In Search of Okinawa Rights

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In April of this year, UC Santa Cruz doctoral candidate Lex McClellan-Ufugusuku sat before the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and described how the construction of a new military base American in Okinawa was undertaken despite its environmental problems and against the strong objections of those who live on the island.

His statement stems from his doctoral research on the complexities of the small island of great strategic importance located in the East China Sea. Now ruled by Japan, the island is home to 32 US military installations that many Okinawans oppose, according to McClellan-Ufugusuku. If, however, Okinawa residents were to be recognized as indigenous, they may have the right to block or stop the presence or expansion of such facilities under the Indigenous Peoples Guidelines set by the United Nations, said said McClellan-Ufugusuku. It’s a tricky situation.

It’s also personal.

McClellan-Ufugusuku is a Shimanchu half-breed, a descendant of those who live on the island of Okinawa.

Born in San Diego, McClellan-Ufugusuku (College Nine) came to UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate specifically to work on the Okinawa Memories Initiative under history professor Alan Christy. The initiative explores and documents the early years of the US military presence in Okinawa. McClellan-Ufugusuku earned a bachelor’s degree in history and critical race and ethnic studies in 2018, and continued her graduate studies on campus.

Speaking by phone, McClellan-Ufugusuku said she was guided in her research by the thoughts of her obaachan (grandmother), Michicko Cappalla Oshiro.

“She has a basic education that she received during the American military period in Okinawa,” McClellan-Ufugusuku said. “She told me stories about how she ran through the sugar cane fields on her way home from school so she could hide and read before she had to go home and do her job.”

Arriving in the United States in the 1980s, McClellan-Ufugusuku’s grandmother worked her whole life, maintaining her heritage and pride in being Ryukyuan (Okinawa) despite the fact that it would have been easier to be assimilated into American culture, McClellan-Ufugusuku said.

Combining studying government documents and conducting oral histories of Shimanchu both in Okinawa and in the diaspora, McClellan-Ufugusuku said her doctoral research not only explores how the culture and language of Shimanchu are drifting away” in light of ongoing Japanese assimilation policies” but also how this leads to environmental damage to his ancestral land.

Telling the story of the disputed relocation from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko Bay in Okinawa, McClellan-Ufugusuku spoke of the damage to coral reefs and how the remains of Okinawans killed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 have were discovered in the dredged soil. intended for use as a landfill.

“Our ancestors are turned into a trail and we will never get them back… They were killed twice,” McClellan-Ufugusuku said.

The bases – there are 13 on the island – have also contributed to the presence of potentially carcinogenic chemicals in drinking water near these sites, she said. A 2019 study by two Kyoto University professors, for example, found high levels of PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) both in the blood of citizens and in rivers near a US airbase. The chemical was used in fire extinguishing foam. Crimes by US soldiers on the island are another issue, McClellan-Ufugusuku said.

If Okinawans were recognized as indigenous, however, they might have the right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to have access to their lands without fear of military violence and also to have their say. to say about the possibility of building new facilities, she said. . Still, many older Okinawans object to being called indigenous because of how the term was used to exclude people in the past and was seen as shameful, McClellan-Ufugusuku said.

The thousands of people who are part of the Okinawa diaspora, especially the young people, however see it as a struggle for their rights.

The importance of her research is about “survival,” said McClellan-Ufugusuku, who ran for the UN as the sole representative of the Ryukuan people. “Surviving means reclaiming our history, our cultural practices and our languages. »

McClellan-Ufugusuku’s appearance before the UN, Professor Christy said, was an example of
the 26-year-old’s bravery in overcoming the anxieties of being in awkward situations in order to do what is necessary, a trait he saw throughout his years at UC Santa Cruz. This is also how McClellan-Ufugusuku was able to create a worldwide network of Okinawans and their descendants as part of his research.

Its focus on a small place that has global significance is significant, Christy said. “She is working on a key question that is at the heart of everything that will take on increasing importance” in the years to come.

Meanwhile, McClellan-Ufugusuku has taken on another role at UC Santa Cruz. In addition to teaching, she is also the head coach of the women’s lacrosse team on campus, a No. 5 ranked team in the Western Women’s Lacrosse League Division II.

Read a graduate profile by McClellan-Ufugusuku by The Humanities Institute.

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