Slow progress prompts international outreach . . .
In December 2018, five Okinawans sued Kyoto University to repatriate the ancestral remains of members of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom that the university allegedly stole in the 1920s and 30s. Slow progress and pandemic delays prompted the plaintiffs to raise international recognition of the issue at a recent Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan meeting. Several plaintiffs are decedents of those whose remains were removed from the island prefecture in the East China Sea. One plaintiff observed, "Ryukyu are an Indigenous people, and we have different religions and burial customs from those of other Japanese." Another added: "It pains me to know that my ancestors are the subjects of scientific examination . . . I want the bones returned to the tomb so my ancestors can rest in peace."
The simplified version of arguments . . .
The plaintiffs argue the university illegally removed the remains without permission from the family and community. They also point out that Article 12 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Japan is a signatory, provides Indigenous peoples with "the right to the repatriation of their human remains." Kyoto University maintains that it secured necessary permissions from prefectural authorities and police at the time and that it has been "storing them in a manner appropriate to their preservation." The Japanese government does not recognize Ryukyuans as Indigenous peoples. Still, such recognition could begin with this trial, just as the Sapporo District Court recognized Ainu as Indigenous in 1997, 11 years before the government followed suit.
A time for reflection and reconciliation . . .
The case parallels other ancestor and artifact repatriation movements throughout the region in ongoing processes of reconciliation and decolonization, including Ainu in Japan and Māori in New Zealand. The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School and at other former residential schools is a reminder of all the reconciliation work still to be done in Canada. June is National Indigenous History Month, and yesterday was National Indigenous Peoples Day. We should take the opportunity to honour and celebrate the rich Indigenous cultures and diversity here in Canada and reflect upon what we might do to contribute to reconciliation at home and what this means for our relations with peoples throughout the Asia Pacific.