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Assimilation Practices in Okinawa

In looking at Meiji restoration policies in Okinawa one can see major attempts to bring the Okinawan population into both the educational and religious sphere of the Japanese national polity. In terms of education, for example, this meant extending the 1872 Imperial Rescript on Education to the Okinawan population. This proved to be the single most important part of Japan's nationalization policy, for through educational indoctrination, the Japanese government sought to inculcate a strong sense of Japanese national identity in the Okinawan people. Through this process, Japan sought to consciously sever any ties to China that the Okinawan people still held on to, while also ending any associations that the Okinawan people had to the old Ryukyu Kingdom and it's monarchy. This process became absolutely essential for the later introduction of military inscription in 1898, which proved to be an integral part of Japan's expansionist policies.

Despite the desire on the part of the Okinawans to partake of the newly expanded educational system, the promulgation of Japanese literacy proved difficult indeed. On the one hand, the Okinawan people were excited about the opportunity to access an education, as it had always been considered more of a privilege for the upper class. On the other hand, however, the Okinawan peoples were reluctant to send their children to the Japanese schools, to be taught by these Yamatunchu, or mainland, strangers. In many ways, the Okinawan people had good reason to worry, since the educational program sought to consciously eradicate the Okinawan language (Hogen) and culture, indoctrinate the children with Japanese nationalism, and revere the emperor as a god. Yet even though the Japanese sought to educate the Okinawan population, they didn't create a single high school on the island. The failure to create such a high school demonstrates the dual nature of the educational process, in it's push to promote education and learning, but only in order to bring about the inculcation of nationalistic Japanese values.

At this point it is important to recognize the role of language promotion within Okinawa under the education policy and to realize the suppression that the indigenous language underwent. In many ways the question of language became a very important question for Okinawans, since the Japanese government felt that the Japanese language helped express the essence of the Japanese character. For if this viewpoint is taken into consideration, there remains the question of whether or not Hogen represents a separate language or a dialect (albeit far-distant). The answer to this question places a great deal of power in the hands of linguists, in defining the lines between what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect. In fact, the answers to this question are varied and subjective, and are usually based on the political viewpoint of the linguist attempting to determine these definitions. The most conclusive statement that any linguist can agree on is that traditional Ryukyuan speech is unintelligible to the Japanese, but unmistakably related to it. Many Japanese linguists see Hogen as a dialect, but that serves to back up the nationalistic attitude that Okinawa is a part of Japan, and always has been. Perhaps, in some sense, the best way to describe the relationship between the two modes of speech is to describe the relationship between the two as "cognate languages," much as Spanish and Italian are cognate languages. In any case the suppression of Hogen became a painful reality in the process of nationalization that served to cut off ties with the ancestral past.

Two other changes proved fundamental along with the shift in education policies, and helped define the process of assimilation. The first involved the introduction of the printing press in 1880 to "facilitate government business." The second involved the setting up of a newspaper, the Ryukyu Shimpo, by the governor of Okinawa. Both of these moves had tremendous impacts on Okinawa especially in terms of promoting Japanese nationalism. In many ways these two moves firmly established Japanese as the official language, and established it's dominance over the Shuri dialect of the Ryukyu Kingdom's court, which had previously been the official language of Ryukyuan discourse. Even further, the development of the newspapers also gave the citizenry a sense of connectedness with their fellow Japanese nationals, since the newspapers reported on national affairs as well. Both of these changes proved extremely important to the growth of a Japanese-oriented national consciousness.

In many ways the assimilation process in the educational system proved closely related to the attempts by the government to bring about religious uniformity as well. This can be seen in the way in which the Ministry of Education placed pictures of the emperor and empress in every school in Okinawa, and treated these pictures as semi-sacred objects. Due to the longstanding and unique nature of Okinawan religious institutions, Okinawan assimilation policies had a particular task in bringing about an alteration of traditional religious practices. To that end it designated traditional Okinawan spiritual sites such as the ancient Gokoku-ji shrine of the Nami-no-ue bluff as a state shrine, controlled by the Japanese government. Later on, this shrine was designated as the center of religious activity for the prefecture. The shrine, which referred to symbols of the ancient Ryukyuan kings, contained a reference to an ancient king named Tametomo, which the Japanese government stated was a descendant of the imperial house of Japan. In this way, the Japanese government sought to encourage Okinawans to think of themselves as directly related to Japan. Even further, these attempts to link indigenous religious sites to Shinto nationalist sites continued throughout the islands. The Japanese government would often place new shrines next to ancient local shrines and sought to transfer indigenous religious allegiances to the new sites. All of this demonstrates how nationalistic influences sought to bring all indigenous religious practices under the control of the state sponsored Shinto religion.

Yet despite these attempts to bring Okinawa into the educational and religious sphere of Japan, it still maintained a vested interest in treating Okinawa as a colony, especially in terms of governmental affairs. For despite the attempts and successes that were achieved in making the Okinawans adopt Japanese cultural norms and allegiances, the local residents were still prevented from participating in governmental politics. In many cases, Japan would use Okinawa as a training ground for governmental administrators, before promoting those people to posts in other parts of the country. While the Meiji Constitution promised wider representation in the National Diet for local control of local affairs, officials continued to state that because of the Okinawan people's adherence to their language, and because Okinawa's economic system had not fully changed to embrace the capitalism of Japan, that Okinawans could not be promoted to official positions in Okinawa. All of these arguments served to hide deeper motivations for keeping Okinawa under Japanese political control, rooted in the abiding prejudice held by many administrators. Most Japanese bureaucratic officials coveted the power that they maintained over Okinawan affairs, and focused on establishing systems of control in the prefecture, in the form of police, judicial, and taxation offices. All of these considerations showed that in most respects, Okinawa remained a colony, and was treated as such.

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