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.
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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.