Ryukyu Kingdom

Ryukyu Kingdom
Tributary state of the Ming dynasty
Tributary state of the 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 (國王)
   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) (國司)
  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)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Empire of Japan
Satsuma Domain
Ryukyu Domain
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.


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][9] Central to the kingdom's maritime activities was the continuation of the tributary relationship with Ming Dynasty China, begun by Chūzan in 1372,[6][lower-alpha 1] and enjoyed by the three Okinawan kingdoms which proceeded it. China provided ships for Ryukyu's maritime trade activities,[10] 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.[11]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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;[13] 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.[14]

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 in 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.[15]

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 China 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.

Annexation by the Japanese Empire

In 1872, the Japanese tributary kingdom was reconfigured as the Ryukyu Domain.[16][17][18] At the same time, the fiction of independence was maintained for diplomatic reasons[19] 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.[20][21] His death in 1901 diminished the historic connections with the former kingdom.[22] The Sho family now lives normally in Japan.[23]

Major events

- Shunten becomes King of Okinawa, based at Urasoe Castle.
- Envoys from the Mongol Empire are expelled from Okinawa by King Eiso.
- Mongols are violently driven off the island again.
- 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]
- Chūzan, led by Shō Hashi, occupies Nakijin Castle, capital of Hokuzan.[24]
- Chūzan occupies Nanzan Castle, capital of Nanzan, unifying Okinawa Island. Shō Hashi moves the capital to Shuri Castle (now part of modern-day Naha).[24]
- Amawari's rebellion against the Kingdom.
- Kikai Island invaded by Ryukyu.
- Shō En (Kanemaru) establishes the Second Shō Dynasty.[24]
- Shō Shin, whose rule is called the "Great Days of Chūzan", ascends to the throne.[24] Golden age of the kingdom.
- Sakishima Islands annexed by Ryukyu.
- (April 5) Daimyō (Lord) of Satsuma in southern Kyūshū invades the kingdom. King Shō Nei is captured.[24]
- In accordance with the peace treaty, Satsuma annexes the Amami and Tokara Islands; Kings of Ryukyu become a vassal to the Lords of Satsuma.
- Completion of Omoro Sōshi.
- Completion of Chūzan Seikan.
- Completion of Chūzan Seifu.
- Completion of Kyūyō.
- Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (d. 1870), a British Protestant missionary serving with the Loochoo Naval Mission arrives in Ryukyu Kingdom.[24] He establishes the first foreign hospital on the island at the Naminoue Gokoku-ji Temple.
- Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the US Navy visits the kingdom and establishes a coaling station in Naha.[24]
- Perry returns to Okinawa to sign the Loochoo Compact with the Ryukyuan government; Bettelheim leaves with Perry.
- The last official mission from the Qing Empire visits the kingdom.
- Sailors from the German Empire are shipwrecked on Miyako Island and are treated well by the islanders.
- Ryukyuan sailors are massacred by Taiwanese aborigines.
- Emperor Meiji unilaterally declares King Shō Tai as the "Domain Head of Ryukyu Domain".
- The last tributary envoy to China is dispatched from Naha.
- Kaiser Wilhelm I erects a "friendship monument" on Miyako Island.
- Japan invades Taiwan on behalf of Ryukyu.
- Japan abolishes Ryukyu Domain and declares the creation of Okinawa Prefecture, formally annexing the islands.[24] Shō Tai is forced to abdicate, but is granted the Japanese peerage title of marquis (侯爵 kōshaku).[20]

List of Ryukyuan kings

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

See also

Location of the Ryukyu Islands
Hokuzan, Chūzan, Nanzan


  1. Nanzan and Hokuzan also entered into tributary relationships with Ming China, in 1380 and 1383 respectively.[10]



  1. Tsai, Shih-shan Henry (1996). The eunuchs in the Ming dynasty (illustrated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 145. ISBN 0-7914-2687-4. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  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. ISBN 3-447-05474-3. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  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. ISBN 0-313-30712-1. Retrieved 2011-02-04.
  4. Hendrickx, Katrien (2007). The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan (illustrated ed.). Leuven University Press. p. 39. ISBN 90-5867-614-5. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  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. ISBN 0-8093-2775-9. Retrieved 2011-01-11.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Matsuda 2001, p. 16.
  7. Murai 2008, pp. iv–v.
  8. Okamoto 2008, p. 35.
  9. Okinawa Prefectural reserve cultural assets center (2012). "東南アジアと琉球". Comprehensive Database of Archaeological Site Reports in Japan. Retrieved 2016-09-02.
  10. 1 2 Okamoto 2008, p. 36.
  11. 1 2 Sakamaki, Shunzō (1964). "Ryukyu and Southeast Asia". Journal of Asian Studies. 23 (3): 382–4. doi:10.2307/2050757.
  12. Murai 2008, p. iv.
  13. Okamoto 2008, p. 53.
  14. Klaproth, Julius (1832), San kokf tsou ran to sets, ou Aperçu général des trois royaumes [San kokf tsou ran to sets, or General overview of the three kingdoms] (in French), pp. 169–80.
  15. Kang 2010, p. 81.
  16. Matsuo, Kanenori Sakon (2005). The Secret Royal Martial Arts of Ryukyu, p. 40, at Google Books.
  17. Kerr 1953, p. 175.
  18. 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.
  19. Goodenough, Ward H. Book Review: "George H. Kerr. Okinawa: the History of an Island People...," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, May 1959, Vol. 323, No. 1, p. 165.
  20. 1 2 Papinot, Jacques Edmond Joseph (2003), "Sho", Nobiliare du Japon [Nobility of Japan] (PDF@60) (in French), p. 56.
  21. Papinot, Jacques Edmond Joseph (1906), Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie du Japon [Dictionary of History & Geography of Japan] (in French).
  22. Kerr 1953, p. 236.
  23. "Forgotten Dynasty".
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Hamashita, Takeshi. Okinawa Nyūmon (沖縄入門, "Introduction to Okinawa"). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2000, pp. 207–13.


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