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Ryukyu Kingdom

Ryukyu Kingdom
Tributary state of Ming Dynasty
Tributary state of Qing Dynasty
Vassal state of Satsuma Domain
Vassal state of the Empire of Japan





Flag Royal Crest
Capital Shuri
Languages Ryukyuan (native languages), Classical Chinese, Classical Japanese
Religion native Ryukyuan religion, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism
Government Monarchy
King (国王)
 •  1429–1439 Shō Hashi
 •  1477–1526 Shō Shin
 •  1587–1620 Shō Nei
 •  1848–1879 Shō Tai
Sessei (摂政)
 •  1666–1673 Shō Shōken
Regent (Kokushi) (国司)
 •  1751–1752 Sai On
Legislature Shuri Ō-fu (首里王府), Sanshikan (三司官)
 •  Unification 1429
 •  Satsuma invasion April 5, 1609
 •  Reorganized into Ryukyu Domain 1875
 •  Annexed by Japan March 11, 1879
Area 2,271 km² (877 sq mi)
Today part of  Japan

The Ryukyu Kingdom (Japanese: 琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku; Okinawan: 琉球國 Ruuchuu-kuku; Middle Chinese: Ljuw-gjuw kwok; historical English name: Lewchew, Luchu, and Loochoo) was an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Ryukyu Islands from the 15th to the 19th century. The kings of Ryukyu unified Okinawa Island and extended the kingdom to the Amami Islands in modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture, and the Sakishima Islands near Taiwan. Despite its small size, the kingdom played a central role in the maritime trade networks of medieval East and Southeast Asia.


  • History 1
    • Origins of the Kingdom 1.1
    • Golden age of maritime trade 1.2
    • Japanese invasion and subordination 1.3
    • Tributary relations 1.4
    • Incorporation 1.5
  • Major events 2
  • List of Ryukyuan kings 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


Origins of the Kingdom

Flag of the Ryukyu Kingdom
Royal seal of the Ryukyu Kingdom

In the 14th century, small domains scattered on Okinawa Island were unified into three principalities: Hokuzan (北山, Northern Mountain), Chūzan (中山, Central Mountain) and Nanzan (南山, Southern Mountain). This was known as the Three Kingdoms or Sanzan (三山, Three Mountains) period. Hokuzan, which constituted much of the northern half of the island, was the largest in terms of land area and military strength, but was economically the weakest of the three. Nanzan constituted the southern portion of the island. Chūzan lay in the center of the island, and was economically the strongest. Its political capital at Shuri, Nanzan was adjacent to the major port of Naha and Kume-mura, the center of traditional Chinese education. These sites, and Chūzan as a whole, would continue to form the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom until its abolition.

Many Chinese moved to Ryukyu to serve the government or to engage in business during this period. At the request of the Ryukyuan King, the Ming Chinese sent 36 Chinese families from Fujian to manage oceanic dealings in the kingdom in 1392 during the Hongwu emperor's reign. Many Ryukyuan officials were descended from these Chinese immigrants, being born in China or having Chinese grandfathers.[1] They assisted the Ryukyuans in advancing their technology and diplomatic relations.[2][3][4] According to statements by Qing imperial official Li Hongzhang in a meeting with Ulysses S. Grant, China had a special relationship with the island and the Ryukyu had paid tribute to China for hundreds of years, and the Chinese reserved certain trade rights for them in an amicable and beneficial relationship.[5]

These three principalities, or tribal federations, led by major chieftains, battled, and Chūzan emerged victorious. The Chūzan leaders were officially recognized by Ming dynasty China as the rightful kings over those of Nanzan and Hokuzan, thus lending great legitimacy to their claims. The ruler of Chūzan passed his throne to King Hashi; Hashi conquered Hokuzan in 1416 and Nanzan in 1429, uniting the island of Okinawa for the first time, and founded the first Shō Dynasty. Hashi received the surname "Shō" (Chinese: "Shang") 尚 from the Ming emperor in 1421, becoming known as Shō Hashi (Chinese: Shang Bazhi) 尚巴志.

Shō Hashi adopted the Chinese hierarchical court system, built Shuri Castle and the town as his capital, and constructed Naha harbor. When in 1469 King Shō Toku, who was a grandson of Shō Hashi, died without a male heir, a palatine servant declared he was Toku's adopted son and gained Chinese investiture. This pretender, Shō En, began the Second Shō Dynasty. Ryukyu's golden age occurred during the reign of Shō Shin, the second king of that dynasty, who reigned from 1478 to 1526.

The kingdom extended its authority over the southernmost islands in the Ryukyu archipelago by the end of the 15th century, and by 1571 the Amami-Ōshima Islands, to the north, near Kyūshū, were incorporated into the kingdom as well.[6] While the kingdom's political system was adopted, and the authority of Shuri recognized, in the Amami-Ōshima Islands, however, the kingdom's authority over the Sakishima Islands to the south remained for centuries at the level of a tributary-suzerain relationship.[7]

Golden age of maritime trade

For nearly two hundred years, the Ryukyu Kingdom would thrive as a key player in maritime trade with Southeast and East Asia[8] Central to the kingdom's maritime activities was the continuation of the tributary relationship with Ming Dynasty China, begun by Chūzan in 1372,[6][1] and enjoyed by the three Okinawan kingdoms which preceded it. China provided ships for Ryukyu's maritime trade activities,[9] allowed a limited number of Ryukyuans to study at the Imperial Academy in Beijing, and formally recognized the authority of the King of Chūzan, allowing the kingdom to trade formally at Ming ports. Ryukyuan ships, often provided by China, traded at ports throughout the region, which included, among others, China, Đại Việt (Vietnam), Japan, Java, Korea, Luzon, Malacca, Pattani, Palembang, Siam, and Sumatra.[10]

Seal from Qing China giving authority to the King of Ryukyu to rule
The main building (Seidan) of Shuri Castle

Japanese products—silver, swords, fans, lacquerware, folding screens—and Chinese products—medicinal herbs, minted coins, glazed ceramics, brocades, textiles—were traded within the kingdom for Southeast Asian sappanwood, rhino horn, tin, sugar, iron, ambergris, Indian ivory and Arabian frankincense. Altogether, 150 voyages between the kingdom and Southeast Asia on Ryukyuan ships were recorded in the Rekidai Hōan, an official record of diplomatic documents compiled by the kingdom, as having taken place between 1424 and the 1630s, with 61 of them bound for Siam, 10 for Malacca, 10 for Pattani and 8 for Java, among others.[10]

The Chinese policy of hai jin (海禁, "sea bans"), limiting trade with China to tributary states and those with formal authorization, along with the accompanying preferential treatment of the Ming Court towards Ryukyu, allowed the kingdom to flourish and prosper for roughly 150 years.[11] In the late 16th century, however, the kingdom's commercial prosperity fell into decline. The decline of the wokou ("Japanese pirate") threat among other factors led to the gradual loss of Chinese preferential treatment;[12] the kingdom also suffered from increased maritime competition from Portuguese traders.[6]

Japanese invasion and subordination

Around 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi asked the Ryukyu Kingdom to aid in his campaign to conquer Korea. If successful, Hideyoshi intended to then move against China. As the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty, the request was refused. The Tokugawa shogunate that emerged following Hideyoshi's fall authorized the Shimazu familyfeudal lords of the Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima prefecture)—to send an expeditionary force to conquer the Ryukyus. The subsequent invasion took place in 1609.[6] Occupation occurred fairly quickly, with some fierce fighting, and King Shō Nei was taken prisoner to Kagoshima and later to Edo (modern day Tokyo). When he was released two years later, the Ryukyu Kingdom regained a degree of autonomy; however, the Satsuma domain seized control over some territory of the Ryukyu Kingdom, notably the Amami-Ōshima island group, which was incorporated into the Satsuma domain and remains a part of Kagoshima prefecture, not Okinawa prefecture, today.

The kingdom was described by Hayashi Shihei in Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu, which was published in 1785.[13]

Tributary relations

A Ryukyuan embassy in Edo.
Traditional clothes

The Ryukyu Kingdom found itself in a period of "dual subordination" to Japan and China, wherein Ryukyuan tributary relations were maintained with both the Tokugawa shogunate and the Ming Chinese court. In 1655, tribute relations between Ryukyu and Qing Dynasty (the dynasty that followed Ming on 1644) were formally approved by the shogunate. This was seen to be justified, in part, because of the desire to avoid giving Qing any reason for military action against Japan.[14]

Since Ming China prohibited trade with Japan, the Satsuma domain, with the blessing of the Tokugawa shogunate, used the trade relations of the kingdom to continue to maintain trade relations with China. Considering that Japan had previously severed ties with most of the European countries except the Dutch, such trade relations proved especially crucial to both the Tokugawa shogunate and Satsuma domain which would use its power and influence, gained in this way, to help overthrow the shogunate in the 1860s.

The Ryukyuan king was a vassal of the Satsuma daimyō, but his land was not considered as part of any han (fief): up until the formal annexation of the islands and abolition of the kingdom in 1879, the Ryukyus were not truly considered part of Japan, and the Ryukyuan people not considered Japanese. Though technically under the control of Satsuma, Ryukyu was given a great degree of autonomy, to best serve the interests of the Satsuma daimyō and those of the shogunate, in trading with China. Ryukyu was a tributary state of China, and since Japan had no formal diplomatic relations with China, it was essential that Beijing not realize that Ryukyu was controlled by Japan. Thus, ironically, Satsuma—and the shogunate—was obliged to be mostly hands-off in terms of not visibly or forcibly occupying Ryukyu or controlling the policies and laws there. The situation benefited all three parties involved—the Ryukyu royal government, the Satsuma daimyo, and the shogunate—to make Ryukyu seem as much a distinctive and foreign country as possible. Japanese were prohibited from visiting Ryukyu without shogunal permission, and the Ryukyuans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs. They were even forbidden from divulging their knowledge of the Japanese language during their trips to Edo; the Shimazu family, daimyo of Satsuma, gained great prestige by putting on a show of parading the King, officials, and other people of Ryukyu to and through Edo. As the only han to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained significantly from Ryukyu's exoticness, reinforcing that it was an entire separate kingdom.


In 1872, the Japanese tributary kingdom was reconfigured as the Ryukyu Domain.[15][16][17] At the same time, the fiction of independence was maintained for diplomatic reasons[18] until the Meiji Japanese government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom when the islands were incorporated as Okinawa Prefecture on March 11, 1879. Nowadays, the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport still uses the Chinese characters Ryukyu (Okinawa) as the destination, although the English is Okinawa (OKA).

The Amami-Ōshima island group which had been integrated into Satsuma domain became a part of Kagoshima prefecture.

The last king of the Ryukyus was forced to relocate to Tokyo, and was given a compensating kazoku rank as Marquis Shō Tai.[19][20] His death in 1901 diminished the historic connections with the former kingdom.[21]

Major events

  • 1372 The first Ming dynasty envoy visits Okinawa, which had been divided into three kingdoms, during the Sanzan period. Formal tributary relations with the Chinese Empire begin.[6]
  • 1416 Chūzan, led by Shō Hashi, occupies Nakijin gusuku, capital of Hokuzan.[22]
  • 1429 Chūzan occupies Shimajiri Osato gusuku, capital of Nanzan, unifying Okinawa Island. Shō Hashi establishes the Kingdom of Ryukyu, ruling as king with his capital at Shuri (now part of modern-day Naha).[22]
  • 1470 Shō En (Kanemaru) establishes the Second Shō Dynasty.[22]
  • 1477 The third king, Shō Shin, ascends to the throne.[22] Golden age of the kingdom.
  • 1609 (April 5) daimyō (Lord) of Satsuma in southern Kyūshū conquers the kingdom. King of Ryukyu becomes a Japanese vassal.[22]
  • 1624 Lord of Satsuma annexes the Amami Islands.
  • 1846 Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (d. 1870), a British Protestant missionary serving with the Loochoo Naval Mission arrives in Ryukyu Kingdom.[22] He establishes the first foreign hospital on the island at the Naminoue Gokoku-ji Temple.
  • 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy visits the kingdom.[22] Bettelheim leaves with Perry.
  • 1866 The last official mission from the Qing Empire visits the kingdom.
  • 1872 The Japanese government unilaterally abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom, and declared the islands to be the Ryukyu Han (Ryukyu fief), with Shō Tai (尚泰) as the head of the fief (藩王 Han'ō).
  • 1874 The last tributary envoy to China is dispatched from Naha.
  • 1879 Japan replaces the Ryukyu han with Okinawa Prefecture, formally annexing the islands.[22] The former monarch is granted the Japanese title of marquis (侯爵 kōshaku) and relocated to Tokyo.[19]
  • 1890 The Ryukyu royal crest, Mitsudomoe was later used by the early Hashimoto (橋本) Clan as a direct sign from the lineage of the emperor's family. The Hashimoto Clan was relocated in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto in 1910 where they now reside onto this day. The current clan master is Kakeru Hashimoto (橋本翔), to be succeeded by Kyo Hashimoto (橋本京)

List of Ryukyuan kings

Kings of Ryukyu Islands
Name Kanji Reign Line or Dynasty Notes
Shunten 舜天 1187–37 Tenson Lineage
Shunbajunki 舜馬順熈 1238–48 Tenson Lineage
Gihon 義本 1249–59 Tenson Lineage
Eiso 英祖 1260–99 Eiso Lineage
Taisei 大成 1300–08 Eiso Lineage
Eiji 英慈 1309–13 Eiso Lineage
Kings of Chūzan
Tamagusuku 玉城 1314–36 Eiso Lineage
Seii 西威 1337–54 Eiso Lineage
Satto 察度 1355–97 Satto Lineage
Bunei 武寧 1398–1406 Satto Lineage
Shō Shishō 尚思紹 1407–21 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Hashi 尚巴志 1422–29 First Shō Dynasty as King of Chūzan
Kings of Ryukyu
Name Kanji Reign Line or Dynasty Notes
Shō Hashi 尚巴志 1429–39 First Shō Dynasty as King of Ryukyu
Shō Chū 尚忠 1440–42 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Shitatsu 尚思達 1443–49 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Kinpuku 尚金福 1450–53 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Taikyū 尚泰久 1454–60 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Toku 尚徳 1461–69 First Shō Dynasty
Shō En 尚円 1470–76 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Kanamaru Uchima
Shō Sen'i 尚宣威 1477 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Shin 尚真 1477–1526 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Sei 尚清 1527–55 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Gen 尚元 1556–72 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Ei 尚永 1573–86 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Nei 尚寧 1587–1620 Second Shō Dynasty ruled during Satsuma invasion; first king to be Satsuma vassal
Shō Hō 尚豊 1621–40 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Ken 尚賢 1641–47 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Shitsu 尚質 1648–68 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Tei 尚貞 1669–1709 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Eki 尚益 1710–12 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Kei 尚敬 1713–51 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Boku 尚穆 1752–95 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō On 尚温 1796–1802 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Sei (r. 1803) 尚成 1803 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Kō 尚灝 1804–28 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Iku 尚育 1829–47 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Tai 尚泰 1848 – March 11, 1879 Second Shō Dynasty last Ryukyu King

See also


  1. ^ Nanzan and Hokuzan also entered into tributary relationships with Ming China, in 1380 and 1383 respectively.[9]


  1. ^ Tsai, Shih-shan Henry (1996). The eunuchs in the Ming dynasty (illustrated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 145.  
  2. ^ Schottenhammer, Angela (2007). Schottenhammer, Angela, ed. The East Asian maritime world 1400–1800: its fabrics of power and dynamics of exchanges. Volume 4 of East Asian economic and socio-cultural studies: East Asian maritime history (illustrated ed.). Otto Harrassowitz. p. xiii.  
  3. ^ Deng, Gang (1999). Maritime sector, institutions, and sea power of premodern China. Contributions in economics and economic history 212 (illustrated ed.). Greenwood. p. 125.  
  4. ^ Hendrickx, Katrien (2007). The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan (illustrated ed.). Leuven University Press. p. 39.  
  5. ^ Grant, Ulysses Simpson (2008). Simon, John Y, ed. The Papers. 29: October 1, 1878 – September 30, 1880 (illustrated ed.). SIU Press, Ulysses S. Grant Association. p. 165.  
  6. ^ a b c d e Matsuda 2001, p. 16.
  7. ^ Murai 2008, pp. iv–v.
  8. ^ Okamoto 2008, p. 35.
  9. ^ a b Okamoto 2008, p. 36.
  10. ^ a b Sakamaki, Shunzō. "Ryukyu and Southeast Asia." Journal of Asian Studies. vol. 23 no. 3 (May 1964), pp. 382–4.
  11. ^ Murai 2008, p. iv.
  12. ^ Okamoto 2008, p. 53.
  13. ^  .
  14. ^ Kang 2010, p.  81.
  15. ^ Matsuo, Kanenori Sakon (2005). The Secret Royal Martial Arts of Ryukyu, p. 40, at Google Books.
  16. ^ Kerr 1953, p. 175.
  17. ^ Lin, Man-houng. "The Ryukyus and Taiwan in the East Asian Seas: A Longue Durée Perspective," Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. October 27, 2006, translated and abridged from Academia Sinica Weekly, No. 1084. August 24, 2006.
  18. ^ Goodenough, Ward H. ,"Okinawa: the History of an Island People...Book Review: "George H. Kerr. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 1959, Vol. 323, No. 1, p. 165.
  19. ^ a b Papinot, Jacques Edmond Joseph (2003), "Sho", ]Nobility of Japan [Nobiliare du Japon ( .
  20. ^ Papinot, Jacques Edmond Joseph (1906), Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie du Japon [Dictionary of History & Geography of Japan] (in Français) .
  21. ^ Kerr 1953, p. 236.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Hamashita, Takeshi. Okinawa Nyūmon (沖縄入門, "Introduction to Okinawa"). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2000, pp. 207–13.


  • Kang, David C (2010), East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, New York: Columbia University Press, ; ISBN 978-0-23152674-6.  
  • .  
  • ——— (1958), Okinawa: the History of an Island People, Rutland, .  
  • Matsuda, Mitsugu (2001), 'The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609–1872 (dissertation submitted to the Graduate School of the University of Hawaii in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, January 1967), Gushikawa: Yui Pub., , 283 pp.  
  • Murai, Shōsuke (2008), "Introduction",  .
  • Okamoto, Hiromichi (2008), "Foreign Policy and Maritime Trade in the Early Ming Period Focusing on the Ryukyu Kingdom", Acta Asiatica 95 .
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric (2002), Japan Encyclopedia, Cambridge: .  
  • Smits, Gregory (1999), 'Visions of Ryukyu: identity and ideology in early-modern thought and politics, Honolulu: , 213 pp.  

External links

  • Mc, Mick, History of Okinawa, Tripod .
  • ]Many Ryukyu historical texts [沖縄の歴史情報(ORJ) (in 日本語), .  
  • Brief History of the Uchinanchu (Okinawans), Uninanchu .
  • Ryukyu Chuzano ryoshisha tojogyoretsu (scroll illustrating procession of Ryukyu emissary to Edo), Hōei: National Archives, July 1710 

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