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. 



  1. A valuable post, as far as, I'm concerned. I'd love to get my hands on some of your resources (English, if possible) as, I am continuously, researching the Ryukyu Islands.

    1. Both references cited at the end of the article are in English, as are all references listed on my "For Further Reading" page. I found the book by Matsuda in Naha, Okinawa while browsing through the book section of a department store. (Can't remember which store, sorry)