Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Shunten: The First Okinawan King of Historical Record

Shunten - First Recorded Ryukyu King

Shunten was the son of legendary warrior Minamoto Tametomo.  Raised by his Okinawan mother, he became lord of Urasoe at age 15.  At age 22 he became king after leading a successful attack on the traitor Riyu who had betrayed and poisoned the previous ruler.

King Shunten is the first recorded king of the Ryukyu Islands.  Whether he was really “king” of all Okinawa or simply a very powerful chieftain is debated among scholars. 

He started a family dynasty that  would end after a series of disasters befell his grandson’s reign as king. Up until then it was a time of relative peace and harmony.  Shunten was a good leader. He had the loyalty of the other aji and brought peace and prosperity to the land.

Shunten ruled until his death in 1237 at the age of 71 years.  He had a  50 year reign.  During his time he did much to develop the political, economic and social lives of the Okinawan people.  His dynasty lasted only two more generations, ending in 1259.

King Shumba-Junki – Shunten’s Son

Upon Shunten’s death the throne passed to his son Shumba-Junki who  ruled from 1238 to his death in 1248.  He was also considered a good ruler, and the kingdom had much prosperity.

Progress for the Okinawan people continued.  His reign saw the construction of Shuri castle.  He introduced the kana phonetic system of writing.  New clothing styles and headdresses came into fashion. 

Gihon – the Last of the Line

When Shumba-Junki died, he passed the throne to his son and Shunten's grandson, Gihon.  Gihon was 44 years old in the year 1248.  He was an unlucky king. 

During his reign the islands were struck with many typhoons and floods that destroyed crops, followed by famine, and sickness.  It is said that over half the population died.   Distraught over the deteriorating conditions, he appointed a regent named Eiso to manage the affairs of the country. 

Finally, despondent over what had befallen the kingdom, he abdicated and went into self-imposed exile in the wilderness.   It is said that he vanished somewhere in the hills at the remote northern tip of the island at Heda-misaki. 

The regent Eiso became king in 1260 and launched the Eiso dynasty which was to last  five  generations.

Meanwhile  in Japan - The Shogun and Samurai Warriors

 The Minamoto clan had taken over rule of mainland Japan in 1185. The first military dictator, or Shogun, a man named Minamoto no Yoritomo, moved the capital from Kyoto to Kamakura and continued to consolidate his power there. 

The word “samurai” originally meant “one who serves”.  In Japan, Yoritomo established the samurai class as a privileged and regulated military order.  The term became virtually synonymous with “bushi” or warrior.  The samurai followed a code of conduct referred to as “bushido”.  Samurai typically fought on horseback in full armor.  Other fighting men fought on foot and had lighter armor. Zen (Chan) Buddhism was introduced from China at this time.  It was widely accepted by the military class as a direct means to enlightenment through self-discipline and inner control. 

The evolution of “samurai” to mean only “bushi” did not happen in Okinawa.  Okinawans had warriors, but they maintained the distinction.

And in China - The Song  and Jin Dynasties and Kublai Khan

During this time China was split into the Song dynasty in the south and the Jin Dynasty in the north.  The Song dynasty invented many things including the abacus, printing press, and gunpowder.  Arts and culture also flourished.  They were in constant skirmishes with the Jin Dynasty.  The Mongols, led by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, were also a threat.

The Okinawans would have an encounter with Kublai Khan’s forces in 1272, shortly after Eiso became king.

Next Post:  Eiso Dynasty

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