Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 August 2017, 18:21 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Ryukyuans (Okinawans)

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Japan : Ryukyuans (Okinawans), 2008, available at: [accessed 18 August 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Ryūkyūan are an indigenous group of peoples living in the Ryūkyū archipelago, which stretches southwest of the main Japanese island of Kyūshū towards Taiwan. The largest and most populated island of the archipelago, Okinawa Island, is actually closer to Manila, Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul than it is to Tokyo. Though considered by the Japanese as speaking a dialect, the Ryūkyūans speak separate languages such as Okinawan, also known as Uchinaguchi and has less than a million speakers (Source: World Christian Database, 2000), as well as Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni with a much smaller number of speakers. All are part of the Japonic language family, to which the Japanese language also belongs.

Although linguistic scholars point to common origins of Ryūkyūan languages and the Japanese language, the former are incomprehensible to Japanese visitors to the islands. Some researchers point out that the difference between the Okinawan and Japanese languages is similar to the difference between French and Spanish. Isolated by distance and geography, this indigenous group of peoples was throughout much of its long history able to develop their own political, cultural and religious traditions, though they also share cultural elements with China and Japan because of the longstanding connections with both.

Though many Ryūkyūan have migrated to other parts of Japan, and in particular the capital Tokyo, the majority of them live in Okinawa prefecture, which includes most islands in the Ryūkyū archipelago. Those living on the Amami islands were separated politically from the rest of the Ryūkyūs and incorporated into Kagoshima prefecture in 1953.

Historical context

After unification in the 14th century, the Ryūkyū Kingdom became a formal tributary of the Emperor of China, though in practical terms the kingdom remained largely independent. This was to last for almost three centuries, until a Japanese expedition to the islands in 1609 led the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate to lay claim to the Ryūkyū Islands and their people. At the same time the islands continued to be a tributary to the Chinese Emperor.

Because of the unusual nature of this trilateral relationship, the Ryūkyūan archipelago was never fully incorporated into Japan until its formal annexation in 1879. Leaving the Ryūkyū kingdom as a quasi-independent entity for hundreds of years permitted trade to occur between China and Japan when such trade was 'officially' prohibited by the Japanese shogunate. It also had the effect of maintaining the Ryūkyūans culture, language and political institutions for much of this period, since for much of this time there were restrictions forbidding the Ryūkyūans from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs.

This all changed radically in 1879 when the Meiji government invaded militarily and formally annexed the Ryūkyūs. From this point on, the treatment of the Ryūkyūans is one which many indigenous peoples around the world are familiar with: loss of traditional forms of government and control over land and resources, as well as steps to supplant their distinct cultural and spiritual beliefs. Within 20 years, the Japanese government began to impose coercive measures to spread Japanese and ban Ryūkyūan languages in the public sphere, such as with the 1907 'Ordinance to Regulate the Dialect'. During the 1920s and 1930s, further steps emerged to prohibit the use of Ryūkyūan languages, especially after the start of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937: an ordinance banned all use of the Ryūkyūan languages at all government offices, state employees had to refuse service to people who would attempt such use, or risk punishment. Students in schools were shamed for speaking Ryūkyūan in class was wearing what was called a 'dialect tag' around their neck.

After World War II, the Ryūkyūs were occupied by the United States, which retained control of Okinawa until the island's 1972 reversion to Japan. The US still maintains a massive presence in Okinawa, with their military bases occupying perhaps 20 per cent of all land on the island. The loss of such a large proportion of land, much of it agricultural, was and continues to be one of the main grievances of the Ryūkyūans against Japanese authorities. The land is technically leased, with the local landowners and farmers or their descendants receiving payments for it from the Japanese government. However, Okinawans have no choice in the matter since this leasing arrangement is forced upon them by national legislation, the Special Measures Law for US Military Bases, with the governor of Okinawa designated as the proxy signatory to the leases which permits the continued use of the Okinawans' land by US forces. In 1996, the governor of Okinawa refused 1990s to sign the lease agreement on behalf of local owners who did not want to renew the leases.

Japan's Supreme Court proceeded to overrule the governor's refusal to renew the leases, and the Japanese Diet subsequently changed the Special Measures Law for US Military Bases to make the renewal of the lease of land for the American military bases 'automatic' under the authority of the Prime Minister. This reinforced the feeling among many Ryūkyūans that they are disproportionately being made to pay the price of continued US military presence, including the loss use and enjoyment of their land because of the discriminatory policies of the central government.

The coercive and oppressive measures against the Ryūkyūan languages have in a sense continue to this day, as there still remains a reluctance to recognise that the Ryūkyūan speak languages distinct from Japanese. The assimilation into mainstream Japanese language and culture has been especially thorough amongst younger generations in Okinawa, though less so in outlying islands.

While there have been some private initiatives in revitalising Ryūkyūan languages and a greater appreciation of traditional culture and traditions, there has been no positive movement from Japanese authorities. Japan's reports to various UN treaty bodies dealing with human rights, minorities or indigenous peoples do not acknowledge the existence of the Ryūkyūans as distinct linguistic or cultural minorities. Despite some demands in the 1980s and 1990s for greater use of Ryūkyūan languages in government, no use of these languages is legally guaranteed in the judicial system, in public education or for access to public services. Educational materials for use in public schools continue to be largely silent on the topic of the Ryūkyūans as separate minorities with their own languages, cultures and traditions as indigenous peoples.

Current issues

The Japanese government has begun in recent years to recognise the Ainu and Koreans, but there remains an almost complete refusal to consider the Ryūkyūans as minorities or indigenous peoples. While the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance referred to the 'people of Okinawa' as a national minority and as having an indigenous culture in his 2006 report on his mission to Japan, no such recognition is forthcoming from the side of the country's authorities.

The only response from the government to the Special Rapporteur's comments has been to mention the formulation of an 'Okinawa Promotion and Development Plan' and the creation of an Okinawa Policy Council, none of which refer in any way to the Ryūkyūans as minorities or indigenous peoples.

Representations were made in 2005 to the Special Rapporteur by Ryūkyūan representatives as to their perceived discriminatory treatment because of the continued presence and negative impact of the US military bases, but there were few attempts for the greater recognition of their indigenous traditions or language rights.

At present, the United States' military presence and the discriminatory policies of the Japanese government that facilitate the US military occupation of the islands dominate the time and energy of most politically active groups in Okinawa.

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