- Japanese: 按司 (anji, aji)
The anji first emerged in the 8th to 10th centuries, as local power-holders, who we might think of as chiefs, village heads, or local lords, emerging independently in each locale out of tribal or similar social structures. Many were "sea lords" of some sort, deriving power more from their control of harbors and trade routes than from territory; many may have indeed been wakô (brigand/pirate) lords from Japan or elsewhere (or descended from wakô from Japan or elsewhere).
According to traditional histories, one lord eventually emerged as a sort of "chief of chiefs," to whom most or all of the other anji submitted, or at least paid lip service; from 1187 until 1314, the anji were thus loosely united under these figures who we today call "kings." The island fractured in the early 14th century, and for roughly one hundred years, from around 1314 until the 1420s, the island was divided into three kingdoms, within each of which, anji continued to hold considerable power in their respective localities, under the dominion of a king to whom they owed taxes and certain services; the anji in turn demanded taxes and labor from the peasants of their domains.
Many scholars today have been critical of the official histories produced in the 17th-18th centuries by the Ryûkyû Kingdom, however, pointing out that the kingdom had a vested interest in asserting a longer history of unified and peaceful rule than may have been the reality. In fact, as late as c. 1500, many local lords still maintained their own armies, ships, and trading relationships; about a dozen on Okinawa Island still possessed considerable military strength, and local powerholders on most other islands remained entirely independent from Shuri's control until the 16th century. Many may have even claimed the power to affect or influence the forces of nature.
Nevertheless, by the 1520s or so, the anji had begun to shift meaningfully from being akin to chiefs or local headmen to a somewhat more organized, defined, class of "lords," a landed nobility under Shuri's authority, within something perhaps akin to a feudal system. Their domains shifted from being akin to independent chiefdoms, to being more akin to lordly domains under a king. Around 1526, King Shô Shin made efforts to further this and solidify it, consolidating power in the hands of the central royal government. He confiscated the lords' weapons, banned them from maintaining their own armies, and required the anji to reside in Shuri, the royal capital, rather than on their own estates out in the countryside; this worked to severely curtail the individual, independent power of the anji, and to hinder their ability to rise up against the king. Shô Shin also reorganized their lands into magiri (districts), and shima (villages). Anji mansions were then established in Shuri, organized according to the region one nominally controlled, whether it was located in Northern, Central, or Southern Okinawa. Through involvement in court culture and court politics, the anji quickly developed into a more cohesive class than they had been in previous centuries, steeped in Confucian ideas of government and of the gentleman noble. Their presence in Shuri also contributed to the further development and consolidation of Ryukyuan elite culture, and of urbanization, commercialization, and economic integration of the kingdom, as anji brought goods and commodities from their domains to the capital and vice versa.
The anji left deputies, called anji okite (O: aji uttchi), to administer their lands on their behalf, and some years later a system of jito dai, agents sent by the central government to oversee the outlying territories, was established. Some anji of the northern regions were allowed to remain there, not moving to Shuri, as they were too powerful for the king to force their obedience in this matter; the king's third son Shô Shôi was made Warden of the North, however, and granted authority to maintain peace and order in the region.
Anji could gain or inherit the title in one of three ways. One could inherit the title directly from one's father, if the father was an anji or ôji ("prince"; princes could not pass on that title, but rather the title of anji, one step down in rank); or, one could be elevated from a lower rank and granted the title of anji (along with an associated estate, nominally at least) by the king, i.e. the court, as a reward for exemplary service.
- "Aji." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典. Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003.
- Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. University of Hawaii Press, 1999. p165.
- Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019).
- Chan, Ying Kit. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526),” MA Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 25. http://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/20602.
- Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 12.
- Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp105-8.