Ryukyu Cultural Survey

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  • Dates: 1960-1962

The Ryukyu Cultural Survey was a study of Ryukyuan cultural heritage conducted under the auspices of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyus (USCAR) in 1960 to 1962. Initiated and overseen by George H. Kerr and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Honolulu Academy of Art, Waseda University, and the University of the Ryukyus, among other institutions, the Survey aimed to record Ryukyuan heritage for the purpose of preserving it, and sought to better understand the ancient origins or sources of the distinctive culture of the Ryukyu Islands. Scholars contributing to the survey included Americans such as Kerr and Edward Seidensticker; Okinawans including Hokuma Seiko and Oshiro Seitoku; Koreans such as Kim Won-yong; and a number of Japanese scholars including Takemiya Hiroe, Kaneo Erika, Takiguchi Hiroshige, Nishimura Nasae, and Kojima Fumio.

In total, the project produced some 1800 black & white photographs and 2000 color slides. Six copies of these records & reports were produced; one set is still held by the Smithsonian Institution today, while two sets have been lost. The group mounted these photos on looseleaf sheets of paper along with information as to subject, location, etc., but the group was not particularly systematic in what types of information to record, to what degree of detail, and so forth. The records are somewhat inconsistent in this respect.

The project aimed to expand and record knowledge about Ryukyu for both altruistic cultural & academic purposes, and with political motives in mind. Kerr and others of course saw value in recovering, recording, and preserving Okinawan heritage on its own merits. However, they, along with figures such as Paul Caraway, High Commissioner of USCAR, also felt that doing so was important for presenting an image of the United States as a responsible and benevolent occupier of the islands; in so doing, and especially in promoting Ryukyu's distinctive history and culture, Caraway and others hoped to encourage Okinawans to support continued US control over the islands, and to oppose movements for reversion to Japanese rule.

Kerr also made efforts to have the Smithsonian take a more active role in preserving Ryukyuan heritage, but in the end both the Smithsonian and USCAR administration shied away from devoting more resources or attention to such a project. As a result, the Japanese national government stepped in, leading various Ryukyuan heritage projects even as early as the 1960s, when there was not yet any guarantee when, or if, the Ryukyus would ever be rejoined to Japan; this resulted in many Okinawans feeling a stronger desire for reversion, the very opposite of the intentions or desires of figures like Caraway.


  • Tze May Loo, "Preservation as Power: Cultural Heritage and USCAR's Government of Okinawa," presentation at Association for Asian Studies annual conference, Washington DC, 23 March 2018.
  • Loo, Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa's Incorporation into Modern Japan, 1879-2000, Lexington Books (2014), 154-155.