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Kyoto University possesses remains taken from the Momojyana tomb in Okinawa, Japan, where members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom are believed to be buried.

Yasukatsu Matushima

Okinawans seek return of forebears’ remains, collected decades ago for research

In the late 1920s and early ’30s, researchers from Kyoto Imperial University collected 200- to 600-year-old remains of several hundred people from burial caves in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, which has its own culture and language. Now, in an echo of requests from Indigenous people around the world for repatriation of the remains of their ancestors, five Okinawans are demanding that Kyoto University return the bones and pay compensation.

The plaintiffs say Kyoto University rebuffed requests to discuss the issue, so in 2018 they took the matter to court. The case is slowly making its way through the legal system, further delayed by the pandemic. To put pressure on the university, last month the plaintiffs pleaded for international support at a briefing for foreign correspondents in Japan.

Holding the remains violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion, because the Okinawans don’t have the opportunity to venerate their ancestors, says Yasukatsu Matsushima, an economist at Ryukoku University who is one of the plaintiffs. He adds that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for the repatriation of indigenous human remains. The bones taken from one of the sites, the Momojyana tomb, are believed to include those of members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was based on Okinawa Island. Japan absorbed the kingdom into its empire in 1872 and dissolved it 7 years later.

Kyoto University recently released a statement saying “the university does not consider that the bones were obtained illegally” and that the remains are stored “in a manner appropriate to their preservation.” The researchers who collected the bones decades ago claimed in their writings to have gotten the permission of local authorities. But Matsushima says remains were taken “without the agreement of families, relatives, or villagers.”

The anthropologists who took them to Kyoto wanted to study bones to clarify similarities and differences between Japanese and Ryukyuans, Matsushima says. But today, they figure into long-running questions about the origins of the Japanese people. Most scholars think groups of Stone Age hunter-gatherers from northeastern Asia migrated to the main Japanese islands when land bridges connected them to the continent. Another theory holds that early Indo-Pacific mariners followed sea routes north, island hopping over Taiwan and Okinawa to reach Kyushu in southern Japan.

Whatever their origin, those early inhabitants were joined by later waves of migrants crossing into western Japan from the Korean Peninsula. It was long believed that the intermingling of these groups produced a distinctive, homogeneous Japanese population. However, recent DNA studies suggest “there is huge [genetic] diversity among Japanese,” says Mitzuho Ikeda, a cultural anthropologist at Osaka University. DNA analyses of the bones could shed light on those early migration patterns, and Matsushima worries Kyoto University is keeping the bones to extract DNA for analysis. For now, however, it appears that no one is studying the remains.

Tsuyoshi Tamagushiku, a descendant of the Ryukyuan royal family and a party to the lawsuit, says he was unaware the bones had been removed from the Momojyana tomb until reading news about the issue several years ago. It is still a tradition, he says, for Okinawans to make pilgrimages to the tomb. “I feel extremely angry [to know] that I had prayed in front of the tomb when there were no ancestral bones within,” Tamagushiku says. He and the other plaintiffs say Japan is out of step with the international trend of returning remains and artifacts to Indigenous groups.

The Japanese government, however, does not recognize the Okinawans as Indigenous. But from a cultural anthropology point of view, “The Ryukyuans are an Indigenous people,” Ikeda says. For Tamagushiku it is more personal. He just wants “to have my ancestors rest in peace in their own proper resting place.”