The Family Village and the Sacred Grove
Families coming to settle in the islands would first look for a suitable place. This was typically on a hilltop or mountainside where there was good sun for crop growing, high enough to be away from the storm surges of typhoons and floods, and easy to defend from other villages. A source of fresh water such as a stream or spring was also important.
The sacred grove or otake formed the center of the family village. The site for the otake was a heavy clump of trees and bushes with a small clearing. A large rock or vessel for burning incense stood in the center. The otake represented the place where the protective kami (god) of the family would present himself from time to time.
A nice article from “Of Andagi and Sanshin” by Wesley Uenten explains how the spirits of deceased ancestors transform to kami (gods) over time if cared for properly. As memories of the ancestor fade among those still living, the ancestor moves from a spirit to a kami.
Village Government and the Creation Myth
The village was the earliest form of organization. It was led by the house of the founding family, or the Neya – the root house. Governance mirrored the religious beliefs about creation.
Several versions of the Okinawan creation myth exist. According to Sakihara, the most basic one says that the Sun God created a man/woman figure called Amamikyo/Shinereikyo, and this figure gave birth to people – lords, priestesses, and commoners. Village society reflected this creation myth by having the male head of the root house as “lord”. The female head of the root house was priestess. The rest of the villagers were followers of these rulers.
The male head of the family controlled the political and business affairs of the village. The head female, typically a sister, controlled all religious and ceremonial activities. The commoners were the basis for economic production.
Early Village Economy
Up to the end of the 12th century, Okinawa was at a primitive stage of development. Survival depended on both farming and fishing to ensure enough food. Rice was a very vulnerable crop and could easily be damaged by floods or drought. Fishing was restricted to areas close to shore, due to the crude level of boat building and navigation.
Okinawa was chiefly connected externally with Japan in the north. It was relatively easy to navigate to Kyushu along the island chain. Travel to the south was risky and dangerous due to the large open stretch of ocean and many typhoons.
The Feudal Period Begins
Okinawan population continued to increase. Small family villages merged with other clans to become larger multi-clan towns. The once isolated villages started to find themselves competing among each other for resources.
As competition for space and resources grew, communities developed local chieftains or lords, called aji. These aji were looking for ways to expand their power and care for their people.
In 1185 the powerful Taira clan in Japan lost a major war with the Minamoto clan for control over that country. Many defeated Taira warriors fled to the southern islands of Okinawa for refuge, bringing their knowledge and skills with them. This would have included military strategy and advanced maritime skills, for which the Taira family was especially noted.
No doubt the Okinawan aji welcomed this influx of new information. New technology would help them in their power struggles and their fight for resources. Castle fortresses or gusuku were built by the aji as bases to conduct their campaigns. The word for gusuku in Japanese is shiro or jo.
Today, many Okinawans have “shiro” as part of their name.
The period of battling chieftains in Okinawa is also called, the Gusuku period, named after the large number of such structures built. Today there are 200 to 300 remains of gusuku found throughout the Ryukyu Islands.
This warring period lasted for over 200 years.