Military of the Ryukyu Kingdom

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The Kingdom of Ryûkyû is often misrepresented as pacifistic, or lacking in weapons or soldiers. In fact, the kingdom grew out of the fractious and violent gusuku period of Ryukyuan history, in which the island of Okinawa became covered with numerous stone fortresses called gusuku. Of the myriad regional warlords, many might be considered wakô or "sea lords": brigands, pirates, and the like vying against one another for power and profit. At the beginning of the 15th century, Shô Hashi, a lord from Chûzan, led violent campaigns defeating many of his rivals, uniting the island and establishing the Ryûkyû Kingdom in 1429. Over the next 180 years or so, the kingdom expanded, launching military campaigns against other islands in the Ryûkyû archipelago, often meeting stiff local resistance, and occasionally clashing with samurai forces from Satsuma province. The kingdom was invaded by forces from Satsuma in 1609, and subjugated to Satsuma's suzerainty, marking the end of its active military exploits.

Early Military

A 1462 account by a group of shipwrecked Koreans provides insights into the organization of the Ryukyuan military at that time. Conscripts served for a year at a time, with new soldiers being conscripted once a year. A member of the royal family was charged with overseeing each new group of recruits. Military forces were organized into groups of 100 men; several such groups guarded Shuri castle, working in five-day rotations. When the king left the castle, a group of 300 mounted warriors accompanied him.

Another Korean account from roughly the same period indicates that soldiers based at Shuri castle at that time were equipped with arms and armor extremely similar to that used in Japan; it's believed that most arms and armor used in premodern Okinawa were produced in Japan. This same account indicates that the king's personal bodyguard consisted of some one hundred female officials, armed with swords, who patrolled the palace or remained with the king.[1]

A 1493 entry in the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty describes the Ryukyuan navy as quite strong, indicating that it has "prevailed in eight or nine out of ten battles" against Shimazu clan forces vying at that time for control of the Amami Islands. Roughly ten years later, some sources offer accounts of the kingdom effectively extending considerable military power at distance, e.g. launching successful invasions (or punitive missions) against rivals/rebels in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands who are described as being entirely unable to effectively resist. Investiture envoy Chen Kan also described Ryukyuan military strength in some detail and wrote that "neighboring countries regard Ryukyu as a strong opponent."[2]

Shô Shin and Shô Nei

Those who speak of the Okinawans being inherently a peaceful people, or having a great history of pacifism, often trace this back to King Shô Shin (r. 1477-1526), claiming that he seized all the weapons in the island, ushering in a culture of pacifism, and sparking the development of the art of karate. This is a misinterpretation, however, of Shô Shin's consolidation of the military, and of the political power on the island. He did indeed remove military power from the hands of the regional anji, but he did not destroy the kingdom's weapons or its military power; he merely consolidated it under the control of the royal central government, in order to strengthen the kingdom and weaken the possibility of uprisings or rebellions. Shô Shin mandated the anji to reside in Shuri, the royal capital, transforming them from a landed class of regional lords, each with their own powerbase, into an aristocrat-courtier / bureaucrat class more concerned with affairs of state and court intrigues. He then assigned officials loyal to the central government to govern each district, or magiri, eliminating the anji gun (lords' armies) and replacing them with magiri gun (district armies).

Shô Shin also introduced a system of military organization known as hiki, organized not around groups of similar units, e.g. with separate cavalry units and infantry units, but rather conceptually quite similar to the crew of a ship. Historian Takara Kurayoshi has characterized the hiki as "ships on land," and Ryukyuan ships as "floating hiki." Each hiki incorporated all the personnel necessary to work as an independent unit (just as the crew of a ship would), from a captain (sedo, O: shiidu)[3] down to infantry and porters (the "sailors"). Below the sedo were ranks or posts known as chikunodono, satunushibe, and keraiakukabe, in descending order of importance/power.

Each hiki had a name ending in -tomi, the same ending applied to the names of Ryukyuan ships (akin to the Japanese -maru). The hiki served not only a strictly military role, but served police functions, as well as administrative functions. All Ryukyuan trading ships bore warriors beginning in 1421; after the development of the hiki, this role too was played by the hiki.

There were twelve hiki, organized into three groups of four, known as a "watch", or a ban, each named after a day in the zodiac cycle. They were the "Watch of the Day of the Rooster" (J: torinohi no ban), "Watch of the Day of the Ox" (ushinohi no ban), and "Watch of the Day of the Snake" (minohi no ban). The three watches were chiefly responsible for the defenses of Shuri castle, the city of Naha and the northern part of the port of Naha, and the southern part of the port.[4] The heads of the three ban, known as the yoasutabe, or sanshikan, are believed to have possibly evolved into the Sanshikan ("Council of Three") which came to be the top set of royal advisors, the most powerful government officials in the kingdom's bureaucracy, below the king himself.

Shô Shin also established a storehouse at Urasoe to store weapons, so that in a time of need they would not need to be gathered from more distant regions; a monument erected in 1509 speaks of this event, and misinterpretations of this action are among the key sources of the myth that Shô Shin confiscated all weapons to shut them away, not to be used.

He also saw to the expansion of the defenses of Shuri castle, specifically in closing up the northern wall of the castle compound, constructing a military road better linking Shuri and Naha, and creating a new military post, the boraagumi bugyô, responsible for overseeing artillery technology and use. A series of fortresses were established around the Naha/Shuri area, including Yarazamori gusuku and Mie gusuku guarding the entrance to the harbor, Iô gusuku which stored weapons and other supplies for the hiki, and Tomigusuku gusuku, a military commander center. A military road called Madama michi connected these fortresses to the castle.

The total size of the Ryukyuan military, especially when outposts on outer islands are considered, is unknown. However, during the 1609 invasion, when Satsuma forces began to approach Shuri/Naha, the area immediately around the capital was able to quickly mobilize at least two main groups of warriors - one group of 1000 left Shuri to aid in the defense of Nakijin castle, while another 3000 men are said to have defended the harbor. Meanwhile, various fortresses across the island (and beyond), including Nakijin and Urasoe castle, had their own defenders, of unknown numbers.

Ryukyuan warriors in the late 15th to early 17th centuries were armed with firearms called hiyaa (lit. "fire-arrow"), obtained from China or made in Okinawa based on Chinese models, including not only handheld firearms, but also cannon and artillery (using 5-7cm shot) mounted at the fortresses or other emplacements. These Chinese-style firearms had been in use in Ryûkyû since at least 100 years before firearms were adopted in Japan, but in the end (in 1609), the European-style firearms, or teppô, employed by the Japanese were far more advanced. The Ryukyuan warriors also used a variety of melee weapons obtained from China, Japan, or elsewhere, or produced locally, including Ryukyuan styles of swords and bows. Ryûkyû is said to have been a rather active entrepot at times for the trade in weapons, supplying Japanese swords to Ming Dynasty China; Ryûkyû kept many Japanese blades as well, refitting their hilts so that they could more easily be wielded one-handed.

Ryûkyû is known to have manufactured some of its own weapons, obtaining much more from China and Japan. Though the composition of its military was woefully outdated by the time of the 1609 invasion - especially when it came to the use of traditional hiyaa fireweapons instead of the European-style teppô with which Shimazu warriors were experienced and well-equipped - it cannot be said that the kingdom was lacking for weapons. Royal armories contained a great number of swords, bows & arrows, hiyaa and the associated supplies, pikes, halberds, leather armor, and signal banners, and the kingdom's military similarly had its fair share of cavalry horses and warships (although the warships would have been smaller and fewer in number than 50 or 100 years earlier).[5]

After 1609

Following the subordination of the kingdom to Satsuma authority, the hiki were diminished in power and importance. They remained active, however, both on land and in defending Ryukyuan ships, which were often attacked by pirates. Though some accounts mistakenly allege that Ryûkyû was essentially disarmed entirely by its Satsuma overlords (or by Shô Shin, or by the Ryukyuans' own peaceful nature), Ryukyuan official histories such as Kyûyô, along with other records, describe numerous occasions of Ryukyuan ships' crews successfully fighting off pirate attacks; in some of these accounts, the Ryukyuans even employ new weapons, indicating that Ryukyuan military technology continued to advance, whether simply due to provisions of weapons from Satsuma, or otherwise.


  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 93-94.
  2. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 182.
  3. A term etymologically related to the Japanese sentô 船頭, for "boatman" or "captain."
  4. The defense of the northern part of the port was grouped in with the defense of the city as a single jurisdiction or area of responsibility; one ban would handle both of these at any given time, while a different ban would oversee the defense of the southern part of the port, alongside magiri gun (district forces) from south of the capital.
  5. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 191.