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Somayama

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  • Japanese: 杣山 (somayama)

Traditionally in the Ryûkyû Islands, certain types of forestland were shared communally between villagers of one or more villages, who communally shared rights to gathering lumber and other forest products. These forest lands were called somayama.

In 1893, reformer Jahana Noboru suggested converting some of these forest lands to farmland, to be given over as private property to individuals to provide relief to former scholar-aristocrats who were struggling after losing their support structure, following the fall of the kingdom. He pointed out that much of the land designated as somayama wasn't even useful forest, but just underbrush, and that as a result the land was going utterly unused. In his proposal to the prefectural government, he assured that no forest lands would be reclaimed such as would actually impinge upon villagers' livelihoods.

Jahana gained the support of Governor Narahara Shigeru, but faced heavy opposition from villagers who feared their somayama rights were threatened; some villages in Yanbaru went so far as to pool funds to send a delegation to Naha to petition the prefectural government themselves. The situation grew so contentious that the "Somayama problem" (somayama mondai) has become a noted item in the chronology of Okinawan history.

The standard narrative of what happened next characterizes Narahara as villainous, with little interest in helping the Okinawan aristocrats, or the peasants, and seeking instead to clear as much land as possible to sell to entrepreneurs from mainland Japan, and to the former royal family; in such accounts, Jahana is represented as a tragic figure, and a noble supporter of the peasants, who was expelled from government by Narahara for opposing his plans. However, historian Gregory Smits, citing other scholars such as Arakawa Akira, notes that as much as 2/3 of the land sales to mainlander entrepreneurs took place under Jahana's watch, and in fact declined after he was fired. He suggests that Jahana, as a young technocrat expert trained at the most elite Tokyo institutions, would have been dismissive of villagers' opposition to his well-considered plans, disparaging of their attitudes, and spiteful for their daring to question his expertise, and that all of this is indicated in his writings.

It was only later that Jahana truly became supportive of the peasants' positions, and more explicitly and staunchly opposed to Narahara's plans. He was dismissed from his involvement in the project in 1894, but was brought back on in 1897, by which time Narahara and his administration were seeking to dispose of all somayama lands. Narahara wanted all remaining somayama lands to become owned by the government, which would then assure the continuation of villagers' access. It was at this time that Jahana more definitively stood up in opposition to the governor. Arguing that government ownership lends itself too easily to abuse and corruption, and to the possibility of government policy regarding these lands changing on a whim, Jahana stood with villagers who pushed for the land to be divvied up amongst them, to be held as private property by the villagers, thus ensuring their access to the benefits of this land. This brought great pushback against Jahana, from the government, and he ultimately resigned from government service entirely in December 1898.

References

  • Gregory Smits, "Jahana Noboru: Okinawan Activist and Scholar," in Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002), 104-105.
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