Just as Gibbon's classic history of the Roman Empire tells us that Armenia has been a center of conflict since time immemorial, so also does Kerr's classic work remind us of the centuries of conflict Okinawa has witnessed. Just like Armenia, so also does Okinawa deserves something better.
Okinawa's early history was pockmarked by a series of kings struggling to maintain control over fighting warlords. Although Shunten established his kingdom in the 13th Century by defeating his rivals, the entire island was not totally unified until a century later when Sho Hashi conquered the three kingdoms, which made up the island. Peace, of a sort, reigned until 1609, when the Shimazu clan from Satsuma, in southern Japan, invaded Okinawa.
For the next 270 years, Okinawa was, in effect, a Satsuma colony. Satsuma demanded taxes from the Okinawans and controlled trade in exchange for island protection. Commodore Perry's black ships, as chapter seven explains, also paid an unwelcome visit during 1853 and 1854. Perry, who established a small military base there, clearly had plans to bring the entire Ryukuyu Islands into the American ambit.
Napoleon Bonaparte had similar plans. He regarded Okinawa as being central to France's vital interests. Anglo-Chinese tensions brought Okinawa further unwanted attention from both Britain and China. Because Britain, France and the United States were all making efforts to colonize the island chain, an increasingly apprehensive Japan tightened its grip on the island by sending a military detachment there in 1868. Later in 1879, Japan abolished the royal government and annexed Okinawa as a prefecture.
Okinawa was then left in relative peace until 1944, when the Japanese Army arrived in force to counter the impending American attack. The Battle of Okinawa was one of World War II's longest, bloodiest and hardest fought campaigns. Total American casualties were 49,151, including 12,500 killed or missing in action. Japanese Imperial Army losses totaled over 75,000. Nearly one-third of Okinawa's civilian population-100,000 people-also perished during those nightmare months. The battle ended on June 22, 1945, when Old Glory fluttered unchallenged from Okinawa's mountains and towns.
The Stars and Stripes have been flying there ever since. The area stayed under American military control until May 15, 1972, when Richard Nixon transferred administrative authority of the Ryukyu Islands back to Japan. The islands resumed the status they held prior to 1945 - the 47th prefecture of Japan.
Ryukyu means Beautiful Country of the Southern Ocean. Like Armenia, it is indeed a beautiful and haunted land. However, just like Armenia, it is in an unfortunate position. Because it straddles the seaways between China and Japan and because it is near to Korea, the Spratly Islands and a host of other strategically important sites, it remains one of the most militarized places on earth. As the author makes plain, China and the Philippines periodically claim the island chain as their own. When we read the book, we see how truly unfortunate this is.
Kerr paints the golden days of Okinawa before these outside pressures came to dominate the island. He describes how an impoverished people living on barren islands with no metals and little forest wealth were able to construct and preserve for many centuries a complex, progressive and stable government and society. Unlike some of the world's more endowed areas, the Okinawans, like the Armenians, had a toy state, with dignified kings, sententious and learned prime ministers, as well as an abundance of temples and shrines. Okinawa's whole fragile, minuscule structure was developed in a faithful effort to emulate great China, Asia's fabled Middle Kingdom.
Although Kerr paints this beautiful experiment with enchantingly melancholic hues, he makes it plain that there can be no return to those golden days. Maybe with peace pending on the Korean peninsula, a new and equally beautiful experiment in social engineering can begin. The people of Okinawa richly deserve it.