Rarely displayed Ryukyu Islands stamps issued under U.S. control to go on show

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Noboru Omine shows his collection of Ryukyu Islands stamps at the Okinawa Postal Material Center in Naha on the afternoon of May 9.

Seizing on the 50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa to Japan, the local branch of Japan Post Co. will put 246 kinds of postage stamps of the Ryukyu Islands on public display for the first time this summer.

The stamps were issued in Okinawa while it was under U.S. control following the war, and later kept in storage by the branch.

The designs of the stamps reflect Okinawa’s nature and its historical background. Stamp collectors, or philatelists, have also been conveying the historical and artistic value of these stamps through a special exhibition and other means.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A 5-cent stamp to commemorate the ratification of the bilateral accord on the return of Okinawa to Japan
The Yomiuri Shimbun
A 5-sen (or 1/100 yen) Ryukyu Islands regular stamp depicting cycads
The Yomiuri Shimbun
The final Ryukyu Islands stamp, to commemorate a philatelic week, issued in 1972 and priced at 5 cents
The Yomiuri Shimbun
A 5-cent stamp that was issued under a series titled “The Sea,” depicting seabirds, the sea and the island

An official concerned expressed his hope that “with these postage stamps, people will take an interest in the process Okinawa went through before it was returned to Japan.”

Depicted on the stamps are things like cycads, tropical fish, Ryukyu dance and the Shureimon gate. The pictures are peculiar to Okinawa and drawn in vivid colors, but they also show prices in a variety of denominations, including the Japanese yen and the B-type yen – a form of military currency used in U.S.-occupied Okinawa – as well as U.S. dollars and cents. There are even stamps on which the original B yen prices have been crossed out with double lines and revised to cents.

Naoki Shinzato, 54, an official of the branch, explains, “Looking at the prices alone, you can guess that Okinawa went through tumultuous times back then.”

Okinawa’s local administrative functions were devastated by the war, so the residents’ administrative organization set up by the U.S. military government handled postal matters, such as inquiring about the whereabouts of relatives, free of charge. In July 1946, the then civilian government of Okinawa enacted the postal law. This banned the use of Japanese stamps issued before the war, making it necessary to issue new stamps.

The civilian government — and later the Postal Agency, which was part of the Government of the Ryukyu Islands established by the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands to succeed the civilian government — issued 248 kinds of postal stamps from July 1948 through April 1972.

Tsunekazu Kobashigawa, 82, a former Postal Agency official who was involved in the drawing of the stamps and now lives in Haebaru in Okinawa Prefecture, recalls: “Postal stamps of the Ryukyu Islands are quite popular among stamp collectors both at home and abroad, and we sold many kinds of stamps to respond to their demands. Once the decision was made to return Okinawa to Japan, they sold out quickly.”

After Okinawa’s return to Japan, the Postal Agency was incorporated into the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, and later became a branch of Japan Post, which was created when the public-run postal services entity went private. The branch office had kept the old Ryukyu Islands stamps at its storehouse. In the process of being sorted over the past few years, 246 kinds have been identified.

The stamps will be on show for the public at a special exhibition at Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum in Naha from Aug. 16 to 21. A public display of Ryukyu Islands stamps that were never circulated is said to be rare.

The popularity of postal stamps from the Ryukyu Islands is strong among philatelists even today. Noboru Omine, 90, from Naha who has been collecting postal stamps for about 70 years, spoke about the charm of Ryukyu Islands stamps.

“With lots of local painters and photographers involved in the designs of the Ryukyu Islands stamps, their quality is high. They have a distinctive beauty with a blend of local nostalgia and exoticism,” he said.

Some volunteer members of the Japan Philatelic Society Foundation, to which Omine belong, published an enlarged edition of the full catalogue of Okinawa postal stamps on May 1. It carries anecdotes related to Okinawa’s postal service history and its stamps, such as that the first stamp with a price in U.S. dollars had a simple design because it was printed hastily. Another anecdote explains that when a stamp was issued in April 1972 in commemoration of the ratification of the Japan-U.S. agreement on the return of Okinawa to Japan, those who opposed Okinawa’s return tried to block its release.

The foundation held a special exhibition of Ryukyu Islands stamps at the Postal Museum Japan at Tokyo Skytree Town Solamachi in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, until May 15.

Yusuke Kido, 29, who had a pivotal role in organizing the exhibition, has been a great lover of the Ryukyu Islands stamps since he was an elementary school pupil. The Tokyoite said: “Even though I don’t know about Okinawa in its pre-return days, I can conjure up its images back then through these stamps. I hope that many people will turn their thoughts to Okinawa under U.S. control.”