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. 

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