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
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.