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.

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