Government of the Ryukyu Kingdom

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The government of the Ryûkyû Kingdom was patterned after that of Ming Dynasty China, with the king at the top, followed by several groups of top advisors who oversaw a series of bureaus and offices staffed by scholar-officials ranked into eighteen levels of court ranks.

Medieval Ryûkyû

The structure and organization of government in the mature Ryûkyû Kingdom (from the 15th century onward) were largely a continuation of those from the previous century, when the Kingdom of Chûzan established such governmental structures based on Ming models. Over the course of the ensuing centuries, various reforms and adaptations were built atop this foundation.

Initially, under Kings Shô Shishô (r. 1406-1421) and Shô Hashi (1422-1439) at the beginning of the 15th century, the top three officials were known as ôsô (王相, C: wáng xiāng) or kokusô (国相, C: guó xiāng), sometimes translated as "prime minister", and a pair of chôshi (長史, C: zhǎng shǐ, "head officials") of the "left" and "right." The chôshi of the right also served as head of Kumemura (with the title Kumemura-okite) and oversaw the tribute trade.[1] Though ostensibly serving under the king, these Chinese-born officials exercised considerable power, especially in the realm of coordinating Ryûkyû's trade and relations otherwise with the Ming dynasty and other foreign courts, and sometimes seem to have even acted on behalf of all of Okinawa, despite the three kingdoms on the island being ostensibly distinct sovereign entities. As early as the 1450s, however, these Chinese-born officials were replaced as the most prominent and influential figures in kingdom governance by individuals presented as the younger brothers of the kings, and by scholar-officials from Kumemura; it was at this time that the Sanshikan (Council of Three, the top three royal advisors and administrators) and the bureaucratic hierarchy under them, began to come into form.[2]

The bureaucratic structure of the kingdom's administration/government became even more structured and well-established during the reign of Shô Shin (r. 1477-1526). It is unclear precisely when particular changes were made, or when particular offices came into being. By the 1520s, however, a wide variety of government officials, including guards, soldiers, religious officials, civil engineers, and bureaucrats of various types were all organized into groups known as hiki, each of which was headed by one of the three or four sedo (船頭) in the court; the sedo, in turn, were under the authority of the Sanshikan. Meanwhile, individual ports/harbors or larger districts were each overseen by local officials known as satunushi (里主, J: satonushi, lit. "village head"), who would develop into the jitô of the early modern period.[3]

A separate bureaucratic structure meanwhile came into existence for the priestesses and other female religious officials of the kingdom, with the kikôe-ôgimi (chief priestess, often the king's sister or another close relative) at the top. She oversaw three "Ôamu priestesses" (O: Ufuanshitari, J: Ôamushirare), each of whom was associated with one of the three districts of Shuri and oversaw, in turn, a hierarchy of thirty-three priestesses known as kimi, based in districts across the realm.[4]

Though the kingdom was invaded by Kagoshima domain in 1609 and made a vassal to the Shimazu clan of that domain, the royal government was allowed to continue intact, maintaining its structures, practices, and administrative authority in most areas, albeit subject at times to Satsuma requests or edicts.

Early Modern Organization

An official known as the sessei (a position which has been compared to Prime Minister) and three known as the Sanshikan (Council of Three) were the chief royal advisors, advising the king and deciding or confirming most decisions of governance and legislation. Alongside two ministries known in Japanese as Môshikuchihô and Mono bugyôsho (O: Umun bujôju), they formed the Hyôjôjû, the highest administrative and legislative body in the kingdom. This highest echelon of the government was also known as wii-nu-uza (J: ue no oza), or "the upper seats."

They worked closely with the Council of Fifteen (J: omote jûgonin), the heads of the various bureaus and offices of government which constituted the "lower seats" of the government (O: shimu nu uza, J: shimo no oza). Policy decisions and actions were discussed between these "upper" and "lower" bodies, with decisions being ultimately determined by the king. The Fifteen included three umun bujô, the two hichô nushidori, and the seven heads and six ginmiyaku (vice-heads) of the sasu no soba, the sôshi kuri, the Tomari jitô (oversaw the port of Tomari), and the hira no soba (judicial department).

Lower ranks of officials included Jitô, who were the chief representatives of the central government overseeing districts or regions (magiri) of the kingdom; atai, who oversaw specific types of lands, such as farmlands or forests; gechiyaku, who were temporarily appointed to oversee economic recovery in areas in need of such recovery; and a number of other local authorities or trade officials with titles such as ôyako and Naha satunushi.[5]

While diplomatic matters were handled by the Sanshikan and various other offices, several new offices were created in the 1840s to deal with incursions from Westerners while keeping them at a distance from any interactions with the "real" offices of the government.[6]

Civil officials were chosen from among the ranks of scholar-aristocrats and commoners, based in part on Confucian exams, and in part on inheritance of positions through lineage. However, government positions and aristocratic holdings were not simply passed down intact as in Tokugawa Japan; they diminished from one generation to the next, and had to be regained through accomplishment and reward for government service.

Internal government documents were regularly written in kana, in the Okinawan language, not in Chinese; students studying to join the scholar-bureaucracy were educated in Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan, and in fact from the 17th century onwards, Neo-Confucian and classic Confucian texts were taught largely in Japanese forms, rather than in the original Chinese.[7] Chinese was used in formal communications with Ming (and later Qing) China, but even from quite early on, communications with Japan were written in a Japanese form called wayô kanbun, and not in standard classical Chinese.[8]


  • Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 81.
  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii (2019), 111-112.
  2. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 112-113.
  3. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 164.
  4. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 164-165.
  5. Gregory Smits. Visions of Ryukyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1999. p165.
  6. Marco Tinello, "The termination of the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo : an investigation of the bakumatsu period through the lens of a tripartite power relationship and its world," PhD thesis, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia (2014), 142n255, 145.
  7. Takatsu Takashi, “Ming Jianyang Prints and the Spread of the Teachings of Zhu Xi to Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom in the Seventeenth Century,” in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Harrassowitz Verlag (2008), 263-264.
  8. Ying Kit Chan. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526).” MA Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 70.