Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Japan Invades the Ryukyu Kingdom - 1609

The invasion of Okinawa by Japanese soldiers was a major turning point in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s history.  An excellent account of the events preceding, during and after is available in a book by Stephen Turnbull entitled “The Samurai Capture a King:  Okinawa 1609” © 2009 by Osprey Publishing. 

Preparations for War

 In 1606 Lord Shimazu asked for, and was given permission by the shogun of Japan to chastise Okinawa.  Prior to the invasion, Lord Shimazu tried to negotiate a settlement with the king of Ryukyu.

 In 1608, according to Turnbull, he sent envoys to King Sho Nei with the following demands:

1.  Recognize the unpaid debt that Okinawa owed Hideyoshi for the Korean invasion,
2.  Be grateful that Okinawa was spared from being ordered to commit men, and only required to commit materials, due to the generosity of the Satsuma clan, who had been their true overlords since 1206,
3.  Pay homage to Tokugawa, Shogun of Japan,
4.  Turn the Amami islands over to Satsuma.

Sho Nei refused, and perhaps made plans for an impending confrontation, but he may have only anticipated a problem in the Amami islands, which had been an area of dispute between Okinawa and Japan for centuries and in fact had traded hands several times. 

Lord Shimazu, however had designs on the entire island chain.  His plan was to first take over Amami Oshima.  From there he would launch his attack on Okinawa.  But if he was repulsed in Okinawa, he would retreat back to Amami Oshima and declare it his own territory.

In preparation, Shimazu assembled 3,000 fighting men (800 samurai and 2,200 foot soldiers or ashigaru).  

April 8 – Satsuma’s Forces Set Sail

Led by General  Kabayama,  troops set sail from Yamakawa in Southern Kyushu on April 8, 1609 in over 70 war ships.  Weapons included:  arquebuses (hand held firearms), spears, bows, swords. 

Ryukyu probably had 3,000 men defending Amami Oshima, and 3,000 defending Naha harbor, with 100 men stationed on Tokunoshima (Turnbull).  Their weapons included Chinese hand cannons (3-barrel), spears, bows, and swords.  Shown below is a 10-barrel hand cannon.

Both sides were using firearms by the mid- to late- 1500’s.  However the European-based arquebuses of Satsuma were more advanced than the hand cannons developed in China and used by Ryukyu.  The more advanced weaponry, combined with volley- fire tactics that Satsuma troops had developed and perfected during the Korean campaign with Hideyoshi years earlier, would be a deciding factor in the battle.


Hand Cannon  Source:  Wikipedia
Japanese Arquebus   Source: Wikipedia


Ryukyu Crest (Wikipedia)
Shimazu Crest (Wikipedia)



April 11 - Attack on Amami Oshima

 The first assault began at Kasari Bay on April 11.  Five days later, troops landed by ship at Yamatohama.  Satsuma forces were resisted fiercely by 3,000 Ryukyu warriors.

By April 20, Satsuma’s men had defeated the defenders, and secured the entire island.  This would be their fallback position should the battle not go well in Okinawa.

 April 24 - Attack on Tokunoshima Island

On April 24 Satsuma forces invaded Tokunoshima at Shutoku and advanced to Kametsu.  On April 26, Satsuma’s troops went into the mountains to flush out Ryukyuan fighters who were entrenched there.  They encountered between 200 to 300 men who fought with spears, sharpened bamboo poles, and knives, but these were no match against the invading army's arquebus gunfire.

April 29 – Attack on Northern Okinawa Island

On April 29 Satsuma’s men landed at the small island called Kourijima in Unten Harbor on the Motubu peninsula near Nakijin Castle.  That same day they began their assault on that castle, the large fortress once ruled by the King of Hokuzan during the days of the Three Kingdoms, and considered a major military stronghold.

Nakijin defenders received reinforcements of 1,000 men.  Half of those reinforcements were lost in battle.  By May 2 Nakijin castle walls were breached and its defenders routed.

Satsuma’s basic tactic against fortress defenses was to use gunfire to clear the castle walls of defenders, then scale up the walls using ladders, and use large axes to break down the gate to the fortress.  His men could then enter and overrun the castle.

This tactic was developed and honed in Korea, where he had successfully conquered similar castle defenses.  Also to Satsuma’s advantage was the fact that the castle walls in Okinawa had low parapets (protective walls) with little space for troops on the wall to defend themselves and return fire.  This made them vulnerable to gunfire attack.

Walls of Shuri Castle    Source: The Author

The fall of Nakijin Castle spread panic throughout the rest of Okinawa Island.

May 3 – Landing at Yomitan, Okinawa Island

On May 3 the Satsuma army anchored at Yomitan and split their forces into two equal groups.  One group headed by land toward Urasoe Castle, which was on the way to Shuri Castle.  As they advanced, they set fire to buildings to instill chaos and panic among the Okinawans.

The other half of the army set sail to attack Naha Harbor.

May 4 – Attack on Naha Harbor

On May 4 the warships of Satsuma attacked Naha Harbor but were repulsed. The two castles at the harbor entrance were armed with cannons, and that combined with an iron chain that was raised across the harbor to prevent ships from entering, foiled their plans.  The invaders retreated and instead landed at Makiminato, near Urasoe, where they joined up with the land force already there.

May 6 – Attack on Urasoe and Shuri Castles

The re-unified Satsuma army attacked and overwhelmed Urasoe castle, using the gunfire and wall scaling tactics that worked at Nakijin.  They also gained control of the Taihei Bridge at Tairabashi. This is a bridge that crosses a river separating Urasoe from Shuri Castle.  The march to Shuri was now unimpeded. (This bridge was destroyed by the Japanese in World War II to prevent American troops from advancing on Shuri.)

The defenders at Naha, realizing what was happening, rushed to Shuri, but were too late to save it.  Shuri was isolated.

Shuri castle defenders resisted fiercely.  They even used poisonous native habu snakes which they placed in the path of the invaders to try to slow them down.  But in the end, Shuri Castle was taken by the same methods, combining firearms, wall scaling, and gate-smashing.

King Sho Nei Surrenders

King Sho Nei, still inside Shuri Castle, found himself surrounded in his palace.  He surrendered to prevent further bloodshed and was taken hostage, as were the three Sanshikan.

Satsuma’s men now moved to Naha from both land and sea to claim the harbor.  By this time Urasoe, Naha and Shuri were deserted as people fled to the mountains to hide.

On May 7 the palace was methodically looted by Satsuma’s men, and buildings set on fire.  The gold, silver, lacquer ware and other precious artifacts were loaded on the ships in Naha harbor.

With that, General Kabayama and most of his men set sail for home taking as hostages the Ryukyu king, his eldest son, and the Sanshikan. 

Japanese Samurai remaining in Okinawa had a 3-day sake drinking binge to celebrate their victory.  Meanwhile, the refugees of those pillaged cities were suffering in the mountains from starvation and exposure. 

General Kabayama sent envoys to Kumejima and Miyako Islands to relate what had happened in Shuri and to demand their surrender, which he received.  That was the end of the fight for the Ryukyu Islands. 

May 28 – King Sho Nei is Delivered to Lord Shimazu

The victorious Satsuma conquerors returned to Kagoshima on May 28, some eight weeks after their departure.  King Sho Nei was paraded in front of Shimazu’s court.  More humiliation would follow.

Okinawa was now a conquered country.

Stephen Turnbull.  The Samurai Capture a King:  Okinawa 1609.  Oxford, UK:  Osprey Press, 2009
George H. Kerr.  Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000