Yaeyama Islands

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  • Yaeyama: 八重山 (Yaima)
  • Japanese: 八重山諸島 (Yaeyama shotô)

The Yaeyama Islands are a group of islands in Okinawa prefecture near the southern end of the Ryûkyû archipelago.


The Yaeyamas, located to the south of the Miyako Islands and north and east of Taiwan, consist primarily of two main islands, Ishigaki and Iriomote, surrounded by a number of smaller islands including Taketomi Island, Kohama Island, Kuroshima, Hatoma Island, and Hateruma Island, plus Yonaguni Island at the far southwestern end of the Ryûkyû Island chain.

The islands, Iriomote in particular, are known for their wildlife and natural beauty. Roughly 85% of Iriomote island is national property, as protected nature reserves, and is home to many unique endemic species, including the Iriomote mountain cat.


Due to a large span of ocean, or "gap," between Okinawa Island to the north and the Miyako Islands, the Miyakos and the Yaeyamas to their south, especially in ancient times, were somewhat isolated from areas to the north, and developed a separate culture. For example, while the Yayoi culture dominant throughout much of the Japanese archipelago around the 11th century BCE to the 3rd century CE extended as far south as the Amami Islands, artifacts of that culture have not been found in the Miyakos or Yaeyamas.[1]

Little is known of the early history of the Yaeyama Islands. Though we can presume there were local rulers or chieftains of some sort in earlier periods, even official histories produced by the Ryûkyû Kingdom and local legends in Yaeyama make no mention of specific notable, named, individuals prior to the 15th century. Trading ships from Okinawa Island are believed to have been regularly visiting the Miyakos and Yaeyamas at least as early as the late 15th century, however, with some sources indicating that the two island groups paid official tribute to the kingdom of Chûzan based on Okinawa as early as 1390.

The earliest leader indicated by name in local legends or official Ryûkyû Kingdom histories is Yonahasedo Tuyumya, an individual from Miyako Island who in the late 14th or early 15th century became nominal head of the Yaeyamas; however, there is little historical evidence for his existence and some consider him a purely legendary figure.[2] The names Naata Ufushu, Hirakubo Kana, and Nakama Mitsukeima Eigyoku also appear in some sources as "rival chiefs" who vied for power in the Yaeyamas in the 15th century, before finally being defeated by Oyake Akahachi. Though most of these figures are represented in local legends as local heroes, as though they were born into indigenous communities distinctive and characteristic of each separate island, some scholars suggest that many of these prominent rivals were likely wakô leaders, or descendants of wakô leaders, who made their way into the Ryûkyûs following the fall of the Southern Court in Japan in the 1390s; without support from the Southern Court and Seiseifu in Kyushu, and with the Joseon dynasty in Korea, Ming dynasty in China, and the Northern Court and Muromachi shogunate in Japan stepping up their efforts to suppress wakô activity, many made their way further south. While there is evidence of wakô activity in Okinawa and the Miyako Islands earlier, the earliest evidence of wakô activity in the Yaeyamas is from the 1430s.[3]

Akahachi is perhaps the earliest Yaeyama figure whose existence can be verified. According to official histories produced by the royal court at Shuri, in 1500 he led the people of Ishigaki Island in rebellion against Shuri, refusing to pay taxes or tribute as they had done previously. In these accounts, which Gregory Smits has indicated "take on the qualities of a Chinese-style morality play,"[4] Oyake is presented as a villainous figure, taking advantage of chaos and disunity in the neighboring Miyako Islands as an opportunity to invade those islands. The virtuous Nakasone Tuyumya of Miyako then pushes Akahachi's forces back, not only defeating the invasion but going on to invade and conquer the Yaeyamas himself, even pushing as far as Yonaguni, the westernmost of the Ryûkyû Islands; meanwhile, King Shô Shin dispatches forces from Shuri to put an end to this violence. Nakasone then surrenders himself and all of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas to the forces from Shuri, willingly joining the Ryûkyû Kingdom and embracing peace, morality, and Confucian civilization. Despite the historical details being somewhat obscured by legend and by moralizing historiography, Smits writes that the overall pattern of conflict at this time suggests that Miyako and/or Yaeyama were growing in power around the 1490s-1500s and that King Shô Shin of Shuri took action to consolidate his power over that region; this served to calm the chaotic situation of numerous local power-holders independently engaging in trade, piracy, etc., thus regaining the trust of the Ming court, as well as strengthening his own rule domestically.[5]

Following Shuri's defeat of the islanders, the islands were then incorporated (albeit loosely) into the kingdom, and officials were dispatched from Shuri to oversee and administer the islands.[6] Shuri appointed officials known as Ufu Sui uyaku and zaiban to oversee matters in the outer islands, on behalf of the royal government.[7] These zaiban operated under the authority of a kuramutu (J: kuramoto) based on Ishigaki Island.[8] Beginning as early as 1503, Shuri also appointed Ôamu tsukasa, priestess officials under the Makabe Ôamushirare (Makan Ufuanshitari) high priestess based in Shuri, to serve as the chief religious officials in the Miyakos.[9] These priestesses were local women from the Miyakos who traveled to Shuri to receive their official appointments.[10]

The people of the Yaeyamas sent a variety of goods to Shuri as regular tribute payments, including textiles, horses, and after 1758, sea cucumbers and other marine products.

One of the most oft-discussed and perhaps most oppressive aspects of life under the kingdom for residents of the Yaeyamas was a poll tax (or "head tax") implemented in 1637 and continued by the Empire of Japan through the abolition of the kingdom, into the early years of the 20th century. Each individual (i.e. each "head") in the islands owed a certain amount to Shuri (and, later, to the prefectural government in Naha). This was not only a heavy tax burden simply in terms of the amount to be paid, but also because islanders were often obliged to pay in X, thus requiring them to convert their grain, textiles, or other products into X. This heavy tax burden frequently led to uprisings, riots, and protests. The poll tax system was eventually abolished in 1903.

Despite all of this, however - the heavy tax burden, and the various officials dispatched to the islands - overall the kingdom's control over local affairs in the Miyakos and Yaeyamas was fairly loose. Local authorities, authorized by Shuri and referred to as kashira in Shuri records, were given considerable autonomy to manage local affairs.[11]

Much as imperial and shogunal authorities in Japan frequently exiled criminals or political enemies to distant islands, Yaeyama became a common destination for the kingdom to send exiles; one man accused of killing US Marine William Board in 1854 was exiled to Yaeyama while several of his supposed compatriots were exiled to the Miyakos.[12]

A tsunami in 1771 was particularly devastating for the people of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas, killing some 10,000 people in those two island groups combined. It took several decades for the islands' communities to recover.[13]

19th century

Following the abolition and annexation of the Ryûkyû Kingdom by the Empire of Japan in the 1870s, civil affairs in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands came to be controlled, initially, by police forces composed primarily of individuals from Kagoshima. Only in 1893 were local civil authorities granted control of such matters. Meanwhile, a policy of kyûkan onzon (roughly, "maintaining old customs") was employed by the Japanese, leaving much of the kingdom's administrative and taxation structure in place until 1903, due to a belief that avoiding immediate and radical change (in the 1870s-80s) would help avoid local uprisings or revolts.

Similarly, Military conscription, established in mainland Japan in 1872-1873 and extended to parts of Okinawa prefecture in the 1890s, was only first implemented in the Miyakos and Yaeyamas beginning in 1902.[14]

Though negotiations between Beijing and Tokyo in 1879 over territorial claims nearly resulted in the Qing Empire gaining control over the Miyakos and Yaeyamas, Beijing ultimately never signed the agreement; Tokyo unilaterally declared the kingdom abolished and all of the Ryûkyû Islands, down to Yonaguni, to be Japanese territory, ending the dispute.

For a time in the Meiji period, the Yaeyamas, and Iriomote Island in particular, became the site of significant coal mining efforts; these were terminated after World War II.[15]


Miruku coming ashore (left) in a festival, as seen in a display at the National Museum of Japanese History

The Yaeyama Islands have their own rich folk traditions, related to but distinctive from those of elsewhere in Ryûkyû. Like many of the islands or island groups within the Ryukyus, the Yaeyamas are also home to several distinctive languages, largely not mutually intelligible with the languages of other parts of the archipelago.

Though Asadoya yunta, one of the most popular Okinawan folk songs today, is widely-known by a series of Japanese-language lyrics, the song initially originates in Yaeyama, with lyrics in a local Yaeyama language.[16]

The Yaeyamas are home to numerous sacred sites (known as on in Yaeyama, and as utaki on Okinawa) of the indigenous Ryukyuan religion. The bodhisattva Miroku, adapted into local forms, is also widely worshipped in the region and appears in numerous local folk festivals.[17]

The Yaeyama Gongendô on Ishigaki Island, built in the 1740s, is considered the only surviving example of traditional Ryukyuan shrine architecture belonging to the complex of indigenous Ryukyuan religions.[18]

A woven four-and-five-squares motif known as minsaa is seen today as particularly emblematic of Miyako and Yaeyama, and is featured not only on the sashes to people's robes (where the pattern originated) but also on everything from storefronts to shopping bags.


  1. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, "Ryukyu and the Art of Lacquer," Okinawa bijutsu zenshû vol 2, Okinawa Times (1989), i.
  2. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 57.
  3. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 58.
  4. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 54.
  5. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 171.
  6. Kerr, 115.
  7. "Zaiban," Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典, Ryukyu Shimpo, 1 March 2003.
  8. "Kuramoto." Okinawa konpakuto jiten (沖縄コンパクト事典, "Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia"). Ryukyu Shimpô. 1 March 2003. Accessed 16 January 2010.
  9. Plaque at former site of Makan dunchi. [1]
  10. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 179.
  11. Smits, "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism"; Smits, "Rethinking Ryukyu," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6:1 (2015), 7.
  12. Kerr, 331-332.; "Board Jiken." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典. Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003.
  13. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 96-97.
  14. E.H. Norman. Soldier and Peasant in Japan: The Origins of Conscription. New York: Institute for Pacific Relations (1945), 41-42, 49.
  15. Kerr, 362.; Gallery labels, "Nature on Iriomotejima Island," Gallery 4 (Folklife), National Museum of Japanese History, July 2013.
  16. "Asadoya yunta." Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia 沖縄コンパクト事典. Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003.
  17. Gallery label "Ishigaki-shi Tonoshiro no Miruku-jin" 石垣市登野城のミルク神, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.
  18. Suzuki Kakichi, Miyamoto Chôjirô and Ushikawa Yoshiyuki. "Ryûkyûan Architecture: Its History and Features." in Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 沖縄美術全集. vol. 5. Okinawa Times, 1989.

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