The Tenson Dynasty
The first line of kings in Okinawa was called the Tenson Dynasty or “Dynasty of Heavenly Descent.” According to legend, the Tenson dynasty lasted over 17,000 years and had 25 kings in succession. The first king was a direct descendant of Amamikyo, the Sun Goddess of Okinawa. The dynasty came to an end in 1185 by violent means.
Little is known about this period of history, since it precedes any written records of Okinawa. What we do know is based on a version of history written by Japanese historians in the 1600’s, over 400 years after the fact.
As the story goes, the 25th Tenson king was overthrown by one of his retainers named Riyu. In 1185 the treacherous Riyu poisoned the king, led a revolt, and declared himself the new king.
Immediately following the Riyu insurrection, a man named Sonton led a counter revolt of aji lords who were still loyal to the former Tenson throne. Sonton’s forces defeated and killed Riyu. Sonton was proclaimed King Shunten in 1187. He ruled for 50 years, and his family line ruled for another two generations.
Fact vs. Legend
Most historians agree that the story has been modified to justify Japan’s “divine right” to oversee Okinawa because it links Shunten's lineage to the Minamoto clan. The Minamoto descendants ruled Japan at the time this history was written. They also controlled the Ryukyu kingdom following the Satsuma invasion of 1609. A political motivation existed to justify the linkage to Okinawa. The connection of the Ryukyu kings to the Minamoto family was a “politically correct “move.
What we do know is that feudal society in Okinawa developed over a period of time from the 700's through the 1100's. Many local chieftains or warlords called aji grew to power, and fought each other for resources. Over time, some would be more successful than others. Rivalries and treachery would certainly have existed.
We also know that in 1185 the powerful Taira clan in Japan lost a war for control of that country. Many Taira warriors fled to the Ryukyu Islands then. They brought much knowledge with them that would have been helpful to the local aji in Okinawa. Some speculate that a Taira clan connection to Shunten may actually be more likely than the Minamoto story.
Nevertheless, it is a great story, full of heroism, romance and tragedy. Here it is.
The Legend of Minamoto no Tametomo, Father of King Shunten
The first emperor of Japan was a child of the Sun Goddess. In the 9th century, his grandson, emperor Kammu, founded the Taira family. In the 10th century another grandson named Seiwa founded the Minamoto family. Five generations later, Minamoto no Tametomo was born.
In 1156 Minamoto no Tametomo led an unsuccessful attack to claim the throne of Japan. He was defeated by Taira no Kiyomori. As punishment for his treason, Tametomo was banished to the Izu Peninsula in Japan. Banishment to remote parts of the country or outer islands was a common form of exile and punishment, as an alternative to immediate execution, for example.
Stories vary on how Tametomo made it from Izu Peninsula to Okinawa, but somehow he did. Once there, he struck up a friendly relationship with Lord Osato, one of the local aji. Shortly thereafter, a marriage was arranged between Tametomo and Lord Osato's daughter.
They had one son, who they named Sonton.
Tametomo did not stay long in Okinawa. He was anxious to return to Japan. As the story goes, he was never able to do so. On the way there, he and his men engaged in a battle with superior Japanese forces. Finding himself surrounded Tametomo chose to commit ritual suicide (seppuku or hara kiri) rather than surrender. This is claimed to be the first such ceremonial suicide.
Meanwhile, Sonton and his mother were abandoned and settled in Urasoe. There they waited for Tametomo’s return, which of course never came. The harbor they overlooked is today called Machi-minato or "waiting harbor". Shunten was raised to manhood by his mother.
At age 15, Sonton inherited the throne of Osato, and became lord of Urasoe castle. In 1187 at age 22, he led the successful campaign against the traitor Riyu (discussed above) and became King Shunten .
Next: the Shunten Dynasty.