Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ryukyu Kingdom after 1609: Social Classes and Genealogy

In the Ryukyu kingdom, one’s genealogical record was an important status symbol.  Genealogy determined social status and the types of work one could get in the government. It was so important that in 1690 a genealogical bureau called Chizuza (Keizuza in Japanese) was formed.  All aristocrats were ordered by the government to submit their records showing their lineage from the old territorial leaders. 

The government considered there to be two types of people: those who had genealogy (aristocracy) and those who did not (commoners).  This bureau’s job was to keep track of those with genealogy and to control official records of genuine genealogy.  

Ryukyu Social Hierarchy

The social ranking of the Okinawan kingdom was as follows (from highest to lowest):
1. The King and his lineage - Sho family
2. Noble houses - Shizoku or privileged classes
3. Commoners – Heimin, those with no genealogy

Originally, the aristocracy were called samure, or samurai.  After 1609 a more common phrase used was chimuchi or “possessors of genealogy”.   Common people were termed muchii or those people “without genealogies”. 

Throughout the Satsuma period of Ryukyu, about one third of the population was royalty, and living in the tax free urban areas.  That made a 2-to-1 ratio of peasants to royalty. The peasants had to work and pay taxes to support the royal families who did not pay any taxes.

Rising from Commoner Status to Aristocrat 

In Ryukyu, attainment of genealogy by a commoner was a means to social status, and was highly sought after.  The benefits of having a genealogy were many, including prestige and influence, ability to obtain a government job with a stipend, and freedom from working on farmlands and producing tax grains.   

The government, however, did not want too many commoners to be converted to aristocrats since this would reduce the labor force needed for production of goods to support the noble families.   

Genealogy was sought by both legal and illegal pathways. 

Legal ways to obtain a genealogy normally involved the performance of "meritorious service" for the kingdom.  However, a person could also contribute monetary donations for “public purposes.”   In other words, you could legally buy a genealogy for the right price. 

Illegal methods to become a person of genealogy involved commoners conspiring with corrupt officials to have forged genealogies created.  Aristocrats also would try to bribe officials to create “improved” genealogies. 

Commoners who were granted genealogies were known as shinzan or “newly entered (into aristocracy)”.  They were distinguished from fudai or “hereditary” aristocrats.  Therefore even with an aristocratic title and the same rank, there were two different classes of aristocracy, with “new aristocrats” inferior to “hereditary aristocrats”.

Royal Sho Family – the King

The name Sho was for exclusive use of the royal family, having been given to Ryukyu by the Ming dynasty in 1372 when Satto was recognized as King of Chuzan.  No one but the king could use that name or character. Those in the Sho lineage would designate their royal status by having a “cho” in their name, Examples from Matsuda's book: Higa Shuncho, Kabira Chosei, etc. 

The rules of succession for the King’s throne were as follows:
1. the King’s oldest son
2. If the oldest son is dead, the King's next oldest living son
3. If no sons are alive, the King's oldest living grandson
4. If no grandsons are alive, the State Council decides on a next of kin to succeed

Shizoku Privileged Class – Fief Holders

Having a fiefdom, or assigned territory, entitled the fief holder to usually about one third of that land’s yield.  It also gave him administrative rights, and the labor of a limited number of peasants under his control.  It also gave him the right to use the name of the village or district as his surname.  Fief holders were also entitled to a government salary if employed by the government.   

Woji were the sons of the kings of the old territories, as well as aji who were promoted in rank.   

Aji were the eldest sons of men with the title woji.  It was a hereditary position. 

The woji and aji were men of exceptional status.  This was the highest social level  below the King’s family, and distinct from other levels.  Woji and aji  were entitled to one majiri, or district, of land. 

Wekata or Oyakata ranks were obtained through meritorious service, or given to the younger sons of aji and wekata.  These positions were a step below aji. People of this rank also held one majiri of land. 

Pechin were the “gentry” class. A pechin held one mura, or village, within a majiri. This was the lowest rank of fief holder. 

Fief holders had to live in one of the  four urban districts, not in their own  lands.  Actual local control of the district or village was handled directly by the Shuri government.   

Other Aristocratic Classes

Satonushi included family members of fief holders and commoners who had demonstrated meritorious service.  This was the rank of soldiers, scholars, priests, and clerical workers.  Members of this class could rise via meritorious service to the status of pechin – which would then give them grants of small fiefs (a village or mura), or the  higher status of wekata  which would entitle them to grants of large districts (majiri).            

Chikudun class included those hereditary aristocrats who were not entitled to any grants of fiefs.  It also included the “new” aristocracy.  


Heimin were those “without a genealogy”.   They were the people who provided the labor to support the noble families and pay taxes.  This group was about two thirds of the kingdom’s population, and included farmers, fishermen, and laborers, as well as drifters, pig butchers, beggars, and prostitutes.

Court Ranking System 

The Shuri government provided certain privileges to aristocrats, including land and stipends depending on one’s social rank. 

In the early 1500’s King Sho Shin had started a ranking system for the nobility.  He stipulated different headdresses and hairpins be worn by different social levels.  This was basis of the formalized system put into place after 1609. 

It was a nine-grade system, copied after the Chinese.  Each grade was divided into upper (a) and lower (b) classes. 

Here is a summary from Matsuda.  Compare to my previous blog on Sho Shin's ranking system:


Woji, Aji, Sessei
High status
Red or purple
Gold green
Red -> Yellow
Red -> Yellow
No rank



Government Service

Generally, the level one served in government depended on one’s social level.  The Sessei or Chief Councillor was ranked in the woji/aji class, meaning that he also came from these classes.  The Three Councillors, or Sanshikan, were ranked as wekata, again meaning that they came from these levels of society.

This was generally true for all levels of government. 

Wekata and pechin held the important positions in almost every agency, grades 2a-6b. 

The lower levels, grades 7a-9b, included clerical and secretarial workers.  They were typically younger members of fief-holding families, or members of non-fief holding families, both young and old. 

The lowest levels in government, those with no rank, included pages, and manual laborer. These jobs were filled by urban commoners, and people from aristocratic families who were not yet old enough to be given the lowest rank of 9b or 8b. 

In all, there were about 1,400 officials plus another 260 non-bureaucrat fief holders who received stipends totaling about 25% of the kingdom’s general expenditures. 

Promotion through the Ranks 

Promotion in rank occurred based on a person’s age, then followed by any recognition for meritorious services, character, work experience, and exemplary conduct.  The higher one’s social status and age, the higher ranks one could reach and the faster one could move up the ladder. Older men were ranked higher than younger men.  Lower ranks took civil service exams.  Those persons of hereditary aristocracy moved up more quickly than those who were “new” aristocracy. 



 Mitsugu Matsuda, “The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609-1872”. Gushikawa City, Okinawa, Japan: Yui Publishing Co., 2001.


George H. Kerr, "Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition". Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000. 


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ryukyu Kingdom after 1609: Central and Local Government Bodies

The King, his Chief Councillor or Sessei, and the Three Councillors called the Sanshikan constituted the top level of the Shuri royal government.

Fifteen officials below them controlled the operations of the seven central government departments, which were divided into a Board of Finance, and a Board of General Affairs.

Anything related to financial matters (taxes) was under the jurisdiction of the Board of Finance.  Tax collection was so important that each of the sanshikan also supervised one of the Board of Finance’s departments.  The Board of General Affairs handled all other matters. 

Agencies under Board of Finance 

·         Department of Domestic Affairs - This department was responsible for agricultural administration, and perhaps more importantly, for collection and storage of tax goods.  It consisted of nine bureaus. 

·         Department of Land Control – The department’s primary function was to monitor and audit the assignment of lands, inspections, and payments of government stipends to the fief holders. They also monitored maritime affairs and tax cloths. It consisted of six bureaus. 

In the feudal system, lands were granted to persons in return for a pledge of service (enfeoffment).  Ryukyu was initially valued 89,000 koku by Satsuma, with 50,000 stipulated for public expenditure, and 39,000 for stipend payments to aristocrats. 

·         Department of Provisions – Consisting of six bureaus, this department handled food procurement matters within the royal palace, and the stockpiling of grains and food for emergencies, which each village was required to maintain.  Another function was to monitor and control the growing and cultivation of sugar cane, a highly valuable tax export item.  They also were in charge of forest management and conservation, to control how many trees were cut per year to avoid deforestation.   

Agencies under the Board of General Affairs 

·         Department of External Affairs – This department consisted of four bureaus and handled the activities of Naha and Kume regarding foreign affairs, especially tribute missions to China.  Chief envoys on tribute missions came from Kume.    Another bureau supervised the National Academy and other schools in Shuri.  The Bureau of Genealogy, created in 1690, was also part of this department. 

·         Department of Palace Affairs – Five bureaus in this department supervised the workforce, palace attendants to the royal family, court functions, and matters related to palace affairs. They also monitored the crafting of stone, metal, and wood used to make utensils, mats, and other goods  for the royal family. A fourth bureau supervised shell-craft works. 

·         Department of Tomari – This department handled the local affairs of Tomari.  It included the Bureau of Household Registry  to record births and deaths of aristocracy.  Its work supplemented that of the Bureau of Genealogy.  The purpose was to keep records in order to handle disputes of succession.  Births and deaths of commoners was not recorded.  A Bureau of Temples and Shrines controlled the  affairs of Buddhist and Shinto shrines.  Other bureaus were those of Fire, Police Inspection, Repair and Maintenance, Smithery, and Tile Works. In all, there were a total of eight bureaus. 

·         Department of Justice – This department had only one bureau. It dealt with civil and criminal cases in the four urban areas.  Criminal cases included damages done to the royal mausoleum and other holy places in Shuri,  or misbehavior of high officials of government.  Civil cases usually involved disputes of succession to aristocratic houses.   

Case trials were closed sessions with several judges.  The judges would present a written opinion to the superintendent of Justice for his decision. His decision then went to the Council of State for review and action, with final approval of the king. 

Penalties could include:  imprisonment in jail, confinement in a temple, payment of fines, beating with whips, tattooing, or exile to remote islands. 

Local Governments 

Local governments of the 4 urban areas of Shuri, Naha, Kume and Tomari were closely tied with central government of the kingdom. Each one operated slightly differently, however.

Local governments on Okinawa Island outside the four urban districts were separate from the central government and were run by a local district (majiri) magistrate, not the aristocrat to whom the area was officially granted. The fief holder was actually required to live in one of the four urban areas, usually Shuri. The local magistrate had a staff that took care of inspection of agricultural activities of peasants, forest conservation and management, police, bookkeeping, accounting, etc.
This local magistrate of the district reported directly to the Board of Finance, not the fief holder.  The local governments of the four urban areas fell under the Board of General Affairs.  By doing this, the central government of Shuri maintained strong control over the outlying areas, and the aristocracy itself. 

The fief holder, however, had a strong influence in who filled these local government positions.  Typically the landowner, or fief holder, would send teachers from the urban areas to rural areas to train commoners or peasants in administration and cultural topics.  At age 15 those chosen ones would come to Shuri as stewards of the fief holder.  In this way the landowner could further train them and also judge-first hand their abilities, and character. These people would then be recommended for local government positions when they were sent back to their village.   

The local official and fief holder maintained strong contact with each other as to what was going on in the territory.  This process also developed a strong loyalty/protection bond between them. 

The governments of Sakishima (Miyako and Yaeyama) and Kume island were a mixture of a central government and local government functions.  People on these islands were considered to be in a special social class – inferior to Okinawa aristocrats but superior commoners.


Mitsugu Matsuda, “The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609-1872”. Gushikawa City, Okinawa, Japan: Yui Publishing Co., 2001.

George H. Kerr, "Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition". Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ryukyu Kingdom after 1609: The King and his Central Government

Although the Satsuma clan took control of foreign trade and imposed heavy taxes on Ryukyu, they did not change the basic government structure that had been in place before the invasion of 1609.  Instead, they continued to let Ryukyu use its governmental structure of choice. If anything, they formalized it.

Governmental Structure

The basic organization of the Ryukyu royal government was as follows:

Central Government
·         King
·         Council of State
o   Sessei   (chief councilor or prime minister)
o   Sanshikan (the three councilors)
o   The 15 officials in charge of the various governmental departments and bureaus 

Central Government Departments
·         Board of Finance
o   Department of Domestic Affairs
o   Department of Land Control
o   Department of Provisions
·         Board of General Affairs
o   Department of External Affairs
o   Department of Place Affairs
o   Department of Tomari
o   Department of Justice 

Local Rural and Outer-Island Governments
·         Majiri or District Offices
·         Mura or Village Offices 
The King, Sessei, Sanshikan, and the 15 Officials, all aristocracy, were the men who ruled Ryukyu.  These 20 people made all major high-level decisions regarding the internal affairs of the kingdom.

Duties and Responsibilities


The king's position was basically the same as before the invasion, except Satsuma had to formally approve successors.  This was largely a formality.  There were  12 successive kings from 1609 until the end of the Ryukyu dynasty. 

The king was theoretically the supreme authority in government.  All business of importance needed his approval.  All appointments and decisions made by the king were based on recommendations of his councilors.  In court trials, the king always had final decision.  He also had certain religious duties and ceremonial functions to perform throughout the lunar calendar year.   

The head priestess, her three assistants, and all positions down to the local village noro priestesses were appointed by the king.  The kingdom-wide priestess organization was a system that had been in place since the 1400’s.  

The head priestess was granted the fief of Chinen, and received a government stipend, as did all priestesses down to the local village noro.   Their function was to care for all the religious holy sites, and pray for the long life of the king and the country. 

Council of State 

The Council of State included the Sessei, or Chief Councillor, the Sanshikan, or “Three Councillors”, and a group of 15 men who supervised the seven central governmental departments of the Shuri  government.  The Council of State controlled all the activities of the kingdom.  They acted as a group with shared responsibility for the country, and were the sole policy formulating body.  The king, although theoretically in ruler of the kingdom, essentially became a figurehead.    

The Chief Councillor (Sessei) 

The Chief Councillor was advisor to the king.  This office first created in 1253 by King Eiso.  It was formalized in 1611 after Satsuma invasion.  The King chose the Chief Councillor, and it was usually someone from his own family.  The appointment was for life.  Most Chief Councillors had travelled to Japan for several years prior to assuming the position.  The Chief Councillor handled formal relations with Japan.  

The Three Councillors (Sanshikan) 

The Three Councillors were also chosen from royal families, but those families were more removed in lineage from the king than the Chief Councilor.  The first written evidence of this group is 1522, and the first mention of the term “sanshikan” is 1562. They were also appointed for life.  

The sanshikan took initiative on internal state affairs.  They also ruled over the Board of Finance, with each one supervising one of the three departments in organization .  They were also more involved in affairs with China, and often were sent on tribute missions.  In principle they were all equal, but in reality seniority was often a factor.  One of Okinawa’s most influential statesmen was a man named Sai On, a Councillor who served for 25 years. 

The Fifteen Officials:  Boards of Finance and General Affairs 

Fifteen officials controlled the operations of the seven central government departments.   Anything related to financial matters (taxes) was under the jurisdiction of the Board of Finance.  Tax collection was so important that each of the sanshikan also supervised one of the Board of Finance’s departments.  The Board of General Affairs handled all other matters.

Mitsugu Matsuda, “The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609-1872”. Gushikawa City, Okinawa, Japan: Yui Publishing Co., 2001.

George H. Kerr, "Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition". Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ryukyu Kingdom after 1609: Geographic Districts and the Tax System

The invasion of Ryukyu by Japan in 1609 led to many changes in Okinawan life.  In particular the government of the kingdom had to change to meet the new demands of Satsuma that were put upon the kingdom.

Prior to the invasion, activities of foreign affairs and maritime trade were controlled by the royal family.  After the invasion, these functions were controlled strictly by Satsuma. 

Ryukyu still conducted tribute missions to China to pay homage to the Chinese emperor.  Now in addition they had to pay annual taxes to Satsuma, and make tribute missions to Edo (Tokyo) as well.

Satsuma on the one hand wanted to “Japanize” Ryukyu and curb Chinese influence, but on the other hand wanted it to appear to foreign traders that Ryukyu was still completely independent of Japan.

The Ryukyu government’s primary role now was to collect taxes and to handle the internal affairs of the kingdom. 

Administrative Districts of the Ryukyu Kingdom

The traditional administrative divisions of the country were formalized after 1609 by Satsuma.  The country was divided administratively into three major groupings with subdivisions as follows:

1.       Four urban districts:
o   Shuri
o   Naha
o   Kume
o   Tomari (which included Torishima island) 

2.       Rural districts of Okinawa Island known as majiri - similar to the original territories of the three kingdoms:
o    Kunigami to north
o   Nakagami in the central area
o   Shimajiri in the south
o   Each majiri was further subdivided into villages or towns, called mura 

3.       Sakishima - the “far-off” islands of Miyako and Yaeyama 

The Four Urban Districts 

The aristocracy (samure or samurai) and the urban commoners (machi hyakusho) were the only people allowed to live in the four urban districts, which were tax free.   

The district of Shuri was divided in three sections or fira, named Mawashi, Hae, and Nishi.  

Naha was the main port and Satsuma’s resident commissioner lived here.  Naha was divided into four towns called Nishi, Agari, Isumizaki, and Wakasa. 

Tomari was another port town and was informally divided into east and west sections. 

Kume had a special position. This was where the descendants of the Chinese “36 families” lived.  They had arrived in 1392 to assist the Okinawans in tributary affairs for the Ming dynasty.  There was no subdivision of Kume. 

The people living in these four areas were supported by the government with taxes paid by the people living in the 560 villages or mura throughout the kingdom. 

The Rural Districts 

The rural commoners (inaka hyakusho) were required to live in their respective villages.  No one could change residence without permission. This was to ensure that the social structure was maintained, and to preserve stable crop production.  If too many people were to leave the rural farming areas for the urban districts, this would put a strain on ability to grow crops and pay the taxes of the kingdom.   

Sakishima and Kume Island 

The Sakishima district (Miyako and Yaeyama) and Kume island were organized a bit differently. They were ruled by a class of people who were considered socially not as high as Okinawan aristocrats, but higher than peasants.  

The Tax System 

Tax collection was an important obligation of the Shuri government.  Taxes had to be increased to pay Satsuma, and to support local aristocracy. Local production had to make up for lost foreign trade revenue. Taxes also had to be collected more efficiently.   

Each mura or village was a tax unit, and was assigned land for the production of grains such as rice, wheat, beans, and millet.  Each individual mura was assigned a quota to be provided to the district chief, who reported to the Shuri government.  The village was collectively responsible for payment of their tax burden.  

Land was held as common property, and was assigned to individual households for cultivation.  Land allotments were changed periodically.  The tax obligation was the responsibility of the village, not individual households.  If one household failed to deliver, the others had to make up the difference. 

The community therefore had an obligation to meet any shortcomings of individuals for whatever reason - lack of skill, poor weather, illness, etc.   

Community of Mutual Obligation

Cooperation among the people of the village became imperative for survival.   Group responsibility in maintaining the welfare of the community members who suffered economic hardship fostered a deep sense of mutual social obligation. This sense of community responsibility also put a burden on the elite gentry, since they had a strong link and vested interest to the village leader in each district.  The system of accepted mutual obligations is a common trait to this day in Okinawan culture.  

Sakishima and Kume Island had slightly different tax obligations. For these islands there was a “head tax” levied on individuals.  Males age 15-50 were required to pay set amounts of millet in Miyako, and rice in Yaeyama.   Females of the same age group were required to produce quotas of woven cloth.

Peasants of Kume island were taxed according to the communal system used in Okinawa, and also taxed as individuals for grain and woven cloth.

Mitsugu Matsuda, “The Government of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, 1609-1872”. Gushikawa City, Okinawa, Japan: Yui Publishing Co., 2001.

George H. Kerr, "Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition". Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Okinawan Sweet Potato and Sugar Cane Save Ryukyu

Noguni Sokan and the Okinawan Sweet Potato

Noguni Sokan was a person from the town of Noguni, Okinawa, in a district that is today Kadena and Chatan towns.  He was a minor official (sokan) of a trade vessel to China. He worked for the central government of Shuri under King Sho Nei.  So, Noguni Sokan's real name is not known.

While stationed at the Ryukyu trading depot at Fuzhou, in the district of Fujien Province, China on a trading mission,  Noguni studied Chinese texts on farming and agriculture, and experimented with various plants in his own garden there. In the course of his work he discovered a new potato plant that had arrived in China just a few years earlier from other merchant traders.

From South America to China

The Chinese called it the barbarian potato (fan-shu).  It is believed to have its origin from the South American Aztecs, from where it was brought to Europe sometime between 1492 and 1500.  Spaniards brought it to the Philippines around 1570.  Although they ordered that it not be exported from the Philippines, traders took it to China about 1594 anyway.  Noguni first learned about it in 1600.

Noguni wondered if it could be grown in Okinawa, where it might help reduce periods of famine, which could often occur due to typhoons or bad yields of crops.  He brought some plant seedlings back with him when he returned to Okinawa in 1605.

The Sweet Potato in Okinawa and Beyond

The initial plantings in Okinawa were successful.  It could grow in Okinawa's thin soil, and withstand typhoons and drought quite well.  He was encouraged by his superior, Gima Shinjo to continue to pursue its potential value.

In 1615, an English trader named William Adams sent 500 potato slips from Naha to Richard Cocks in Hirado, Nagasaki, in northern Kyushu.  This was its first introduction to mainland Japan. 

It was so successful in Okinawa that by 1620, just 15 years later, it was being grown all across the islands as a major source of food for the people.  And it happened to arrive just as the Japanese dominance of Okinawa after the 1609 invasion had pushed many Okinawans into poverty due to the high tax burden they faced and the loss of foreign trade profits.  At that time in history, the Okinawans called it the Chinese potato (han shu).

Sometime between 1665 and 1675, some decades after the Satsuma clan had forcibly entered Ryukyu, it is reported that a Japanese man named Ryuiemon took the sweet potato  to Satsuma, and from there it spread throughout Japan, being called the Satsuma imo or Satsuma potato.

In 1700, a stone altar was built for Noguni near his grave in Kadena Okinawa.  In 1789, the Ryukyu government recognized his contribution to  the welfare of the country by promoting his family to Samurai status.

Today, the beni imo (crimson potato) is called the Okinawan sweet potato in America.  In Hawaii, it is also sometimes called the Hawaiian sweet potato.

Source:  recipe

Gima Shinjo Introduces Sugar Cane and Cotton

Gima Shinjo (1557 - 1644) was instrumental in more than just Noguni Sokan's sweet potato endeavors.  He was very interested in agriculture and was one of the original hostages that accompanied King Sho Nei to Kagoshima in 1609.  While there he studied Japanese farming methods and foodstuffs.

After he returned to Okinawa he was very involved in trying to improve the crop production of the Ryukyu kingdom as a means to compensate for the serious loss of income following the Japanese invasion.

In addition to his part in development of the sweet potato, Gima Shinjo sent a mission to China in 1620 to investigate sugar cane and to see if it could be successfully brought to Okinawa.  In 1623 he developed a sugar cane press and determined that the crop could indeed grow well in the Ryukyu climate.  Sugar plantings then began in earnest.

After realizing that sugar cane could be sold at a premium price in Japan, it was soon being planted all over the kingdom in place of lesser valued crops.  It was so popular that in 1662 a magistrate was created to put in place strict controls on how much acreage could be devoted to sugar cane at the expense of more important domestic food crops.  The government was worried that its food reserves  for the kingdom could come into jeopardy if agriculture was not regulated properly.

 So the Okinawans developed sugar cane as an export crop, and grew the Okinawan sweet potato for internal consumption as a major food staple of the islands.

 Gima Shinjo was also instrumental in bringing cotton plants to Okinawa from China and promoting a cotton textile industry for Ryukyu.

Two Great Men

In 1937 a shrine was built by the Okinawan Prefectural government at Naha to commemorate Noguni Sokan and Gima Shinjo.

In 1955 a shrine to commemorate Noguni Sokan was constructed at Kadena.  Kadena Town holds an annual festival in Noguni Sokan's honor every October.

Gima Shinjo's tomb is located in Shuri and is part of the Hijigaabira historical walk.