Ryukyu Shobun

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  • Japanese: 琉球処分 (Ryûkyû shobun)

Over the course of the 1870s, through a great many individual steps, the Meiji government gradually abolished the Ryûkyû Kingdom and seized control of its territory. Spurred by the Taiwan Incident of 1871, this began with the 1872 reorganization of the Kingdom as "Ryûkyû han," and culminated with a series of actions in 1876-1879 known as the Ryûkyû shobun, a plan suggested by Minister of the Interior Ôkubo Toshimichi and executed under the supervision of Matsuda Michiyuki.

The population of the islands at the time of the shobun is said to have been over 310,000 people, occupying over 63,000 homes.[1]


The term Ryûkyû shobun (琉球処分) is most commonly given in English as "the Disposition of Ryûkyû." However, this has nothing to do with "disposition" in the sense of one's mood or temperament, or inclinations or tendencies. Rather, the word shobun is much more closely related in meaning to the English word "disposal."


The 1870s were a very busy and complex time for Ryukyuan-Japanese relations, and for Japanese territorial and border issues more broadly.[2] The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the establishment of a new Imperial government organized with strong influence from Western models. The abolition of the han brought a need for a re-assessment or redefinition of Ryûkyû's relationship to Japan, and the Taiwan Incident of 1871, in which a number of Miyako Islanders were killed by Taiwanese aborigines, led to disputes with China over claims to Taiwan and Ryûkyû, and spurred the Japanese government's desire to settle the Ryûkyû situation decisively.

In 1872, the Ryûkyû Kingdom was declared to be "Ryûkyû han," and its king, Shô Tai, to now no longer be koku-ô (国王, king of a country), but han-ô (藩王, lord of a domain), despite the fact that all the Japanese han (domains) had already been abolished the previous year. Ryûkyû was placed under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and tribute payments previously made to Satsuma were now to be paid to the Ministry of Finance. The original copies of treaties the Ryûkyû Kingdom had signed with France, the Netherlands, and the United States, were handed over into the possession of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[1] and then, in the summer of 1873, Ryûkyû was transferred from being under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, to being under the newly established Ministry of the Interior. The domain was granted 30,000 yen to help cover the kingdom's debts; 50,000 yen of debt owed to the Shimazu clan had already been forgiven the previous year, in order to help provide relief to the people of the islands.[3] Though these shifts were initially celebrated by some in the Ryukyuan royal court as representing freedom from the overlordship of the Shimazu clan, it soon became apparent that incorporation into the Meiji state was to lead to even less Ryukyuan freedom or sovereignty than under the Shimazu.[4]

Japan launched a punitive military expedition to Taiwan in 1874, and by the end of that year settled a treaty with China in which the latter officially acknowledged the Ryukyuan people as Japanese subjects. Ryukyuan envoys regularly met with Japanese officials, and were assured that (for now) Ryûkyû continued to have authority over its own internal affairs, and over its relations with China. However, after Ryûkyû sent a tribute mission to Beijing in 1875, and in light of a myriad of other developments, Ôkubo Toshimichi began to push for the full annexation of Ryûkyû's territory, a plan and a process which today is known as the Ryûkyû shobun.

International Law & Diplomatic Relations

The entire series of meetings, negotiations, debates and plans regarding the Ryûkyû situation in the 1870s played out against a background of the clash between traditional East Asian conceptions of international relations, and "modern"/Western forms of international law and diplomatic relations. Japan's relationship with Ryûkyû[5] had for centuries been understood and articulated in terms of the conceptions, and terminology, of the traditional East Asian world order. Yet, now, in order for its actions in Ryûkyû and its overall disposition in international relations to play out in a manner which Western powers would acknowledge, respect, and consider appropriate in terms of international law, all of this had to be re-articulated.

Throughout the early 1870s, in negotiations with China regarding the disputes over both Taiwan and Ryûkyû, terminology was employed in which Japanese sovereignty in the modern/Western sense was asserted over territories and peoples which had been considered "subjects," "vassals," or "belonging"[6] to Japan under the traditional East Asian system. More specifically, international law as it stood at the time permitted, or condoned, possession and control of lands if it could be demonstrated or argued that "effective rule" was in place. Attempting to reconcile traditional East Asian conceptions of the world order with the terminology and technical categories of international law as defined by the Western powers, Japan argued that Ryûkyû's "subject state" (属国, zokkoku) status under Satsuma han since 1609 constituted "effective rule". We cannot know whether Japanese officials truly believed this conflation of the two concepts to be legitimate, or if they recognized that Japan had not exercised "effective rule" according to Western legal definitions and were merely trying to twist the terminology in order to justify their intentions.

As a result of having taken this stance of asserting Japanese administrative and territorial rights over Ryûkyû, and in order to maintain and defend that position, Ôkubo Toshimichi rejected suggestions from French diplomatic & legal advisor Gustave Emile Boissonade that Ryûkyû be administered more indirectly, in a more colonial fashion. Even so, Uemura Hideaki argues that, in the end, given the way the annexation of the Ryukyus took place, and the way it was administered, the term "colony" should be used to refer to Okinawa.[7]

Overthrow and Annexation

In March 1875, Ôkubo Toshimichi first articulated a plan to fully abolish the Ryûkyû Kingdom (then, already known as Ryûkyû han) and to fully absorb its territory into Japan's "home" territory. The government that same month rejected suggestions to implement some form of colonial administration, in favor of Ôkubo's plan.

Matsuda Michiyuki stepped down as governor of Shiga prefecture on March 25, taking a position with the Ministry of the Interior. On June 10, he was named Shobun-kan ("Disposition Officer") by Emperor Meiji and placed in charge of the abolition/overthrow and annexation, that is, the Shobun. He left for Ryûkyû two days later with an entourage of over 70, and on July 14 entered Shuri castle, meeting with Prince Nakijin,[8] and issuing a series of demands:

  1. The exchange of envoys and missions with China was to end, and the Ryûkyû-kan in Fuzhou was to be abolished.
  2. The Japanese calendar was to be used, and not Chinese reign years.
  3. The legal, bureaucratic, and court systems in Ryûkyû, along with the criminal code, were to be revised and reformed.
  4. Roughly ten Ryukyuan students were to be sent to Tokyo to study.
  5. A Japanese garrison was to be stationed in Ryûkyû.
  6. Shô Tai was to journey to Tokyo and pay his respects to the Emperor.[9]

The Ryukyuan officials agreed to a number of the stipulations, including the sending of students to Tokyo, but rejected the majority of the demands, including the abolition of Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, and the exclusive use of the Japanese calendar (as that would interfere with relations with China). They argued that societal circumstances and differences precluded the implementation of Japanese systems of administration and law in Ryûkyû, and agreed begrudgingly to a Japanese garrison so long as it was small. Furthermore, they asserted that Shô Tai could not travel to Tokyo because of his illness, a point that most historians attribute to efforts by the Ryukyuan authorities to avoid the king having to formally express his submission to the Japanese Emperor; the king's illness (or that of the queen regent) had been cited in times past as a delaying tactic, and as a tactic to rebuff, for example, foreign agents such as Commodore Perry.[10] Matsuda Michiyuki and Tominokôji Takanao, meeting directly with the king and seeing his state in April 1879, however, seem to have believed he was genuinely ill.[11]

Ikegusuku ueekata and several other Ryukyuan officials accompanied Matsuda back to Tokyo, in order to complain more formally, officially and directly. Ikegusuku or other representatives of the court remained in Tokyo for a full year, until October 1876, consistently rejecting Japanese demands. As the Ryukyuan opposition was most strongly focused on defending the desire for continued tributary relations with China, Matsuda saw that Japan continued to gradually encroach upon Ryukyuan internal (domestic) authority, gradually seizing control of internal Ryukyuan affairs. One of the first steps was the imposition of Japanese criminal codes and law enforcement in Ryûkyû, managed through the local branch office of the Ministry of the Interior. A military base, housing the Kumamoto Garrison, was established soon afterwards.

Several Ryukyuan officials, including Kôchi ueekata, secretly left for China in December 1876, meeting with Chinese officials in Fuzhou and securing promises that China would aim to resolve the situation through diplomatic means. He Ruzhang, a new Resident Diplomatic Minister, arrived in Tokyo in December 1877, after meeting with Ryukyuan officials in Kobe; over the course of the next year, he would speak with Ryukyuan and Japanese officials on a number of occasions, and send reports back to Beijing requesting that strong measures be taken. Meanwhile, Ryukyuan officials sent letters to the American, French, and Dutch representatives in Tokyo, referring to their countries' respective treaties with the Kingdom of Ryûkyû, and complaining of Tokyo's behavior and intentions. In total, no fewer than fourteen petitions were sent to the Tokyo government, requesting a return to (or maintenance of) the dual relationship, famously claiming that "Japan is our father and China is our mother," to which the Meiji government responded that "for a country to serve two emperors is like a wife serving two husbands."[12]

Matsuda Michiyuki returned to Ryûkyû in January 1879, and again in March, this time bringing with him a considerable entourage including 160 military police, and 400 soldiers from the Kumamoto Garrison. In February, Beijing sent diplomatic communications formally urging Tokyo to not unilaterally annex the Ryukyus. On March 27, Matsuda presented to Prince Nakijin the formal document declaring the abolition of the Ryûkyû Kingdom and the annexation of its lands as Okinawa Prefecture. King Shô Tai was given until March 31 to vacate the castle and leave for Tokyo; there, he would officially submit to the Emperor, be stripped of his title as "King" (or, by this time, han'ô), and be absorbed into the Japanese peerage as a Marquis (kôshaku). The king vacated the castle sometime during that month of March, and Japanese authorities immediately took over Shuri castle, installing a military garrison there. Though Matsuda initially insisted that the king's departure for Tokyo would be scheduled for April 18, after multiple petitions or appeals from literally hundreds of Ryukyuan court officials, he eventually relented, agreeing to postpone the king's departure for Tokyo to an as-yet-undetermined future date, but that Crown Prince Shô Ten would have to come to Tokyo in the meantime. As Donald Keene explains, Matsuda and others believed that Ryukyuan efforts to delay the king's departure were a tactic to play for time in the hopes that Beijing might come to the kingdom's defense; Matsuda and others also believed that even if the king were to go to Tokyo, the crown prince, if left behind in Ryûkyû, could become the focal point of a resistance or rebellion. This way, Shô Ten could serve as a hostage in Tokyo, forcing Shô Tai to behave more cooperatively even if his own journey to Tokyo were postponed.[13]

Shô Ten had an audience with the Meiji Emperor on 5/5 of that year, during which his request for the postponement of his father's relocation to Tokyo was formally denied. Physician Takashina Tsunenori was meanwhile dispatched to Okinawa and determined that Shô Tai's condition, while real, was neither dangerous nor likely to be cured within months or even years; Matsuda Michiyuki then reported the emperor's formal rejection of requests for any postponement, and declared that the king should prepare to depart for Tokyo within a week. He finally did so on May 27, departing Ryûkyû along with his son Shô In and some 96 members of the court. After arriving in Tokyo on June 7 or 8 and taking up residence at a mansion provided by the Imperial Household Ministry, the king (along with Crown Prince Shô Ten and ten courtiers) was granted an audience with the Meiji Emperor on June 17; he and Shô Ten were granted formal Japanese court rank.[14] Meanwhile, in Shuri, Sanshikan Giwan Chôho and a number of other high-ranking court officials came under heavy criticism, and resigned their positions.[4]

Over the ensuing months and years, Japanese control and administration would be, step by step, further expanded in the islands. Prefectural administration was dominated by Japanese officials, especially those from Satsuma han (now Kagoshima prefecture), and not by native Ryukyuans, least of all anyone formerly involved in the royal or han bureaucracy. Kinashi Seiichirô had been named Acting Governor of the not-yet-existent prefecture on March 3rd, but was replaced a few months later by Nabeshima Naoyoshi, who is counted as the first Governor of Okinawa Prefecture, arriving on May 18th and serving in that capacity for almost exactly two years (until May 19, 1881). Meanwhile, in March 1880, Tokyo communicated to the governments of the Western powers that Japan would now be taking on the responsibility of repaying any debts still owed to the Western powers by the Ryûkyû Kingdom.

Despite the overthrow and annexation, negotiations mediated by Grant continued. Grant met with Chinese and Japanese officials in Beijing beginning in August 1880, and the two parties reached an agreement two months later, on October 21. The Miyako and Yaeyama Islands would become Chinese territory, in exchange for Chinese extending "most favored nation" status to Japan. However, the Qing court's ratification of the agreement was delayed, and ultimately, that December the Qing refused to sign, leaving Japan to continue claiming all the Ryûkyûs as Japanese territory. Shishido Tamaki, Japanese ambassador to China, formally informed Beijing a month later that Tokyo considered the matter of the Ryûkyûs settled.

The tax system and land organization (the administrative divisions of the Okinawan villages and magiri districts) remained for a time as they had been under the Kingdom. From 1882, taxes on salt and rice paid in kind were permitted to paid in cash instead; however, sugar taxes continued to be paid in kind until 1903, when widespread land reforms were implemented.[15]


  • Uemura Hideaki. "The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an 'Indigenous People' in East Asia." Japanese Studies 23:2 (2003). pp107-124.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Ryûkyû shisetsu, Edo he iku! 琉球使節、江戸へ行く!, Okinawa Prefectural Museum (2009), 48.
  2. For more thorough chronological details, see the Timeline pages for each individual year.
  3. Hellyer, 238-239.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Okinawa ken heiwa kinen shiryôkan sôgô annai 沖縄県平和祈念資料館総合案内 ("General Catalog of Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum"), Nanjô, Okinawa: Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum (2004), 20.
  5. As well as its relations with every other state or nation in the region, and their relations with one another, e.g. China's relationship with Ryûkyû.
  6. Zokkoku 属国 and zokumin 属民, most literally meaning "country which belongs" and "people which belongs," respectively, were used to refer to Ryûkyû and to the Ainu as "subject state" or "vassal people."
  7. Uemura. p122.
  8. Prince Nakijin served as the chief Ryukyuan representative in all these negotiations and meetings as King Shô Tai was either quite ill, or was feigning illness in order to avoid having to appear in person, submit himself in any way, or otherwise lose face.
  9. Uemura. p119.
  10. Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp310, 363, 372.
  11. Donald Keene, Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912, Columbia University Press (2002), 304.
  12. Keene, 302.
  13. Keene, 305.
  14. Keene, 305-306.
  15. Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1999. p148.