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The Ryukyu Islands, also known as the , is a chain of islands in the western Pacificmarker, on the eastern limit of the East China Seamarker and to the southwest of the island of Kyūshūmarker in Japanmarker. From about 1829 until the mid 20th century, they were alternately called Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew, akin to the Mandarin pronunciation Liuqiu. They stretch southwest from the Japanese island of Kyūshūmarker to within of the island of Taiwanmarker.

The islands are administratively divided into the Satsunan Islands to the north, belonging to Kagoshima Prefecturemarker, and Ryūkyū Shotō to the south, belonging to Okinawa Prefecturemarker, Japanmarker. Yoron Islandmarker is the southernmost island of the Satsunan Islands, and Yonagunimarker is the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands.) The largest of the islands is Okinawa Islandmarker.

The islands have a subtropical climate with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very high, and is affected by the rainy season and typhoons.

The archipelago is home to the Ryukyuan languages. The original dialects are native to each island and distinct from one another.



In Japanese, the definition of the , literally meaning "Ryukyu Islands", is somewhat different from the English definition of the word. In Japanese, the term Ryūkyū Shotō is used to refer to the part of the Nansei Islands which is in Okinawa Prefecturemarker (the southern half), as opposed to islands of the same group located in Kagoshima Prefecturemarker (the northern half).

Modern usage of the word in Japanese, however, is usually replaced by the word , which is considered its synonym. When referring to the region in the broad sense, the Nansei Islands are sometimes referred to as , literally "Amami-Okinawa Region", or variations thereof. For example, the Japanese train timetables uses variations of Nansei Shotō, Okinawa, Amami, etc., but completely avoids using the word Ryūkyū.


In English, until well into the late 1800s (Meiji period in Japanmarker), the word "Ryukyu" was spelled Luchu, Loo-choo, or Lewchew. These spellings were based on the Chinese pronunciation of the characters for "Ryukyu", which in Mandarin is Liúqiú.


The Ryukyu Kingdommarker was once an independent kingdom occupying the island chain, from Yonaguni Islandmarker in the southwest to Amami Ōshimamarker in the north. In 1372, it became a tributary state of the Ming Dynastymarker.

In 1609, Shimazu Tadatsune, Lord of Satsuma, invaded the Ryūkyū Kingdom with a fleet of 13 junks and 2,500 samurai, thereby establishing suzerainty over the islands. They faced little opposition from the Ryukyuans, who lacked any significant military capabilities, and who were ordered by King Shō Nei to surrender peacefully rather than suffer the loss of precious lives. After that, the kings of the Ryukyus paid tribute to the Japanese shogun as well as the Chinese emperor.

In 1879, the Meiji government announced the annexation of the Ryukyusmarker. Messengers sent by the Ryukyuan king had knelt outside the Zongli Yamen, the Chinese foreign affairs office in Beijing, for three days, pleading not to be separated from China. China, weakened from internal corruption and colonial occupation, refused the request to send military protection. Instead, China made diplomatic objections and asked former United States President Ulysses S. Grant to arbitrate. Grant decided that Japan's claim to the islands was stronger and ruled in Japan's favor. The claims of the indigenous Ryukyuans to the land were ignored.

In the process of annexation, the Japanese military assassinated Ryukyu politicians and civilians who opposed the takeover. The Ryukyu Kingdom became part of its northern neighbour, the Satsuma han. Later, it became its own prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture, when the prefectural system was adopted nationwide. Compulsory Japanese education was enforced on the Ryukyu children, whereby they were taught Japanese language, culture and identity, while strictly forbidden the use of their native language.

Military activity on the island, before and during World War II, especially the Battle of Okinawa, had a devastating effect on the Okinawan people. A huge loss of civilian life left many feeling that they were being mistreated by both the Japanese and American military. Okinawa remains the poorest prefecture in Japan to this day.

The US was granted control over Ryukyu Islands south of 29°N latitude amongst other Pacific islands, under the San Francisco Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan. US military control over Okinawa began in 1945 with establishment of the Okinawa Advisory Council. This organization eventually became the government of the Ryukyu Islands which existed from 1952 to 1972. Sovereignty was given to Japan in 1972.

Today, there are a number of issues arising from Ryukyuan history. Some Ryukyuans and some Japanese feel that people from the Ryukyus are different from the majority Yamato people. Some natives of the Ryukyus claim that the central government is discriminating against the islanders by allowing so many American soldiers to be stationed on bases in Okinawamarker with a minimal presence on the mainland. Additionally, there is some discussion of secession from Japan.

Many popular singers and musical groups come from the Ryukyus. These include (among many others) the pop groups Begin (ビギン) and Orange Range, singers Namie Amuro and Gackt, as well as the group Da Pump. See also Ryukyuan music.

Historical description of the 'Loo-Choo' islands

An article in the 1878 edition of the 'Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information' described the islands as:
Loo-Choo, Lu-Tchu, or Lieu-Baeu, a group of thirty-six islands stretching from Japan to Formosa, in 20°-27° 40' N. lat., 126" :o'-!29° 5' E. long., and tributary to Japan.
The largest, Tsju San ('middle island') is about 60 miles long and 12 broad; others are Sannan in the S. and Sanbok in the N.
Nawa, the chief port of Tsju San, is open to foreign commerce.
The islands enjoy a magnificent climate, and are highly cultivated and very productive.
Among the productions are tea, rice, sugar, tobacco, camphor, fruits, and silk.
The principal manufactures are cotton, paper, porcelain, and lacquered ware.
The people, who are small, seem a connecting link between the Chinese and Japanese.


The Ryukyuans are known for their longevity. The Okinawa Centenarian Study attributes this phenomenon to a combination of diet, exercise, and lifestyle practices.

Since the latest Japanese invasion in 1879, Japanese has become the main language of public life on the Ryukyus, especially on Uchināmarker (Okinawa), through discriminating policy in school. Younger and middle-aged people tend not to speak a Ryukyuan language as fluently as Japanese, if at all.


Nansei Islands subtropical evergreen forests

The Ryukyu Islands are recognized by ecologists as a distinct subtropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion. The flora and fauna of the islands have much in common with Taiwanmarker, the Philippinesmarker, and Southeast Asia, and are part of the Indomalaya ecozone.

Coral reefs

The coral reefs of the Ryukyus are one of the World Wildlife Fund's Global 200 ecoregions. The reefs are endangered by sedimentation and eutrophication, mostly a result of agriculture, as well as damage from fishing.

Major islands

This list is based on present day Japanese geographic names:

  • For some of the island names above, the suffix -jima, -shima, and -gashima can be interchanged, omitted, or appended. The suffix means "island." In general, the islands are listed from north to south where possible.
  • "Shotō" is replaced with "Islands" in the list except for Ryūkyū Shotō (琉球諸島), since the term "Ryukyu Islands" already exists in English. The Japanese term refers only to the islands that comprise Okinawa Prefecture, while the English term refers to the entire chain of islands between Kyūshūmarker and Taiwanmarker.
  • Ryūkyū Rettō (琉球列島) refers to what was once the territory of the former kingdom, which are the Amami Islands, Okinawa Islands, Miyako Islands, and Yaeyama Islands.

See also


  1. Kerr, George H. (2000). Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing.
  2. Ross, J.M. (editor) (1878). "Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information", Vol. IV, Edinburgh-Scotland, Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, retrieved from Google Books 2009-03-18;

External links

Note: this article incorporates text from the 1878 edition of the Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information, a work in the public domain

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