Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sho Shin’s Royal Court Ranking System

One of the changes that Sho Shin made to solidify his rule over the Ryukyu Islands was to create a system of ranks and hierarchy among the royalty and administration.  He did this as part of his effort to convert the island to a hereditary-based transfer of power rather than a brute force system.  This ranking system, along with control of personal weapons, and relocation of the aji to Shuri, solidified his family control and pacified the country from further feudal conflicts.  See my last post for more details.

The class ranking system used rigorous formal dress codes to identify hierarchy.  It was based on kimonos, hairpins, hats and sashes.  I have attempted to describe this system as best I can based on the book “Okinawan Customs: Yesterday and Today” by Douglas G. Haring along with a little help from this Wikipedia website.

All told, the Ryukyu system had eleven classes of individuals.

The King

At the top of the pecking order, the king wore a black silk gauze hat with red strings and a hairpin with a dragon’s head carved into the end.  This robe was decorated in dragon cloud patterns, and his sash was adorned with rhinoceros horned white jewels.  Style was of the Ming dynasty.

Princes and the Aji

Next in line, the prince ranks were made up of the King’s brothers and sisters.  The Aji were the lords of the various territories around the island.  Princes ranked higher than Aji.  They both wore colorful weave hats, and gold hairpins. Their robes were light green and the sashes were brocade.


The top level of the Shizoku, or scholar officials, this rank represented the supreme commanders below the Aji. These men wore purple twill hats and gold hairpins. They had deep blue robes with yellow sashes in dragon pattern.


The Pechin ranks were the military officers for the Ryukyu kingdom.  Sometimes called samurai, they were not like the mainland Japanese samurai.  The Ryukyu Pechin were more similar to the scholar-warriors in Chinese culture.

The Pechin were identified by three designations with five ranks:
  • Pechin – the upper level officers
  • Satunushi Pechin – the middle level officers
  • Chikudun Pechin – the lower level officers. 
All wore silver hairpins and yellow hats. Robes were the same deep blue as the Oyakata.  Sash color changed from high to low rank going from yellow dragon pattern, to red, to woven colored threads.

Pages and Lower Officials

The bottom ranks of the Shizoku were the pages.  They were chiefly the sons and brothers of Oyakata and Pechin level persons. 
Upper pages were divided into:
  • Satunushi - higher rank
  • Waka Satunushi - lower rank
Lower level pages were divided into:
  • Chikudun
  • Chikudun Zashiki - lower level

Their dress was the same as the Pechin except for their hats, which were either scarlet (higher rank) or red silk (lower rank).


The bulk of the population were the common people, called Heimin or Niya.  They had no sash or robe designations, and did not wear zori, or sandals for their feet.  They went everywhere barefoot.  Their hairpins were either copper, lead or brass.  Only certain leaders had special headwear.

Village Masters and Community Chiefs wore light green hats. Head Farmers wore blue hats.

Nobles vs. Commoners

The line between nobles and commoners involved several differences in behavior and way of life.

Nobles wore zori, or sandals, while commoners went barefoot.  Nobles used umbrellas and fans, and when moving from place to place, were either carried on bamboo sedans by servants, or they rode on horseback.

Noblemen grew long mustaches and beards.  Commoners were forbidden to grow long facial hair.

With hard work a commoner could rise to the rank of Chikudun status.  If he performed exceptionally well, he could rise as high as Chikudun Pechin rank.

Built to Last

The class system instituted by Sho Shin in the early 1500's survived essentially unchanged until the Meiji Restoration of 1879 brought an end to the Ryukyu kingdom.

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