Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ryukyu Kingdom Reformers after 1609: Part One – Sho Shoken, Tei Junsoku, Sai On

A Kingdom Adrift

After the 1609 invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma clan of Japan, morale in Ryukyu was devastated.  JanaUeekata (Oyakata) had been beheaded by Satsuma’s samurai for not acquiescing to the terms of the peace agreement that was offered to King Sho Nei, and this act sent a powerful reminder to the Okinawans of the true relationship between Ryukyu and Japan. Open resistance or defiance of Satsuma authority would no longer be tolerated. 

 Ryukyu officials, accustomed to their own ways, now had trouble adjusting to the new Japanese influence and what it meant in terms of their powers and authority.  For several decades, extreme poverty and lack of leadership existed in Ryukyu at all levels.

Ryukyu government controls were weak, and local officials exploited the situation to their own advantage, spending money on prostitution, extravagant weddings, and costly funeral ceremonies.  To pay for these luxuries, they placed excessive demands on the labor services of the peasants under their authority who supported them.  Officials would often force peasants to take high interest loans to survive and support their families. Then, when the peasants could not pay off their debt, the officials demanded labor as repayment instead.  Some rural families were even forced to sell family members into indentured servitude to pay expenses. 

Such corrupt practices hurt farm productivity significantly, and peasants began leaving the countryside in greater numbers to move to Naha or Shuri, where they could hope to escape these hard conditions. 

Reconstruction Begins – Three Leaders

Finally, beginning in the 1650's, the Ryukyu government began instituting measures to reconstruct their society.  These efforts continued for the rest of that century.

Three notable leaders emerged, who would shape the philosophical and political course of the Ryukyu kingdom.  All three faced the problem of how to justify the existence of Ryukyu in light of the new conditions the kingdom found itself in, namely a vassal to both China and Japan. 

Each of these men had distinctly different philosophies on how best to accomplish this.

Sho Shoken (1617-1675)

The first person of note to lead reforms was Sho Shoken  (Haneji Oji Choshu).  Born in 1617, he served as Sessei (Prime Minister) from 1666 to 1673.  He saw Ryukyu first and foremost as a vassal of Satsuma.  He worked to improve the image of Ryukyu and the Okinawan people in the eyes of Japan. Sho Shoken also led efforts to make it seem that Japan had been a strong connection since ancient times.  He died in 1675, two years after retiring as Sessei.

Tei Junsoku (1663-1734)

The second person of note to influence Ryukyu development was Tei Junsoku (Nago Ueekata Chobun), often called the “Sage of Nago”.  Born in Kumemura in 1663, and a frequent traveler to China, he served various positions, including membership in the Sanshikan (Council of Three).

Contrary to Sho Shoken's approach, Tei Junsoku viewed Ryukyu primarily as a vassal of China’s Qing Court, and before that, the Ming Dynasty.  He worked to improve Ryukyu’s image in China’s eyes, by promoting Chinese studies in Ryukyu, and essentially ignored or minimized the significance of any impact or influence on the kingdom that may have come from Japan.  He died in 1734.

Sai On (1682-1761)

Finally, the last and perhaps most influential figure to steer Ryukyu’s direction was Sai On (Gushi-chan Bunjaku).  Sai On was also pro-Chinese like Tei Junsoku, but also pragmatic. 

He was appointed to the Sanshikan in 1728, and retired in 1752.  Sai On used the tension created between the two prior views – pro Japan vs. pro China -  to produce a new vision, and based it on Confucianism. He understood the dominating forces at play from Satsuma, yet also recognized the continuing need to maintain contact with China. His strategy was to use Confucian ideology to minimize the impact of Satsuma political power while at the same time empowering Ryukyuans to take their fate into their own hands.

He placed Ryukyu on a moral par with both China and Japan. He believed and preached that outward material stability and prosperity were the result of inward moral excellence.  He therefore took the position that Okinawa’s destiny was in its own hands.   The first Okinawan to write an autobiography, he died in 1761.

A series of posts will follow this one, giving some additional details about the work of each of these three historical figures in Okinawan history.

Next:  Sho Shoken


Gregory Smits.  Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics.  University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

George H. Kerr.  Okinawa: the History of an Island People, revised edition. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000.

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