Miyako Islands

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  • Other Names: みゃーく (myaak)
  • Japanese: 宮古列島 (Miyako retto)

The Miyako Islands are a group of islands within the Sakishima island group in the southern portion of Okinawa prefecture and of the Ryukyu island chain.


Miyako Island is the largest in the group; it is surrounded by the islands of Ikema, Irabu, Kurima, Ôgami, and Shimoji. Tarama Island, a short distance to the south, along with Minna Island, are also included in the group.


Due to a large span of ocean, or "gap," between Okinawa Island to the north and the Miyakos, the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, especially in ancient times, were somewhat isolated from areas to the north, and developed a separate culture. For example, while the Yayoi culture dominant throughout much of the Japanese archipelago around the 11th century BCE to the 3rd century CE extended as far south as the Amami Islands, artifacts of that culture have not been found in the Miyakos or Yaeyamas.[1]

According to traditional histories of the kingdom, the Miyako Islands were united under a single authority for the first time in the 14th century, when a figure named Meguro Mori defeated the Yonahabaru army under Sata Ubunto, claiming control over the entire island group. Miyako is believed to have first begun sending tribute to Shuri in the 1390s, but without being controlled in any way by Shuri (i.e. the kingdom of Chûzan, or the Ryûkyû Kingdom) until after 1500.

By the 1480s-1490s, however, the Miyakos were embroiled in violence between two clans known as the Nakasone and Kaneshigawa families fighting for dominance; Oyake Akahachi, a powerful leader from nearby Ishigaki Island attempted to take advantage of the chaos and disunity by invading the Miyakos and placing them under his control, but Nakasone Tuyumya Genga, a great-great-grandson of Meguro Mori, not only fought off Akahachi's invasion, he even managed to go on to invade the Yaeyamas himself, seizing control of many of those islands before moving on to attack even Yonaguni Island, the westernmost of the Ryukyu Islands.[2] King Shô Shin of Shuri then sent forces to the Miyakos and Yaeyamas in 1500 to quell this fighting and to bring peace and civilization to the islands. In the official histories produced by the kingdom, Nakasone Tuyumya is celebrated as a hero for convincing the people of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas to embrace Shuri rule and Ryukyuan culture or "civilization," sparing them the death and destruction that might have come from resisting the invasion more strongly. Nakasone was then rewarded for his support by being recognized as "chieftain" of Miyako, and being permitted to retain a position of authority over the islands, within the framework of the larger Ryûkyû Kingdom.

The kokuô shôtoku-hi, a famous stele standing outside of Shuri castle, relates in its inscription that it was erected in 1543 in commemoration of the dispatch of a sword and sacred beads from Miyako, during the reign of Shô Shin;[3] according to the traditional histories, this sword (likely the one known as Jiganemaru) was a gift from Nakasone to the king explicitly as an expression of gratitude for Shuri's recognition of his position and authority.[4]

Gregory Smits takes a critical approach to the histories written by the kingdom, however, noting that they "take on the qualities of a Chinese-style morality play," emphasizing certain figures as heroes or villains, and coloring the narrative of Miyako-Shuri interactions overall as one of uncivilized, "barbaric" places prone to violence which needed to be shown the morality and superior culture of Confucian civilization.[5] Putting aside stories which cannot be verified by other sources, Smits suggests that all we can know with any certainty is that there was some factionalism and fighting in the Miyako Islands in the 14th century. He suggests that after Okinawa Island began engaging in formal tribute trade with the Ming Empire in the 1370s, rumors of the prosperity or luxury goods brought to Okinawa through that trade may have reached the Miyakos and inspired efforts to establish stronger (and/or more official) trade relations with Okinawa. Miyako and Yaeyama Islanders were likely also trading with the Chinese coast, and Shô Shin's attack on the islands may have been aimed at reining this trade in and claiming a stronger Shuri monopoly on the China trade.[6]

Though the kingdom's official histories seem to represent the people of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas as separate peoples who the Okinawa-based kingdom fought with and then incorporated, local legends, along with archaeological and other evidence, seems to suggest a notable influx in the 14th century of people from the north - people with superior metalworking technology, seafaring abilities, and established practices of trade with China. These people may have been wakô driven south in the late 14th century by the collapse of the Southern Court in Kyushu.[7]

Following Shuri's defeat of the islanders, the islands were then incorporated (albeit loosely) into the kingdom, and officials were dispatched from Shuri to oversee and administer the islands.[8] Shuri appointed officials known as Ufu Sui uyaku and zaiban to oversee matters in the outer islands, on behalf of the royal government.[9] These zaiban operated under the authority of a kuramutu (J: kuramoto) based on Ishigaki Island.[10] Beginning as early as 1503, Shuri also appointed Ôamu tsukasa, priestess officials under the Makabe Ôamushirare (Makan Ufuanshitari) high priestess based in Shuri, to serve as the chief religious officials in the Miyakos.[11] These priestesses were local women from the Miyakos who traveled to Shuri to receive their official appointments.[12]

One of the most oft-discussed and perhaps most oppressive aspects of life under the kingdom for residents of the Miyakos was a poll tax (or "head tax") implemented in 1637 and continued by the Empire of Japan through the abolition of the kingdom, into the early years of the 20th century. Each individual (i.e. each "head") in the islands owed a certain amount to Shuri (and, later, to the prefectural government in Naha). This was not only a heavy tax burden simply in terms of the amount to be paid, but also because islanders were often obliged to pay in X, thus requiring them to convert their grain, textiles, or other products into X. This heavy tax burden frequently led to uprisings, riots, and protests. One particularly notable set of protests, known as the Miyako Island Peasantry Movement, took place in 1893 to 1895, and not only involved local protests in the Miyakos, but also Miyako Islanders traveling to Tokyo to petition before the Imperial Diet for an end to the oppressive tax burden. The poll tax system was eventually abolished in 1903.

Despite all of this, however - the heavy tax burden, and the various officials dispatched to the islands - overall the kingdom's control over local affairs in the Miyakos and Yaeyamas was fairly loose. Local authorities such as Nakasone Tuyumya and his successors, referred to as kashira in Shuri records, were given considerable autonomy to manage local affairs.[13]

Much as imperial and shogunal authorities in Japan frequently exiled criminals or political enemies to distant islands, Miyako became a common destination for the kingdom to send exiles; Sokei Chûgi (1686-1749), a court official known for his excellence at poetry, was among those exiled to Miyako.[14] Some of the men accused of killing US Marine William Board in 1854 were also exiled to Miyako.[15]

A tsunami in 1771 was particularly devastating for the people of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas, killing some 10,000 people in those two island groups combined. It took several decades for the islands' communities to recover.[16]

19th century

Several incidents in the mid-to-late 19th century brought Miyako into the spotlight, contributing to developments on an international scale. One was an incident in 1852-1853 when Chinese coolies (laborers) being taken to the United States aboard an American ship called the Robert Browne seized control of the ship and brought it to Miyako, where they sought help from the locals. The crew eventually regained control of the ship, departing without the coolies, who were then taken care of by the locals until other American ships arrived to take them away; overall, the incident was a significant one within a series of other maritime incidents of the 1840s-1850s sparking concern among authorities in Shuri, Kagoshima, and Edo regarding the seemingly ever-increasing frequency of incursions and incidents with Western vessels.[17]

Another incident took place in 1871, when a number of individuals from Miyako, on their way back to the island after paying tribute at Shuri, were knocked off-course by a storm and ended up near the southern tip of Taiwan, where some 54 of them were then killed in conflict with local aboriginal groups. This sparked disputes between Tokyo and Beijing over whether the Qing Dynasty had responsibility for the Taiwanese, whether the Miyako Islanders could be considered to be under Tokyo's authority and protection, and more broadly which country actually had claim to Taiwan and to the Ryukyu Islands; an Imperial Japanese Army punitive expedition to Taiwan in 1874 ended mostly in a great many Japanese soldiers dying of tropical diseases; a larger war between China and Japan was avoided, or at least delayed until the 1890s, with the help of the mediation of former US president Ulysses S. Grant. Though initial negotiations between Tokyo and Beijing featured an agreement that the Miyakos and Yaeyamas would become Qing territory in exchange for the remainder of the Ryukyus being formally recognized as Japanese territory, ultimately Beijing never signed the agreement, and in 1879 Tokyo unilaterally declared the Ryûkyû Kingdom (by that time, Ryûkyû han) abolished and all of the islands absorbed into the Empire of Japan as "Okinawa prefecture."

Military conscription, established in mainland Japan in 1872-1873 and extended to parts of Okinawa prefecture in the 1890s, was only first implemented in the Miyakos and Yaeyamas beginning in 1902.[18]

Following the abolition and annexation of the Ryûkyû Kingdom by the Empire of Japan in the 1870s, civil affairs in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands came to be controlled, initially, by police forces composed primarily of individuals from Kagoshima. Only in 1893 were local civil authorities granted control of such matters. Meanwhile, a policy of kyûkan onzon (roughly, "maintaining old customs") was employed by the Japanese, leaving much of the kingdom's administrative and taxation structure in place until 1903, due to a belief that avoiding immediate and radical change (in the 1870s-80s) would help avoid local uprisings or revolts.


The Miyako Islands have their own rich folk traditions, related to but distinctive from those of elsewhere in Ryûkyû. Like many of the islands or island groups within the Ryukyus, Miyako also has its own distinctive language, largely not mutually intelligible with the languages of other parts of the archipelago.

These include folk songs such as Tôgani ayagu, which are traditionally sung without instrumental accompaniment, or with wooden clappers or minimal accompaniment otherwise; the three-stringed sanshin typically associated with Okinawan music was historically limited to the royal court and aristocracy, and so was not available to commoners, especially on the outer islands.[19] Some of the oldest songs still prominent in the folk song repertoire throughout Okinawa today are originally from the Miyakos.[20]

Miyako is also known for its textiles. Agave fiber, or tunbian, is a specialty of Miyako Island. A type of fabric known as Miyako jôfu (roughly, "Miyako superior cloth") made from the fibers of a plant known as karamushi or chôma was from 1659 onward regularly given to Shuri as tribute or tax payment, and then given by Shuri in turn to the lords of Kagoshima, the Tokugawa shoguns, the Ming & Qing emperors, and others as a key element of gift or tribute offerings. Though lower-quality versions of the fabric, known as chûfû ("middle cloth") and gafu ("inferior cloth"), were also made historically, they are no longer produced.[21]

A woven four-and-five-squares motif known as minsaa is seen today as particularly emblematic of Miyako and Yaeyama, and is featured not only on the sashes to people's robes (where the pattern originated) but also on everything from storefronts to shopping bags.

Local horse breeds from the Miyakos were also historically a prized tribute good.[22]

Local festivals and religious practices include costumed spirits or deities such as the uyagan (dressed in grass headdresses and skirts) and the mud-covered pantu, known collectively in Japanese as raihôshin (来訪神, "visiting deities").


  1. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, "Ryukyu and the Art of Lacquer," Okinawa bijutsu zenshû vol 2, Okinawa Times (1989), i.
  2. Kerr, 121.; "Oyake Akahachi." Okinawa rekishi jinmei jiten (沖縄歴史人名事典, "Encyclopedia of People of Okinawan History"). Naha: Okinawa Bunka-sha, 1996. p18.; Shinzato, Keiji et al. Okinawa-ken no rekishi (History of Okinawa Prefecture). Tokyo: Yamakawa Publishing, 1996. p57.
  3. Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 沖縄美術全集. vol. 4. Okinawa Times, 1989. Description of Plates 81-82.
  4. Kerr, 118, 121-122.; "Nakasone Toyomiya." Kotobank.jp. (Originally from Takara, Kurayoshi. "Nakasone Toyomiya." Asahi Nippon Rekishi Jinbutsu Jiten, Asahi Shimbun Publishers.) Accessed 11 July 2009.; "Nakasone Tuyumya." Okinawa konpakuto jiten (沖縄コンパクト事典, "Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia"). Ryukyu Shimpo (琉球新報). 1 March 2003. Accessed 11 July 2009.; "Nakasone Tuyumiya Genga." Okinawa rekishi jinmei jiten (沖縄歴史人名事典, "Encyclopedia of People of Okinawan History"). Naha: Okinawa Bunka-sha, 1996. p54.
  5. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 54.
  6. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 55.
  7. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 56.
  8. Kerr, 115.
  9. "Zaiban," Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.
  10. "Kuramoto." Okinawa konpakuto jiten (沖縄コンパクト事典, "Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia"). Ryukyu Shimpô. 1 March 2003. Accessed 16 January 2010.
  11. Plaque at former site of Makan dunchi. [1]
  12. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 179.
  13. Smits, "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism"; Smits, "Rethinking Ryukyu," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6:1 (2015), 7.
  14. "Sokei Chûgi." Asahi Nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten 朝日日本歴史人物事典. Asahi Shimbunsha.
  15. "Board Jiken." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典. Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003.; George Kerr. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp331-332.
  16. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 96-97.
  17. Kerr, 295-296.
  18. E.H. Norman. Soldier and Peasant in Japan: The Origins of Conscription. New York: Institute for Pacific Relations (1945), 41-42, 49.
  19. "Okinawa no uta to shokubutsu" 沖縄の歌と植物 ("Songs and Plants of Okinawa"), Lecture by Prof. Uchida Junko, National Museum of Japanese History Botanical Gardens, 27 July 2013.
  20. Robin Thompson, "The Music of Ryukyu," Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing (2008), 305.
  21. Gallery labels, "Churashima Textiles" exhibition, Shôto Museum, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Sept 2019.
  22. "Kôba" 貢馬。 Okinawa Encyclopedia 沖縄大百科事典。Okinawa Times, 1983. vol. 2. p78.; "Miyako uma" ミヤコウマ。 Okinawa Encyclopedia. vol. 3. pp584-585.

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