The Ryukyu government began instituting measures to reconstruct their society beginning in the mid 1600’s, following the Satsuma invasion. 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.
In this post, we will take a brief look at Sho Shoken.
Sho Shoken (Haneji Oji Choshu): 1617-1675
The first 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 as a vassal of Satsuma first and foremost. He worked to improve the image of Ryukyu and the Okinawan people in the eyes of Satsuma Japan. Sho Shoken led efforts to make it seem that this had been the case since ancient times. He died in 1675, two years after retiring as Sessei.
Sho Shoken studied Confucianism, and traveled to Satsuma 3-4 times in his lifetime, spending a total of four years in Japan.
He looked to Satsuma as a model for how Ryukyu should conduct itself. In 1666 he became a sessei (prime minister) with the strong backing of Satsuma.
Sho Shoken therefore urged Ryukyuans to master Japanese culture, embrace Satsuma control, and cooperate with their overlords, in order to revitalize the society, economy, and government of Okinawa.
Cultural Studies at Shuri
One of his goals was to change the entrenched tradition and customs of the Shuri inner palace. At that time Japan viewed Ryukyuans as inferior people. Sho Shoken tried to change that view by teaching arts to Okinawans that the Japanese considered to be measures of refinement. In that regard, he required that for a person to be qualified for a government office, in addition to the proper aristocratic lineage, they would also need to study the following arts:
· library arts
· native music
· Chinese music
· Tea ceremony
· Flower arrangement
The Mirror of Chuzan
In 1650 he began work on the famous “Mirror of Chuzan”, a recorded history of the Ryukyu Islands from the earliest days. Much of our knowledge of the old kingdoms comes from this work. But it needs to be interpreted in the spirit of the times in which it was written, namely that the stories were “spun” to fit with the idea that Ryukyu had always been a part of Satsuma territory. It also emphasized Confucian ethics.
Reforms in Okinawan Customs, Religion, and Government
Sho Shoken also attempted to institute various reforms to change customs and attitudes that were not only in line with Japanese ways, but also to reduce household expenses, reduce corruption, and increase diligence among government officials.
In the traditional Ryukyu religion, women were considered to have superior spiritual powers compared to men. Sho Shoken tried to change this. He attempted to remove female religious officials from the public realm as much as possible. As just one example, the royal palace was no longer allowed to use female palace officials to convey royal messages.
Countryside reforms were also instituted to:
1. Prevent abuses of peasant labor by local officials that cut productivity
2. Reorganize local villages to mimic Satsuma ways
3. Provide a tax incentive for those who could bring additional land under cultivation
He also tried to regulate spending on weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites among the aristocracy since paying for these costs was the main reason why local peasants were abused.
In 1667 he put limitations on the rites that officials could conduct for ensuring safe passage of ships to china, specifically:
1. He removed the king from the ceremonies to downgrade them and thereby reduce costs
2. He stopped the king from attending the semi-annual trip with the Priestess to Kudakajima to worship deities –the most sacred rite in native Okinawan religion. His reasons:
- The trip was hazardous (one mile out to sea) and therefore posed a danger to the king
- People from “large countries” would laugh at such rites
- The financial burden on the kingdom was excessive
Sho Shoken retired as Sessei in 1673, and passed away in 1675.
Next post: Tei Junsoku
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.
Wikipedia: Sho Shoken
Wikipedia: Sho Shoken