Kingdom of Ryukyu

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The rebuilt Seiden (main hall) of Shuri castle, as it appears today

The Kingdom of Ryûkyû encompassed and ruled over most of the Ryûkyû Islands, which stretch between Kyûshû and Taiwan, from 1429 to 1879.

Ruled by the Shô Dynasty of kings from Shuri Castle, on the island of Okinawa, the kingdom was formed by the unification in 1419-1429 of the island, which had been previously divided into three kingdoms. It was an independent state, though a tributary to Ming China, until the 1609 invasion of Ryûkyû by forces of Japan's Satsuma han. From then until its dissolution in 1879, the kingdom served as a semi-independent vassal state under Satsuma, and continued its tributary relationship with China.

The kingdom's territory expanded over the course of the 15th-16th centuries, as the islands of the archipelago were absorbed into the kingdom one by one; after 1624, Amami Ôshima and a number of its neighboring islands were annexed by Satsuma han. The Amami Islands today remain part of Kagoshima Prefecture while the rest of the Ryûkyûs constitute Okinawa Prefecture.



Prior to 1314 or so, the Ryûkyû Islands were controlled by a myriad of small chiefdoms; those on the main island of Okinawa were loosely united under a "king". Tamagusuku, who ascended to this post in 1314, lacked the charisma, leadership qualities, and skills to maintain this unity, and the island fractured into three polities[4]: Nanzan in the south of the island, Hokuzan in the north, and Chûzan in the center.

Over the course of the next hundred years, the three polities consolidated their power, build a great many fortresses (gusuku), and expanded through trade. Chûzan entered into tributary relations with Ming China in 1372, the other two polities following suit within the next decade, and began to receive royal investiture from China as well. The three polities expanded their territory in this period as well, slowly acquiring the other nearby islands either as tributary states or as outright annexed territories, and entering into diplomatic and trade relations with Japan and Korea, as well as with a number of Southeast Asian polities.[5]

A local lord (anji) by the name of Hashi rose to power at the beginning of the 15th century, and overthrew the king of Chûzan, Bunei, around 1407. Hashi originally set up his father as king, but continued to wield power behind the scenes, succeeding his father in 1422. The two received formal investiture from the Ming Court, and were granted the surname Shô (尚, "Shang" in Chinese); father and son thus became Shô Shisho and Shô Hashi respectively, marking the beginning of the first Shô Dynasty. Under their leadership, Chûzan conquered Hokuzan in 1419 and Nanzan in 1429, uniting the island of Okinawa, establishing the Kingdom of Ryûkyû, and moving the capital from Urasoe to Shuri.


A replica of the Bankoku shinryô no kane, or Bridge of Nations Bell, hanging at Shuri castle. The inscription speaks of Ryûkyû as a bridge between all nations
The Shureimon gate to Shuri castle, bearing a plaque reading "Nation of Propriety"
The main gate to the Confucian temple in Kumemura

Despite its tiny land area, the kingdom came to play a crucial role in regional trade networks as a transshipping point. Much of the tribute goods paid by the kingdom to China came originally from Southeast Asia. Hundreds of Ryukyuan vessels, many of them acquired from the Ming, but operating on behalf of the Ryukyuan royal government, traversed the seas, making port in China, Korea, Japan, and at least eight different ports across Southeast Asia, engaging not only in trade but also in diplomatic exchanges.[6] Goods from Japan consisted primarily of precious metals and objects of fine art; the kingdom acquired primarily medicinal herbs, ceramics, and textiles from Korea and China. These were then exchanged in Luzon, Siam, Java (Sunda), Melaka, Palembang, Sumatra, Pattani, and Annam for a variety of spices, aromatic woods, skins, ivory, and other animal products, and sugar. Ryukyuan ships traveling to Southeast Asia were typically manned by entirely Chinese crews, with Chinese navigators, though they were always captained by native Ryukyuans, with the exception of missions to Java.[7]

Annam was perhaps the greatest of Ryûkyû's Southeast Asian trading partners, with a greater number of Ryukyuan ships traveling to Annam in the 16th century than to any other destination outside of China. Eleven other destinations also saw more Ryukyuan ships in that period than Japan did.[8] Siam, meanwhile, was the only Southeast Asian polity to which Ryûkyû sold sulfur. Interactions with Siam began as early as the 1380s, via Chinese intermediaries, but in the 15th century came to be handled more directly by Ryukyuan merchants. With perhaps only one exception, Siamese ships did not travel to Ryûkyû; the trade was conducted entirely on Ryukyuan vessels. Ryûkyû traded with the sultans of Melaka from 1463 until 1511, when Melaka fell to the Portuguese, and the Ryukyuans diverted their trade activities to Pattani. Records of Ryukyuan activity in Java indicate interactions in 1430-1442, and again in 1513-1518; unlike in relations with Siam and other regions, in Java and Sumatra local Chinese merchant communities directed the trade with Ryûkyû.[9]

Much of Ryûkyû's trade with Korea in the 15th-16th centuries was conducted by Japanese merchants from Hakata and Sakai, patronized by various daimyô. Ryukyuan individuals also sometimes traveled themselves to Korea, or elsewhere, aboard these Japanese ships; at times, Japanese ships were able to get better treatment in Korean or other ports if they carried official Ryukyuan envoys. By 1480, however, these Ryukyuan-chartered Japanese trade missions declined significantly, the reputation of their legitimacy having been severely damaged by many Japanese traders falsely claiming to be official representatives of the island kingdom.[10] Further, after 1592, Japanese relations with China and Korea were at a nadir, and so Ryukyuan envoys and trade to Korea traveled via Beijing, and not via Japanese channels.[5]

Most sources indicate that, while the majority of the Ryukyuan peasantry were illiterate and led very simple lives, they always had enough to subsist on. The great wealth acquired by the royal government, government officials, aristocrats, and merchants did not spill over into conspicuous prosperity for all, but neither did the government truly oppress or impoverish the peasantry.

Shô Hashi relocated the capital from Urasoe to Shuri, nearer to the scholar-bureaucrat center of Kumemura, and the port of Naha, and expanded the gusuku (castle) there into a royal palace on the Chinese model. There, he worked to construct a notion of kingship based on the Chinese model, in which the king's rule was seen as legitimate not because of military might, but based on his virtuous character, and on a perception of the king as the benevolent ruler whose virtue united and sustained the kingdom. This discursive project, of constructing in Ryûkyû a Confucian kingdom, was continued by Hashi's successors, and may be said to have reached its full realization under King Shô Shin, in the first decades of the 16th century.[11]

The bureaucratic and governmental structures of the kingdom, based on those of Chûzan, developed and solidified over the course of the 15th century, following, in many ways, a Chinese model. A complex bureaucracy ran the kingdom, the heads of each branch known collectively as the Council of Fifteen. The king was of course at the top of the hierarchy, his chief advisor known as the sessei. After 1556, when the mute Shô Gen ascended the throne, a council of regents or advisors known as the Sanshikan emerged and gradually came to wield significant power, eventually eclipsing the sessei. In these and other ways, the kingdom adopted Confucian & Ming customs, political philosophy, and practices in order to present a discourse of power and legitimacy both to China and other neighbors in the region, and to the Ryukyuan people, through an adoption of the Confucian rhetoric of the benevolent monarch from whom virtue and civilization emanates. Still, the royal court exercised considerable agency in shaping its adoption of Chinese customs and forms as it saw fit, maintaining much indigenous forms and elements as well. While the Chinese system of court ranks was adopted, Ryûkyû did so with its own indigenous system of colored robes, hairpins, and court caps indicating court rank, not adopting the Chinese system entirely. Further, 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.[12] 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.[13]

The village of Kumemura, a short distance from the capital at Shuri, had been founded in 1393 by a number of Chinese scholars, bureaucrats, and craftsmen from Fukien settled there with their families by order of the Ming Court. The town rapidly developed into a center of scholarship and Chinese culture, and came to be something of a training ground for the kingdom's bureaucrats; nearly all of the administrators in the royal government came from Kumemura, and positions were based on showing in royal examinations, rather than purely on birth. A system was also established by which a select few members of the Kumemura community would travel to Fuzhou and Beijing to study. In addition to becoming well-versed in the Chinese classics, and being educated and trained in the ways of a bureaucrat, these students would frequently bring back specific skills or knowledges to be implemented in the kingdom, such as geomancy, navigation, or various craft skills.

Meanwhile, Japanese Buddhist monks became one of the key avenues by which Japanese culture, including tea ceremony, appreciation for tea wares and other Japanese ceramics, and Japanese poetry and literary classics, was introduced to the Ryukyuan elites. Zen was the dominant form of Buddhism patronized by the royal family since its introduction by the Japanese monk Zenkan in 1265; Shingon had also been introduced by a Japanese monk in the late 1360s, and a Chinese investiture envoy, Chai Shan, established another major temple in 1430. However, it was under Shô Taikyû (r. 1454-1461) that Buddhism truly became firmly established and widespread. Shô Taikyû invited Kaiin, a monk from Kyoto's Nanzen-ji, to come and found a number of new temples, and to oversee the construction of a number of temple bells. Taikyû did not make Buddhism the state religion, but Zen did continue to enjoy a close relationship with the royal family, and Zen monks from Kongô-ji, Hôon-ji, Tennô-ji, Tenkai-ji, Tenryû-j, and Kenzen-ji came to play a particularly prominent role in not only cultural relations, but also political/diplomatic relations between Ryûkyû and Japanese entities such as the Shimazu clan and the Ashikaga shogunate, while relations with other countries continued to be managed by the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats of Kumemura.[14]

King Shô Shin (r. 1477-1526) is often said to have ruled over a golden age for the kingdom. He solidified and strengthened the power of the king (and of the central royal government more generally), both practically and ideologically. Areas outside of Shuri had previously been ruled by anji, local/regional rulers akin perhaps to feudal lords, with considerable power and autonomy within their lands. Under Shô Shin's predecessors, and especially under Chûzan prior to the unification of the island, anji wielded considerable power, occasionally even toppling and replacing kings.[15] The anji were not fully secure in their power, however, as local elites beneath them could also overthrow their anji when they perceived him to be politically or spiritually weak; priestesses also wielded considerable local political power.[16]

Shô Shin addressed these competing powers by forcing the anji to reside in Shuri, transforming them into an aristocratic-bureaucrat class, and reorganizing their lands into magiri (districts)[17]. Each magiri consisted of a number of villages known either as mura or shima; all together, the magiri comprised the "rural" or "provincial" portion of the kingdom, inaka no hô in modern Japanese, in contrast to Shuri, Kume, Tomari, and Naha, the four "towns" (machi) which comprised the "urban" or "metropolitan" areas of the kingdom.[18] Officials not of an anji ("warlord") background were appointed by the royal court to govern these districts; thus, the power of the anji to act as independent feudal states was removed, and put into the hands of administrators who were reliant on the royal court for the ability to continue to hold that post. By the end of Shô Shin's reign, all military forces in the kingdom were under his command, rather than under the command of individual regional lords; regional forces were now known as magiri gun, rather than anji gun, associating them with the districts, and not with the regional lords. Shô Shin also expanded the reach of the kingdom by sending military forces to conquer or subjugate other islands, sometimes coming into conflict with Japanese forces from Satsuma province seeking to expand their influence south into the Ryukyus.[19]

Shô Shin and his predecessors also worked to consolidate royal power, and weaken the threat of rivalry from the anji, by developing royal monopolies on maritime trade. They acquired oceangoing vessels from the Ming, monopolized lacquerware production, and maintained royal sources of various other goods, including horses and sulphur;[20] much later, in the 1680s, the royal government ordered all potters in the kingdom to relocate to the Tsuboya neighborhood of Naha, thus solidifying a royal monopoly on pottery as well.[21]

Shô Shin also addressed the power of the priestesses by establishing a new religious hierarchy, with his sister Utuchitunumuigani as the first kikôe-ôgimi, spiritual protector of the king and kingdom, and head of a hierarchy overseeing all noro and yuta priestesses in the kingdom. Though quite powerful still, the priestess establishment was now contained within the kingdom's institutions, and was less of a separate, independent, autonomous, power unto itself.

Beginning in the 15th century, and continuing well into the 16th, the kingdom expanded its control over other islands in the Ryûkyû chain, both to the north and to the south. King Shô Toku personally led an invasion force to Kikai-jima in 1466, and forces from the kingdom were dispatched to Kumejima in 1506. Meanwhile, in 1500, Oyake Akahachi, the dominant power on Ishigaki Island, rose up in rebellion against the Shuri government, refusing to pay taxes or tribute to Shuri, and also making efforts to extend his own power over other nearby islands; Shuri's successful suppression of this rebellion, with the aid of Nakasone Toyomiya of Hateruma Island and other local elites, was followed immediately by Shuri appointing local "chiefs" or "heads" (kashira), many of them already elites native to the Miyako or Yaeyama Islands, as official administrators recognized by, and in service to, the kingdom. A system of high priestesses, called oamu, were also dispatched to the various southern islands. Meanwhile, the kingdom made efforts to expand to the north, where it encountered considerably greater resistance. Battles between the kingdom's forces and local resistance on Amami Ôshima and other parts of the Amami Islands continued well into the 1550s and 1560s. Ryukyuan forces also clashed with samurai forces from southern Kyushu, who were pushing southward. The Shimazu clan attacked Amami Ôshima in 1571, the same year as the island finally formally submitted to Shuri's authority, as part of an ultimately abortive attempt to conquer the entire kingdom. The furthest north Ryukyuan forces ever managed to attain territory was on Gajashima, one of the Tokara Islands to the north of Amami. These expansionist efforts were aimed chiefly at consolidating power, and securing access to trade and resources. The kingdom made local elites dependent on Shuri for their legitimacy and authority, and required a certain amount of tax or tribute payments, along with certain other forms of service, but otherwise gave the Miyakos and Yaeyamas, as well as the Amami Islands, considerable leeway in managing their own affairs and maintaining their own cultures.[22]

The kingdom's booming trade faced challenges throughout the late 15th and 16th centuries, however. The Ônin War influenced Ryukyuan trade to shift to Hakata, Bônotsu, and other ports in Kyushu, inadvertently providing greater opportunities for the Shimazu to exercise influence; merchants based in Hakata and Tsushima posing as envoys of the Ryukyuan court interfered with Ryûkyû's genuine efforts to engage in relations with Korea; and the arrival of Europeans and other developments in Southeast Asian shipping caused a decline in Ryûkyû's share of trade in that region as well.[23] By the 1570s, trade declined all the more sharply, as the seas came to be dominated by other powers. Spanish and Portuguese galleons arrived around the mid-16th century, followed by the agents of the English and Dutch East India Companies at the beginning of the 17th. Meanwhile, Ming China lifted its bans on Chinese trade with, and in, Southeast Asia, in 1567, and Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to engage in licensed trade under the shuinsen system after around 1582. The dispatch of Ryukyuan trading ships to Siam in 1570 was to be the last act of direct Ryukyuan involvement in maritime trade in Southeast Asia.[24]

The total population of the kingdom at this time stood around 100,000.[25]

Invasion and Vassalage

Around 1590, the royal government was ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, through agents of the Shimazu family of Satsuma, to provide troops, weapons, and other munitions to aid in his planned invasions of Korea. King Shô Nei deferred, and went beyond that, informing the Ming Court of Hideyoshi's plans by way of a letter from Jana ueekata in 1591,[26] but ultimately sent a little over half the supplies the Shimazu demanded, by way of protecting the kingdom from violent repercussions.[27] Still, this was but one in a series of instances in which the kingdom refused or ignored requests or demands from the Shimazu and Hideyoshi, or was otherwise less than fully cooperative in the 1570s-1600s, inspired perhaps in part by a fear of the increased threat of Ryukyuan ships being attacked by pirates.[28] Still, it was in connection with the fact that the Shimazu communicated with Ryûkyû, and demonstrated some sort of special relationship, that Toyotomi Hideyoshi formally recognized Ryûkyû in 1592 as having some position within the feudal order, under Satsuma. Some scholars point to this as the origin, or otherwise a key element, of Satsuma's claims to authority over Ryûkyû.[29]

Hideyoshi died in 1598, and was replaced as secular, martial, ruler of Japan a few years later by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Shô Nei ignored demands that he formally recognize the new Tokugawa shogunate, and that his kingdom serve as intermediary to help the Tokugawa (re)establish formal relations with the Ming. In 1600, the shogunate returned a number of Ryukyuan castaways from Date clan territory in Tôhoku, and in 1605 the shogunate again returned a number of castaways, and much of their cargo, albeit while confiscating a portion of the cargo. Still, the Ryukyuan court issued no formal expression or mission of gratitude.[30]

Citing these incidents, and a broader narrative of Ryukyuan failure to pay proper respects,[31] the Shimazu house then requested permission from Tokugawa Ieyasu to launch a punitive mission. Permission was granted in 1606, and the invasion of Ryukyu was undertaken in 1609. After a few battles on smaller outlying islands, the samurai forces seized Shuri Castle and took Shô Nei, along with a number of his chief officials, captive. All were brought to Japan, where they met with Ieyasu and his son, the reigning Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, and were forced to submit to a number of demands and conditions. The kingdom became a vassal state under the Shimazu, and was forced to pay taxes to Satsuma on a regular basis, as well as sending regular missions to Kagoshima, among several other obligations. The crown prince of the kingdom was to visit Kagoshima each year to formally reenact rituals of subordination or allegiance; envoys also traveled to Kagoshima on a number of other occasions, including as a "New Year's mission" (nentôshi) which included a rotation of Ryukyuan officials resident in the castle-town, and on special occasions such as the birth, marriage, succession, or death of a Shimazu lord.[32] A land survey conducted in 1610-1611 determined the kokudaka of the kingdom to be 89,086 koku, a number which was revised upwards to just over 94,230 koku in 1727,[3] of which the kingdom was permitted to keep 50,000 koku.[33][2] Based on this assessment, the kingdom was obliged to pay a certain amount of regular annual tax (shinobose mai) to Satsuma; originally paid in kind (i.e. in various products/commodities, mainly textiles), this tax obligation was shifted to silver, and then to rice by 1620. The amount varied until 1660, at which time it became roughly stable; around 1870 the kingdom was paying just over 7,600 koku in annual tax, plus an additional 1,000 koku in supplemental tax.[32] From 1636 onwards,[34] the kingdom was also obligated to provide Satsuma each year with a Kirishitan shûmon aratamechô, a register of religious affiliation of everyone living in the kingdom, to help ensure there were no Christians,[35] and to organize all the kingdom's subjects into goningumi - groups of five households which would be responsible for enforcing one another's lawful behavior. Satsuma was also charged with maintaining a coast guard which would prevent foreigners (specifically, Westerners and especially Christian missionaries) from entering Ryûkyû.[36] To further guard against foreigners entering the kingdom, a system of signal fires called fiitatimoo was established, along with a network of swift boats called tobifune in Japanese, which could inform Okinawa of any sightings or shipwrecks in the outer islands.[33]

The king was restored to his castle and his kingdom in 1611, and was returned to power, though only within strict limits set by the Shimazu. In addition, while the kingdom retained the Ryukyus from Okinawa south (to the Sakishima Islands and Yonaguni), the Amami Islands and all other islands in the chain north of Okinawa Island proper were placed under the direct administration of Satsuma, though Satsuma and the shogunate both continued, through the end of the Edo period, to consider those islands part of the territory of the kingdom.[37] A vassal state, Ryukyu was not considered an integral part of Japan until it was formally annexed as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879; while the provinces of Japan were regarded as takoku (他国, "other lands"), Ryukyu was considered ikoku (異国, "foreign lands"), along with China, Korea, Holland, and the rest of the world. However, Nantô zatsuwa, a Japanese text published in the 1850s, reveals that Ryukyuan people continued to travel between Okinawa and Amami, and to engage directly in trade in pottery, marine goods, and other products, despite the ostensible "national" boundaries (i.e. with travel to Amami, as part of Satsuma's territory, now being "foreign" travel and therefore theoretically subject to more strict control).[38]

The king remained on his throne, and the royal court continued on much as it had, both in terms of political and administrative activities, and in terms of court rituals. Though Satsuma initially imposed stronger and more direct interference into Ryûkyû's governance, by the 1620s it began to loosen its involvement, and allowed Ryûkyû increased autonomy.[39] The scholar-aristocracy of Ryûkyû remained intact through the Satsuma invasion, continuing to pass down ranks and titles, and to occupy government posts, administering the kingdom in much the same fashion as they had previously. Practices and processes evolved and changed over the course of the early modern period, with a few developments in the 17th century having particularly significant impacts, but these were in some respects more natural developments, and not something that happened suddenly in connection with the Satsuma invasion. The aristocracy was divided more starkly from the commoners/villagers shortly after the invasion, and this was compounded, or solidified, by the implementation in 1689 of a system of family genealogies known as kafu or keizu. Aristocratic families maintained books recording their family's aristocratic lineage, with another copy being kept by the court. Those who had such records of their lineage were known as chiimuchi (J: keimochi, "possessing genealogy") and were the aristocracy, while those who lacked such records were mukei ("lacking genealogy"), and were commoners. Still, not all commoners were villagers or "peasants" (J: hyakushô); many were "town commoners" (J: machi hyakushô), and by the end of the early modern period, some town commoners had been able to purchase aristocratic status, and to begin new lineages.[18]

For the remainder of Japan's Edo period after the 1609 invasion, the kingdom served two masters, ostensibly independent, though a vassal to Satsuma and a tributary to China. Much has been written about extensive efforts made in Ryûkyû to hide Japan's control or influence over Ryukyu from the Chinese court from this time forward. If Beijing were forced to acknowledge Ryukyu to be a part of Japan, it would have been forced to sever ties with Ryukyu as it had with Japan; this was undesirable to all involved, as it would deny the kingdom, the Shimazu, and the shogunate not only a source of income and foreign goods through trade, but also a source of intelligence on events in the outside world, particularly China, and would at the same time deny China the rhetorical and material benefits of maintaining a loyal tributary. Though there is ample evidence that Beijing was well aware of the true situation in Ryûkyû from almost immediately after the invasion,[40] and thence forward throughout the period, all involved continued to make the effort to pretend as though this truth was being well-hidden, and Ming/Qing officials pretended not to know or to notice.

Foreign trade, along with tributary missions and student exchange to China thus continued throughout this period, though overseen by Japanese authorities, and controlled so as to best benefit Satsuma and the shogunate, not the kingdom itself. Ryukyuans were forbidden from speaking Japanese, dressing in Japanese fashion, or otherwise revealing the Japanese influence upon them; the very few who were allowed to go abroad were to speak Chinese and to espouse a combination of native Ryukyuan and Chinese culture. This was not only policy for official envoys and official communications, but was circulated throughout the kingdom, instructing commoners and villagers (peasants) similarly, that if they were to be shipwrecked or castaway in China, for example, they should not speak of relations with Japan, or reveal their own familiarity with Japanese language or culture.[41] Great efforts were made whenever Chinese envoys came to Ryûkyû to hide signs of Japanese influence from view, and a fiction was maintained that any signs of Japanese influence remaining were due to Ryukyuan trade and contact with the nearby Takarajima, and not with mainland Japan.[42]

The kingdom became a valuable source of sugar, Chinese luxury goods, and certain other goods and commodities to Japan; Satsuma imported these goods, or claimed them as tax payments, and then sold them through merchants officially associated with the domain in Kyoto. However, the kingdom quickly became dependent on Satsuma for silver, copper, tin, and various other goods and commodities, both for its own use, and for use as tribute goods to send to China. Sugar came to be used as one of the chief forms of collateral for such loans.[43]

The kingdom became in various ways a tool for both the Shimazu and the shogunate, not only for purely economic benefit, but also to political ends. Ryukyuan students and embassies to Beijing provided unparalleled intelligence on Chinese matters which could not be gained from Korea or from merchants at Nagasaki, who largely knew only of coastal and maritime matters. Tributary missions from Ryukyu to Edo were accompanied by great pomp and circumstance, and considerable entourages, though subsumed within the much larger Shimazu party making its obligatory sankin kôtai journey to the capital. The enforced exoticism of the Ryukyuan embassies reinforced for the shogunate and the Shimazu family both the notion that an entire foreign kingdom submitted to their authority. The shogunate made use of this to consolidate perceptions of the legitimacy of its authority, while the Shimazu used it as leverage to gain higher court rank and to negotiate for the bending of laws and taxation.

Still, despite the overlordship of the Shimazu, the royal government enjoyed some flexibility in instituting domestic polities and reforms. Two governmental officials are of particular significance. Shô Shôken, sessei from 1666-1673, wrote the first history of Ryukyu and helped institute a number of key reforms. He cut down on royal and aristocrati extravagance, in order to streamline expenses and ensure greater prosperity for the kingdom. He also suppressed the political influence and cultural importance of the priestesses of the native religion and cut down on royal involvement in many traditional rituals. This served to not only cut down on extravagance, but also was intended to help suppress elements of Ryukyuan culture which could be seen as backwards by China and Japan. Sai On, royal regent roughly a century later, in the 1750s, continued and re-enacted many of Shô Shôken's policies, and went further, making considerable reforms to the kingdom's domestic economy, particularly in agriculture and forestry. His reforms helped the kingdom recover from a series of fires, famines, and other difficulties.


Statue of Emperor Meiji at Naminoue Shrine in Okinawa, identified as kokka, or, "The State."
Main article: Ryukyu shobun

Conditions changed dramatically for the kingdom in the 1850s, as they did for Japan as well. Commodore Matthew Perry was but one of a number of Westerners who made landfall in the Ryukyus around this time, seeking trade and diplomatic relations. Perry in fact signed treaties with the royal government in Ryukyu before ever traveling to Japan.

The years following the 1868 Meiji Restoration brought drastic changes within Japan, and for the kingdom in turn. The kingdom was briefly transformed into "Okinawa han", before the han were abolished entirely in 1871. The dissolution of Satsuma han brought the end of Ryukyu's vassal relationship. The kingdom itself was dissolved eight years later, in 1879, "Okinawa han" becoming Okinawa Prefecture and the royal family being incorporated into the new Western-style Japanese aristocracy. Shô Tai, the last king of Ryukyu, was brought to Tokyo from Shuri, along with his family, and made a Marquis. The vast cultural, educational, and social changes which swept Japan in the Meiji period came to Okinawa later and more slowly. By the turn of the 20th century, however, assimilation efforts were well underway, aimed at transforming Okinawa, and its inhabitants, into part of a single homogeneous Japanese nation.

List of Kings of Ryûkyû

In China, in the case of natural succession, it was usual to consider a ruler's reign as starting the year after the death or resignation of his predecessor. This way of dating was often used in the traditional histories of Ryukyu. [44] The list below, based on Matayoshi (1988), follows this convention, which is the one generally, though not universally, used.

For dating years, records from the kingdom period normally use Chinese eras, though in some particular cases Japanese eras, together with the sexagenary cycle, though in private records the cycle alone might be used. Years were not dated by the regnal years of kings. However, modern Okinawan historians often use regnal years in their writing, usually using the convention above. So the year Shô Hashi 1 usually indicates 1422, and Shô Chû 1 usually indicates 1440.

  1. Shô Shishô (尚思紹) (r.14061421)
  2. Shô Hashi (尚巴志) (r.14221439)
  3. Shô Chû (尚忠) (r.14401444)
  4. Shô Shitatsu (尚思達) (r.14451449)
  5. Shô Kinpuku (尚金福) (r.14501453)
  6. Shô Taikyû (尚泰久) (r.14541460)
  7. Shô Toku (尚徳) (r.14611469)
  8. Shô En (尚円) (r.14701476)
  9. Shô Sen'i (尚宣威) (r.1477)
  10. Shô Shin (尚真) (r.14771526)
  11. Shô Sei (尚清) (r.15271555)
  12. Shô Gen (尚元) (r.15561572)
  13. Shô Ei (尚永) (r.15731588)
  14. Shô Nei (尚寧) (r.15891620)
  15. Shô Hô (尚豊) (r.16211640)
  16. Shô Ken (尚賢) (r.16411647)
  17. Shô Shitsu (尚質) (r.16481668)
  18. Shô Tei (尚貞) (r.16691709)
  19. Shô Eki (尚益) (r.17101712)
  20. Shô Kei (尚敬) (r.17131751)
  21. Shô Boku (尚穆) (r.17521794)
  22. Shô On (尚温) (r.17951802)
  23. Shô Sei (尚成) (r.1803)
  24. Shô Kô (尚灝) (r.18041834)
  25. Shô Iku (尚育) (r.18351847)
  26. Shô Tai (尚泰) (r.18481872)

Notes & References

  • Hamashita, Takeshi. 沖縄入門 (Okinawa nyuumon). Tokyo: Chikumashobou (筑摩書房), 2000.
  • Kerr, George. Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
  • Matayoshi Shinzo又吉真三, ed. 琉球歴史総合年表 (Ryûkyû Rekishi Sôgô Nenpyô). Naha Shuppansha, 1988.
  • Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.
  • 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).
  1. As of a 1610 land survey. By 1634, this amount was counted as part of the kokudaka of Satsuma han.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Smits provides different figures, suggesting that the total kokudaka of the kingdom was assessed at 110,304 koku, of which the kingdom was obliged to pay 21,218 koku in tax to the Shimazu, leaving the figure of 89,086. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu,, 237.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tomiyama Kazuyuki, “Ryukyu Kingdom Diplomacy with Japan and the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” Ishihara Masahide et al (eds.), Self-determinable Development of Small Islands, Singapore: Springer Publishing (2016), 63.; Shimazu ke rekidai seido (vol. 14, item #803), Kagoshima ken shiryô: Satsuma han hôrei shiryô shû 1, Kagoshima: Reimeikan (2004), 510. While this figure represents the kokudaka of the islands administered by the kingdom, i.e. those from Okinawa Island in the north to the Sakishimas in the south, the Shimazu and the Tokugawa shogunate officially considered the production of the Amami Islands - administered by Kagoshima but still regarded as the territory of the kingdom - to be included in the kingdom's kokudaka, for a grand total of 123,700 koku. Akamine, 69-70.
  4. For the sake of convenience and simplicity, most sources in English refer to these as "kingdoms" and their leaders as "kings", though most are also keen to point out that the political structures of the time continued to far more closely resemble chiefdoms. Though the Chinese character for "king" (王) is used in both Chinese and Japanese sources of the period, it is perhaps most accurate to not consider these rulers "kings" until sometime around the unification of Okinawa in 1419-1429.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 219.
  6. Records show a number of instances of Ryûkyû requesting seagoing vessels from Ming and from Siam, explicitly for the purpose of facilitating maritime trade activities. Some scholars have suggested this indicates that Ryukyuan vessels were themselves not capable of traversing such vast distances safely or effectively. Chan, Ying Kit. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526).” MA Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 58n147, 60.
  7. Gunn, 220.
  8. McNally, 96.
  9. Gunn, 220-221.
  10. Mark McNally, "A King's Legitimacy and a Kingdom's Exceptionality: Ryûkyû's Bankoku Shinryô no Kane of 1458," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6 (2015), 91-92.
  11. Chan, 29.
  12. 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.
  13. Chan, 70.
  14. Yokoyama, 38, 54.
  15. As is believed to have happened at least once in Nanzan, as indicated in the Ming Taizong shilu. Chan, 25-26.
  16. Chan, 25-26.
  17. Though this term may have previously existed, it now became a more formalized unit of political geography as delineated by Shuri, and governed by those appointed from Shuri.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Gallery labels, Naha City Museum of History.
  19. Gregory Smits. "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism." The Asia-Pacific Journal 37-3-10 (September 13, 2010).
  20. Chan, 58.
  21. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.; Gallery labels, "The Tsuboya-yaki region" and "Okinawan pottery," Gallery 4: Minzoku, National Museum of Japanese History.
  22. Smits, "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism"; Smits, "Rethinking Ryukyu," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6:1 (2015), 7.
  23. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 134.
  24. Ryûkyû ôchô no bi 琉球王朝の美. Hikone Castle Museum 彦根城博物館. Hikone, 1993. p75.
  25. McNally, 99.
  26. Gallery labels, "Kuninda - Ryûkyû to Chûgoku no kakehashi," special exhibit, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Sept 2014.
  27. Akamine, 60.
  28. Kuroshima Satoru 黒島敏, Ryûkyû ôkoku to Sengoku daimyô 琉球王国と戦国大名, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (2016), 22.
  29. Akamine, 59-61.
  30. Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 and Tomiyama Kazuyuki 豊見山和行, Ryûkyû / Okinawa to kaijô no michi 琉球・沖縄と海上の道, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (2005), 82.
  31. The term employed by Takara Kurayoshi and Tomiyama Kazuyuki is heimon 聘問, meaning to visit someone & bring gifts in order to pay respects. Takara and Tomiyama, 82.
  32. 32.0 32.1 One year later, in 1871, following the abolition of the han, Satsuma han was abolished but the kingdom was still obliged to pay tax to Kagoshima prefecture, in the amount of 11,777 koku (including transportation costs, and with some 970,000 kin of sugar substituted for 3,680 koku of rice. Tomiyama, “Ryukyu Kingdom Diplomacy with Japan and the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” 63.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Akamine, 68.
  34. Tomiyama, "Ryukyu Kingdom Diplomacy," 56.
  35. People were not required to register with a Buddhist temple, however, as they were in Japan.
  36. This was seen as a kind of "house obligation" (ieyaku) of maritime defense service, of the same category as Saga and Fukuoka domains' obligations to guard the port of Nagasaki. Satsuma and Tsushima han had served similar functions during the Muromachi period as well, guarding against events in Korea or Ryûkyû which might threaten Japan. Akamine, 66-67, 73.
  37. Akamine, 69-70.
  38. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, August 2013.
  39. Akamine, 79.
  40. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 236.
  41. Watanabe Miki, "Ryûkyû kara mita Shinchô" 琉球から見た清朝, in Okada Hidehiro (ed.), Shinchô to ha nani ka 清朝とは何か, Fujiwara Shoten (2009), 257.
  42. Matsuda Mitsugu, The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609-1872, Yui Publishing (2001), 60n34.
  43. Akamine, 74-75.
  44. For instance, the Chuzan seikan 中山世鑑 of 1650 gives the accession year 御即位 of Shô Hashi as 1422, the year after his father's death. Hashi died in the "18th year of his reign" in 1439, and his son's accession year was 1440.

See also