Ryukyu Kingdom

The Ryukyu Kingdom[lower-alpha 1] was a kingdom in the Ryukyu Islands from 1429 to 1879. It was ruled as a tributary state of imperial Ming China by the Ryukyuan monarchy, who unified Okinawa Island to end the Sanzan period, and extended the kingdom to the Amami Islands and Sakishima Islands. The Ryukyu Kingdom played a central role in the maritime trade networks of medieval East Asia and Southeast Asia despite its small size. The Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal state of the Satsuma Domain of Japan after the invasion of Ryukyu in 1609 but retained de jure independence until it was transformed into the Ryukyu Domain by the Empire of Japan in 1872.[lower-alpha 2] The Ryukyu Kingdom was formally annexed and dissolved by Japan in 1879 to form Okinawa Prefecture, and the Ryukyuan monarchy was integrated into the new Japanese nobility.

Ryukyu Kingdom
Anthem: "Ishinagu nu uta" (石なぐの歌)[1]
Common languagesRyukyuan (native languages), Classical Chinese, Classical Japanese
Ethnic groups
Ryukyuan religion, Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism
King (國王) 
Shō Hashi
Shō Shin
Shō Nei
Shō Tai
Sessei (摂政) 
Shō Shōken
Regent (國師) 
Sai On
LegislatureShuri cabinet (首里王府), Sanshikan (三司官)
5 April 1609
 Reorganized into Ryukyu Domain
 Annexed by Japan
27 March 1879
CurrencyRyukyuan, Chinese, and Japanese mon coins[3]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Empire of Japan
Satsuma Domain
Ryukyu Domain
Today part ofJapan


Origins of the Kingdom

Royal seal of the Ryukyu Kingdom (首里之印)

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 people 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 thirty-six 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.[6] They assisted the Ryukyuans in advancing their technology and diplomatic relations.[7][8][9] On 30 January 1406, the Yongle Emperor expressed horror when the Ryukyuans castrated some of their own children to become eunuchs to serve in the Ming imperial palace. Emperor Yongle said that the boys who were castrated were innocent and did not deserve castration, and he returned them to Ryukyu, and instructed the kingdom not to send eunuchs again.[10]

These three principalities (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 was granted the surname "Shō" (Chinese: ; pinyin: Shàng) by the Ming emperor in 1421, becoming known as Shō Hashi (Chinese: 尚巴志; pinyin: Shàng Bāzhì).

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.[11]

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.[12] While the kingdom's political system was adopted and the authority of Shuri recognized, in the Amami Ōshima Islands, the kingdom's authority over the Sakishima Islands to the south remained for centuries at the level of a tributary-suzerain relationship.[13]

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.[14][15] Central to the kingdom's maritime activities was the continuation of the tributary relationship with Ming dynasty China, begun by Chūzan in 1372,[12][lower-alpha 3] and enjoyed by the three Okinawan kingdoms which followed it. China provided ships for Ryukyu's maritime trade activities,[16] 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.[17]

Seal from Qing China giving authority to the King of Ryukyu to rule.
The main building 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.[17]

The Chinese policy of haijin (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.[18] In the late 16th century, however, the kingdom's commercial prosperity fell into decline. The rise of the wokou threat among other factors led to the gradual loss of Chinese preferential treatment;[19] the kingdom also suffered from increased maritime competition from Portuguese traders.[12]

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, but Satsuma still allowed the Ryukyu Kingdom to find itself in a period of "dual subordination" to Japan and China, wherein Ryukyuan tributary relations were maintained with both the Tokugawa shogunate and the Chinese court.[12]

Occupation occurred fairly quickly, with some fierce fighting, and King Shō Nei was taken prisoner to Kagoshima and later to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). To avoid giving the Qing any reason for military action against Japan, the king was released two years later and the Ryukyu Kingdom regained a degree of autonomy.[20] 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.

The kingdom was described by Hayashi Shihei in Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu, which was published in 1785.[21]

Tributary relations

Ryukyu Tribute Ship Folding Screen (circa 1830)
An 1832 Ryukyuan mission to Edo, Japan; 98 people with a music band and officials.
Traditional Ryukyuan clothes in late period, which were much closer to the Japanese kimono.

In 1655, tribute relations between Ryukyu and Qing dynasty (the China's dynasty that followed Ming after 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.[20]

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 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.[22][23] Ryukyuan missions to Edo for Tokugawa Shōgun.

The Ryukyuan king was a vassal of the Satsuma daimyō, after Shimazu's Ryukyu invasion in 1609, the Satsuma Clan established a governmental office's branch known as Zaibankaiya (在番仮屋) or Ufukaiya (大仮屋) at Shuri in 1628, and became the base of Ryukyu domination for 250 years, until 1872.[24] But the kingdom 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 de jure part of Edo Japan. 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.[22] 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, 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 daimyō, 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, daimyōs 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 entirely separate kingdom.

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.[25] Japan ordered tributary relations to end in 1875 after the tribute mission of 1874 was perceived as a show of submission to China.[26]

Annexation by the Japanese Empire

In 1872, Emperor Meiji unilaterally declared that the kingdom was then Ryukyu Domain.[27][28][29] At the same time, the appearance of independence was maintained for diplomatic reasons with Qing China[30] until the Meiji government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom when the islands were incorporated as Okinawa Prefecture on 27 March 1879.[31] The Amami-Ōshima island group which had been integrated into Satsuma Domain became a part of Kagoshima Prefecture.

Ryukyu people depicted in the Chinese paintings Portraits of Periodical Offering.

The last king of Ryukyu was forced to relocate to Tokyo, and was given a compensating kazoku rank as Marquis Shō Tai.[32][33] Many royalist supporters fled to China.[34] The king's death in 1901 diminished the historic connections with the former kingdom.[35] With the abolition of the aristocracy after World War II, the Sho family continues to live in Tokyo.[36]

Major events

  • 1187 – Shunten becomes King of Okinawa, based at Urasoe Castle.
  • 1272 – Envoys from the Mongol Empire are expelled from Okinawa by King Eiso.
  • 1276 – Mongols are violently driven off the island again.
  • 1372 – 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.[12]
  • 1389 – An envoy from Ryukyu visits the Goryeo Kingdom, resulting in diplomatic ties between the two kingdoms.
  • 1392 – An envoy from Ryukyu visits the Joseon Kingdom.
  • 1416 – Chūzan, led by Shō Hashi, occupies Nakijin Castle, capital of Hokuzan.[37]
  • 1429 – Chūzan occupies Nanzan Castle, capital of Nanzan, unifying Okinawa Island. Shō Hashi moves the capital to Shuri Castle (now part of modern-day Naha).[37]
  • 1458 – Amawari's rebellion against the Kingdom.
  • 1466 – Kikai Island invaded by Ryukyu.
  • 1470 – Shō En (Kanemaru) establishes the Second Shō dynasty.[37]
  • 1477 – Shō Shin, whose rule is called the "Great Days of Chūzan", ascends to the throne.[37] Golden age of the kingdom.
  • 1500 – Sakishima Islands annexed by Ryukyu.
  • 1609 – (5 April) Daimyō (Lord) of Satsuma in southern Kyūshū invades the kingdom. King Shō Nei is captured.[37]
  • 1611 – In accordance with the peace treaty, Satsuma annexes the Amami and Tokara Islands (Satsunan Islands); Kings of Ryukyu become vassals to the daimyō of the Satsuma Domain.
  • 1623 – Completion of Omoro Sōshi.
  • 1650 – Completion of Chūzan Seikan.
  • 1724 – Completion of Chūzan Seifu.
  • 1745 – Completion of Kyūyō.
  • 1846 – Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (d. 1870), a Hungarian Protestant missionary serving with the Loochoo Naval Mission, arrives in Ryukyu Kingdom.[37] He establishes the first foreign hospital on the island at the Naminoue Gokoku-ji Temple.
  • 1852 – Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the US Navy visits the kingdom and establishes a coaling station in Naha.[37]
  • 1854 – Perry returns to Okinawa to sign the Loochoo Compact with the Ryukyuan government.[38] Bettelheim leaves with Perry.
  • 1866 – The last official mission from the Qing Empire visits the kingdom.
  • 1872 – Emperor Meiji unilaterally declares King Shō Tai as the "Domain Head of Ryukyu Domain".
  • 1874 – 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.
  • 1879 – Japan abolishes Ryukyu Domain and declares the creation of Okinawa Prefecture, formally annexing the islands.[37] Shō Tai is forced to abdicate, but is granted the rank of marquis (侯爵, kōshaku) within the Meiji peerage system.[32]

List of Ryukyuan kings

Kings of Ryukyu Islands
NameChinese charactersReignDynastyNotes
Shunten舜天1187–1237Shunten dynasty
Shunbajunki舜馬順熈1238–1248Shunten dynasty
Gihon義本1249–1259Shunten dynasty
Eiso英祖1260–1299Eiso dynasty
Taisei大成1300–1308Eiso dynasty
Eiji英慈1309–1313Eiso dynasty
Kings of Chūzan
Tamagusuku玉城1314–1336Eiso dynasty
Seii西威1337–1354Eiso dynasty
Satto察度1355–1397Satto dynasty
Bunei武寧1398–1406Satto dynasty
Shō Shishō尚思紹1407–1421First Shō dynasty
Shō Hashi尚巴志1422–1429First Shō dynastyas King of Chūzan
Kings of Ryukyu
NameChinese charactersReignLine or dynastyNotes
Shō Hashi尚巴志1429–1439First Shō dynastyas King of Ryukyu
Shō Chū尚忠1440–1442First Shō dynasty
Shō Shitatsu尚思達1443–1449First Shō dynasty
Shō Kinpuku尚金福1450–1453First Shō dynasty
Shō Taikyū尚泰久1454–1460First Shō dynasty
Shō Toku尚徳1461–1469First Shō dynasty
Shō En尚圓1470–1476Second Shō dynastya.k.a. Kanemaru Uchima
Shō Sen'i尚宣威1477Second Shō dynasty
Shō Shin尚真1477–1526Second Shō dynasty
Shō Sei尚清1527–1555Second Shō dynasty
Shō Gen尚元1556–1572Second Shō dynasty
Shō Ei尚永1573–1586Second Shō dynasty
Shō Nei尚寧1587–1620Second Shō dynastyruled during Satsuma invasion; first king to be Satsuma vassal
Shō Hō尚豊1621–1640Second Shō dynasty
Shō Ken尚賢1641–1647Second Shō dynasty
Shō Shitsu尚質1648–1668Second Shō dynasty
Shō Tei尚貞1669–1709Second Shō dynasty
Shō Eki尚益1710–1712Second Shō dynasty
Shō Kei尚敬1713–1751Second Shō dynasty
Shō Boku尚穆1752–1795Second Shō dynasty
Shō On尚温1796–1802Second Shō dynasty
Shō Sei (r. 1803)尚成1803Second Shō dynasty
Shō Kō尚灝1804–1828Second Shō dynasty
Shō Iku尚育1829–1847Second Shō dynasty
Shō Tai尚泰1848 – 11 March 1879Second Shō dynastylast King of Ryukyu (then Japanese Marquis 18841901)

See also

Location of the Ryukyu Islands
Hokuzan, Chūzan, Nanzan


  1. Although the Ryukyuan king was a vassal of the Satsuma Domain, the Ryukyu Kingdom was not considered part of any Han due to trade relations with China.
  2. Nanzan and Hokuzan also entered into tributary relationships with Ming China, in 1380 and 1383 respectively.[16]



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  14. Okamoto 2008, p. 35.
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  20. Kang 2010, p. 81
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