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  • Japanese: 砂糖 (satou)

Sugar cane was first introduced into the Ryûkyû Islands in 1374. It soon became one of the Ryûkyû Kingdom's chief exports / tribute goods. Between sugar obtained from the kingdom, and sugar grown in the Amami Islands (taken from the kingdom and under the direct control of Satsuma han since 1609), Satsuma served as the chief source of sugar in Japan throughout the Edo period.

In Japan

Prior to Satsuma getting involved in the sugar industry, mainland Japan obtained brown, white, and rock sugar chiefly from Chinese and Dutch merchants in Nagasaki. Sugar continued to come in through these sources even later into the Edo period, with Dutch merchants selling Javanese sugar and Chinese merchants selling Taiwanese sugar following the Qing Dynasty quelling of the last of the Ming loyalists on Taiwan in 1683.

Sugar also began to be grown and refined in small quantities in Owari, Wakayama, and several domains in western Honshû and Shikoku after Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune obtained information about sugar cane cultivation from Satsuma and planted a test crop at his personal villa. This came as part of a greater effort on the part of the shogunate to encourage the cultivation of cash crops which might be used to help reduce the amount of silver and copper flowing out of the country. These programs were successful to a point, introducing a variety of cash crops to a number of regions across the archipelago, some of which had profoundly positive impacts upon the local or domain economies; it also spurred considerable growth of scholarly activity in botanical categorization and pharmocopoeia. It did not, however, single-handedly solve the country's silver problem.[1] In the early 19th century, Tosa han began to produce so much sugar, in fact, that Satsuma filed a formal suit with the shogunate, asking that they do something to limit Tosa's sugar production, as it represented unfair competition.[2] By 1800 or so, consumption of domestic sugar exceeded that of imported sugar.

This domestic sugar included, however, sugar grown on the Amami Islands, a set of islands seized from the Ryûkyû Kingdom and annexed to Satsuma han in 1609. In a series of policies that has been compared to "a structure of colonial extraction,"[3] Satsuma encouraged the islanders of Amami Ôshima, Tokunoshima, and Kikaigashima to dedicate much of their efforts to the cultivation and refining of sugar, rather than subsistence farming or other diversified activities. This paralleled the exploitative practices of sugar plantations elsewhere in the world, such as in the Caribbean and Hawaii, in various respects, with one key difference (among others) being that Satsuma did not employ slaves or indentured labor,[4] but allowed the islanders to retain their traditional lands, and to a large extent, their local social hierarchies, elite political structures, and a small degree of political autonomy.

In the year 1713 alone, approximately 1.13 million kin (678 metric tons) of sugar from Ryûkyû and Amami was sold within Japan. Satsuma established administrative offices on each of these islands, and from 1745 onwards, the islanders were expected to pay tribute/taxes in sugar instead of in rice, a policy which required islanders to begin cultivating more sugar, instead of foodstuffs, and which resulted in subsistence difficulties for many farmers. This policy remained in place despite a 1755 famine in which 3,000 people died on Tokunoshima. From 1777 to 1787, the domain purchased additional sugar beyond that which was sent in taxes or tribute, but abolished this program after only ten years, deciding it was too harsh; instead, islanders were now permitted to directly exchange sugar for rice and other foodstuffs they needed.[3]

Satsuma policy in the sugar-growing parts of the Amamis grew significantly harsher in the last decades of the Edo period, and came to even more closely resemble oppressive, exploitative, plantation systems. Under a Satsuma official named Zusho Shôzaemon, the islanders were forced in the 1820s-1830s to drain all their rice paddies and convert them to fields of sugar cane; men ages 15 to 60 and women ages 13 to 50 were assigned fields to work. The islanders were forbidden from using money on the islands, and from trading amongst one another, and were instead obliged to purchase all of their food and other necessities through an official channel, typically at inflated prices. The domain re-established its monopoly on the purchase of sugar from the islands, buying it from the islanders at roughly 1/3 the price it would be worth at the Osaka markets. Zusho also oversaw the expansion of efforts to combat smuggling in and around the domain.[5]

In Ryûkyû

Though sugar is believed to have been introduced to the Ryûkyûs as early as the 1370s, a native of Amami Ôshima named Sunao Kawachi is often cited as having been the first to introduce techniques for its cultivation and production into Amami in 1610.[6]

In 1623, a pair of young Ryukyuan aristocrats sent from the royal court at Shuri to China by Gima Shinjô introduced advanced sugar processing techniques to the kingdom; sugar plantations in the islands quickly began to take off, and Ryukyuan sugar, imported via Satsuma, became a major source of the product. The kingdom began in 1666 to pay one-third of its annual tribute payments to Satsuma in sugar. Three years later, the royal court claimed a monopoly on the sugar trade, and began being able to use sugar as collateral for loans from Satsuma.[7] Sugar was not only grown in the Ryûkyûs, but was also obtained by Ryukyuan trading ships in Southeast Asia. The cane was processed using a sata-guruma, a large grinding device pulled by a horse or water buffalo; the resulting cane juice was then boiled at around 120 degrees Celcius for about five hours, then laid out in a pan to cool, to produce brown sugar (kurozato, kokutô).[8] The original mechanism introduced in the 1620s used two rollers; three rollers came to be used in 1671. The wooden sugar mills were replaced with stone ones beginning in 1831, and iron ones from 1882. The first Western-style sugar factory equipment was installed in Okinawa in 1908, but traditional mills remained in use well into the post-war period.[9]

The Ryûkyû Kingdom's government claimed a royal monopoly on sales of sugar and turmeric (ukon) within the kingdom in 1647, helping the kingdom afford its repayments on loans from Satsuma han. Fifty years later, the kingdom placed restrictions on the planting of these two crops; these restrictions wouldn't be lifted until 1888. Buying, selling, shipping, and storage of sugar under the governmental monopoly was managed by an office called the satôza (Sugar Guild). It was headed by two satôza ôyako (one selected from the Shuri scholar-aristocracy and one from that of Naha), under the authority of a single satôza bugyô (Sugar Guild Magistrate).[10]

As Satsuma's exploitation of Amami sugar became more systematized and successful, the domain imposed restrictions on the export of Ryukyuan sugar from the kingdom, obliging Ryûkyû to produce sugar only for domestic consumption (within the kingdom), and levying a tax on any additional sugar produced. Such policies, aimed at preventing Ryukyuan sugar from competing with Amami sugar at the Osaka markets, were reaffirmed in 1804. However, Ryûkyû continued to export sugar to Satsuma, often arriving earlier in the season than shipments of Amami sugar, and thus arriving earlier at Osaka as well, and commanding higher prices. Seeing the value of this revenue, and the vital role played by sugar in the kingdom's economy, Satsuma officials found themselves reluctant to impose tighter restrictions; in 1831, they even allowed Ryûkyû to begin paying a portion of its tribute to Satsuma in the form of sugar, rather than rice.[5]

Following the overthrow of the kingdom and annexation of its land by Japan, sugar taxes continued to be paid in kind (i.e., in sugar, rather than in cash) until 1903. Private sales of sugar were prohibited until this tax was paid, and when sugar was paid to the Okinawa prefectural government, it was at a set price below the market price. The prefecture would then sell the sugar at market in Osaka, at market prices, making a considerable profit.[11]

Around 1903, Okinawan journalist Ôta Chôfu began to establish a series of organizations in Osaka aimed at helping his fellow Okinawans enter the Japanese markets; among these was a Sugar Dealers' Association.[12]

Brown sugar (kurozatô) remains a famous Okinawan good today, and it is often included in Okinawa-themed sweets.


  • Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009).
  1. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 35-37.
  2. Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 190.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hellyer, 95.
  4. Hellyer, 96.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hellyer, 127-128.
  6. Gallery labels, Amami Tatsugô Shima Museum.[1]
  7. Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 74-75.
  8. Explanatory plaques, "sataaguruma," Ryûkyûmura.[2]
  9. Explanatory plaque, Sata-guruma, Okinawa Furusato Mura, at Okinawa Expo Park.
  10. Naha shizoku no isshô 那覇士族の一生 (Naha: Naha City Museum of History, 2010), 14.
  11. Smits, Gregory. Visions of Ryukyu. University of Hawaii Press, 1999. p148.
  12. Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing, 2000. p430.