Okinawa: a lesson for peaceful coexistence? – Reflections on Hugh Clarke’s ‘A Place for Okinawa: Changing perceptions of Japan’s Southern Islands’ (2009)
Dr Adam Broinowski, ANU, Canberra
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Hugh Clarke’s article ‘A Place for Okinawa: Changing perceptions of Japan’s Southern Islands’’ was originally published in JOSA vol. 41 (2009). Download the original article here.
In his A R Davis Memorial Lecture ‘A Place for Okinawa: Changing perceptions of Japan’s Southern Islands’ in 2009, Emeritus Professor Hugh Clarke broadly outlines a long and complex history of the Okinawa archipelago. Ranging across the Ryūkyū kingdom in the context of the Chinese tributary state system, Okinawa as part of the home islands of the Japanese empire and more recently as a component of diverse Japanese culture, he emphasizes Okinawa’s rich tapestry of local traditions, diverse identities and hybridising experience at the crossroads of several ocean-going trade routes. This typifies the experiences of boundary states which consistently negotiate and mediate exchanges between internal and external forces.
Clark’s lecture was presented at a critical moment in the region. In 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ which was confirmed in Hanoi at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010. China would follow with its much hyped ‘Nine-dash line’ and its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, a variation on the ‘Eleven-dash line’ declared by the Republic of China in 1947. For years since then, China’s rapid development of its maritime silk road south and west has been dogged at critical hotspots by militarisation and conflict.
Following the recent visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early August and with the US Taiwan Policy Act 2022 currently under review in the US Senate, none were surprised that China condemned the visit as a destabilizing provocation and conducted live-fire, missile and blockade operations around the island. None were surprised that China condemned the visit as a destabilising provocation, and followed up with live-fire, missile and blockade operations around the island. China has been presented with a stark choice: either accept the recognition of Taiwan as an independent sovereign state and a heavily militarised territory 161kms off China’s mainland east coast, or attempt to reclaim the island by force as a province of China and engage in a kinetic war with the United States and its allies.
For context, China’s apparently aggressive recent expansion in the East and South China Seas is framed by US military bases which have encircled China in the region for decades. These reinforce US-led large-scale joint military drills, manoeuvres and surveillance with its allies and re-assert its claim to absolute Freedom of the Seas (FoS). Unlike China, the US has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), enabling the evasion of EEZ regulations.
In a period of flux and tensions higher than any time during the Cold War, beyond the policy orthodoxy of increasing military interoperability, weapons stockpiles and troop rotations, these conditions make it even more critical to consider how to promote an environment of peaceful coexistence.
As elucidated in Professor Clarke’s historical accounts of Okinawan experience as a boundary state, encouraging an interrelational approach of porous borders, fluid identities and shared trade routes as found in Okinawan experience as a boundary state will more likely succeed in the longer term than will forcing regional nations to choose between militarized trade blocs in the short term. As Okinawans know from the prolonged militarization of their territory from the Second World War to the present, when the narrow lens of military-strategic thinking is prioritised over cultural, economic, social and ecological knowledge exchange, progressive change is denied as we are drawn closer to war in the Asia-Pacific. 
Adam Broinowski is a visiting researcher at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His publications include Cultural Responses to Occupation in Japan: The Performing Body during and after the Cold War (London and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
About Hugh Clarke
Hugh Clarke is Professor of Japanese at the University of Sydney. Now retired, he publishes on Japanese language and is a world leading expert on Okinawa language and culture. HIs leadership in the promotion of Japanese language learning in Australian universities and schools was crucial to its early growth and success.
 If the US Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 becomes law, Taipei would be granted up to $6.5 billion in US financing for weapons procurement over five years, in addition to Taiwan’s boosted military expenditure ($19.41 billion in 2023).
 RIMPAC military drills held off Hawaii typically involve 25,000 personnel and 52 ships from 25 nations. Until 2014, CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) exercises were held off Singapore with around 17,000 personnel and 73 ships from 9 nations. Many other similar drills are regularly conducted including the recent trilateral Japan-ROK-US anti-submarine warfare exercise.
 As part of its steadily increasing military expenditure, Japan has boosted missile and radar systems, ammunition and troop rotations on Okinawa islands including Miyako, Amami, Ishigaki and Yonaguni. In 2023, Japan will likely increase its military budget to become the third largest military spender in the world (5.59 trillion yen/39.19 billion dollars US).