Alternative name: Ryukyu Islanders
Location: Japanese island chain
Population: about 1 million
% of population: 0.8%
Religion: various
Language: Japanese

The Okinawans are the indigenous inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands, about 600 kilometers south of the Japanese mainland and equidistant from Taiwan and China. The main island, Okinawa, is small — 60 kilometers by 20 kilometers — but contains the majority of the total population of one million. For over 700 years the Ryukyus were a semi-independent kingdom paying tribute first to China, and then to the Satsuma clan based in Kyushu, but retaining their distinctive language and culture. In 1872 the islands were forcibly invaded and annexed by the new Meiji regime, the Okinawan king was deposed, and forcible assimilation policies imposed.

During World War II Okinawa was the major battleground on Japanese soil and over 150,000 Okinawans died after US forces invaded in 1945, many massacred by the Japanese forces. Like the Japanese mainland Okinawa was under direct US military rule in the immediate postwar years but Okinawa was placed under direct US administration in 1951 and this continued until 1972. During these years there were significant social and economic changes, most notably the establishment of large-scale military bases and the effects of a large foreign presence on what had formerly been an isolated rural society. Some of the best arable land was taken for military bases and facilities, and farmers who had lost their land emigrated or worked in the new service industries.

Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972, although the US bases remain and today occupy about 20% of the land. There were cutbacks in military spending, especially after the ending of the Indo-China War, which increased Okinawan unemployment. By the early 1980s this was two or three times as high as on the mainland, while average income was only 65%. The islands were more integrated into the Japanese economy, thus placing pressures on local businesses, while the main growth industry was tourism which grew fivefold between 1972 and 1982. Although most Okinawans welcomed the return of the islands to Japan in an attempt to escape foreign control, many still feel that they are regarded as a “backward” group and there have been movements to revitalize local culture and to fight ecological destruction.

Within Okinawa, one group which faces particular problems are the children of mixed Okinawan and American unions, who are likely to face problems of family instability and poverty in addition to discrimination. In the early 1980s there were estimated to be 3,500 mixed-race people in Okinawa, a small number of whom were stateless as they could claim neither Japanese nor American citizenship.