Sanzan period

Nakijin Castle, identified as Hokuzan's capital

The Sanzan Period (三山時代 Sanzan-jidai) is a period in the history of the Okinawa Islands when three polities, namely Hokuzan (北山, lit. northern mountain), Chūzan (中山, lit. middle mountain) and Nanzan (南山, lit. southern mountain), are said to have co-existed on Okinawa. It is said to have started during King Tamagusuku's reign (traditional dates: 1314–1336) and, according to Sai On's edition of the Chūzan Seifu, ended in 1429 when Shō Hashi unified the island. Historical records of the period are fragmentary and mutually conflicting. Some even question the co-existence of the three polities.

Contemporary sources

Okinawa does not have their own contemporary records of the Sanzan period. Contemporary sources are limited to Chinese and, to a far lesser extent, Korean diplomatic records. They are in a fragmentary fashion and probably overshadowed by diplomatic fictions. Since the Chinese sources simply records local rulers who contacted China, they do not rule out the possibility that some other local rulers co-existed without establishing diplomatic contacts. For this reason, Okinawa's real situation remains largely a mystery.[1]

According to the Veritable Records of the Ming, the newly formed Ming dynasty sent an envoy to what it called the "State of Ryūkyū," among many other countries, in 1372 to start tributary relations. In response, a ruler who was referred to as Satto, King of Chūzan, sent his younger brother Taiki to pay tribute. In 1380, the King of Nanzan Ofusato sent a mission to Ming China, which was followed by the King of Hokuzan Haniji in 1383. The names of Hokuzan and Nanzan are apparently Chūzan-centric. It is not clear who coined these names.

Ming China's perception of the co-existence of the Sanzan can be found in an article of 1383 of the Veritable Records, which was based on the report of a Ming envoy who visited Okinawa in 1382. The Ming considered that there were three rulers in the region who engaged in conflict. It recognized them as "kings" and called for peace.[2]

As for the King of Hokuzan, the Veritable Records record the un-Okinawan-looking names of three kings, Haniji, Min and Han'anchi, but make no mention of their blood relations. The last diplomatic contact of Hokuzan was of 1416.[2]

The records of Nanzan are more complicated. The diplomatic missions under the name of the King of Nanzan Ofusato lasted from 1380 to 1396. An unusual characteristic of Nanzan was that the "King's father's younger brother" (王叔) Ōeiji also sent envoys from 1388 to 1397. In 1403, Ououso, who claimed to be Ofusato's younger brother or cousin, reported Ofusato's death in 1403 and was recognized as King of Nanzan the next year. In 1415, Crown Prince Taromai reported that King Ououso had been murdered by his "elder brother" Tafuchi. Taromai's blood relationship with Ououso was not mentioned. As the King of Nanzan, Taromai sent envoys from 1416 to 1429.[2]

The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea records mysterious events about Nanzan. In 1394, the King of Chūzan Satto requested Korea to return the "Nanzan Prince" (山南王子) Ofusato, who had supposedly fled to Korea. In 1398, the King of Nanzan Oueishi fled to Korea after reportedly being banished by the King of Chūzan. He died there in the same year. These records clearly contradict with the Veritable Records, raising questions about the reliability of Okinawa's diplomatic reports to foreign countries.[2]

Chūzan sent envoys to China much more frequently than Hokuzan and Nanzan. The King of Chūzan paid tribute biennially from 1372 to 1382 and after that once or twice a year. Chūzan's missions were also unusual in that some of them were sent under the name of the crown prince although it should have been done by the king. In 1404, Crown Prince Bunei reported King Satto's death and was recognized as the next king. In 1407, Crown Prince Shō Shishō's envoy reported his "father" Bunei's death to seek the approval of the succession to the throne. An article of 1425 in the Veritable Records states that Ming China let Crown Prince Shō Hashi succeed the late King Shishō.[3]

Historians have noted suspicious patterns in the Sanzans' diplomatic missions. While Ming China bestowed vessels and their crews on Chūzan and Nanzan, Hokuzan has no such record. This may explain why Hokuzan's missions almost always coincided with Chūzan's even though they were supposedly in conflict. In addition, staffs in the missions were apparently shared. For example, Sangurumi, who was sent to China by the Nanzan King in 1392, claimed to be a nephew (姪) of the King of Nanzan Ofusato. In Chūzan's missions, however, he appeared as a nephew (従子) of the King of Chūzan Satto in 1403 and as a nephew (姪) of the Chūzan King Bunei in 1404. Even though historian Wada Hisanori regarded him as multiple persons with the same name, Wada acknowledged that the King of Nanzan Taromai's envoys and vessels clearly overlapped with those of the King of Chūzan.[1][2][4][5]

The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty states that in 1418, Katsuren, the second son of the Chūzan King, called for trade with Korea and sent vessels that carried Chinese and Southeast Asian goods. Historians have no consensus on his true identity.

It is noted by historians that the Veritable Records make no mention of the supposed unification. The only thing that can be inferred from the records is that Hokuzan and Nanzan ceased to send diplomatic missions. The King of Chūzan retained the title of "King of Chūzan" even after he became the sole ruler of the State of Ryūkyū.[1]

In 1416, the Ashikaga shogun sent a letter in reply to the yo-no-nushi of the State of Ryūkyū (りうきう國のよのぬし). This rare record has been handed down only on the mainland Japanese side.[3]

Okinawa's later narratives

Okinawa's own narratives on the Sanzan period were recorded centuries later by Ryūkyū. Major history books include the Chūzan Seikan (1650), Sai Taku's edition of the Chūzan Seifu (1701), Sai On's revised edition of the Chūzan Seifu (from 1724 onwards) and the Kyūyō (1745). They reflect Okinawa's historical tradition to some degree. They are, however, desperate attempts to reconcile conflicting sources. Sai On, in particular, extensively rewrote his father's edition of the Chūzan Seifu using newly obtained Chinese sources. As a result, he damaged its historical value, from modern historians' perspective.[6] Additionally, the Omoro Sōshi (1623) is helpful in understanding Okinawa's own world-view although it is a compilation of poems and by no means a history book.

The Chūzan Seikan and Sai Taku's edition of the Chūzan Seifu follow Chinese sources in that they refer to the supposed polities as Sanhoku (山北, lit. north of the mountain), Chūzan and Sannan (山南, lit. south of the mountain). For some unknown reason, however, Sai On changed the names of Sanhoku and Sannan to Hokuzan (北山) and Nanzan (南山) respectively.[3] A world view presented in the Omoro Sōshi is strikingly different from that of the history books. The perception that Okinawa was divided by three polities is absent from the poem anthology. It never uses the terms of Sanzan, Sanhoku, Chūzan or Sannan. The King of Hokuzan is referred to as Nakijin Aji. The supposed King of Nanzan is Ōzato Aji. Alternatively he is referred to as Shimo no yo-no-nushi (下の世の主). They are no different from other regional rulers.[7]

According to Ryūkyū's official history books, King Tamagusuku, who had maintained a unified polity, lost support of local rulers. People in the south followed the Ōzato Aji while the northern region was controlled by the Nakijin Aji. In other words, these books identify the Nakijin Aji as the King of Hokuzan and the Ōzato Aji as the King of Nanzan. Most modern historians question this alleged split because they do not support the existence of a unified polity on Okinawa before the "reunification" in the 15th century.[3]

No personal names were recorded for the Nakijin Aji in the Chūzan Seikan or Sai Taku's edition of Chūzan Seifu. It was not known to Ryūkyū how many rulers assumed the title. Sai On's edition of Chūzan Seifu adds three personal names, Haniji, Min and Han'anchi, which were taken from a Chinese source, not from Okinawa's own.[3]

Similarly, the Chūzan Seikan and Sai Taku's edition of Chūzan Seifu have no record of personal names of the Ōzato Aji. The names of Shōsatto, Ououso and Tarumi, added by Sai On to the Chūzan Seifu, are not based on Okinawa's tradition. Another problem is about the identification of the place of Ōzato. There are two candidates for it: Shimasoe-Ōzato in modern-day Nanjō City and Shimajiri-Ōzato in modern-day Itoman City. In addition, the Omoro Sōshi divides southern Okinawa into three regions: the eastern region (covering Shimasoe-Ōzato), the central region and the western region (including Shimajiri-Ōzato). The Chūzan Seifu identify the Shimasoe-Ōzato Aji as the King of Nanzan, which appears to reflect Okinawa's own narratives. However, both editions of the Chūzan Seifu identify Shimajiri-Ōzato as the capital of Nanzan.[3]

According to the Chūzan Seikan, the Nakijin Aji's domain included Haneji, Nago, Kunigami, Kin, Ie and Iheya. The Ōzato Aji controlled the 11 regions of Sashiki, Chinen, Tamagusuku, Gushikami, Kochinda, Shimajiri-Ōzato, Kyan, Mabuni, Makabe, Kanegusuku and Tomigusuku. The Chūzan King subjugated Naha, Tomari, Urasoe, Chatan, Nakagusuku, Goeku, Yomitanzan, Gushikawa, Katsuren and Shuri. Shuri is treated as the everlasting capital of Chūzan. However, it is clear from literary evidence and archaeological findings that Urasoe was the center of the most powerful polity on the island before the capital was moved to Shuri.[3]

The King of Chūzan Tamagusuku was succeeded by King Seii. After Seii's death, people deposed the crown prince and enthroned Satto, the ruler of Urasoe, in 1350. Although his existence was supported by contemporary sources, his life is colored by mythology: he was a son of a humble farmer and a swan maiden. During his reign, he started to pay tribute to Ming China. Also he received tribute from the southern island groups of Miyako and Yaeyama for the first time in history. Satto was succeeded by his son Bunei in 1395.[3]

Although the history books agree that Shō Hashi unified Okinawa, the accounts of the unification process contain non-negligible inconsistencies. The oldest Chūzan Seikan states that after Shō Hashi succeeded his father Shō Shishō as Sashiki Aji in 1402, he overthrew the King of Nanzan and claimed the title. He then overthrew the Chūzan King Bunei in 1421 to become the King of Chūzan. He finally killed the King of Hokuzan in 1422. Sai Taku's edition of Chūzan Seifu generally follows the Chūzan Seikan. However, it dates Shō Hashi's conquest of Chūzan 16 years earlier than the Chūzan Seikan. It also claims that Shō Hashi installed his father Shō Shishō as King of Chūzan instead of himself. Shō Hashi became the King of Chūzan only after Shō Shishō's death in 1421. Sai On's edition of Chūzan Seifu is drastically different from these two books. It claims that Shō Hashi defeated the Chūzan King and installed his father Shō Shishō in 1406. He conquered Hokuzan in 1416 and Nanzan in 1429.[1][3]

The Chūzan Seikan seems to follow Okinawa's own tradition. Sai Taku "corrected" the Chūzan Seikan with Chinese records which stated that Shō Shishō, Crown Prince of Chūzan, reported the death of "his father" Bunei. Sai On's drastic revision was also based on Chinese records. The last diplomatic contact of Nanzan was of 1429 while that of Hokuzan was of 1416. From these records, Sai On naïvely inferred that these two polities ceased to exist immediately after the last contacts.[1][3]


Modern historians have also struggled to resolve contradictions. Unlike Sai On, Wada Hisanori attached weight to the Chūzan Seifu. He identified Taromai as the eldest son of Shō Hashi and concluded that the King of Nanzan Taromai was a puppet of Chūzan. According to Wada, Shō Hashi overthrew the King of Nanzan in 1403 and ascended to the throne. He overthrew the King of Chūzan Bunei in 1405 and installed his father Shō Shishō as King of Chūzan. He gave the title of King of Nanzan to his son Taromai in 1415 to become the Crown Prince of Chūzan. He succeeded his father Shō Shishō as King of Chūzan in 1422. After the death of Taromai around 1429, Shō Hashi formally abolished Nanzan. The reason that Shō Hashi nominally maintained Nanzan was that he wished to keep profitable Chinese trade conducted under the name of the King of Nanzan.[1]

Ikuta Shigeru presented an even more radical interpretation of the Sanzan period. He dismissed Okinawa's later narratives as mere legends. He argued that the King of Nanzan was under control of the King of Chūzan from the very beginning. Due to lack of sufficient evidence, he refrained from determining Hokuzan's relationship with Chūzan. He related these alleged polities to Ming China's haijin (sea ban) policy. Unlike the preceding Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty prohibited Chinese merchants from engaging in oversea trade. In order to maintain international trade that covers the vast area from Southeast Asia to Japan and Korea, they set up tribute-paying missions under the names of foreign kings. At their height, they used three dummy names. As Okinawa's importance in international trade decreased, the names of Hokuzan and Nanzan ceased to be used.[2]

Tripartite hypothesis

Ethnologist Ōbayashi Taryō argued that the narrative of the Sanzan period recorded centuries later by Ryūkyū reflected the tripartite ideology, which the French scholar Georges Dumézil found in Proto-Indo-European mythology. He mapped Hokuzan to military, Chūzan to sovereignty and Nanzan to productivity.[8]

Ōbayashi provided two types of evidence for the tripartite hypothesis. One is justifications for the unification by Shō Hashi. Shō Hashi took over King Bunei's Chūzan because the king had not exercised juridical powers properly. He then destroyed the King of Hokuzan Han'anchi, who had been known for extraordinary military prowess. The official history book Kyūyō records two theories regarding the downfall of King Taromai's Nanzan. One is that he lost public support because of his extravagant lifestyle. Another story is that he lost support from the peasantry after he exchanged his domain's lifeblood spring for Shō Hashi's gold-painted folding screen. In other words, he lost his country because he relinquished the source of productivity.[8]

Another type of evidence is regalia. Hokuzan's sacred treasure was a Japanese sword named Chiyoganemaru. When Hokuzan was about to fall, King Han'anchi got angry at the sacred sword's failure to protect the domain and threw it into the water. Nanzan's regalia was a gold-painted folding screen. It is not uncertain what kind of treasures Chūzan had before Shō Hashi's takeover. Ōbayashi claimed that a song in Omoro Sōshi could be interpreted as Shō Hashi's possession of a sacred drum when he was a local ruler of Sashiki. The Omoro Sōshi suggests that sacred drums were believed to give the mythical power to bring people under control.[8]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wada Hisanori 和田久徳 (2006). "Ryūkyū-koku no Sanzan tōitsu ni tsuite no shinkōsatsu 琉球国の三山統一についての新考察". Ryūkyū-ōkoku no keisei 琉球王国の形成 (in Japanese). pp. 9–40.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ikuta Shigeru 生田滋 (1984). "Ryūkyū-koku no "Sanzan tōitsu" 琉球国の「三山統一」". Tōyō Gakuhō 東洋学報 (in Japanese). 65 (3・4): 341–372.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Dana Masayuki 田名真之 (2004). "Ko-Ryūkyū ōkoku no ōtō 古琉球王国の王統". In Asato Susumu; et al. Okinawa-ken no rekishi 沖縄県の歴史 (in Japanese). pp. 59–96.
  4. Kobata Atsushi 小葉田淳 (1968). Chūsei Nantō tsūkōbōekishi no kenkyū 中世南島通交貿易史の研究 (in Japanese).
  5. Wada Hisanori 和田久徳 (2006). "Ryūkyū-koku no Sanzan tōitsu sairon 琉球国の三山統一再論". Ryūkyū-ōkoku no keisei 琉球王国の形成 (in Japanese). pp. 41–55.
  6. Dana Masayuki 田名真之 (1992). "Shisho o Amu 史書を編む". Okinawa kinsei-shi no shosō 沖縄近世史の諸相 (in Japanese). pp. 1–24.
  7. Fuku Hiromi 福寛美 (2007). "Katsuren omoro no dainamizumu 勝連おもろのダイナミズム". Koe to katachi no Ainu Ryūkyū-shi 声とかたちのアイヌ・琉球史 (in Japanese). pp. 341–382.
  8. 1 2 3 Ōbayashi Taryō 大林太良 (1984). "Ryūkyū ni okeru Sanzan teiritsu to san kinō taikei 琉球における三山鼎立と三機能体系". Higashi Ajia no Ōken shinwa 東アジアの王権神話 (in Japanese). pp. 426–439.
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