This panel explores various aspects of nature-making and spatial contestation in the Ryukyu Islands. The papers address nature conservation in relation to territorial conflicts, the postwar history and changing meanings of sacred sites, and the contemporary significance of heritage production.
Environmental anthropologists and spatial scientists have recently challenged the paradigmatic nature-culture dichotomy, showing that the two are shaped in constant interaction, by human and non-human actors. In Japan, nature is closely intertwined with modern nation-building projects, both ideologically and physically. The production of nature as demarcated space has been a core aspect of modern imperialism. Annexed by Meiji Japan in 1879, the Ryukyu Islands are among Japan's remaining colonial possessions. Occupying a central position in the East China Sea, they are considered of profound strategic importance, and the national government has implemented several strategies to ensure territorial control: militarization, nature conservation, economic subsidies, heritage production etc. Other actors, however, have also made claims to the land, especially on Okinawa. These include the US military, the tourist industry, ritual specialists, environmental activists, farmers, local residents, and others. Today, spatial politics in the Ryukyu Islands is highly contested; different actors compete with each other for control over small areas of land that are rich in natural resources and imbued with cultural and religious meanings. In this panel, we will explore various aspects of nature-making and spatial contestation in the Ryukyu Islands, combining historical and anthropological approaches. The three papers address the topics of wildlife conservation, the contestation of sacred space, and the production of heritage, respectively. The first paper looks at nature conservation in relation to national sovereignty claims in the region. These remain partly unresolved, as the PRC claims some of the Ryukyu Islands (the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands) as part of its sovereign territory, which is a significant source of geopolitical tension. The second paper looks at the history and changing meanings of sacred places (utaki) in Okinawa from the occupation period until today, and discusses the present-day significance of these places in relation to debates about US military presence. The third paper likewise looks at utaki in Okinawa, but it focuses on one site in particular, Seifa Utaki. Through this case study, the paper examines the significance of heritage production in contemporary Okinawa, in relation to biodiversity conservation and identity politics.