Higashionna Kanjun was one of the pioneers of the field of Okinawan Studies.
Higashionna was born in the Higashi-machi district of Naha, in 1881, in a house which formerly served as residence for samurai officials associated with the Satsuma zaiban bugyôsho. His family was Naha aristocracy, of the Shin (慎) lineage. Higashionna attended Okinawa Jinjô Middle School, and then the Fifth Kumamoto High School, before going on to university in the history department of Tokyo Imperial University. He graduated in 1908, and remained in Tokyo, becoming a teacher at Tokyo's First Prefectural Middle School in 1919. He was then hired in 1929 to teach at Tokyo Prefectural High School. In 1933, Higashionna was dispatched from Tokyo to travel around India and Southeast Asia; while in Thailand, he participated in research on the Nihonmachi (Japantown) in Ayutthaya.
Higashionna became a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo in 1949. While there, he published numerous scholarly essays in the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper and other magazines, and rose to prominence in the field of Okinawan Studies. Some of his most important works include Shô Tai kô jitsuroku ("True Record of Lord Shô Tai," 1924), Reimeiki no kaigai kôtsûshi ("History of Overseas Transport of the Dawning of a New Era," 1941), Tai Biruma Indo ("Thailand, Burma, India," 1941), and Nantô fudoki (1950).
Higashionna's first journal article, entitled Tametomo Ryûkyû torai ni tsukite ("Regarding Tametomo coming to Ryûkyû"), dealt with the story of Minamoto no Tametomo (a member of the Minamoto clan of samurai, and descendant of Emperor Seiwa) coming to Ryûkyû in the late 12th century and siring the first king of Okinawa. It was published in the journal Rekishi chiri in April 1906, the same year that Katô Sangô published the first article denying the veracity of that legend. In his essay, Higashionna suggests that as this myth is the central grounds for the argument that Okinawa belongs, historically and fundamentally, to Japan, it must be the departure point for any scholar of Ryukyuan history. The following year, in 1907, he published a number of articles on the subject in the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, and then in 1908, another formal journal article in Rekishi chiri, in which he asserted that the story of Tametomo was not invented to curry favor with Imperial Japan, but rather existed in Ryûkyû at least as early as 1650.
He was a proponent of the idea that Okinawa was the only place where a purer traditional Japanese-like culture still survived, as Japan modernized, and that the Okinawan language retained more features of ancient Japanese than did any (mainland) Japanese dialect.
Higashionna also took prominent part in a number of the other core debates in Okinawan Studies. One such debate concerned references to Liuqiu (流求, "Ryûkyû") in the 7th century Book of Sui. While some scholars, including Ifa Fuyû, contended that the Book referred to the Ryukyu Islands themselves, others asserted that this was a reference, rather, to the island of Taiwan; Higashionna wrote that the first mention of Liuqiu in the Book of Sui referred properly to Ryûkyû, and can thus be counted as the earliest reference to Ryûkyû in any extent document, but that later mentions referred to Taiwan.
Higashionna died in Tokyo in 1963 at the age of 83. His extensive collection of books and documents, acquired over a 60-year career, was donated to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, where it continues to be maintained as the Higashionna Bunko ("Higashionna Collection").
- Plaque at former site of Higashionna's childhood home, Naha.