Invasion of Ryukyu

A stone marker at a local branch of Kasuga Shrine in Kagoshima, at the former site of the docks from which the Satsuma fleet departed for Yamakawa.

The invasion of Ryûkyû by forces of Satsuma han took place in 1609, and marked the beginning of the Ryûkyû Kingdom's status as a vassal state under Satsuma. The invasion itself involved few casualties, as Ryûkyû had little military strength, and its people were ordered by their king to surrender and to spare themselves any bloodshed.

Ryûkyû would remain a vassal state under Satsuma, alongside its already long-established tributary relationship with China, until it was formally annexed by Japan in 1879 as Okinawa Prefecture.


Satsuma's invasion of Ryûkyû was the climax of a long tradition of relations between the kingdom and the Shimazu clan of Satsuma. The two regions had been engaged in trade for at least several centuries and possibly for far longer than that; in addition, Ryûkyû at times had paid tribute to the Muromachi shogunate (1336-1573) of Japan as it did to China since 1372.

In the final decades of the 16th century, the Shimazu clan, along with Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan from 1582-1598, requested or demanded various types of aid or service from the kingdom on a number of occasions. The repeated refusals of these demands by King Shô Nei (r. 1587-1620), who also ignored outright many communications from the Shimazu and from Hideyoshi, spurred the Shimazu, with the permission of the newly established Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), to invade Ryûkyû in 1609, claiming it a punitive mission. The Ryûkyû Kingdom's hesitation, or refusal, to send communications or missions at this time may have been in part in response to a perception of the worsening threat of piracy.[1]

One of the chief events which spurred Satsuma to aggression occurred when Hideyoshi launched the first of two invasions of Korea in 1592. Through messengers from Satsuma, he ordered that Ryûkyû contribute warriors to the invasion efforts, and was refused; he also commanded that Ryûkyû temporarily suspend its official missions to China. The mission traveled to Beijing anyway, on business relating to Shô Nei's formal investiture, and related Hideyoshi's plans to Chinese Court officials there. Shimazu Yoshihisa, lord of Satsuma, then suggested that Ryûkyû be allowed to supply food and other supplies - enough to support 7000 men[2] - instead of manpower; Hideyoshi agreed, but Shô Nei ignored the related missives.

Following Hideyoshi's death in 1598, and Tokugawa Ieyasu's subsequent rise to power, Shô Nei was asked by Satsuma in 1606 to formally submit to the new shogunate, or according to some scholars, merely requested to enter into formal trade relations with Japan, as the shogunate was reportedly desperate for a regular source of imported Chinese silk. In either case, this was also ignored. Some scholars also cite an incident in 1602, in which the Shimazu bore the expense of repairing a Ryukyuan ship which had become shipwrecked in Sendai domain, and returning its crew safely to Ryûkyû; Shô Nei gave no formal response to this either. The Shimazu then sent another formal letter in 1604/1, and though Ryûkyû sent an envoy to Kagoshima in response the following year, Satsuma's patience had already been exhausted. Later that year, in 1605/7, a Ryukyuan ship was shipwrecked near Hirado. The shogunate, via Nagasaki bugyô Ogasawara Ichian, ordered the Nagasaki daikan to have the crew returned to Ryûkyû; the lord of Hirado han, Matsura Shigenobu, was at the same time instructed to request from Ryûkyû a formal expression of gratitude for safely returning both this crew, and the Sendai crew. On 1605/8/15, Shigenobu passed this formal letter from the rôjû on to Shimazu karô Shimazu Tadanaga and Hishijima Kunisada. At the time, the shogunate seemed to be considering entrusting both the Shimazu and the Matsura clans with overseeing relations with Ryûkyû. Shimazu Tadatsune's precise motives in pursuing an invasion of Ryûkyû are unclear, and may have been multiple; however, whether in order to secure exclusive Shimazu control over the Ryûkyû trade, or for other reasons, Tadatsune then requested to launch a punitive mission against Ryûkyû, and was granted permission by the shogunate in 1606.[3]

Satsuma sent yet another envoy to Ryûkyû, in 1608/9, this time led by the monk Ryôan. He was to request that King Shô Nei pay a formal visit to Japan, and that he agree to have Ryûkyû serve as an intermediary for Japan-Ming trade relations. Ryûkyû responded by sending their own monk envoy (not the king himself), and refusing to aid in Ming-Japan trade.[3]


The final planning stages for the invasion took place in the second lunar month of Keichô 14 (1609). On the sixth day of that month, the senior Shimazu retainers met and named Kabayama Hisataka to lead the invasion as sôtaishô; Hirata Masamune would serve as his second in command. This marked the beginning of the gathering of forces for the invasion.

A set of guidelines issued on 1609/2/26, entitled Ryûkyû tokai no gunshû hatto no jôjô and signed by Shimazu Yoshihiro, Yoshihisa, and Iehisa, along with additional instructions issued by Yoshihisa via Iehisa on 3/3, instructed Shimazu forces to withdraw from the islands as soon as their military objectives were accomplished, and to return to Satsuma no later than the fifth or sixth month. To that end, in order to help ensure the efficiency of the mission, instructions were given to avoid excessive antagonism of the common people; this included bans on desecrating palaces, shrines or temples, or by scattering Confucian materials; violence against peasants; and the kidnapping of local people. Yoshihisa seemed particularly concerned about the dangers of a protracted fight, and instructed the invasion force to engage with any peace overtures extended by the Ryukyuans, but also to burn down Shuri castle if necessary to avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy siege, and to take "local island chiefs" as hostages to help reinforce Shimazu authority over the islands henceforward. Remembering the difficulties faced by Shimazu forces during Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea, when Ryûkyû refused to provide the necessary supplies demanded of them, Yoshihisa added that Shimazu forces should confiscate food from Ryukyuan peasants if necessary.[4]

In the end, the invasion would successfully adhere to its planned timeframe, securing the submission of even the outlying Sakishima Islands and departing from the Ryukyus before the end of the fifth month.


The invasion plans were finalized on 2/26,[5] and on 3/4, the Satsuma force, consisting of over 100 ships carrying roughly 3000 warriors and 5000 sailors and laborers,[6] left Yamakawa Harbor for the Ryukyus. The samurai landed at the friendly Kuchinoerabujima the following day, staying there several nights before departing for Amami Ôshima, where the invasion began in earnest on 3/7. The island would not fall to the invaders until 3/16. After an initial landing at Kasari Bay, the invaders moved on to Yamatohama on 3/12, and then to Nishikomi, securing the island by 3/16. The chief Shuri official on Kikaijima, a man by the name of Kantarugane, is said to have sailed to Amami to surrender prior to any Shimazu forces ever landing on Kikai.[7]

According to some sources, Ryukyuan resistance on Amami fell quickly, but the invading forces simply took their time in an orderly operation. Other sources, however, indicate that 70 of the 75 ships sent to Amami Ôshima were knocked off course by the weather; the force was split, with Hisataka and Masamune landing on different parts of the island. According to these accounts, they were met by roughly 3000 Ryukyuan defenders, hunkered down in wooden fortifications, who were only finally defeated in the end through the use of the arquebus, which would prove a key advantage for the Satsuma force throughout the invasion.

Having secured Amami Ôshima, a portion of the invaders moved on to Tokunoshima on 3/18, where significant skirmishes occurred at Akitoku and Kametsu. While the invaders are said to have met with no resistance at Kanamasaki in the northeast of the island on 3/17, those aboard seven ships which made landfall at Wan'ya on the northwest coast encountered some one thousand defenders; the 200-300 Shimazu warriors defeated these defenders quickly, and took perhaps as many as fifty heads. Moving on to Akitoku by 3/20, the Shimazu then encountered fierce resistance from formal Ryukyu guardsmen or warriors, led by Yonabaru peechin Chôchi[8] and by two unnamed brothers, accompanied by locals armed with farming implements, kitchen knives and the like. A group led by Kabayama Hisataka was stuck on Amami Ôshima, waiting for good winds, finally arriving on Tokunoshima on 3/20.[9] The invaders, armed with teppô (arquebuses), eventually defeated the island's defenders on 3/22; at least six or seven samurai were killed in the clashes, along with 200-300 Ryukyuan warriors.

A number of Ryukyuan ships, sent from Okinawa on 3/10, upon word of the attacks on Ôshima, skirted past Tokunoshima on 3/23. The Satsuma forces failed to intercept them. The following day, the samurai seized Okinoerabujima; though the coral reefs surrounding the island would normally have made a landing difficult, unusually high tides carried the Japanese ships over the obstacles, and the island surrendered with little or no fighting.

After these skirmishes on these smaller, more northern islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, the fleet skipped Yorontô and landed at Unten Harbor on the Motobu Peninsula of Okinawa Island on 3/25.

Unten, the chief harbor of the northern parts of the island and one of the only places where the invaders might easily make a landing, is also the site of Nakijin gusuku, formerly the chief castle of the kingdom of Hokuzan; a smaller fortress, called Nago gusuku, lay nearby. The invaders therefore seized first Kourijima, which lies just off the coast from Nakijin, and used this as a base from which to launch their attack. Kourijima fell quickly, and a request for reinforcements was sent to the royal capital of Shuri.

Sources are sadly sparse on the details of the fall of Nakijin. The fortress was commanded by Shô Kokushi (Nakijin anji Chôyô), the king's son; Nago Ryôhô, a member of the Sanshikan (the king's top three advisors), led a force of 1000 from Shuri to aid in their defense. Some sources indicate that the samurai reconnaissance force sent on 3/27 discovered the fortress abandoned; others, however, describe a battle on 3/26 in which Nago Ryôhô lost half his force, and note the death of Shô Kokushi on 3/28. Attempts were made on 3/27 to negotiate a settlement with the invaders, but Kabayama Hisataka refused to even meet with the Ryukyuan representatives.

Word of the fall of Nakijin spread quickly, and threw the northern section of the island, known as Kunigami, into chaos and panic. The invaders abandoned Kourijima, seizing Yomitan, a harbor a short distance to the south, which would serve as their base of operations from here on. The force then split, one arm moving south on land, burning villages as it went, while a separate force traveled by sea to Naha, the kingdom's chief port, and a key point of access to Shuri.

Kyan ueekata once again led a team to seek to negotiate with the invaders, as did Nago Ryôhô and the monk Kikuin, but all were refused. On their return to Shuri, bad weather forced Kyan ueekata's group to make port at Makiminato, and to journey the rest of the way to Shuri on foot. According to Kyan, while Nago ueekata gave himself over to the Shimazu forces as a hostage by way of attempting to gain an audience for peace negotiations, Kikuin rushed back to Shuri to inform the court of the progression of events. In an oft-cited passage, Kyan describes Kikuin making the long journey on foot, arriving in Shuri with his white monk's robes and the sand under his feet stained red with blood from his feet.[10]

The Shimazu force moving overland met little resistance, reaching and capturing Urasoe gusuku on 4/1.[9] Urasoe was to be the last fortress to fall before Shuri. Though sources on the assault itself are scant, Stephen Turnbull surmises that it was done in the same manner as many of the attacks on other gusuku during the invasion; the Okinawan architecture left defenders standing atop the castle walls completely open to enemy fire, a vulnerability of which the samurai arquebusiers took advantage. Sweeps of arquebus fire decimated the defending forces, and then the wooden gates were busted in; at Urasoe, the attackers also burnt down a Buddhist temple, the Ryûfuku-ji.

The same day, the samurai advance next made its way across Tairakyô (today called Tairabashi), an important bridge on the road from Urasoe to Shuri, defeating 100 men led by Goeku ueekata who sought to defend it. Ryukyuan records of the skirmish indicate that they were felled "in a hail of bullets" and that "[they] did not know about guns like these"[11]. Contrary to some myths about the pacifistic nature of the Okinawan people, or their lack of arms, the Ryukyuan defenders were in fact armed with firearms, and their ships and fortresses with cannon, as well, albeit ones based upon Chinese firearms, while the samurai used arquebuses based on European designs. Taking the bridge, the Shimazu forces then proceeded to Shuri, and began to surround the castle.[9]

Meanwhile, the other half of the invading force, which progressed to Naha by sea, were repulsed on 4/1[9] by the port's defenses, in one of the only Ryukyuan victories of the campaign. Tei Dô (Jana ueekata) and Tomigusuku Seizoku commanded a force of 3000 soldiers in defending the harbor, while Urasoe ueekata gathered an army to defend Shuri castle. Mie and Yarazamori gusuku, located on opposite sides of the harbor, were both armed with cannon, and had a net or chain of iron stretched between them, blocking the enemy ships from entering the harbor. The Japanese ships were turned back, but made port somewhere nearby to the north, possibly at Makiminato, proceeding overland from there.

Turnbull points out that the maritime attack may have been a feint, to distract from the land-based attack and to draw defenders away from the capital. As Kabayama's diary and other sources do not directly indicate the generals' intentions, it is impossible to know whether the maritime attack on Naha was authentic, or merely a feint. Nevertheless, in the end, the land-based force would succeed in seizing Shuri castle and claiming victory over the kingdom.

The capital desperately tried to organize a defense, but the kingdom's military capabilities were no match for those of the invaders. Ryûkyû's hereditary aristocratic class, unlike that of the Japanese samurai, was not a warrior class, and in any case the kingdom had faced no threats greater than the occasional pirates in nearly two hundred years.

As the invading army bore down on Shuri, another attempt at negotiation was considered but ultimately rejected, as the Ryukyuans realized it was too late. Soldiers lined up at the ornamental Shureimon, the outermost gate of the castle, overlapping their wooden shields in an attempt to produce a defense, but soon fell back to the Kankaimon. The attackers swept defenders off the walls with arquebus fire, as they had done elsewhere, and scaled the walls using ladders.

The invaders entered Shuri Castle on 4/3 and looted it, along with a number of nearby temples and noble residences, stealing or destroying Buddhist scriptures and a variety of other objects of religious or historical significance, along with considerable portions of the royal treasure. They captured Prince Gushichan Chôsei and the Sanshikan on 4/2, and Prince Sashiki Chôshô (the future King Shô Hô) on 4/3.[9] While the invaders were packing up their "loot" and coordinating their hostages, a number of royal retainers escaped the castle, perhaps led by the three sons of Urasoe ueekata, and briefly continued the fight; in the course of their defeat, the three sons were killed.[12] The Shimazu forces then turned on Naha, entering the city both by land, and through the now undefended harbor.

Shô Nei surrendered on the fifth day of the fourth lunar month of 1609[13], and was taken hostage, along with his queen, the heir to the throne, and roughly one hundred of his officials[14]. Members of the Sanshikan were sent to the islands to the south, to convey the news of the invasion and to seek their surrender on behalf of the Satsuma forces; by 5/5, the entire kingdom had submitted to Satsuma authority, without any samurai so much as setting foot on any of the more southterly islands.


The invasion forces departed Ryûkyû on 5/5, returning to Kagoshima with their 100 or so hostages on 5/25.[5]

Shô Nei and the other hostages were kept in Kagoshima for about a year. On 7/6, Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada sent a formal letter praising Shimazu Tadatsune (Iehisa), Yoshihisa, and Yoshihirofor their successful subjugation of the kingdom. Iehisa received a letter that same month from retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (sealed in black ink[15]) acknowledging Ryûkyû as his territory.[5]

Iehisa then took Shô Nei and the other hostages to Sunpu in the summer of 1610, where they were granted an audience with Ieyasu on 8/14, before having an audience with Hidetada and his heir Iemitsu in Edo on 8/29.[5]

They then returned finally to Kagoshima, where on 1611/9/19, the king was forced to more formally surrender and to declare a number of oaths to the Shimazu clan. Over the course of these two years as hostages in Japan, Shô Nei and the other hostages were treated, in some ways at least, as "guests," and were treated to numerous banquets and entertainments.[16] In 1611, two years after the invasion, the king and the other hostages were permitted to return to Shuri.

In the king's absence, Kabayama Hisataka and his deputy Honda Chikamasa governed the islands on behalf of their lord.[17] Smits writes that Nago ueekata was the chief Ryukyuan official who oversaw the court until the king's return.[18] Fourteen samurai officials from Satsuma, along with 163 of their staff[17], examined the kingdom's political structures and economic productivity, and conducted land surveys of all the islands. Following the king's return to Shuri and the resumption of governance under the royal establishment, two Ryûkyûan officials remained as hostages in Kagoshima until Satsuma was convinced that Shô Nei and his officials were operating in accordance with their oaths. The following year, the lords of Ôzato and Katsuren returned to Okinawa, while a third, Kunjan anji, took their place in 1614. He took on a Japanese name and journeyed alongside Shimazu clan warriors to fight in the 1615 Osaka Summer Campaign, but did not arrive before the fighting ended. He was permitted to return to Ryûkyû the following year.[19]

Consequences and effects

The surrender documents signed at Kagoshima in 1611 were accompanied by a series of oaths[20]. The king and his councilors were made to swear that "the islands of Riu Kiu have from ancient times been a feudal dependency of Satsuma"[21], and that there was a long-standing tradition of sending tribute and congratulatory missions on the succession of the Satsuma lords, though these were all falsehoods. The oaths also included stipulations that the kingdom admit its wrongdoing in ignoring and rejecting numerous requests for materials and for manpower, that the invasion was justified and deserved, and that the lord of Satsuma was merciful and kind in allowing the king and his officers to return home and to remain in power. Finally, the councilors were forced to swear their allegiance to the Shimazu over their king. Tei Dô refused to sign the oaths and was beheaded. With his death, the pro-Japan factions in Shuri gained strength over Tei's pro-China faction. Though Satsuma would not meddle in the internal affairs of the kingdom, the influence of the pro-Japan faction, e.g. upon the selection of promotion to the Sanshikan, as well as the influence of Zen monks in Ryûkyû, increased significantly following the invasion.[22]

The agreements also included, however, assurances on Satsuma’s part that the independence of the kingdom and the dignity of the royal family would be maintained, and that Satsuma recognized the social and cultural autonomy of the kingdom and guaranteed the rights of islanders against abuse by Satsuma representatives.[16]

The kingdom's royal governmental structures thus remained intact, along with its royal lineage. The Ryukyus remained nominally independent, a "foreign country" (異国, ikoku)[23] to the Japanese, and efforts were made to obscure Satsuma's domination of Ryûkyû from the Chinese Court, in order to ensure the continuation of trade and diplomacy, since China refused to conduct formal relations or trade with Japan at the time. However, though the king retained considerable powers, he was only permitted to operate within a framework of strict guidelines set down by Satsuma, and was required to pay considerable amounts in tribute to Satsuma on a regular basis.

This framework of guidelines was largely set down by a document sometimes called the Fifteen Injunctions (掟十五ヶ条, Okite jûgo-ka-jô), which accompanied the oaths signed in Kagoshima in 1611, and which detailed political and economic restrictions placed upon the kingdom. Prohibitions on foreign trade, diplomacy, and travel outside of that officially permitted by Satsuma were among the chief elements of these injunctions. Ryûkyû's extensive trade relations with China, Southeast Asia, and Korea were turned to Satsuma's interests, and various laws were put into place forbidding interactions between Japanese and Ryûkyûans, travel between the two island nations. Likewise, travel abroad from Ryûkyû in general, and the reception of ships at Ryûkyû's harbors, were heavily restricted with exceptions made only for official trade and diplomatic journeys authorized by Satsuma.

In addition, Amami Ôshima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima, Yoronjima, Kikaigashima and a number of other northern islands now known as the Satsunan Islands were annexed into Satsuma Domain and removed from the kingdom's territory. These islands remain today part of Kagoshima Prefecture, not Okinawa Prefecture.


  1. Kuroshima Satoru 黒島敏, Ryûkyû ôkoku to Sengoku daimyô 琉球王国と戦国大名, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (2016), 22.
  2. Ryûkyû shisetsu, Edo he iku! 琉球使節、江戸へ行く!, Okinawa Prefectural Museum (2009), 47.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Yokoyama writes that it was on 1608/8/19 that Tadatsune received formal permission from the shogunate. Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 39.
  4. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 226.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Yokoyama, 40.
  6. Smits, Gregory. "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism." The Asia-Pacific Journal 37-3-10 (September 13, 2010).; according to some sources, these forces included some 250 men from the Tokara Islands, traveling aboard 24 ships. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 225.
  7. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 227.
  8. Many sources suggest that Yonabaru was the son-in-law of top royal advisor Tei Dô, in order to tie Tei Dô more strongly into the history, connecting him as a "hero" to the fact that resistance on Tokunoshima was so strong. However, Gregory Smits, citing Uehara Kenzen, suggests that it's unlikely that there was any such relation between Yonabaru and Tei Dô. He does seem, however, to have been an official under the Hokuzan kanshu, dispatched from Nakijin to Tokunoshima at that time to aid in the resistance. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2018), 228-229.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Miyakonojô to Ryûkyû ôkoku, 24.
  10. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 229.
  11. Turnbull. p40.
  12. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 233.
  13. Smits. Visions of Ryukyu. pp15-19. Some other sources, such as Miyakonojô to Ryûkyû ôkoku (2012), 22-24, give the date as 4/4.
  14. Kerr. p159.
  15. Much like the red/vermillion seals (朱印, shuin) used on certain kinds of formal documents, the black seal (墨印, bokuin) similarly lent certain types of documents formality and authority.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Robert Sakai, "The Ryukyu Islands as a Fief of Satsuma," in John K. Fairbank, The Chinese World Order, Harvard University Press (1968), 112-134.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Kerr. p159.
  18. It is unclear, however, whether this refers to Nago Ryôhô, a member of the Council of Three who was captured by the Shimazu, or his father Nago Ryôin, who had already retired from government service. Smits, 235.
  19. "Kunigami Seiya" 国頭正弥. Digital-ban Nihon jinmei daijiten デジタル版 日本人名大辞典. Accessed via, 12 November 2011.
  20. These can be found in translation in Kerr. pp160-163.
  21. Smits. Visions of Ryukyu. p16.
  22. Yokoyama, 42.
  23. Toby. pp46-7.


  • Kerr, George. Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
  • Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.
  • Miyakonojô to Ryûkyû ôkoku 都城と琉球王国, Miyakonojô Shimazu Residence (2012), 22-32.
  • Toby, Ronald. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Take a King: Okinawa 1609. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009.