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Lawsuit seeks return of Ryukyu remains

OSAKA, Japan >> Nearly a century ago and in the name of academic study, a Kyoto University professor took the remains of more than two dozen residents of what is now Okinawa prefecture, including those of a Ryukyu king.

Now, in the first case of its kind, descendants are suing the university, calling for the repatriation of 26 sets of remains stored at the Kyoto University Museum.

But as the case proceeds, it has raised a larger issue: whether the Kyoto District Court will make a judgement that recognizes the Ryukyu people as indigenous. With Japan’s sole recognition of the Ainu as indigenous, how the court rules could become a first step toward the government recognizing Ryukyuans as indigenous.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs claim that the professor stole ancestral bones from the Momojyana tomb in the village of Nakijin.

“Inside this tomb were the bones of my ancestors,” said Tsuyoshi Tamagushiku, a plaintiff and descendant of one of the Ryukyu kings.

The whereabouts of the remains was unknown to Okinawans until 2017, when Yasukatsu Matsushima, a professor at Okinawa’s Ryukoku University, learned about their location and contacted Kyoto University to find out more.

But the university sent him a letter saying they would not respond to his inquiries.

Through an Okinawan member of the Diet, an angry Ma­tsushima received word from the education ministry that Kyoto University had admitted that the remains were among their collection. The ministry oversees the university.

Matsushima, Tamagushiku and others filed a lawsuit against the university in December 2018, seeking the return of the remains.

For the plaintiffs, the root of the problem lies in historical discrimination against the Ryukyuans.

“Japanese imperialism and colonialism against the Ryukyu people are the social background of this problem. Ryu­kyu are an indigenous people, and we have different religions and burial customs from those of other Japanese,” Matsushima said.

Between 1429 and 1879 most of what is now Okinawa prefecture was known as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, ruled by the Ryukyu monarchy, which had unified the islands.

The kingdom’s independence ended with Japan’s colonization of the islands in 1879. The Ryukyuans, with a different language, customs and a long tradition of independence, faced severe discrimination by mainland Japanese.

In arguing the court case, the plaintiffs are using both domestic laws of the time — that it was illegal to remove human remains from a cemetery without consent — and a nonbinding United Nations declaration. Article 12 of the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gives indigenous peoples “the right to the repatriation of their human remains.”

But the challenge is that Japan does not recognize Ryukyuans as indigenous.

Kyoto University takes a different view of how the remains were obtained.

“For its part, the university does not consider that the bones were obtained illegally. Moreover, it is storing them in a manner appropriate to their preservation,” said David Hajime Kornhauser, the university’s director of global communications.

The plaintiffs hope the Kyoto court will describe the Ryukyuans as indigenous when it rules, to help lay the groundwork for government recognition.

Despite the lack of legal recognition in Japan, the plaintiff’s efforts have been recognized by one university abroad.

In 2019, National Taiwan University returned to the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education some of the remains that were taken in 1929. At the time, Taiwan was a Japanese colony, and some remains ended up at the university. However, the board is still holding the remains for research.

“It pains me to know that my ancestors are the subjects of scientific examination,” Tamagushiku said. “I want the bones returned to the tomb so my ancestors can rest in peace.”

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