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Toward a New Era: Okinawa forced to adopt era name and assimilate under Meiji period

A four-page edition of the newspaper Ryukyu Shimpo issued in 1894 printed, in addition to the year 1894, three different era names on its four pages: Meiji; Kosho, the era name used by the Qing Dynasty in China; and Jimmu kigen (Koki), which is based on the legendary founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmu. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

In 1875, or the eighth year of the Meiji era, the government sent an official letter to Ryukyu Domain, now Okinawa Prefecture. It demanded that Ryukyu stop using the era names of the Qing Dynasty in China, and instead use Japan's imperial era names only.

Ryukyu, however, worried that if it were to forego the use of the Qing Dynasty's era names, it would no longer be able to conduct trade with the dynasty as its tributary. It therefore requested that the Meiji government allow the domain to use imperial era names in its exchanges with the Japanese government, and the Qing Dynasty's era names in its exchanges with China.

The Meiji government was adamant in its demand, however. "To claim belonging to both (countries) is the ultimate violation of sovereignty," it said.

Ryukyu began paying tribute to China in the 14th century as a sign of allegiance. Recognized by the Chinese emperor as a tributary state, Ryukyu used Chinese era names both domestically and in their interactions with other countries. It was only after Satsuma Domain, comprising present-day Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, invaded Ryukyu in the 17th century, that Ryukyu began using the Japanese imperial era name when dealing with Japan.

"The tributary system indicates a superior-subordinate relationship, but there was almost no interference in (Ryukyu's) domestic affairs by China," Takashi Uezato, a 42-year-old researcher at Hosei University's Institute for Okinawan Studies, says.

Meanwhile, Kurayoshi Takara, 71, professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus, explains, "Ryukyu made the effort not to be absorbed by either Japan or China and establish its independence by emphasizing its different positions depending on the situation. At times, that strategy made Ryukyu seem desperate, and at other times, confident."

During the process of Japan's development into a modernized nation, era names, which had been a way of indicating pro forma superior-subordinate relationships up until the modern period, became a tool for explicitly marking territory.

"In Asia in the early-modern period, (the era name system) was an international system used to avoid conflict," Uezato points out. "But the modern era no longer permitted any ambiguity (the system had allowed for in the past)"

In 1879, the Meiji government forcibly annexed Ryukyu Domain by dispatching 600 soldiers to the islands, and established Okinawa Prefecture. Chinese era names disappeared from all official Okinawan documents. But even then, local people continued to use the Qing Dynasty's era name, Kosho, which had been deeply rooted in their everyday lives. It was found on dates written on boxes and urns for cremains. Ryukyu Shimpo, a local newspaper that launched in 1893 with just four pages, had not just the year 1893 printed at the top of each page, but also three era names: Meiji; Kosho, the era name used by the Qing Dynasty in China; and Jimmu kigen (Koki), which is based on the legendary founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmu.

However, from around the time that the Qing Dynasty lost to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the use of Kosho declined in Okinawa. With the start of conscription in Okinawa in 1898, the prefecture's incorporation into Japan proper progressed even further.

"Educators from the Japanese mainland came (to Okinawa) with the condescending attitude that they were 'taking control of savage land.' They forced the people to speak the Yamato language (standard Japanese)," Kiko Nishizato, 78, professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus, says in explaining the process of how integration was carried out.

The history of Okinawa, which continuously remained at the mercy of powerful nations, is illuminated even by the way in which era names were forced upon it.

On Dec. 14, the central government began dumping soil and sand into the waters off the coast of Henoko, in the northern Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, despite strong protests from Okinawa Prefecture. The move is part of land reclamation work to build a U.S. military base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, in the southern part of Okinawa Island.

At a news conference the same day, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told the press, "The government is scrambling to create and accumulate fait accompli in an attempt to force the people of Okinawa to give up. But Okinawans' anger will only burn more intensely."

Says Nishizato, "Ryukyu gradually regained the independence that it had lost in the invasion by Satsuma Domain. The people of Okinawa may be honest to a fault and easily fooled, but they have the toughness to continue denouncing injustices. Unless mainland Japan understands that history, it'll be quite difficult to bridge the disconnect between the mainland and Okinawa."

Okinawa was forced to assimilate in the Meiji era, and had war forever engraved into its collective memory during the Showa era. How will the Heisei era, during which U.S. military bases became a major point of contention, be remembered by Okinawa?


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