The Ryukyu Kingdom Splinters into Three Territories
The Ryukyu kingdom started to fracture in 1314 when Tamagusuku took over the throne of the Eiso dynasty. He was not a good leader as his predecessors had been. He took actions that were not popular with the aji (local lords) and dissension mounted.
Finally, things fell apart and rebellion among the aji tore the country into three regions. The Lord of Osato went back to his castle in the south of Okinawa Island, and formed the kingdom of Nanzan (Southern Mountain). The Lord of Nakijin castle in the north part of Okinawa Island declared himself king of Hokuzan (Northern Mountain).
Tamagusuku was left with only Urasoe, Shuri and Naha as his territory, which was called Chuzan (Central Mountain). Although his power was reduced, Chuzan was still the most populous and wealthiest region of the three. It also was blessed with the best harbors for trading.
This period in history is referred to as the Sanzan era (three kingdoms).
Satto Takes the Chuzan Throne
When Tamagusuku died in 1336 his 10-year old son, a boy named Seii, became king. Because Seii was so young, his mother essentially ruled the throne and she was not liked by many of the aji . She interfered with government affairs and used her position to her advantage, unfairly. Seii’s popularity suffered as a result.
Seii died when he was only 23 years old – we don’t know how or why. The year was 1349. Satto, the governor of Urasoe, took control over Chuzan. He was a strong and strategic leader. He had the loyalty of the aji and brought stability back to Chuzan.
Meanwhile, both Japan and China had been having major internal strife in their countries during this time. Preoccupation with civil wars and rebellions distracted them from interfering in Okinawa and allowed the Ryukyu Islands to develop rather independently from outside foreign influences.
In Japan Ashikaga Takauji led a revolt against the Kamakura shogunate, called the Genko War, and became Shogun himself in 1336. Ashikaga only had control over the eastern provinces, and not the entire country. He moved the capital from Kamakura to Kyoto. He expended much energy to unite Mainland Japan. There was much civil unrest. It was a period of decentralized feudalism. Mainland Japan would not see an end to civil wars until the year 1600.
Japanese pirates had much power along the coasts of China, Japan and Korea. These pirates were often Japanese merchants who engaged in illegal activities when it suited them. They conducted numerous raids along the coast of Korea and Japan, and along the Ryukyu island chain and into southern Asia.
Kublai Khan’s Mongol Dynasty in China Crumbles
In China, the Mongol empire was in decline after a series of disasters, including Kublai Khan’s costly and unsuccessful attempts to invade Japan. Inflation was out of control. Rebellion and civil wars tore the country apart.
The Mongol glue that had kept the empire unified was coming undone. The collapse of the Mongols caused the inland “Silk Road” trade with Europe to shrink considerably. The Japanese pirates harassed sea trade all along China’s coastline.
The Ming Dynasty Brings Unity to China
Finally in 1368, a rebel fighter named Zhu Yuanzhang unified China. He became Emperor Hong Wu and began the famous Ming dynasty. Ming means “Brilliant”. He sought to restore Confucian values that had been displaced by the foreign Mongol rulers. He built up an army of one million soldiers to secure the Chinese borders, especially along Mongolia.
He also sought to restore international trade and immediately sent envoys to all the surrounding “barbarian” states. He demanded they recognize China as the supreme power, and in return they would receive favored trade relations and protection from China.
The first Chinese envoy to Japan arrived in Kyushu in 1368, and the Japanese were defiant. They refused to bow to China as a superior power, having strong memories of China’s earlier efforts to conquer Japan.
Okinawa saw each of its three kingdoms develop independently.
King Satto ruled Chuzan, and he continued to build wealth via international trade and improve the conditions of his already prosperous territory.
Hokuzan in the north was under the rule of the Haneji dynasty. They had a strong military force at Nakijin castle, but were not very competitive in trade and commerce.
Nanzan in the south under the Osato Dynasty had good trading ports and was an economic competitor. But internal power struggles within Nanzan were an ongoing problem.
In 1372, the Ming envoys arrived in Okinawa to make the same offer of favored trade in return for bowing to Chinese superiority.
This historic visit would be the beginning of a lucrative 500-year relationship between Okinawa and China.