Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sho Nei - The Ill-Fated King

Sho Nei rose to the throne in 1589 at the age of 24.  He was the great grandson of Sho Shin, and the adopted son-in-law of Sho Ei.  He would unfortunately be the last king to rule a truly independent Ryukyu Kingdom,  due to events that would transpire in Japan and his response to those events.

In Japan, meanwhile, Hideyoshi had taken power, and was thankful to those who helped him to do so after Nobunaga’s assassination.  One of those people who helped him was Kami Korenori, who in return for his help asked to be given a seaport in the Japan Sea.  Instead he was given Ryukyu.

Hideyoshi did this for several reasons. He was growing more concerned about the European threat from the south. In particular, he knew that the Spanish wanted to conquer all of China, Ryukyu, Japan and Java.  The Spanish had already built two forts and a mission in northern Formosa (Taiwan).  By assigning the Ryukyu Islands to Kami, he knew he would have a trusted ally defending him from any incursions coming from the south.

Hideyoshi Invades Korea

 In 1591, Kami was preparing to go take control of his "gift" of the Ryukyus, but Hideyoshi had made plans to invade Korea,  to be followed by invasion of China.  He called on Kami to serve his cause. 

Kami, being loyal to Hideyoshi, did not want Okinawa to tell China what was being plotted against them, so he ordered Okinawa to suspend all trade with China.  Okinawa, on the other hand, had a long a fruitful trade history with China and considered them allies.  So Sho Nei did not obey this order. 

Hideyoshi wanted all parts of his domain to support his Korean invasion plans, including Okinawa.  On the other hand, Lord Shimazu, the ruler of Satsuma, did not want Okinawa to raise an army and thereby pose a threat to his southern flank. So he convinced Hideyoshi that the Ryukyu Kingdom should only contribute material, not weapons or men.  Hideyoshi agreed to this. 

Sho Nei Refuses to Provide Assistance to Hideyoshi

In 1591 Sho Nei was instructed by Lord Shimazu to have Ryukyu provide enough supplies for 7,000 men for 10 months, and to deliver it in one year, as their contribution to the Korean invasion. 
The Shuri government, however, did not want to get involved at all in a war with Korea, nor did they want to offend China, their long time trading partner.

Sho Nei replied to Shimazu that Okinawa was too poor to fulfill such a large request.  Meanwhile he sent word to China about what was going on and pleaded for help, but none came.

The Korean invasion took place, and Hideyoshi planned to investigate why Ryukyu did not provide their support as ordered.  But events of the invasion distracted him from following up on that investigation, to Okinawa's benefit.

In 1598 Hideyoshi died, and so did his struggle with Korea.  Also because of his death, a power struggle broke out yet again in Japan over who would rule that empire.

Tokugawa Becomes Ruler of All Japan

The matter of who was to control Japan was decided decisively in 1600 at the famous battle of Sekigahara, where Ieyasu Tokugawa’s forces soundly defeated Hideyoshi’s men.   Tokugawa became Shogun of Japan in 1603, and moved the capital to Edo (current day Tokyo), where his family would rule Japan for nearly 300 years, until the Meiji Restoration returned power to the Emperor.

Under Tokugawa, feudal territories were redistributed based on whose side one fought on during the civil war.  Lords, or Daimyo were divided into two classes:  those who were loyal, called fudai daimyo, and those who had been on the opposing side, called outside daimyo, or tozama daimyo.

The Satsuma clan had sided with Hideyoshi and was therefore an outside daimyo.  Their leader was ordered to move back to Kyushu and to abdicate his title and become a priest.  His son Tadatsune Shimazu was made the new daimyo in 1602.

In 1603, the new Lord Shimazu went to Edo and paid his respects to the new Shogun. In return, Tokogawa confirmed him in Shimazu’s hereditary titles, including the title of Lord of the Twelve Southern Islands (the Ryukyu Islands).  Tokugawa also gave him the name Iehisa.

Sho Nei Refuses to Pay Respects to Tokugawa

Following Iehisa Shimazu's confirmation, he sent an envoy to Shuri and told  Sho Nei that Ryukyu should also submit to Tokugawa and pay their respects to the new Shogun.

In Shuri, competition had been building in the royal circles over the years between groups who were pro-Chinese and groups who were pro-Japanese regarding matters of both culture and politics.

A pro-Chinese advisor to Sho Nei from Kume Village named Jana Teido Oyakata advised Sho Nei to ignore Satsuma’s requests.  Sho Nei followed his advice, and refused to send a tribute to Edo.  This proved to be a very bad idea.

Upon hearing of Sho Nei's refusal, Lord Shimazu requested permission from Tokugawa to “chastise” Okinawa for its rudeness in not paying its due respects to the new Shogun.  In 1606 his request was granted.  He began making plans for an invasion of the Ryukyu Islands.

In February of 1609, the attack on the Ryukyu Kingdom by Lord Shimazu's samurai forces commenced.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Last of the Truly Independent Okinawan Kings – Sho Gen and Sho Ei

The Ryukyu kingdom flourished under the Second Sho Dynasty. Its royal family led Okinawa to blossom in culture and trade, making it an international crossroads for Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

Part of this was due to the fact that China was not interested in anything more than trade with Okinawa, and Japan was too engulfed in civil wars to have time to think about expanding to the south.  That would change once Japan became unified.

The last three Okinawan kings to rule with complete independence from Japan were Sho Gen, Sho Ei, and – for the first part of this reign – Sho Nei.  It would be during Sho Nei’s monarchy that Japan would finally become unified and decide to show its muscle toward Okinawa.

Sho Gen - The Mute King and the Sanshikan

After Sho Sei passed away, his mute son Sho Gen took the throne at the age of 29.  Being unable to speak, it was a very difficult task for him to run the kingdom, and this is where the Sanshikan or “Council of Three” emerged.

The Sanshikan was established in 1556 when Sho Gen came to the throne in order to help him rule the kingdom.  However, the council developed into an established and powerful government organization in its own right. They came to have great influence and established themselves as a strong part of the government operation.  Even after Sho Gen’s death in 1571, the Sanshikan remained active, and continued to act alongside all the kings that followed in the management of Ryukyu’s government.

Sho Gen ruled for 16 years.  During this time the trends around the region that began in Sho Sei’s reign continued, but the Ryukyu kingdom carried on in cultural splendor fairly independently.  This was primarily due to the fact that Japan was still preoccupied in internal chaos with civil war upon civil war, as different factions fought for control of all Japan. 

Ominous things for Okinawa were brewing however.   During Sho Gen’s rule of Okinawa, a man named Oda Nobunaga became Japan’s de facto shogun, and his right hand man was Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Sho Ei

Sho Ei, the second son of Sho Gen, took the throne in 1571 after his father died at the age of 44.  Sho Ei was only 13 years old at that time.  No doubt the Sanshikan played a strong role in guiding him and his decisions, especially in his early years as king.

During Sho Ei’s reign, the Japanese Daimyo who controlled Amami Island was in a conflict at his home in Satsuma.  Sho Ei seized the opportunity and sent a military force to Amami to retake the island which Okinawa had lost control over some 20 years ago under Sho Sei.  They were successful in doing so.

In 1577, Oda Nobunaga, de facto shogun of Japan, was assassinated.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s loyal lieutenant, hunted down and killed Nobunanga’s assassin and asserted himself as the de-facto shogun of Japan.  He now held great power in Japan, and intended to use it.

Sho Ei died in 1588 at the young age of 30.

Sho Ei's successor, King Sho Nei, would suffer the full fury of a soon to be unified Japan.  His miscalculation of events that were happening in Japan would soon spell disaster for the Ryukyu Kingdom and for him personally.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sho Sei – 4th King of the Second Sho Dynasty

Following the death of Sho Shin in 1526, his fifth son Sho Sei became king at age 29.  He ruled for 31 years.

While the Ryukyu kingdom was still prosperous, the peak years under Sho Shin had faded, and Sho Sei would find himself fighting battles on several fronts to maintain that prosperity.

Pirates Threaten Naha

The wako, or Japanese pirates, were becoming a bigger and bigger problem, ransacking coastal towns and seaports and stealing whatever they could get their hands on.  They operated all along the coastlines of the area, including China, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Formosa, and eventually Okinawa.

Before 1500, Okinawa was not attacked by pirates, but raids began after 1500.  The wako began attacking ships leaving and entering Naha harbor, and also made raids on villages along the Okinawan shoreline.

In 1527, Naha was under threat of a serious attack from pirates.  Pirate ships typically held 200 to 300 men, and sometimes they would band together to make total manpower strength in the thousands – enough to invade and control a port town.

Responding to the threat, Sho Sei mobilized the villages and issued weapons from storage for every man to prepare to put up a defense.  He also posted watchmen on both the north and south of Naha as lookouts.  In this way, he held off the pirate threat to Okinawa as best he could.

Discord in the South and North Ryukyus

 In 1530, the Nakasone family clan, which had ruled Miyako since the time when Sho Shin sent forces to conquer the island in 1500, was ousted by Meguro Mori Toyomioya, who was shortly thereafter overthrown by Yonaha Sedo Toyomioya. The stability that the Nakasone family had provided in the southern islands was gone.  Sho Sei decided to end local rule there and sent in a magistrate from Shuri to take direct control of the island.

Several years later, in 1537, a rebellion occurred on Amami Oshima Island to the north, and again Sho Sei sent forces to suppress it, which he was able to do.  However, in 1550 he lost control of Amami again, and it would take 20 years to get it back.

More Pirate Troubles – And Firearms Enter the Picture

In a major change in modes of warfare, firearms entered Japan for the first time via an Okinawan trading depot on Tanegashima, brought in by the Portuguese.  This occurred in 1542. 

Sword smiths in the southern part of Japan quickly learned how to reproduce these guns, called arquebuses by the Europeans, but colloquially referred to as "Tanegashima" by the Japanese.  Within a few years they were being produced in large quantities and used by military forces.

By around 1552, the wako pirates were using them in their raids on ports and villages.

The pirate situation around Okinawa in general and Naha in particular was getting worse.  It was so much worse that Sho Sei had two permanent forts constructed on either side of the entrance to Naha harbor, called Yara and Miei.  Construction began in 1551 and was completed in 1553.

Okinawan Culture Continues to Flourish

Despite the military troubles abroad, this was also a time of great culture and refinement for Okinawa.  It was in 1532 that the famous Omoro Soshi was started.  Finished in 1623, it is a 22-volume collection of the ancient poems and songs of different villages and islands that had been passed down orally for generations.  It was a tremendous accomplishment of the royal dynasty for preserving old traditions and culture of Okinawa.

It was based on the Omoro Soshi that a University of Hawaii professor named Mitsugu Sakihara developed a picture of Okinawan life and times in the days of before recorded language arrived.  He wrote a book about his findings entitled “A Brief History of Early Okinawa Based on the Omoro Soshi.”

The Ming China Government Formally Recognizes Okinawan Decorum

 The royal court also continued to host visiting dignitaries in grand style.  In fact, the Ming Chinese government was so impressed with Okinawa’s diligence in following Chinese protocols that in 1554 they presented King Sho Sei with a large tablet called the Shurei No Kuni  or “Land of Propriety”. 

The king was so proud of this honor that he placed the tablet at the entrance Gate of Shuri Castle for all to see.  The name of the gate is "Shureimon."

The original was destroyed in World War II but was reconstructed in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  It was the first part of Shuri Castle to be reconstructed.  When you visit Shuri Castle today you pass through this gate and can see the tablet. 

Shureimon and the Shuri No Kuni Tablet.  Source: the author

 Sho Sei died two years later in 1556 at age 59, passing the throne to Sho Gen, the mute king.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Okinawa and the Japanese Pirates - The "Wako"

Acts of piracy along the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and eventually Okinawan coastlines can be traced back to the first century AD.  The incidents and frequency of piracy throughout history in this region basically coincided with periods when Korea and China closed their ports to foreign trade.

Wako Origins

Early pirates were men from Kyushu, Japan and the Inland Sea. They often worked for powerful feudal Japanese leaders. They took shelter from the ruling authorities in defensible inlets in southern Japan.  From there they sailed to Korea, China and Southeast Asia to attack or pillage.  The Chinese called them wako, meaning "Japanese pirates." 

From 1402 to 1523, relations between Ming China and Japan were fairly smooth. However starting in the early 1500’s, tensions began to build.  The Shogun of Japan at the time was too weak to control Japan’s ports and its pirate activities.

Okinawa Threatened

Before 1500, Okinawa was not attacked by pirates, but raids increased after 1500.  The wako began attacking ships as they were leaving and entering Naha harbor. They also made raids on villages along the Okinawan shoreline.

In 1523, Japanese tribute missions clashed in the Chinese port of Ningpo, and ended up burning down the town.  This infuriated the Chinese, who banned foreign trade with Japan.  However, the ban only led to more illicit trade between coastal Chinese towns and the Japanese.
In 1527, Naha was under threat of a serious attack from pirates.  The average pirate ships typically held 200 to 300 men, and sometimes they would band together to make total manpower strength in the thousands – enough to invade and control a port town.

Responding to the threat against Naha, King Sho Sei mobilized all the villages and issued weapons from storage for every man to prepare to put up a defense.  He also posted watchmen on both the north and south of Naha as lookouts.  In this way he successfully held off the wako.

Women’s Hand Tattoos and Pirate Legends

Up until the early 1900’s Okinawan women had a tradition of putting tattoos on the backs of their hands.  This was typically done when girls came of age, or were about to be married.  They were considered very beautiful and highly prized by Okinawans, and many different designs developed.  But the Japanese did not like tattoos and thought they were ugly and uncivilized.

Many theories abound about how the hand tattoo tradition started in Okinawa, but the one I find most fascinating relates to the Japanese and the wako.

According to this legend, pirates in the 1500’s would raid coastal villages and ports to take whatever they could find that was valuable and could be traded.  This included capturing girls and young women to sell into prostitution back in Japan. 
As this legend goes, because the Okinawan ladies knew that Japanese men hated tattoos, they started placing tattoos on the back of their hands so that they would not be desired by the pirates who came to kidnap them and sell them to pleasure houses in Japan.

Okinawan Woman's Hand Tattoos Source: Okinawa


Wako Are Not Just Japanese Anymore

 By 1530, the civil war in Japan was fully underway, and Japan’s control of its ports was extremely weak.  Japan had very poor relations with China.  Piracy went up as result.

From the 1530’s to the 1540’s Chinese merchants, frustrated with the ban on trade and travel, set up bases in Kyushu to sell expensive Chinese silks for silver.  This activity violated China’s bans on trade.  Even though these illegal traders were now a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, the Chinese government still referred to them all as wako.

From 1545 to 1563 piracy grew significantly.  There were continuous raids along all coastlines.  Even Nanjing was attacked.   Raiding parties varied in size from small groups of men, to as large as 4,000 to 5,000 men.  Pirate activity peaked in 1555.

Due to food shortages in Japan, attacks on Korean ports and towns focused on granaries.  Pirate raids on China went after silk, copper, and human captives who were either sold into slavery or prostitution, or held for ransom.
Over time, attacks spread to south China and beyond.  More and more people who were thieves and violent criminals joined the wako ranks, not just traders and smugglers.

Wako Pirate Raids    Source: Wikipedia

Naha Installs Permanent Harbor Defenses 

The pirate situation was getting so bad that Sho Sei had two forts built on either side of the entrance to Naha harbor, called Yarazamori and Miei.  Construction began in 1551 and was completed in 1553.  These fortresses had cannons, and an iron chain that linked them and stretched across the entrance to the harbor to prevent entry of hostile ships.

Firearms Enter the Picture

By the early 1550's, the pirates were now routinely using arquebuses in their raiding parties.  An arquebus is a smooth-bore muzzle-loading firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries.  It is a forerunner of the musket. 

Arquebuses were first introduced to Japan in about 1542 via an Okinawan trading depot on Tanegashima Island near southern Kyushu, brought in by the Portuguese from Europe.    Until modern times, guns in Japan were often referred to as simply "Tanegashima."

Japanese Arquebuses     Source: Wikipedia

In order to deal with the piracy problem, in 1557 the Chinese instituted a ban on overseas trade and travel.  Only countries with tributary relations, such as Okinawa, were allowed to trade, and only at certain designated ports.
Pirate attacks expanded on China, the Inland Sea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. 

Piracy Fades Away

 In 1567 the Ming Court lifted its ban on trade. This allowed many wako to now become "legitimate businessmen" in China’s eyes.  Those who still were involved in illicit trade moved their base camps from Kyushu to either Taiwan or the Philippines.

In 1588, Hideyoshi banned piracy  in Japanese ports, helping to reduce the threat.  Later, Tokugawa put in place stricter controls to stem the problem.

By 1700, most wako activity was gone.  This was due not only to better control of Japan’s ports, but also due to an increased presence of European traders.

References for this article:
George Kerr  "Okinawa: The History of an Island People" revised edition

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sho Shin and Okinawan Trade

Sho Shin became king in 1477 at the young age of 13. The son of Sho En, he was appointed king after a brief period where another held the throne for six months before abdicating, thereby making Sho Shin the third king of the second Sho dynasty.  He began a 100 year period of creative activity for Okinawa. Over his long tenure of 50 years as King he brought many positive changes to Okinawa.  See my previous posts on his administrative changes and royal court ranking system.

Not only did he support and nourish culture and the arts, he also used his military powers to keep the entire island chain under firm control, especially the outer islands to the south and north of Okinawa Island.

Taking control of the North and South Islands

In 1486, the Shuri government established an outpost on Kikai Island to the north to oversee and protect their trade routes to the north – to Japan and Korea.  In the same year, Yaeyama and the southern islands, which had been paying tribute to Okinawa since as far back as 1390 began a rebellion against Shuri control.  The southern islands were an important part of Shuri’s trade route to the south – China, the Indies, and Southeast Asia.

The Yaeyama resistance was led by their aji Oyake Akahachi.  Yonaguni Island also resisted, led by a ruler named Unten.  The island of Miyako was led by the Nakasone family.

Source:  Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Although the Yaeyama islands are larger in physical size than Miyako, and with greater resources, the dominant power in the south was Miyako Island.  Why this is so is not clear, although Georg Kerr speculated that mountainous terrain and frequent outbreaks of Malaria as well as snake infestations may have been factors, while Miyako is flat and dry, thus a more stable environment for survival. Still, the reasons are not totally clear.

Miyako and Yaeyama were strong rivals and competed fiercely for trade with Okinawa Island.

In 1500, Nakasone learned that Akahachi on Yaeyama was planning to invade Miyako and take over.  Nakasone counterattacked in a surprise move and overwhelmed Akahachi’s forces.  He also conquered Yonaguni Island and took Unten’s daughter as hostage.

After he returned home to Miyako, he was surprised to find himself facing a force of 3,000 men sent by Sho Shin from Okinawa Island to take control of the southern islands.  He was vastly outnumbered.  Nakasone quickly negotiated a surrender which saved the residents of Miyako from ruin.  He surrendered to the Shuri forces, and surrendered his newly conquered territories as well.  Thus Sho Shin regained control of the southern islands.

For his “cooperation” Nakasone was recognized as Chieftain of Miyako. 

Trade Route Troubles – Europeans and Pirates

Because of the Shuri and Naha system that catered to relocating and supporting all royal families in those towns,  the local Okinawan economy was not able to keep up with the large demands for resources that this created.  Okinawa was therefore heavily dependent on foreign trade to keep up the wealth and standards of the aji in order to maintain the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.

At the time of Sho Shin’s reign, the Okinawan trade routes extended south all the way to the Indies and Southeast Asia.  They traded with Muslims from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Persians (Iranians), Indians, Turks, Philippinos, Cambodians, and Malaysians, among other countries.

At the time, Okinawans traded gold, copper, weapons of all kinds, fans, paper, silks, porcelains, grains and vegetables.  Their wares had a reputation for being high quality goods from China, japan and Korea.  Some called Okinawa the Milan of China.  The Okinawans in return would sell to the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans goods from the south, such as clothes, fishing nets, and wines.

Okinawa’s first contact with Europeans occurred in 1511 in Southeast Asia.  Primarily Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English, these sailors competed strongly with Okinawa. This competition slowly but surely cut into Okinawa’s trade routes to the south over time.

One account described in George Kerr’s book "Okinawa: the History of an Island People", gives a description of Okinawans from the eyes of Portuguese adventurers at the time. 
"... the Malacca people say that they are better men, and richer and more eminent merchants than the Chins [Chinese].  Of these folk we as yet know but little...."
"... they are men of very reserved speech, and do not give anyone an account of their native affairs...."
"...the men are fair; their dress is like a cloak without a hood; they carry long swords after the fashion of Turkish cimetars, but somewhat more narrow; they also carry daggers  of two palms' length; they are daring men and feared in this land [of Malacca (Malaysia)].  When they arrive at port, the do not bring out their merchandise all at once, but little by little; they speak truthfully, and will have the truth spoken to them. If any merchant in Malacca broke his word, they  would immediately take him prisoner.  they strive to dispatch their business and get away quickly, for they are not the men to like going away from their own land. They set out for Malacca in the month of January, and begin their return journey in August or September...."

The Portuguese were extremely curious about all the Okinawan goods, especially all the gold that the Okinawans traded.  In 1517 the Portuguese launched an expedition to find this mysterious Ryukyu and look for all the gold they seem to have.  The mission got as far as Fukien, China, before it was abandoned.

Japanese Pirates - wako

In addition to losing trade due to European competition to the south, Japanese pirates, or wako, were also becoming a big problem, raiding coastal villages and attacking seaports, where they looted and pillaged, as well as taking human captives to sell into slavery or prostitution.

The loss of trade due to Europeans and pirates would come to be an even bigger problem under the next king, Sho Sei.

Sho Shin ruled over what would be the most prosperous times for Okinawa.  Despite this prosperity, things would continue to become more difficult for the next several generations of kings to follow.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sho Shin’s Royal Court Ranking System

One of the changes that Sho Shin made to solidify his rule over the Ryukyu Islands was to create a system of ranks and hierarchy among the royalty and administration.  He did this as part of his effort to convert the island to a hereditary-based transfer of power rather than a brute force system.  This ranking system, along with control of personal weapons, and relocation of the aji to Shuri, solidified his family control and pacified the country from further feudal conflicts.  See my last post for more details.

The class ranking system used rigorous formal dress codes to identify hierarchy.  It was based on kimonos, hairpins, hats and sashes.  I have attempted to describe this system as best I can based on the book “Okinawan Customs: Yesterday and Today” by Douglas G. Haring along with a little help from this Wikipedia website.

All told, the Ryukyu system had eleven classes of individuals.

The King

At the top of the pecking order, the king wore a black silk gauze hat with red strings and a hairpin with a dragon’s head carved into the end.  This robe was decorated in dragon cloud patterns, and his sash was adorned with rhinoceros horned white jewels.  Style was of the Ming dynasty.

Princes and the Aji

Next in line, the prince ranks were made up of the King’s brothers and sisters.  The Aji were the lords of the various territories around the island.  Princes ranked higher than Aji.  They both wore colorful weave hats, and gold hairpins. Their robes were light green and the sashes were brocade.


The top level of the Shizoku, or scholar officials, this rank represented the supreme commanders below the Aji. These men wore purple twill hats and gold hairpins. They had deep blue robes with yellow sashes in dragon pattern.


The Pechin ranks were the military officers for the Ryukyu kingdom.  Sometimes called samurai, they were not like the mainland Japanese samurai.  The Ryukyu Pechin were more similar to the scholar-warriors in Chinese culture.

The Pechin were identified by three designations with five ranks:
  • Pechin – the upper level officers
  • Satunushi Pechin – the middle level officers
  • Chikudun Pechin – the lower level officers. 
All wore silver hairpins and yellow hats. Robes were the same deep blue as the Oyakata.  Sash color changed from high to low rank going from yellow dragon pattern, to red, to woven colored threads.

Pages and Lower Officials

The bottom ranks of the Shizoku were the pages.  They were chiefly the sons and brothers of Oyakata and Pechin level persons. 
Upper pages were divided into:
  • Satunushi - higher rank
  • Waka Satunushi - lower rank
Lower level pages were divided into:
  • Chikudun
  • Chikudun Zashiki - lower level

Their dress was the same as the Pechin except for their hats, which were either scarlet (higher rank) or red silk (lower rank).


The bulk of the population were the common people, called Heimin or Niya.  They had no sash or robe designations, and did not wear zori, or sandals for their feet.  They went everywhere barefoot.  Their hairpins were either copper, lead or brass.  Only certain leaders had special headwear.

Village Masters and Community Chiefs wore light green hats. Head Farmers wore blue hats.

Nobles vs. Commoners

The line between nobles and commoners involved several differences in behavior and way of life.

Nobles wore zori, or sandals, while commoners went barefoot.  Nobles used umbrellas and fans, and when moving from place to place, were either carried on bamboo sedans by servants, or they rode on horseback.

Noblemen grew long mustaches and beards.  Commoners were forbidden to grow long facial hair.

With hard work a commoner could rise to the rank of Chikudun status.  If he performed exceptionally well, he could rise as high as Chikudun Pechin rank.

Built to Last

The class system instituted by Sho Shin in the early 1500's survived essentially unchanged until the Meiji Restoration of 1879 brought an end to the Ryukyu kingdom.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sho Shin – King of Ryukyu’s Golden Era

Sho Shin, the son of Sho En, became king of Ryukyu at the young age of 13, shortly after his father died.  He was supported by his powerful mother, and his sister who was chief noro priestess of the Shuri court.  See my last post on Sho Shin’s pathway to succession to power.

Sho Shin instituted a number of changes over the course of his 50 year reign as king to solidify his family’s position and avert future challenges to their authority.  He built on the earlier efforts of his father to cement their family as the definitive ruling class of Ryukyu.

Prior to the ascendance of Sho En, the old system of authority in Okinawa was based on wealth and power. Those factors were in turn based on the division of land, and rewards for services performed for the current king. The current king was the most powerful of the local lords, or aji chieftains, at the time.  The selection of a new king was always a power struggle.

By the time of Sho Shin, most aji lived in castles (gusuku) within their inherited estates.  Each aji had his own military force, officers, servants, and peasants to work the fields.  Travel was restricted and generally required permission of the aji for someone to leave his territory.

In this system, each aji was a potential rival, and a potential contender for the throne. 

For these reasons Sho Shin took steps to reduce the authority and power of the local aji, and institutionalize his family’s power.  These steps included:
  • Control of weapons
  • Establishment of a social and cultural ranking system
  • Relocation of the aji to Shuri

Weapons Control

Perhaps the most misunderstood edict of Sho Shin by modern day historians is his edict restricting private ownership of swords.  Unlike some have claimed, he did not ban all weapons from Okinawa.  Instead, he banned the carrying of swords in public and consolidated storage of weapons for the royal court in warehouses to be used only for official purposes to defend the country.  The strategy of restricting the carrying of personal weapons such as swords was one of the steps to reduce aji power.  Sho Shin’s edict precedes the “sword edicts” of Toyotomi Hideoyoshi in 1586 in Japan.

The royal family did not wear swords, as was the case in Japan at the time.  Several factors were involved.  First, the 50-year reign of Sho Shin continually reduced the opportunities for their use.  Second, Okinawa did not produce iron, so the ability to make swords was limited in comparison to Japan. Third, Sho Shin established his lineage as a hereditary class, not one based on military might as other monarchs had done.

Meanwhile. Policemen and others developed techniques to use common articles as weapons, such as sickles, boat oars, farming tools, wooden staffs, and so on.  The development of these weapons are referred to as “kobudo”.   The unarmed martial arts of Okinawa, which are now known as karate, also received more emphasis.

Establishment of social and administrative rank system

The royal family and other members of nobility systematized their power and authority by instituting a series of ranks and titles. Each rank was distinguished by a code of dress, hats, sashes and hairpins.  The use of ornamental hairpins became a standard required part of dress after 1509. 

 A hierarchy of officers of administration was created, based at Shuri castle, called the Shuri-Ofu or Shuri Royal Court.  Furthermore, a local administrative system was set up that created district offices in each of the aji’s territories, staffed with representatives from the central Shuri office.   This was yet another tactic to keep an eye on what was happening in places outside of the Shuri area and head off any potential challenges to the king.

Relocation of Aji to Shuri

In his edict of 1526, Sho Shin decreed that all aji must move from their castle estates to a residence near Shuri castle.  They were to leave a chief administrator (aji-okita) to run their affairs at their local territories.  This change predates the same edict decreed in Japan by none other than Tokugawa Iemistu, when he ordered his feudal lords to relocate to Edo, or modern day Tokyo.

The effect of this change was to separate the aji from his home turf and loyalists.  It reduced their chances to scheme in private about any possible attacks on the king.  Ironically, such scheming is how Sho Shin’sfather was able to take power from Sho Toku and create the second Sho Dynasty.

It also had the effect of weakening aji ties to their inherited lands, and promoting greater loyalty to Shuri and the royal family.  Furthermore, Sho Shin encouraged intermarriage among different clans from different parts of the island to diffuse and loosen ties to a particular region.  He also decreed that the very old custom of ritual suicide, and self-sacrifice was henceforth banned.  This break in tradition was intended to weaken the loyalty of faithful servants who would seek to follow their masters in death. 

The New System Stimulated the Local Economy

All the movement of the aji to Shuri stimulated much construction to handle them and their needs.  Likewise, it had the effect of stimulating each aji’s local economy in order that it could continue to support his lifestyle at Shuri.

Separate districts were set up in Shuri for the aji from the North, Central and South territories to relocate.  This was done to minimize the chances for old rivalries to flare up.  Life in these Shuri residences was luxurious and each aji was to support his own lifestyle with proceeds from the taxed profits of his respective estate.  Court life was anything but harsh and painful.

Okinawans began to manufacture uniquely Okinawan style luxury items, using gold, silver, lacquer, and silk materials. These were to not only support the courtly lifestyle of the aji and royal court, but also to trade on the foreign markets.

 The performing arts, dance and music also flourished and grew as Shuri placed increasing demands on those things that would promote a genteel and cultured atmosphere.

Sho Shin’s  Lasting Legacy

These social and administrative reforms of Sho Shin withstood the test of time.  Sho Shin was able to accomplish what no Ryukyu leader prior to him had been able to do – to secure the permanent position of his family as the permanent royal line of succession.

No other family would take the Ryukyu throne for the remainder of the Ryukyu kingdom’s lifetime.  Even the Japanese Satsuma clan invaded and took control of Okinawa did not remove these systems.

The government of Ryukyu would not change again until  the Meiji restoration, when the Japanese emperor dissolved the royal family and samurai classes altogether.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Kanemaro – the man who became Sho En, first king of the Second Sho Dynasty

Before he became king of the second Sho Dynasty and took the name Sho En,  Kanemaro had an interesting life story, according to George Kerr in his book on Okinawa.

Early Years of Struggle

Born on Iheya Island, Kanemaro was the son of a farmer.  When he was 20 years old, he lost both his parents, we don’t know how.  That left him to take care of his uncle, aunt, older sister, and young brother.  He married a local girl.

He was a very skilled farmer and consistently had better crop yields than his neighbors.  However, after a while suspicions arose about his methods.  One year during a drought, he was accused of stealing water from others to water his fields.  This was a crime punishable by death.  Afraid for his life, one night he abandoned his family and fled Iheya to avoid his certain punishment. He went to Ginama, which is at the northern end of Okinawa Island.

Life in Ginama for him lasted only five or six years, until once again he got into trouble with his neighbors there (we don’t know why).

Entry into Royal Circles

At this point he moved to Shuri, and managed to get a job with the Sho Taikyu household.  Kanemaro was a good manager and rose quickly in the ranks.  When Sho Taikyu became king, Kanemaro was appointed treasurer.  He held this position until the death of Sho Taikyu and the rise of Sho Toku as the new king. 

Unhappy with Sho Toku’s actions, especially his misguided military adventures that spent the kingdom’s money but brought no reward in return, Kanemaro resigned his treasurer position.  He, along with several other local aji,  retired to their country estates. There he these aji are rumored to have planned the overthrow Sho Toku.

As noted in my last post about the end of the First Sho Dynasty, his scheme was successful and Kanemaro became King Sho En, founder of the second Sho Dynasty.  He is considered among the ranks of Satto and Hashi as one of Okinawa’s great leaders.

King Sho En’s Contributions to Okinawa

As king, Sho En took steps to establish himself as ruler, protect his new position and ensure that his family line would endure as head of the kingdom.  He applied to the Ming Dynasty for recognition, and banned heirs of Sho Toku from any high office.  Furthermore Sho Toku’s heirs were not allowed to marry into the new royal family.

More importantly, he took several steps to shift the regime of Okinawa from the personal rule of a magnetic and charming leader, to a more organized and official basis. He was successful and this allowed his family to remain in control until the Ryukyu kingdom itself was brought to an end by the Japanese several hundred years later.

Sho En also made efforts to boost his prestige among the Okinawan people.  He built a tomb on the southern end of Iheya for his parents, whom he buried there. He appointed his sister the chief noro priestess in Iheya, and this lineage has continued into the present day.

Sho En improved Okinawa in several ways.  He built up foreign trade, and built many roads.  But perhaps most significantly, he used his prowess as a skilled farmer and excellent administrator to lead the country to better land reclamation and irrigation techniques.

Sho En’s Death and Succession

Sho En died in 1477, after only six years as King.  Sho En’s first wife whom he married in Iheya had died before he moved to Shuri. His second wife Yosoidon gave birth to a son seven years before Kanemaro became king.  This son was only 13 years old when Sho En died.  But  he was next in line for the throne.

However, Sho En’s younger brother challenged the 13 year old son for the throne and was made king briefly.  But Sho En’s mother Yosoidon was not happy, to say the least.  Meanwhile, Sho En’s oldest daughter became chief noro priestess at the royal court.  In this position, she had a vision that Sho En’s brother should abdicate. 

That is exactly what he did only 6 months after taking office. This paved the way for a non-violent transfer of power to Sho En’s son to become king. 

The new son King called himself Sho Shin. He would rule Okinawa for 50 years, during the Ryukyu Kingdom’s true golden period. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The First Sho Dynasty Ends and the Second Sho Dynasty Begins

Death of Sho Hashi Brings Instability

Sho Hashi, founder of the First Sho Dynasty, died in 1439, at age 68. He had held the kingdom together by developing the personal loyalties of each of the local aji in the country.  Now that he was gone, there was no clear leader around which the country could coalesce.  A series of kings followed in quick succession, each of whom died within five years of less of assuming the throne.

Turmoil in the Shuri Palace

Sho Hashi’s second son Sho Chu died five years after becoming king.

Sho Chu’s son Shitatsu was next in line, but he also died five years following his coronation.

Sho Hashi’s fifth son, Kimpuku, was next.  He built many roads around Shuri and Naha but died 3 years after becoming king.

Given the split loyalties of the various aji one has to wonder what the causes of death were for these rulers.  Was it natural causes or something more sinister?

The death of King Kimpuku led to a direct rivalry within the royal family for succession to power.  Kimpuku’s young son Shiro asserted his right to rule but was challenged by Sho Hashi’s sixth son.  Rioting between these factions erupted in Shuri castle.  In the course of the fighting, both rivals for the throne were killed. The palace building itself was burned and destroyed. Many precious treasures were lost in the fire.

When the dust settled, Sho Hashi’s seventh son Sho Taikyu became king.

Sho Taikyu strengthened ties with Japan and with Buddhism.  He built a number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines during his reign.  However, he spent lavishly and significantly depleted the wealth of the country that had been built up by his predecessors. 

Sho Taikyu died in 1460, after only six years as king. 

Sho Toku

The new king, Sho Taikyu's son Sho Toku, age 21, was quite a lover of adventure.  Following in his father’s fiscally irresponsible footsteps, he continued to drain the royal coffers through various ventures, including military excursions. 

He adopted the Hachiman emblem of a circle with 3 comma-shapes inside as his crest.  Hachiman was the mythological Japanese god of archery and war, and the patron saint of the samurai, sea adventurers and pirates

Crest of The Ryukyu Kingdom - source: Wikipedia

In 1465 Sho Toku led an invasion of Kikai Island to the north, an island of no economic or military value.   His conquest of an island  was a success, but only served to further drain the economy of Okinawa.

Unhappy with the Sho Toku’s rule, the royal treasurer Kanemaro, along with other important figures, left Shuri court and returned to their own estates where they plotted a conspiracy against Sho Toku.  This culminated in the king’s death in 1469 at age 29, eight years after he became king.  He did not have a son to succeed him.

The Second Sho Dynasty

Kanemaro, no doubt with the support of the other aji who had deserted Shuri with him, assumed the throne of Ryukyu.  Forty years after the unification of Ryukyu by Sho Hashi, the First Sho Dynasty was now at an end.

Kanemaro adopted the name Sho En and started what is known as the Second Sho Dynasty.  This dynasty remained stable and lasted for another 400 years until Japan finally forced the dissolution of the Ryukyu kingdom following the Meiji Restoration.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The First Sho Dynasty

The great military strategist and tactician Hashi conquered the three separate kingdoms of Okinawa and united them under his rule.    One of the first things he did was move the capital and seat of government from Urasoe to Shuri. 

When Hashi’s father passed away in 1421, the Ming Emperor gave Hashi the title of “Sho Hashi, King of Ryukyu”.  This was after he had conquered Hokuzan in the north but a few years before he had conquered Nanzan.  The Chinese, as a token of their recognition, also gave him a large tablet with the Chinese characters for Chuzan inscribed on it. 

Sho Hashi showed his appreciation (and importance) be having a gate erected at the entrance to Shuri castle where he installed the tablet for all to see.  He also had a bell created that is now called the bridge of nations bell.  The inscription on the bell recognizes the importance of trade with all countries as the key to his kingdom and Okinawan prosperity.  This bell was also hung at the new entrance gate.  Today the original bell is at the Okinawa prefectural museum and a replica is at Shuri castle.

See my post on Shuri Castle for pictures of the main gate and the Bridge of Nations Bell.

Governance and Economic Expansion

Although the old kingdoms of were destroyed, Sho Hashi kept the three districts geographically intact.  But now they were called Kunigami, Nakagami and Shimajiri instead of Hokuzan, Chuzan and Nanzan.  The local aji were still the basis of control of their respective outer areas.

With the entire kingdom under his control, Sho Hashi was now able to collect and use all the resources of the island to build and support his desires at Shuri. 

He taxed the villages severely and used the proceeds to build up Shuri, the seat of the royal family and the government.  He also invested in Naha and Tomari, his key trading ports and links to international commerce.  Villagers were left with very little of the product of their labors and led hard lives.

Okinawa had few natural resources of its own.  Trade with other countries was the key to increased wealth, which he promoted strongly.  He kept the loyalty of the local aji by military force, but more importantly by allowing them to share in the lucrative trade and profits with China and other countries if they were cooperative with him.  He had excellent diplomatic skills with the Chinese Ming dynasty.  This further led to investment in ships, trading ports and the fostering of strong diplomatic ties with the Chinese.

Cultural Developments

The reign of Sho Hashi marks the age when Okinawan life began to absorb many of the unique elements which define it today. The classical body of Okinawan song and tradition originates from this era, as does cloth making and other arts and crafts.

In 1439 a permanent Okinawan settlement was built at Fukien (Fujian) province for more effective trade with China.  Fukien is in southern China across the sea from modern day Taiwan.  It was here that Okinawan students came to serve as clerks and also to learn Chinese language and customs. This village lasted until 1875, when the Ryukyu kingdom was dissolved by Japan.

Because of this intimate linkage to China, much was learned and adopted by the Ryukyu royal court.  The unique Ryukyu tombs, bridges, food, textiles, leisure activities, and manners were all based on lessons learned and brought back by the Okinawan students and traders.

Trade expanded significantly.  Ryukyu trade ships reached all the way south to the Indies and as far north as Korea.  All kinds of articles of commerce passed through Naha.  Okinawans were exposed to a wide variety of different cultures.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Okinawan Vacation Part 3 – Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Shuri Castle, Shopping

Okinawa Prefectural Museum

After returning to Naha from our Ishigaki-Taketomi trip, the next morning we got a taxi and ventured to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum.  Here is a link to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum website.

Located in Naha, it is actually two museums in one:  a museum and an art museum.  We only attended the museum on this day. You can buy a ticket to either or a combined admission ticket to both.  Also, the museum provides an audio cassette in English (and maybe other languages) that you can carry with you as you tour the exhibits.

The museum was excellent.  It has sections on Okinawan history, natural history of the islands, archeology, arts and crafts, and folk customs.  We spent an entire morning going through all the exhibits that were on display.  In the gift shop I looked for some good books in English about Okinawan history, but didn’t find any. 

If you are interested in Okinawan history, I highly recommend this place. 

Shuri Castle

The following day, one of our group led us on an excursion to Shuri castle.  We walked to the monorail station from our hotel, about a 5-10 minute hike along Kokusai Dori.  The monorail is clean and quiet.  It runs from the Naha airport at one end to Shuri castle at the other, a total of 15 stops in all.  You can buy a single fare, or in our case we all got one day passes that can be used for unlimited rides for one day.  Signs are in English as well as Japanese, making it easy for people like me to use it.

After we arrived at the Shuri station, it was then a 10 or 15 minute walk (uphill) to the entrance of the castle.  Along the way we passed the steep castle stone walls.

Walls of Shuri Castle
 If you are interested in old Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom this is another place that is a “must see” in addition to the Prefectural museum.  Shuri castle was the home of Okinawan royalty for hundreds of years until the royalty was disbanded in 1879 with the Meiji restoration.  The entire place was destroyed in World War II during the battle of Okinawa.  But the Okinawans have restored it to much of its original glory. 

You can get a feel for the way the royalty lived.  The large courtyard to receive guests and hold ceremonies, the king’s throne and crown, a place to do business with foreign visitors, and so on. 

We spent several hours here, looking at the exhibits and just absorbing the atmosphere of the place.  Here are some photos.

Entrance to Shuri Castle
View of Naha and the East China Sea from Shuri Castle
The Bridge of Nations Bell at Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle Main Building
After we were finished touring the castle grounds, we headed back to the monorail.  We first took a wrong turn and walked down a very steep hill on stone steps, through a residential area with many old stone walls.  Very pretty.  But the wrong direction.

After realizing we were lost, and getting our bearings, we headed in the correct direction (back up the hill) and finally we got back to the Shuri monorail station.  From there went to a large department store for lunch and a bit of shopping.  That monorail stop was also a close walk to the Okinawan Prefectural Museum so some of our group that had not yet seen it went there instead of shopping.

In late afternoon we finally back to our starting point and walked back to the hotel.  On the way back, Kokusai Dori Street was blocked off to vehicle traffic (this was around 4 in the afternoon) and a group of Eisa dancers started to perform in the street.  They drew a rather large crowd.
Dance Troupe Performing on Kokusai Dori

Shopping and Return Home

The next three days we spend shopping since we had a long list of items from our own needs and those of our friends and family.  We just made our luggage and weight limits for the return flight home without needing to pay extra.

The largest bookstore in Okinawa, Junkudo, is a couple blocks off Kokusai Dori, and is fills several stories.  Books written in English are on level three.  Although there was a section on Japan history and culture, I was disappointed that more books specifically devoted to Okinawa were not available.  Nevertheless I was able to find a few interesting titles.

After a stop at the Starbucks, where we bought several of their Okinawan coffee mugs to bring back as gifts, we headed into the famous Heiwa Dori shopping area, perhaps the largest maze of shops one can find in Okinawa.  You can buy just about anything there, from clothes, to sanshins, to shisa lions to kimonos, etc.  You name it.

Speaking of kimonos, my wife had placed an order with one of the shops in Heiwa Dori for a kimono earlier in the trip.  At the time she placed the order the shop keeper gave her a complimentary pair of tabi (Japanese socks) worth around ten dollars.  When we returned to pick up the kimono, the lady shop keeper told us to wait just a minute, and then disappeared.   She came back a few minutes later with a huge package of dried fish to give us as a gift for buying the kimono!  Unbelievable!  She had obviously gone out to a nearby store to buy it when we showed up.  I don’t know if this custom exists in other parts of Japan, but this was the second time I experienced it – the first time being in Ishigaki.

We came back home somewhat exhausted but very satisfied.  We have lots of good memories and photos.  We are already planning our next trip to Okinawa.