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  • Other Names: sulphur
  • Japanese: 硫黄 (iou)

Sulfur is a yellow mineral essential to the production of gunpowder.

One of the chief sources of sulfur historically in the region around Japan was the island of Iô Torishima, located in the Amami Islands to the south of Kyushu and controlled by the Ryûkyû Kingdom throughout the Edo period. Sulfur was also produced at Mt. Aso in Higo province (Kyushu), and on Iôshima near the Satsunan and Tokara Islands.[1]

The Ming and Qing empires had few sources of elemental sulfur within their territory, and had to employ complex techniques to process mined pyrite into sulfur which could be used to produce gunpowder.[1] They therefore imported sulfur from the kingdom as well as from other sources, and forbade the export of the material.[2] This made trade relations with (or control of) Ryûkyû vital for military preparedness, and powers throughout the region regularly worked to secure or maintain sources of Ryûkyûan sulfur. Ryûkyû often traded sulfur to entities in Japan, Korea, and China, or presented it as tax or tribute;[3] in trade with Southeast Asia, however, Ryûkyû only ever shipped sulfur to Siam, and not to other polities.[4] Japanese entities such as the Heian court and Muromachi shogunate exported a portion of the Ryûkyûan sulfur they obtained, in sizable enough amounts that sulfur is noted as one of the chief exports of premodern Japan.[5]

In the 1420s to 1510s, Ryûkyû shipped on average 27-37,000 jin (J: kin) of sulfur to China each year. For various reasons, this amount declined from roughly 35-38,000 jin in the 1420s-1470s to 27-28,000 jin in the 1470s to 1510s, and then to only 6-8,000 jin in the 1510s-1600s. Around this same time, the Ming court was regularly obtaining only about 10,000 jin of sulfur from domestic (Chinese) sources.[1]

Following the Shimazu invasion of Ryukyu in 1609, despite the great importance of sulfur for the Shimazu armies, the Shimazu allowed Ryûkyû to maintain control of Iô Torishima, even as they extended their own administration over the remainder of the surrounding (Amami and Tokara) islands. This was likely done in large part in order to allow Ryûkyû to continue to send sulfur as a tribute good to China, thus allowing for the maintenance of the tributary relationship which was the essential core of Ryûkyû's value to the Shimazu to begin with.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 69-70.
  2. Uezato Takashi 上里隆史. "Ryûkyû no kaki ni tsuite" (琉球の火器, "The fireweapons in the Ryukyus"). Okinawa Bunka 沖縄文化. vol. 36:1, no. 91 (July 2000), 77.
  3. In fact, along with tin and copper, sulfur was one of the chief tribute goods presented by Ryûkyûan tributary missions to China.
  4. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 220-221.
  5. Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 268-269.; Asato Susumu 安里進, Dana Masayuki 田名真之, et al. (eds.), Okinawa ken no rekishi 沖縄県の歴史, Tokyo: Yamakawa shuppan (2010), 117.