Ryukyu Islands

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The Ryukyu Islands, as seen on a map at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor
  • Other Names: 南西諸島 (nansei shotou)[1]
  • Japanese: 琉球諸島 (Ryuukyuu shotou) or 琉球列島 (Ryuukyuu rettou)[2]

The Ryûkyû Islands are a chain of islands stretching from just south of Kyushu down to just before Taiwan, just to the east of the Kuroshio current which brings warm water from the south up to the Ryukyus, Japan, and Korea.

Historically independent, the islands were united under the Ryûkyû Kingdom in the 15th-16th centuries before the Satsuma han invasion of Ryûkyû in 1609. Those islands north of Okinawa Island were annexed by Satsuma at that time and remain part of Kagoshima prefecture today,[3] while Okinawa and all those to the south remained under the control of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, and today comprise Okinawa prefecture.


The islands of the chain are considered in a number of groupings. Listed from north to south, they are:

The fifty-five major islands in the chain constitute a total land area of 1,193 square miles, and are comprised of a series of seamounts and coral islands, separate from the continental shelf, formed at the boundary of the Eurasian and Philippine Plates.[4]

The Tokaras are separated from Amami Ôshima by a section of the Kuroshio current known as the Shichitô-nada, which historically made migration and trade between the two somewhat more difficult, separating the Ryukyuan languages from Kyushu dialects of Japanese and creating a natural barrier as well, leading to differences in flora and fauna between the two island groups. The southernmost end of the Kuroshio also forms a similar barrier between Yonaguni and Taiwan, contributing to both natural and human separations between the southern Ryukyus and Taiwan as well.[5]

Unlike the Japanese Archipelago, which is volcanic, the islands of Ryûkyû formed from limestone coral, and so have a very different geology and topography. There are no serious mountains in the Ryukyus, and the average height above sea level across the entire archipelago is a tiny fraction of that of the far more mountainous islands of Japan and Taiwan.

Traditionally, regions of the Ryukyus were referred to by poetic placenames using the word for "mountain" (san or zan). Prior to the unification of the island, Okinawa itself was divided into Hokuzan, Chûzan, and Nanzan. The distant Miyako and Ishigaki Islands were referred to as Taiheizan 太平山, Iheya and Izena, just west of Okinawa, were referred to as Yôhekizan 葉壁山, and the Kerama Islands were called Bashizan 馬歯山.[6]


Early History

The archaeological record shows that human habitation in the Ryukyus began roughly 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. Some of the earliest have been found on Ishigaki Island, dating to roughly 28,000 years ago, roughly 6,000 years earlier than the famous Minatogawa Man remains found on Okinawa Island. Some have suggested that this shows that the islands were originally settled primarily through a migration of peoples from the south - i.e. Austronesian peoples from Taiwan, and not Japonic peoples from the north;[7] however, other archaeological and genetic research has argued that prehistoric populations as far south as Miyako Island had their origins in Jômon populations, and not Austronesian ones.[8] No archaeological remains have been found for the period from roughly 16,000 and 7000 BCE. Beginning around 7000 BCE, however, more recent major waves of immigration began to enter the Northern and Central Ryukyus from the north (Kyushu), and beginning around 2900 BCE, entering the Sakishima Islands from the south.

Agriculture is not believed to have begun in the islands until around 800 CE, with islanders previously subsisting in hunter-gatherer communities. Ironworking, meanwhile, is believed to have been introduced to the Amami Islands around 500 CE, and to have spread to the other Ryukyus from there.[9]

The overall chain of islands continues relatively regularly from Kyushu to Taiwan, with one island, or small group of islands, after another, such that one can travel from one island to another without ever being out of sight of land (provided it's a clear day); however, there is a significant gap, 270 km wide, between Okinawa and the islands to the south, known as the Kerama Gap.[10] As a result, while the people of Okinawa and the various islands north of it engaged in considerable trade with one another and with "mainland" Japan, the islanders of Sakishima remained disconnected from those interactions until around the 11th century CE.[11] While the Amami and Okinawa Island groups show cultural similarities and connections with Jômon and Yayoi period Japan, in the style of their pottery, stone tools, etc., Sakishima shows no such cultural elements; similarities or connections are seen, instead, with the ancient cultures of Taiwan, Indonesia, and other parts of maritime Southeast Asia.[12]

Likely the earliest textual reference to "Ryûkyû" (C: Liúqiú) is in the Book of Sui (636), the official history of the Sui Dynasty (589-607).[13] The text relates that Emperor Yang of Sui dispatched ships to search for the "Land of Happy Immortals." What they found instead was Liuqiu, which might refer either to the Ryukyu Islands, or to Taiwan, as is the case for the term throughout much pre-modern Chinese texts. According to the Sui shi, the Chinese then demanded tribute from the islanders, and met resistance; the battle ended in a thousand islanders being taken forcibly to China.[14] A mission from China traveled to "Liuqiu" again the following year, but only to return armor worn by the Ryukyuan captives.[15] Still, there were connections and interactions between the islanders and China; Warring States Period coins, known in Japanese as meitôsen have been found in the Ryukyus, as well as coins from the Han and Tang Dynasties, and personal ornaments with taotie designs. Meanwhile, texts such as the Nihon shoki and Shoku Nihongi similarly suggest that the peoples of some of these islands paid "tribute" to Japanese courts or polities as early as the 7th century.[16] Such sources indicate that a number of imperial court officials including one named Ôno Okeji traveled to Amami, Ishigaki, Kumejima, and other islands in 714 and brought 52 islanders back to Nara, and that from that time forward the islands paid "tribute" to the Court and received official rank in return; this did not last long, with tribute embassies from the islands to Nara ending after 727. However, the Dazaifu is said to have created in 735 a series of charts or records of the names and locations of each of the islands, their distance from Dazaifu, and the locations of sources of fresh water in the islands, among other information, for the benefit of Japanese embassies to China, missions to rescue castaways, and other such situations.[17]

Excavations have also uncovered Tang and Northern Song Dynasty coins, as well as Song and Yuan Dynasty Chinese trade ceramics in considerable numbers in Ryûkyû, indicating considerable commercal contact from a relatively early time. Richard Pearson argues that these trade ceramics were so plentiful as to not be luxury items in Ryûkyû, but rather that they were used by common people alongside indigenously-made Ryukyuan pottery. The import of coins seems to have reached a peak in the Northern Song (960-1127), and then to have declined considerably in the 13th century.[18]

The 10th-11th centuries saw considerable technological and commercial developments in Song Dynasty China (960-1279), along with various concurrent developments in Heian period Japan. Interactions between China, Japan, and the Ryukyus increased, and migrants between the three regions introduced the cultivation of rice, wheat, barley, and other crops, and the raising of livestock into the Ryukyus.[11] Though the original inhabitants of the islands may have been more purely of an ethnic stock similar to that of the Ainu or the Jômon people, from at least the late first millennium CE, if not earlier, Okinawans began to more closely resemble mainland Japanese (Yamato people), an indication of considerable exchange and interaction between Japan and the Ryukyus and, perhaps, a significant number of migrants from Japan settling in the Ryukyus.[19] As one scholar has written, “the bearers of Gusuku culture expanded within the whole Ryukyu Archipelago, and preexisting foragers, who were few, simply died out or were assimilated without leaving a significant trace.”[20]

The people of the various islands, over the course of time, formed up into complex societies, generally taking the form of chiefdoms. This took place on Okinawa beginning around 1050 CE, and was accompanied by changes in patterns of subsistence and agriculture. Then, beginning around 1200-1250 CE, up until the 1420s, the island became embroiled in considerable violence, as local elites built fortresses called gusuku and fought one another for land and power. Trade activity also expanded considerably at this time. Archaeologist Richard Pearson identifies these two periods (c. 1050-1250, and c. 1250-1429) as the "Early" and "Late Gusuku Periods," while many other scholars simply lump the two together as the Gusuku period of Okinawan history. This is also the period when the Ryûkyû Islands begin to appear more frequently in foreign sources (mainly Chinese ones, such as the Ming shi-lu).[21] The Mongol Empire (Yuan Dynasty) is believed to have invaded Ryûkyû twice, in 1291 and 1296, or perhaps to have simply requested tribute;[14] Ryukyuan official histories indicate the Mongols were repelled both times.

Gusuku construction and the associated rapid social and economic changes began first in the Early Gusuku Period in the Amamis, which were up until then the economic center of the Ryûkyû chain. Gusuku sites on Kikaigashima and the kamuiyaki pottery kiln sites on Tokunoshima are of particular significance. In the Late Gusuku Period, the economic center of the archipelago shifted to Okinawa Island, where it would remain down to the present time.[19] Major gusuku on Okinawa include those at Urasoe, Nakijin, Katsuren, Nakagusuku, and Ôzato, with Shuri castle gaining in significance later in the period.

Age of Maritime Trade

The rise of Okinawa, and concordant fall of Amami, Kikai, and Tokara, as the chief center in the region came in the 14th century, and may have contributed to (or been aided by) a shift in or around the 1340s in regional trade routes, as merchant ships increasingly came to travel from Fujian to Higo province (Kumamoto prefecture) via Okinawa, rather than from Ningbo to Hakata.[22]

According to official histories produced in the 17th-18th centuries by the Ryûkyû Kingdom, the various chiefs of areas of Okinawa Island were unified under a single head chieftain, sometimes today retroactively called a "king," by the beginning of the 14th century. However, in the 1310s, the headchieftain Eiji was succeeded by his son Tamagusuku who, whether for lack of personal charisma or leadership ability, or for some other reason, failed to command the loyalty of the other chieftains. The island of Okinawa thus came to be divided into three chiefdoms, or kingdoms, known as Hokuzan, Chûzan, and Nanzan. This period of division is commonly known as the Sanzan period. Recent scholarship suggests, however, that there was never one ruler, or even three, who truly exercised control over the entire island prior to the 16th century; according to such interpretations, Okinawa continued to be home to numerous competing lords, the most powerful of whom claimed the title of "king" in order to engage in legitimate tribute trade relations with the Ming Empire. The notion of three territorial states which actually controlled sizable portions of the island, and the associated notion of the island being unified under a single ruler before and after this "Sanzan period," was then retroactively constructed by 17th-18th century court officials in order to assert a narrative of greater historical legitimacy for Ryûkyû as a distinct kingdom with a grand and noble history.

The lord of Urasoe or Shuri in central Okinawa entered into tributary relations with Ming Dynasty China in 1372, being recognized as "king of Chûzan" in the process. He was swiftly followed by the lords of Nakijin and Shimasoe Ôzato (the "kings" of "Hokuzan" and "Nanzan") in the ensuing several years. The king of Chûzan then quickly grew more wealthy and more powerful than the other two, conquering them and uniting the island of Okinawa under his control by 1429.

Over the rest of the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ryûkyû Kingdom, as the Okinawan state might now be called, extended its influence to the north and to the south, making islands as far south as Yonaguni and Hateruma, and as far north as the Amamis its tributaries, or conquering them outright. As the Northern and Central Ryukyus, with their prehistoric ties to Japan, became more interlinked with the Sakishimas, with people and goods traveling between them in increasing volume, cultural exchange came with it, bringing Austronesian / Southeast Asian influences into the Northern and Central Ryukyus, and a more Japonic or East Asian culture into the Sakishima Islands.[23] The kingdom meanwhile engaged quite actively in overseas trade, becoming a crucial hub of maritime trade between Korea, Japan, China, and various polities of Southeast Asia.

Northern Okinawa is mountainous and heavily forested, and is not particularly well-suited for rice cultivation. Many settlers who entered Okinawa from the north eventually found their way south, to areas around Ôzato and elsewhere that boast better arable land and good freshwater springs; these natural topographical benefits contributed significantly to the power and wealth of various lords of southern Okinawa in the medieval period.[24]

Fifteenth century Korean records indicate that dry-land rice cultivation was common in the Ryukyus at that time; archaeological finds suggest that rice was the chief crop in northern Okinawa and the Amamis, while in central and southern Okinawa, barley and wheat were more common. Up until the end of the 14th century, people on Okinawa are believed to have grown only one crop of rice a year, avoiding the dangerous typhoon season; however, from the 1400s onwards, they began to grow two crops a year. This rice would have been primarily standard Japanese rice (Oryza japonica), which was introduced into the islands around the year 800.

Meanwhile, the people of Okinawa and Sakishima are believed to have grown two separate crops of rice: one crop of japonica rice, planted in early winter and harvested in early summer, and one crop of tropical Oryza sativa, such as was also cultivated in Taiwan and the Philippines, planted in late summer and harvested in the autumn.[25]

Early Modern Period

Main article: Ryukyu Kingdom

Modern Period

Main article: Okinawa prefecture


  1. lit. "Southwest Islands"
  2. Ryûkyû shotô translates roughly as "various islands of Ryûkyû," while Ryûkyû rettô means "Ryûkyû archipelago" or "Ryûkyû chain of islands."
  3. 3.0 3.1 Iô Torishima, also known as Tokara Iôjima, though lying north of the Amami Islands, is today administered as part of Okinawa Prefecture's Kumejima City. (Pearson, 8.)
  4. Pearson, 8.
  5. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 17.
  6. Kitahara Shûichi. A Journey to the Ryukyu Gusuku 琉球城紀行, Naha: Miura Creative (2003), 84.
  7. Amanda Stinchecum, "Changing Parameters, Expressions, and Meanings of a Simple Sash from Yaeyama Islands," Okinawan Art in its Regional Context symposium, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 10 Oct 2019.
  8. Martine Robbeets, Mark Hudson, et al. "Triangulation supports agricultural spread of the Transeurasian languages," Nature 10 Nov 2021, 5, citing Hudson, M. J. in New Perspectives in Southeast Asian and Pacific Prehistory (eds Piper, P., H. Matsumura, H. & Bulbeck, D.) 189–199 (ANU Press, 2017).
  9. Pearson, 148.
  10. Pearson, 4.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pearson, 1.
  12. Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 3.
  13. Kreiner, Josef. "Ryukyuan History in Comparative Perspective." in Kreiner (ed.) Ryukyu in World History. Bonn: Biersche Verlagsanstalt, 2001. p3.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Chan Yingkit. “A Bridge between Myriad Lands: The Ryukyu Kingdom and Ming China (1372-1526),” MA Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2010, 8-9.
  15. Akamine, 4.
  16. Akamine, 3-4.
  17. Gallery labels, Amami Tatsugo Shima Museum.[1]
  18. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 218-219.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Pearson, 149.
  20. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 34, quoting Thomas Pellard, "The Linguistic Archaeology of the Ryukyu Islands," in Patrick Heinrich, et al (eds.), Handbook of the Ryukyuan Languages, 31.
  21. Pearson, 146-147.
  22. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 31, 35.
  23. Akamine, 12.
  24. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 85-86.
  25. Pearson, 152.