Photo/IllutrationMomojana tombs in Nakijin in Okinawa Prefecture in April. The tombs were home to remains of people related to the first Sho Dynasty dating to the 15th century. (Provided by Yasukatsu Matsushima)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--Descendants of a former dynasty in Okinawa Prefecture dating to the 15th century plan to sue Kyoto University to have remains of islanders taken by an anthropologist at the institution returned.

The lawsuit, expected to be filed at the Kyoto District Court on Dec. 4, would be a first in the nation over the repatriation of remains of the Ryukyuan people, according to a team of lawyers for the plaintiffs.

Ryukyuan lived in the Ryukyu Kingdom, covering current-day Okinawa Prefecture and the Amami island chain south of Kagoshima Prefecture.

Takeo Kanaseki, an associate professor of the then Kyoto Imperial University's medical school, reportedly took bones and other remains of at least 26 people from the Momojana tombs in Nakijin, a village on Okinawa’s main island, in 1929.

He intended to study them as part of research into the origins of people on the Japanese archipelago.

In 1991, the village government designated the tombs where the remains had been buried as an important cultural property.

According to the village's board of education, the remains were of people related to the first Sho Dynasty, which ruled Okinawa from 1406 to 1469 as the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Remains of 26 such people were confirmed to be preserved at the Kyoto University Museum, the village government said.

The five plaintiffs in the suit include two descendants of the family of the first Sho Dynasty and Yasukatsu Matsushima, who heads Ryukyu Minzoku Ikotsu Henkan Kenkyukai (Research society calling for the return of the remains of Ryukyu people) and is an economics professor at Ryukoku University.

Matsushima is from Okinawa Prefecture.

The plaintiffs will demand the return of the remains and seek 100,000 yen ($884) each in damages.

They claim that while Kanaseki gained permission from police and the village government over the remains, he did not obtain consent from local residents.

The plaintiff side said they asked the university about the storage conditions of the remains and have requested their return since spring last year, but the university rejected their inquiry and request.

“For Ryukyu people, remains are the spirits of the dead,” Matsushima said. “They need to be returned to observe our faith.”

A public relations official at Kyoto University declined to comment on the planned suit.

“The university is studying articles in its possession one by one, but it will take some time to accurately understand them,” the official said. “It is difficult to respond to individual inquiries.”

The focal point of the lawsuit will be whether the plaintiffs are entitled to demand the repatriation of the remains.

The plaintiffs believe they are, based on the 2007 U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to repatriate the human remains.

However, the central government does not recognize Ryukyuan as indigenous to Japan.

Moreover, the identities of the remains have yet to be established, raising the question about the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ argument that they inherited the right to repatriate them.

The education ministry confirmed in its 2016 study that 12 universities kept remains of 1,676 Ainu people, the only indigenous people recognized by the central government.

Most of the universities are predecessors of today’s national universities, such as the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Osaka University.

Researchers at such predecessor institutions collected bones and other remains for research purposes since 1878.

In a lawsuit over the return of Ainu remains, the plaintiffs and Hokkaido University reached an agreement in 2016 that remains whose identity had not been established should nonetheless be returned to an Ainu association in Hokkaido.

A group of citizens in Amami-Oshima, Kikaijima and Tokunoshima islands in Kagoshima Prefecture submitted a request to Kyoto University in May for the return of the remains of about 260 people that an anthropologist at the university is believed to have taken in 1933-35.