinawan sailors conveying Chinese envoys to sacrifice a pig or a goat when crossing the Heishuigou.
Down in the Yaeyama islands in southern Okinawa, lush green dollops ringed by coral reefs, a tiny handful of old men know the Senkakus well. Chotaro Tamori, who is 79, and lives on tiny Iriomote, is mending his nets. When he was in his 20s, he was irresistibly drawn to the Senkakus. In those days maritime boundaries were more relaxed.
Mr Tamori loaded his wooden boat with diesel and ice and steamed for 14 hours until the pinnacles hove into view. Only when he began fishing did his intense sense of solitude fade. The waters, he recounts, were unlike anywhere else. Powerful streams met and maelstroms formed, and when you fished through them, your nets filled with skipjack, Spanish mackerel, dogtooth tuna. It was all or nothing. “Suddenly your luck turned like the tide, and your trawl was empty.”
The money was good on account of the hauls, but only four or five Okinawans had the nerve to fish regularly around the Senkakus. Mr Tamori made 40 voyages. Sometimes he met Taiwanese boats (never Chinese ones). They would pass the mornings, bow to bow, exchanging stories in sign language and the broken Japanese that the older Taiwanese men had acquired during the days of the Japanese occupation.
The weather could change quickly for the worse. When he was caught out among the islands, Mr Tamori laid out three anchors in the lee of a reef and rode the storm “scared nearly to death”. At other times, he would swim ashore and wander the lanes, walled in coral, that Koga’s workers had made years before. Sometimes he took eggs from albatross nests.
The Senkakus, Mr Tamori insists, were part of his known Okinawan world, not beyond it. And it is true that the ambiguous history of the Okinawan chain is key to understanding why both China and Japan lay claim to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.
The mild islands of Okinawa
Stretching south-west between Japan’s main islands and Taiwan, Okinawa was for several centuries a beguilingly peaceful, prosperous and in most respects independent kingdom. Like Holland or Portugal, it was a country whose poverty of natural resources threw the people back on their wits. Okinawans mastered the oceans and developed a far-flung, monsoon-borne entrepot trade not just with near-neighbours—Japan, Korea and China—but also with Indonesia, Malacca (the crossroads of South-East Asian trade), and even Siam (modern-day Thailand). Spices, rare timbers, rhinoceros horn, silks, jewels, lacquerware, celadon, folding screens and the magical ingredients on which alchemists base their art: all filled up the warehouses at Naha, the main Okinawa port. Communities of Okinawans sprang up around East and South-East Asia, and trading networks stretched as far as Bengal. As their main historian recounts, they “had no zealots in their midst with burning faith to propagate by fire and sword. They shunned quarrels; they could afford no wars, for they had no strength in manpower and no surpluses to be spent on arms.” The Okinawans would accommodate, in other words; or when necessary retreat. When the violent Europeans suddenly turned up in South-East Asia—the Portuguese laid appalling waste to Malacca in 1511—the Okinawans withdrew and fell back on the protection of China.
Okinawa first appears in the Chinese consciousness with Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China in 221BC. He sent a number of expeditions to the “Eastern Sea” in search of the base metals that could be transmuted into gold, and for the secret of immortality. One mission included some 3,000 young men and women, numerous artisans and a hold full of seeds. With these he hoped to win over the “Happy Immortals” who lived there. The legend grew that these men and women sailed over to and settled in Okinawa.
From 1439 Okinawans were formally resident in the great cosmopolitan port of Quanzhou in Fujian province, where they put up warehouses and reception halls and rubbed shoulders with Indian and Arab traders. Through this port of entry into China came Okinawan tribute missions to Beijing. In time, China’s emperors came to think of Okinawans as their most loyal subjects. Chinese missions travelled to Naha to bestow the imperial seal on new kings. That is what the Chinese were doing among the Diaoyus. The crews of the mission ships—Okinawan for the most part—used the islands as stepping stones on the route from Quanzhou to Naha and back.
Imperial China’s tributary relations are often misrepresented as chiefly a burden on the vassal state. But the way to convey China’s beneficence, might and centrality in the world order was to bestow gifts more valuable than the tribute rendered. Meanwhile, though Chinese affected a disdain for all foreign commerce, they coveted the luxuries in which Okinawans dealt. A lively trade took place on the back of the tributary missions, and the Okinawan depot in Quanzhou remained in unbroken use until the last tributary cargo came in from Naha in 1875.
China seeped deep into Okinawan culture. The Okinawa court cultivated Confucian virtues. Everyday life—and death—reflected the Chinese influence. Ancestral worship, based on the family home, stood in contrast to the emperor worship of Japan. Okinawa’s turtle-backed tombs resemble those of southern China. Today Okinawans are big eaters of pork, unlike “mainland” Japanese. (Much later Spam came in with American GIs; it is now quintessential Okinawan fare, often stir-fried, Chinese style.)
But the golden age ended in disaster, in the 1590s. The Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified his country, planned to invade Ming China through the Korean peninsula and make himself master of Asia. He ordered the Okinawans to suspend their tribute missions and demanded men and arms. It was a difficult situation, which the tiny kingdom handled badly, ignoring the order for aid and warning China of Hideyoshi’s intentions. Hideyoshi was soon dead, but his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the long-running Tokugawa shogunate, had not forgotten the insolence of Okinawa, now riven between pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese factions. He gave the Satsuma clan in southern Japan dominion over the Okinawans.
From that point on, Okinawa paid a heavy annual tribute to Japan, and served as a useful barrier between Japan and the encroaching Europeans. But although Japan shut itself up for more than two centuries of isolation, the kingdom’s trade with China continued, for the profit of the Satsuma clan. Okinawans, one of their historians wrote, were like the trained cormorants of the Nagara river: “they are made to catch fish which they are not permitted to swallow.”
It was a curious arrangement. Okinawans pretended to keep China and Japan ignorant of each other’s role, paying tribute to both and cultivating a studiously pacifist image. They bore no arms (karate developed as Okinawa’s martial art). It suited all sides to ensure that the Okinawans appeared as distinctive as possible. Western ships anchoring at Naha in the 19th century, probing Japan’s closed shell, found a strangely old-fashioned people who wore their hair in topknots, slicked with seaweed paste and held in place with gold pins. Though full of woe at the foreigners’ arrival—they feared Japanese reprisals—the Okinawans were too polite to admit it. Basil Hall, a naval captain who visited in 1816, could think of no friendlier people, gentle and cultivated. On his way back to England, Hall called upon Napoleon, in captivity on St Helena. Napoleon was curious about Okinawa, and greatly amused that the islanders had never heard of him. He was astonished that they carried no weapons. “Point d’armes?” he cried. “Mais sans armes, comment se bat-on?”
It was a fair question. The Okinawans’ cultivated Chinese habits—classical poems composed in the spring, formal essays in the autumn—rendered the island nation wholly unprepared for the modernising forces that were to break over the region. In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry anchored off Naha in his black ships and stayed until he had a treaty from the appalled Okinawans. That was the first American occupation of Okinawa. Perry then sailed into Tokyo Bay (see above) and demanded, with guns for emphasis, the right to trade. The shock precipitated the end of Japan’s feudal era and ushered in its breakneck industrialisation and military expansion.
The little kingdom’s end was coming. Okinawans turned to a now prostrate China for help. (The king of Hawaii, whose realm was also about to be taken by imperialists, begged in Beijing on Okinawans’ behalf as well.) As “punishment”, in 1879 Japan annexed the ancient kingdom, reducing it to a mere prefecture and then stamping out everything distinctive about Okinawa: female tattooing, traditional dress, the rich Okinawan language itself.
Okinawa, then, was imperial Japan’s first colony, a practice run for increasingly brutal Japanese occupations of Taiwan (1895), Korea (1910) and mainland China (1931-45). It was also the chief victim when the empire came crashing down. In the final months of the second world war, Japan sacrificed it in hopes of saving the Japanese “mainland”. In the American assault that followed, the architectural legacy of the old kingdom was turned to rubble, while a quarter of the population perished. The survivors were shunted into detention camps. When they emerged, they found their fields asphalted over for military bases which operate to this day.
This is the second American occupation. And now Okinawans fear the tensions over the Senkakus will both prolong and extend it. There are, for instance, new plans to reinforce the undefended Yaeyama islands, closest to the Senkakus, in case of a Sino-Japanese conflict. The islanders do not draw much comfort from this. “When great powers squabble,” says a neighbour of Mr Tamori, the fisherman, “Okinawans are the ones who suffer.”