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  • Other Names: 龍船 (ryuusen), 綾船 (ayabune)
  • Japanese: 紋船 (ayabune)

Ayabune were a particular type of ship employed by the royal government of the Kingdom of Ryûkyû to carry embassies to the Ashikaga shogunate and to the Shimazu clan of Satsuma in the period before Satsuma's 1609 invasion of the kingdom. They were generally sent to congratulate a new head of the Shimazu clan whenever there was a succession, or on similar celebratory occasions, as part of the maintenance of a friendly relationship between Ryûkyû and Satsuma. The ayabune embassies typically brought gifts, including awamori.

The ship was an unarmed, decorative ship in the Chinese style, with decorations of blue-green birds and a yellow dragon on the bow of the ship, and the king's crest, a mitsu-domoe also featured prominently. As a result, it came to be known variously as a ryûsen (dragon ship)[1], or an ayabune (crest ship); the character aya, the same as the mon in kamon ("house crest" or "family crest"), was sometimes replaced with a different character, also read aya, and referring to a particular textile design.

The earliest instance in records extant today of such a ship arriving in Satsuma appears in a record for the 8th month of 1481, but it is believed that Ryûkyû sent ayabune missions to Satsuma earlier than that. Ayabune may have also carried Ryukyuan missions to the Muromachi shogunate.[2]

Ryukyuan sources indicate that ayabune were sent twice during the reign of King Shô Sei, three times during the reign of King Shô Ei (r. 1573-1587), and four times during the reign of King Shô Nei (r. 1587-1621). However, while such missions were sent on a variety of ceremonial occasions, they were typically not dispatched in recognition or celebration of Shimazu succession.[2]

Shimazu documents emphasize that the ayabune stopped coming for a time in the late 16th century. Shimazu Takahisa died in 1566 and was succeeded as head of the family by Shimazu Yoshihisa; but according to Shimazu accounts, when the Shimazu informed Ryûkyû of this development in 1570, there was no response. Another mission was dispatched only three years later, but, even so, Ryûkyû is said to have become hesitant to send missions around this time, feeling that the threat of piracy had grown stronger.[3] When missions did resume in 1573, the Sanshikan are said to have showed contempt, or insulted, the members of the embassy. This was termed the "ayabune failure of courtesy incident" (ayabune ketsurei jiken), and was cited among the pretexts for the Shimazu invasion of Ryûkyû in 1609. A mission did travel to Kagoshima aboard an ayabune in 1575/3, however, led by a Ryukyuan official called Kin ôyako, and a Tenkai-ji monk called Nanshuku.[4]

After this 1575 embassy was met with numerous complaints from the Shimazu regarding supposed instances of Ryukyuan violence and improprieties, the kingdom dispatched another ayabune in 1578. This embassy, bearing an additional thirty ryô worth of gold as gifts for the Shimazu lord, succeeded at least temporarily in leading to improved relations.[5] Ryûkyû later sent another ayabune mission to Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592.[6]

Ships which brought tribute from Ryûkyû to Satsuma after the 1609 invasion were called kaisen.


  • "Ayabune." Shôchû awamori yôgo shû 焼酎・泡盛用語集, Nihon sake-zukuri kumiai chûô kai 日本酒造組合中央会.
  • "Ayabune." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.
  1. Not to be confused with dragon boat races, which use a very different type of boat.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kuroshima Satoru 黒島敏, Ryûkyû ôkoku to Sengoku daimyô 琉球王国と戦国大名, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (2016), 22.
  3. Kuroshima, 23.
  4. Uwai Satokane, Shiryôhensanjô (eds.), Uwai Kakken nikki 上井覚兼日記, in Dai Nihon kokiroku 大日本古記録, part 5, vol 1, University of Tokyo (1954), 109-110.
  5. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 211-212.
  6. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 214.