Ryukyu Kingdom: Castles, Customs, and China and Japan's Rivalry
As far as Asian nations and their histories go, one of the most interesting places that grabs everyone’s attention is Japan. The islands of Japan were always home to many lords, kingdoms, and shogunates, all rising due to the certain separation of the islands themselves. But one of the islands of modern Japan was really unique – so much so that for a long time its inhabitants weren’t considered Japanese at all! That island is Okinawa, and the surrounding island chain called Ryukyu Islands. Often overlooked or jumbled within the overall history of Japan, this small chain of islands really deserves to have its story told. And that story is of the Ryukyu Kingdom!
This is a thrilling tale of an emerging island nation, of a kingdom rising from the sea and creating its own place in the East Asian maritime trade, only to fade in the end. Join us as we explore some of the often overlooked pages of history – the story of the Okinawans and the Ryukyu Kingdom!
The Earliest Origins of the Ryukyu Kingdom
The Ryukyu Archipelago is a chain of islands that stretch from the Southern Japanese region of Kyushu all the way to Taiwan. Somewhat isolated in a sense, small, and stretched out, these islands were never a focus of their close neighbors during their early history. The earliest inhabitants of these islands are believed to be close relatives of the Japanese Neolithic peoples, and that they were settlers – from both north and south – Taiwan and Japan. Thus, in their earliest form, the natives of Ryukyu Islands were a “mix” of these two.
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But the connections in general stop there. Their isolation and insignificance in the early periods caused these peoples to develop a somewhat unique identity, giving rise to several closely related languages, with Okinawan being the most widely spoken. The languages were a part of the Japonic family alongside Japanese – sharing many traits but still being mutually unintelligible.
The archipelago is comprised of roughly 140 dispersed islands, most of which are quite inhospitable to live in, and the smallest being only coral isles. Less than half of them are inhabited. The largest island by far, and central to the history of Ryukyu, is Okinawa. Some 100 kilometers (62.14 miles) long and 11 kilometers (6.84 miles) at its widest, it is far from large, but its size was still enough for the development of some critical periods.
Kyukeimon gate of Shuri Castle's in the Shuri neighborhood of Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. (kuremo /Adobe Stock)
From the earliest settlement of these islands it was clear that they are not made for a focus on agriculture – the thin soil and rocky, wooded landscape is simply not suitable. But the economic strengths lay in other aspects: plenty of diverse flora and fauna could be exploited – deer, boar, and varied fish – as well as its good position for the development of maritime trading. Only from the 7th century AD and onwards did Ryukyu really become noticed by its neighbors. These were the Chinese and the Japanese, and the two nations would later play major roles in the development of the Kingdom.
While Ryukyu natives were always more closely related to the Japanese, some of their first contacts were in fact with the Chinese – and they were not pleasant. For mainland Japan, these islands were a sort of shadowy border region, simply called Nanto meaning Southern Islands.
For China, with growing aims, Ryukyu was much more interesting. In their annals it first formally appears in 605 AD during the reign of the short lived Sui Dynasty. Around that year Chinese envoys were sent to the islands in an attempt to bring them under Chinese authority. This contact went awry – the two sides could not at all communicate due to language differences, and the contact soon turned to battle. The Chinese pillaged and took 1000 captives back to the mainland.
For Japan, the first significant contact is documented in 698 AD in the ‘ Shoku Nihongi’ (Chronicles of Japan), stating that a court envoy, Fumi no Imiki, was dispatched with several associates to a diplomatic/authoritative mission with an aim to extend the rule of the Japanese court on the Southern Islands. This was seemingly carried out with some success, as the representatives from several islands – Amami, Yakushima, Tanejima, and Tokunoshima – delivered their gifts and tributes at the Grand Shrine to the Sun Goddess at Ise.
An early period Ryukyuan embassy in Edo, Japan. (Public Domain)
But the other islands in the archipelago were not that easy to subjugate, and for the most part they refused Japanese rule. The islands were comprised of loosely defined tribes and ruled by chieftains – often with a focus on matriarchy. Yet, as time went on, the Japanese culture gradually infiltrated into these Southern Islands and left its mark. This was accelerated with the Japanese practice of sending its unruly and sentenced officials, nobles, and citizens into a distant exile on these islands. In this way, a gradual mixing of Yamato (Japanese) people and the Ryukyu islanders was carried out.
The Path to Success – Early Dynasties of Okinawa
The history of Ryukyu Islands, with Okinawa at its center, increasingly improved as the archipelago was located in an important maritime trade route, between mainland China, the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Japan, and Malaysia. In the anthology called 中山世鑑 ( Chūzan Seikan) – meaning the Mirror of Chūzan, written in 1650, it is stated that the first king of Okinawa was called Tenson , who in the early first millennium AD created a dynasty that managed to rule over Okinawa’s chieftains and tribes.
The rest of the archipelago is seemingly split into many petty rulers, each one presiding over a major island. Roughly a century and a half later a major event is recorded that put an end to the Tenson dynasty. It tells of an exiled Japanese Samurai – Minamoto no Tamemoto – who landed at Okinawa in 1166 AD and settled at Urasoe. He fathered a son, called Shunten , and sometime after he returned to Japan, leaving his young heir behind.
Minamoto no Tametomo chasing away demons, in an 1890 print by Yoshitoshi. (Public Domain)
That young heir would become one of the petty lords of Okinawa – an anji – at just 15 years of age, and would become an important player in what was developing in the island at the time. The many lords of Okinawa were in open revolt against the 24th ruler of the Tenson dynasty – a revolt which culminated with his assassination. His killer, a retainer by the name of Riyu, seized the throne, but was quickly defeated by the rest of the lords under the leadership of the young and exceptional Shunten, lord of Urasoe.
Shunten's enthronement in 1187. (Public Domain)
He would rule Okinawa for the next 51 years. Under his rule the island experienced a great advancement, and many political and economic successes were achieved. The king died in 1237 AD, and was succeeded by his son Shumba-Junki. Ruling for just over a decade, this ruler too made significant improvements – such as introducing the Japanese writing system, and instigating the building of castles. These castles, called the gusuku (グスク), are an iconic feature of Okinawan culture, and consist of high stone walls that surround a traditional Japanese-style “castle.”
During this time, it is believed that the iconic Shuri Castle was built. This castle was almost entirely destroyed during the battle of Okinawa, and later rebuilt. Sadly, on October 31, 2019, a large part of the buildings burned down.
Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan, 2011. (CC BY 2.5)
The reign of Shumba-Junki’s son – Gihon – was marked by a lot of natural disasters. Okinawa experienced a series of droughts and typhoons, causing the crops to fail repeatedly. Famine spread through the island and eventually caused and outbreak of sickness. Almost half of the population perished.
In the aftermath of this unstable period, Gihon named (perhaps under pressure) a young prominent lord called Eiso as his regent. Eiso would become king just six years later when Gihon abdicated in his favor. During his reign, stability and prosperity were once more possible. His authority spread to other nearby islands, including Iheya, Kerama, Kume, and Amami Oshima, all of which were sending tributes and taxes.
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Royal seal of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. (Public Domain)
In 1292 AD, Eiso received a message from the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, with demanded that Okinawa surrender to his authority and aid the Mongols in their planned invasion of Japan. Eiso refused and rejected the Mongols when they repeated the demand four years later. He died in 1299 AD.
His son and grandson continued his dynasty, but ruled without any significant happenings. It was during the time of his great grandson – Tamagusuku – that Okinawa entered into a new era.
The Struggle to Dominate – The Three Mountains Period
Eventually, the island of Okinawa entered into the crucial period in its history which is known to us as the Three Kingdoms Period of Ryukyu (1322 – 1429). In the Okinawa history it is known as三山 – the Three Mountains period. It all refers to the establishment of three separate principalities on Okinawa, which effectively unified all the scattered petty lords into three “kingdoms.” These were the Hokuzan -北山 – Northern Mountain, the Chūzan -中山 – Central Mountain, and the Sanzan -三山 – Southern Mountain.
Hokuzan, occupying the largest part of the island in the north, had the biggest land mass and thus was the strongest militarily. The middle one, Chūzan , was slightly smaller but the wealthiest, controlling all the important ports. The smallest kingdom, Nanzan, was the center of culture and learning. These three kingdoms entered into a rivalry and sent separate envoys to the Chinese court in hopes to establish themselves as supreme over the other two.
This period of three kingdoms would escalate when a Chūzan lord, Hashi , overthrew the previous ruler of Chūzan and subsequently attacked the Northern Kingdom of Hokuzan. He managed to conquer it in 1416, and later on conquered Nanzan in 1429, for the first time unifying the island of Okinawa as a kingdom. Under a large influence from China, he received a surname – Shō – becoming known as Shō Hashi, and establishing a Shō dynasty.
King Shō Shin, 1465-1526. (Public Domain)
This Ryukyu Kingdom would exist from 1429-1879, and would gradually from its establishment extend its control over all islands in the archipelago, gradually increasing the economy and strengthening its ties with the Chinese court. This is known as the Ryukyu Golden Age, which was during the reign of Shō Shin from 1478 to 1526. During this period Ryukyu Kingdom would come to almost dominate maritime trade in East Asia, mostly due to their key position.
For roughly 150 years the kingdom flourished, but gradually it fell into decline in the late 1500’s. This was due to the increasing decline of relations with China, and the threat of increasingly powerful Japanese pirates.
In the wake of this decline, the powerful Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate sent their Shimazu clan from the Satsuma domain to subjugate the Ryukyu Kingdom. This fierce invasion occurred in 1609, and was a quick, albeit violent affair. The kingdom was quickly subjugated, and from then on it became a vassal state, remaining thus until 1897, when it was annexed by Japan and became Okinawa Prefecture.
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The Ryukyu Kingdom Dusk and Japanese Culture
Mostly falling under the umbrella of Japanese history, the story of Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu islands is truly a fascinating one. An emerging identity and a struggling kingdom that was torn between two powerful nations, Okinawa still managed to carve a spot for itself, rising from the sea proudly and defiantly.
But it was always shadowed by its large neighbors. Even though Japan had its influence from the start, and its citizens were often exiled and intermarried on these islands, China still dominated the internal affairs from quite early on, and the emerging Shō dynasty adopted the Chinese model of a hereditary dynasty. But afterwards, when the Japanese Shogunate stepped in, the history of this archipelago gains a wholly Japanese identity.
Traditional Ryukyuan clothes in late period, which were much closer to the Japanese kimono. (Public Domain)
But today, the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom and Okinawa is not forgotten. The natives of Okinawa are still conscious of their identity and often differentiate themselves from the mainland Yamato Japanese. And that is the remnant of their unique history, a heritage of internal struggle, of developing petty chiefdoms, and a successful maritime trade industry.
Top Image: Shureimon Gate in Shuri castle, home to the former Ryukyu Kingdom, in Okinawa. Source: f11photo /Adobe Stock
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Smits, G. 1999. Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. University of Hawai’i Press.