Ryukyuan ships

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The Ryûkyû Kingdom largely used Chinese-made or Chinese-style ships for its official trading, diplomatic, and military purposes. From roughly the 1380s to the 1540s, the kingdom received from the Ming court large, old, junks no longer desired for use by the Ming navy; by around 1550, the kingdom began constructing its own vessels in this style. Some of these vessels, dubbed ayabune, were used to carry embassies to Kagoshima in the 15th-16th centuries. Following the 1609 Shimazu clan invasion of Ryûkyû, these Ryûkyû-built Chinese-style vessels came to be known as kaisen. Equipped with cannon and other defensive equipment only when traveling to & from China, these vessels also served as shinkôsen (tribute ships) and sekkôsen (ships dispatched to meet and bring back tribute missions).

Though the overall pattern of Ryukyuan shipbuilding seems, in its broad outlines, to suggest minimal ability or activity in building large, complex, oceangoing vessels prior to the 1550s or so, the notion of a strict geographical boundary between Ryukyuan and non-Ryukyuan production may not be particularly meaningful or appropriate in the premodern period; local lords, wakô, traders, and others had strong ties in locations in southern Kyushu and elsewhere and may have thought little of employing ships built there.[1]

Official Vessels

The Ming court first granted seagoing vessels to local rulers in Ryûkyû in 1383. For the next 60 years or so, until the 1440s, Ryukyuan kings periodically received used Ming naval vessels for their official use and were also granted the use of Ming shipyards for the purposes of repairs, etc. Many of these were rather large vessels, ranging from over 1150 koku[2] to even double that size, and manned by crews of as many as 100-300 people.[3] These were likely the largest ships the kingdom would ever employ; the typical tribute vessel employed by the kingdom for embassies to Kagoshima and Fuzhou in the 17th-19th centuries was only as large as the smallest of this era's ships. While most histories characterize this introduction of Ming naval vessels - in most cases old, used, examples of what were otherwise among the finest style or type of vessel in the entire East Asia region - as marking the beginning of Ryûkyû's rise as a maritime power, some scholars note that making Ryûkyû reliant on ships granted by China may have contributed to a decline in local Ryûkyûan shipbuilding know-how and ability, and further that this decline may have even been an intentional side-effect desired by the Ming.[4]

From around 1450 until the 1520s, the kingdom continued to receive large vessels from China, but now was obliged to pay for their construction and repairs. Vessels constructed in China (at Ryukyuan expense) were granted single-character Chinese names which denoted concepts such as "courage" or "longevity," but after arriving in Ryûkyû, they were then often given Japanese names ending in "-maru" and/or Ryukyuan names ending in "-tomi."[5]

In the 1520s to 1540s, the kingdom continued to buy vessels from the Ming, but almost exclusively only ships of a smaller size. Shipbuilding shifted to domestic, Ryukyuan, construction beginning around 1548. Scholars remain divided as to the extent to which the kingdom's fleet at this time continued to chiefly include vessels purchased from China, ones built in Ryûkyû specifically for official purposes, or ones purchased or otherwise obtained from private Ryukyuan merchant use.[5] Whatever the case may have been, by the 1570s, small, locally-built ships known variously as shôsen ("small ships"), tsuchibune ("local ships"), and by other terms, played a prominent, perhaps even dominant role. By the end of the 1570s, nearly all ships in the royal navy/fleet were made in Ryûkyû, albeit in forms in complete emulation of Ming vessels.[6]

Local Vessels

Fishermen and others going out to see from local villages used a wide variety of vessels, including paddled dugout canoes and plank-built boats. One particular style of fishing canoe, maneuvered either with sail or by oars, and still popular today, is known as sabani. Multiple sabani were sometimes lashed together, and planks placed over them to create a larger floating platform known as a henzabune; these were frequently used to transport larger cargoes, such as multiple heads of cattle or jars of awamori, between islands.[7]

By the 18th century, a style of vessel known as the maaransen, based on Chinese forms, became a standard type used in trading within the kingdom.[8]

Many areas within Ryûkyû also maintain a long tradition of dragon boat racing (haarii).


  1. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 175.
  2. That is, a cargo capacity of roughly 1,150 koku worth of rice.
  3. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 171.
  4. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 175.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 172.
  6. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 172-173.
  7. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 173-174.
  8. Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Naha, August 2013.; Gallery labels, Oceanic Culture Museum, Ocean Expo Park, Nago, 2014.; "Maaransen," Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.