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The Ryūkyū Kingdom (Ryukyuan: rūchū-kuku, ryūkyū-ō-koku, liúqiúguó) was an independent kingdom which ruled most of the Ryukyu Islandsmarker from the 15th century to the 19th century. The Kings of Ryūkyū unified Okinawa Islandmarker and extended the kingdom to the Amami Islandsmarker in modern-day Kagoshima Prefecturemarker, and the Sakishima Islandsmarker near Taiwanmarker. 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

In the 14th century, small domains scattered on Okinawa Islandmarker were unified into three principalities: , and . 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 strong militarily, but was economically the weakest of the three. Nanzan comprised the southern portion of the island. Chūzan lay in the center of the island, and was the strongest economically. Its political capital at Shurimarker neighbored the major trade port of Naha and center of traditional Chinese learning, Kumemuramarker. These sites, and Chūzan as a whole, would continue to form the center of the Ryūkyū Kingdom until its abolition.

These three principalities, or tribal federations, led by major chieftains, battled, and Chūzan emerged victorious, and the Chūzan leaders were officially recognized by China as the rightful kings over those of Nanzan and Hokuzan, thus lending great legitimacy to their claims, if not victory outright. 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" from the Ming emperormarker in 1421, becoming known as .

Shō Hashi adopted the Chinese hierarchical court system, built Shuri Castlemarker and the town as his capital, and constructed Naha harbor. In 1469, King Shō Toku 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. Ryūkyū'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. 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.

Golden age of maritime trade

For nearly two hundred years, the Ryūkyū Kingdom would thrive as a key player in maritime trade with Southeast and East Asia. Central to the kingdom's maritime activities was the continuation of the tributary relationship with Ming Dynastymarker China, begun by Chūzan in 1372, and enjoyed by the three Okinawan kingdoms which preceded it. China provided ships for Ryūkyū's maritime trade activities, 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 across the entire region as well, journeying to ports in Korea, China, and Japan, as well as Siam, Malacca, Java, Sumatra, Annam (Vietnam), Pattani, and Palembangmarker, among others in the region.

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 Ryūkyūan 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.

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 Ryūkyū, allowed the kingdom to flourish and prosper for roughly 150 years. 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; the kingdom also suffered from increased maritime competition from Europeans.

Japanese invasion and subordination

The main building of Shuri Castle
Around 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi asked the Ryūkyū Kingdom to aid in his campaign to conquer Korea. If successful, Hideyoshi intended to then move against China. As the Ryūkyū 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 prefecturemarker)—to send an expeditionary force to conquer the Ryūkyūs. The subsequent invasion took place in 1609. Occupation occurred fairly quickly, with a minimum of armed resistance, and King Shō Nei was taken as a prisoner to the Satsuma domain and later to Edo (modern day Tokyo). When he was released two years later, the Ryūkyū Kingdom regained a degree of autonomy; however, the Satsuma domain seized control over some territory of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, notably the Amami-Ōshimamarker island group, which was incorporated into the Satsuma domain and remains a part of Kagoshima prefecture, not Okinawa prefecture, today.

The Ryūkyū Kingdom found itself in a period of "dual subordination" to Japan and China, wherein Ryūkyūan tributary relations were maintained with both the Tokugawa shogunate and the Ming Chinese court. Since Ming China prohibited trade with Japan, the Satsuma domain, with the blessing of the Tokugawa bakufu (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 bakufu and Satsuma han which would use its power and influence, gained in this way, to help overthrow the shogunate in the 1860s.

The Ryūkyūan 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 Ryūkyūs were not truly considered part of Japan, and the Ryūkyūan people not considered Japanese. Though technically under the control of Satsuma, Ryūkyū 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. Ryūkyū was a tributary state of China, and since Japan had no formal diplomatic relations with China, it was essential that Beijing not realize that Ryūkyū 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 Ryūkyū or controlling the policies and laws there. The situation benefited all three parties involved—the Ryūkyū royal government, the Satsuma daimyo, and the shogunate—to make Ryūkyū seem as much a distinctive and foreign country as possible. Japanese were prohibited from visiting Ryūkyū without shogunal permission, and the Ryūkyūans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs. They were even forbidden from acknowledging 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 Ryūkyū to and through Edo. As the only han to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained significantly from Ryūkyū's exoticness, reinforcing that it was an entire separate kingdom.

When Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry sailed to Japan to force Japan to open up trade relations with the United States in the 1850s, he first stopped in the Ryūkyūs, as many Western sailors had before him, and forced the Ryūkyū Kingdom to sign Unequal Treaties opening the Ryūkyūs up to American trade. From there, he continued on to Edo.

Following the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji Japanese government abolished the Ryūkyū Kingdom, formally annexing the islands to Japan as Okinawa Prefecturemarker in 1879. The Amami-Ōshima island group which had been integrated into Satsuma domain became a part of Kagoshima prefecture. King Shō Tai, the last king of the Ryūkyūs, was moved to Tokyo and was made a Marquis (see Kazoku), as were many other Japanese aristocrats, and died there in 1901.

Major events

  • 1372 The first Ming dynastymarker envoy visits Okinawa, which had been divided into three kingdoms, during the Sanzan period. Formal tributary relations with the Chinese Empire begin.
  • 1416 Chūzanmarker, led by Shō Hashi, occupies Nakijin gusukumarker, capital of Hokuzanmarker.
  • 1429 Chūzan occupies Shimajiri Osato gusuku, capital of Nanzanmarker, unifying Okinawamarker Island. Shō Hashi establishes the Kingdom of Ryūkyū, ruling as king with his capital at Shurimarker (now part of modern-day Naha).
  • 1470 Shō En (Kanemaru) establishes the Second Shō Dynasty.
  • 1477 The third king, Shō Shin, ascends to the throne. Golden age of the kingdom.
  • 1609 (April 5) daimyō (Lord) of Satsuma in southern Kyūshūmarker conquers the kingdom. King of Ryūkyū becomes a Japanese vassal.
  • 1624 Lord of Satsuma annexes the Amami Islands.
  • 1846 Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (d. 1870), a British Protestant missionary, arrives in Ryūkyū Kingdom. He establishes the first foreign hospital on the island at the Naminoue Gokoku-jimarker Temple.
  • 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy visits the kingdom. Betteleheim leaves with Perry.
  • 1866 The last official mission from the Qing Empiremarker visits the kingdom.
  • 1874 The last tributary envoy to China is dispatched from Naha.
  • 1879 Japan replaces the Ryūkyū han with Okinawa Prefecturemarker, formally annexing the islands. King is given the title of and removed to Tokyo.

List of Ryūkyū Kings

Lords of Okinawa
Name Kanji Reign Line or Dynasty Notes
Shunten 舜天 1187–1237 Tenson Line
Shunbajunki 舜馬順熈 1238–1248 Tenson Line
Gihon 義本 1249–1259 Tenson Line
Eiso 英祖 1260–1299 Eiso Line
Taisei 大成 1300–1308 Eiso Line
Eiji 英慈 1309–1313 Eiso Line

Kings of Chūzan
Tamagusuku 玉城 1314–1336 Eiso Line
Seii 西威 1337–1354 Eiso Line
Satto 察度 1355–1397 -
Bunei 武寧 1398–1406 -
Shō Shishō 尚思紹 1407–1421 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Hashi 尚巴志 1422–1429 First Shō Dynasty as King of Chūzan

Kings of Ryūkyū
Name Kanji Reign Line or Dynasty Notes
Shō Hashi 尚巴志 1429–1439 First Shō Dynasty as King of Ryūkyū
Shō Chū 尚忠 1440–1442 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Shitatsu 尚思達 1443–1449 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Kinpuku 尚金福 1450–1453 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Taikyū 尚泰久 1454–1460 First Shō Dynasty
Shō Toku 尚徳 1461–1469 First Shō Dynasty
Shō En 尚円 1470–1476 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 1527–1555 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Gen 尚元 1556–1572 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Ei 尚永 1573–1586 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 1621–1640 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Ken 尚賢 1641–1647 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Shitsu 尚質 1648–1668 Second Shō Dynasty
Shō Shōken 向象賢 1666–1673 Sessei (prime minister) first Ryūkyūan historian; lived 1617–1675
Shō Tei 尚貞 1669–1709 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Jing; lived 1645–1709
Shō Eki 尚益 1710–1712 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Ben; lived 1678–1712
Shō Kei 尚敬 1713–1751 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Jing; lived 1700–1751
Sai On 蔡温 1711–1752 State instructor/regent major Ryūkyūan scholar and historian; lived 1682–1761
Shō Boku 尚穆 1752–1795 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Mu; lived 1739–1795
Shō On 尚温 1796–1802 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Wen; lived 1784–1802
Shō Sei 尚成 1803 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Cheng; lived 1800–1803
Shō Kō 尚灝 1804–1828 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Hao; lived 1787–1839
Shō Iku 尚育 1829–1847 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Yu; lived 1813–1847
Shō Tai 尚泰 1848–March 11 1879 Second Shō Dynasty AKA Shang Tai; lived 1843–1901; last Ryūkyū king

See also



  • Matsuda, Mitsugu (2001) The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609–1872: a 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 p., ISBN 4-946539-16-6
  • Smits, Gregory (1999) Visions of Ryukyu: identity and ideology in early-modern thought and politics, Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 213 p., ISBN 0-82482-037-1
  1. Matsuda. p. 16.
  2. Murai. pp. iv–v.
  3. Okamoto, Hiromichi. "Foreign Policy and Maritime Trade in the Early Ming Period Focusing on the Ryukyu Kingdom." Acta Asiatica vol. 95 (2008), p. 35.
  4. Nanzan and Hokuzan also entered into tributary relationships with Ming China, in 1380 and 1383 respectively. (Okamoto, Hiromichi. "Foreign Policy and Maritime Trade in the Early Ming Period: Focusing on the Ryukyu Kingdom." Acta Asiatica vol. 95 (2008), p. 36.
  5. Okamoto, p. 36.
  6. Sakamaki, Shunzō. "Ryukyu and Southeast Asia." Journal of Asian Studies. vol. 23 no. 3 (May 1964), pp. 382–4.
  7. Murai, Shōsuke. "Introduction." Acta Asiatica vol 95 (2008). Tokyo: The Tōhō Gakkai (The Institute of Eastern Culture), p. iv.
  8. Okamoto, p. 53.
  9. Hamashita, Takeshi. Okinawa Nyūmon (沖縄入門, "Introduction to Okinawa"). Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2000, pp. 207–13.

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