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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
June 2000

The Ryukyu Kingdom in Asian History

Shuzen HOKAMA (President, Okinawan Studies Institute, Professor Emeritus, Hosei University)

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1. The dynamic history of Okinawa and Asia
The Okinawan islands appeared ("reappeared" to be precise, since they were taken up in the ancient literature of China and Japan) in history in the 12th century, as local tribal heads in Okinawa grew to be politically powerful. Then, Okinawa seemed to become quite active in history from the 13th century through the 15th century.

During that period, not only the Japanese Archipelago, but also East and Southeast Asia were on the move and sometimes in turmoil. In a sense, therefore, Okinawa's active history around that time should be seen as a result of the dynamic period of history in Asia as a whole.

In Japan, the Kamakura government ended in 1333, and the Muromachi government started in 1338. Around that time in China, the Yuan dynasty fell and the Ming dynasty rose, while in the Korean Peninsula the Koryo dynasty was defeated and the Yi dynasty was established.

During almost the same time, Southeast Asia was also rapidly changing and facing a turning point in history in the 13th century. The most notable move was the establishment of various dynasties such as the Majapahit dynasty in Java in 1293, the Ayuthya dynasty in Siam (Thailand) in 1350, and the Malacca dynasty in 1402. These dynasties were closely related to Okinawa during that period.

Turning to East Asia, commercial trade routes were in decline due to the threats of "Wako" and the seclusion policy of the Ming dynasty. There emerged three tribal heads called "Sanzan"(three political powers), which subsequently were unified to become the Ryukyu Kingdom. The birth of the Ryukyu dynasty might be regarded as a geographical and historical necessity to connect the declining routes in East Asia and the emerging routes in Southeast Asia as a transfer point between them.

2. Establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom
The warfare in the 14th century among the three tribal heads, Sanzan, came to an end in the early 15th century and the unified Ryukyu Kingdom was established by one powerful king in 1429. This first kingdom is called the First Shoshi Kingdom in Okinawan history. First Shoshi was quite active in managing the Kingdom, and strategically focused on commercial trade with foreign countries. Actually, foreign trade was vital for Okinawa, which is surrounded by the sea.
Shoshi emphasized foreign trade and agricultural promotion, and redeveloped Shuri castle as the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The economic foundation of the Kingdom was strengthened by commercial trade with mainland Japan and the Ming dynasty, as well as the Southeast Asian region.

On the other hand, the domestic situation was rather unsecure, as the succession problem led to internal fighting in 1453 and domestic revolts broke out in 1458. In addition, large-scale public works such as road construction in 1451 and military expeditions in 1466 weakened the economic base and the political stability of the kingdom, leading to the downfall of the First Shoshi Kingdom in 1469 when Kanamaru took power and called himself King Shouen.

3. The Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom
King Shouen established the Second Shoshi Kingdom, which was supported by a federation of powerful warriors who controlled foreign trade. King Shouen died after seven years of reign over the Kingdom and Shoshin took over in 1477. This was the beginning of 50 years of the "golden age in Ryuku history," as many observers put it later. This period was crucial in laying the firm foundation of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which subsequently lasted for about 400 years.

King Shoshin contributed to the prosperity of the Kingdom in the following ways:

  1. Establishment of a political system with the king in its center and with local tribal heads organized in a ranking system and housed in the capital Shuri.
  2. Establishment of a religious system by organizing local shrine maidens headed by the king's sister.
  3. Frequent visits to the Ming dynasty, and active trade relations with Siam, Malacca, etc.
  4. Promotion of Buddhism by renovating Shuri castle and building temples.

The golden age of the Ryukyu Kingdom was based on these well-managed political and religious systems, and various other measures were also intended to promote the stability of the Kingdom and the welfare of its people.

4. Uniqueness of the Ryukyu Kingdom
When King Shoshin firmly established the centralized Ryukyu nation in 1477, mainland Japan was in turmoil due to civil wars, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia were also subject to instability due to racial struggles.

We need to pay special attention to the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15th century, as Okinawa unified itself, acting strategically in the South China sea as a trading nation, while other nations in Asia were in turmoil and warfare.

The Ryukyu Kingdom tried to be a bridge towards all Asian nations by emphasizing its peace philosophy based on harmony and cooperation, and that was clearly beyond the scope of Japanese history. Instead of regarding Ryukyu just as southern islands in Japan, we should think of it as an independent nation with its unique philosophy and culture flourishing in the history of the Kingdom.

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