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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sho Shin – King of Ryukyu’s Golden Era

Sho Shin, the son of Sho En, became king of Ryukyu at the young age of 13, shortly after his father died.  He was supported by his powerful mother, and his sister who was chief noro priestess of the Shuri court.  See my last post on Sho Shin’s pathway to succession to power.

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

Weapons Control

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.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Kanemaro – the man who became Sho En, first king of the Second Sho Dynasty

Before he became king of the second Sho Dynasty and took the name Sho En,  Kanemaro had an interesting life story, according to George Kerr in his book on Okinawa.

Early Years of Struggle

Born on Iheya Island, Kanemaro was the son of a farmer.  When he was 20 years old, he lost both his parents, we don’t know how.  That left him to take care of his uncle, aunt, older sister, and young brother.  He married a local girl.

He was a very skilled farmer and consistently had better crop yields than his neighbors.  However, after a while suspicions arose about his methods.  One year during a drought, he was accused of stealing water from others to water his fields.  This was a crime punishable by death.  Afraid for his life, one night he abandoned his family and fled Iheya to avoid his certain punishment. He went to Ginama, which is at the northern end of Okinawa Island.

Life in Ginama for him lasted only five or six years, until once again he got into trouble with his neighbors there (we don’t know why).

Entry into Royal Circles

At this point he moved to Shuri, and managed to get a job with the Sho Taikyu household.  Kanemaro was a good manager and rose quickly in the ranks.  When Sho Taikyu became king, Kanemaro was appointed treasurer.  He held this position until the death of Sho Taikyu and the rise of Sho Toku as the new king. 

Unhappy with Sho Toku’s actions, especially his misguided military adventures that spent the kingdom’s money but brought no reward in return, Kanemaro resigned his treasurer position.  He, along with several other local aji,  retired to their country estates. There he these aji are rumored to have planned the overthrow Sho Toku.

As noted in my last post about the end of the First Sho Dynasty, his scheme was successful and Kanemaro became King Sho En, founder of the second Sho Dynasty.  He is considered among the ranks of Satto and Hashi as one of Okinawa’s great leaders.

King Sho En’s Contributions to Okinawa

As king, Sho En took steps to establish himself as ruler, protect his new position and ensure that his family line would endure as head of the kingdom.  He applied to the Ming Dynasty for recognition, and banned heirs of Sho Toku from any high office.  Furthermore Sho Toku’s heirs were not allowed to marry into the new royal family.

More importantly, he took several steps to shift the regime of Okinawa from the personal rule of a magnetic and charming leader, to a more organized and official basis. He was successful and this allowed his family to remain in control until the Ryukyu kingdom itself was brought to an end by the Japanese several hundred years later.

Sho En also made efforts to boost his prestige among the Okinawan people.  He built a tomb on the southern end of Iheya for his parents, whom he buried there. He appointed his sister the chief noro priestess in Iheya, and this lineage has continued into the present day.

Sho En improved Okinawa in several ways.  He built up foreign trade, and built many roads.  But perhaps most significantly, he used his prowess as a skilled farmer and excellent administrator to lead the country to better land reclamation and irrigation techniques.

Sho En’s Death and Succession

Sho En died in 1477, after only six years as King.  Sho En’s first wife whom he married in Iheya had died before he moved to Shuri. His second wife Yosoidon gave birth to a son seven years before Kanemaro became king.  This son was only 13 years old when Sho En died.  But  he was next in line for the throne.

However, Sho En’s younger brother challenged the 13 year old son for the throne and was made king briefly.  But Sho En’s mother Yosoidon was not happy, to say the least.  Meanwhile, Sho En’s oldest daughter became chief noro priestess at the royal court.  In this position, she had a vision that Sho En’s brother should abdicate. 

That is exactly what he did only 6 months after taking office. This paved the way for a non-violent transfer of power to Sho En’s son to become king. 

The new son King called himself Sho Shin. He would rule Okinawa for 50 years, during the Ryukyu Kingdom’s true golden period.