Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ryukyu Kingdom Reformers after 1609: Part Four – Sai On

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 examine the works of perhaps the most famous of the three, Sai On.

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 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 sought to place Ryukyu on a moral equivalent 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.
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. 

Sai On’s Early Years and Government Affairs

At age 27 he arrived in China with tribute mission. While there he studied under a Chinese monk for two years on many subjects, including geomancy.  (Geomancy is a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand.)
He returned to Okinawa three years later in 1711 and became tutor to crown prince Sho Kei.  The following year he conducted a geomantic assessment of Shuri castle and other sites.   That same year Sho Kei became king.  Sho Kei’s investiture, however, essentially depleted the treasury, and an ad hoc tax was placed on Shuri, Tomari, Naha and Kumemurea which lasted until 1728.
 Sai On was very much involved in affairs of the country.  In 1718 he dredged Naha harbor, which had filled with silt.  In 1719 Sai On moderated a tense situation known as Hangaa in Okinawan, or Hyoka in Japanese, or the “Valuation Incident”.  A Chinese mission had arrived with goods that it expected to sell, valued at 2,000 kanme of silver, but Ryukyu had only 500 kanme.  The Chinese traders were quite upset, but Sai On was somehow able to calm the situation.
Nevertheless, the 1700’s was a time when a wide variety of culture flourished: literature, music, drama, fine arts, and technical studies.  It was during this era that turtle-shell tombs were introduced.  The formation of formal lineage organizations also began.

“The Way of Government”

Sai On was prolific when it came to writing his views on a variety of issues.  His “The Way of Government” was a description of how he viewed the proper conduct for a country in order for it to prosper.
He viewed the world as having two kinds of fate that humans had to face:
  • Unchangeable fate
  • Fate that humans have the capacity to alter
To alter one’s destiny for the best possible outcome, or that of a country, several activities needed to be undertaken.  Specifically his view was that:
1.       To have stability in a changing cosmos requires long term planning
2.       The Human world is like waves and human endeavors are like boats
3.       One cannot avoid the world of waves but one can prepare for them
4.       The great enemy of mankind is complacency
5.       Moral effort is the only way to improve one’s materials circumstances in the long run, not “countless plans and secret contrivances”

What Makes a Country Great? 

Sai On also espoused his views on countries and why some were great and some were not.

Countries could be divided into nine grades according to their resources as follows:
  • Based on a country’s total resources one could separate countries into superior, median and inferior levels. 
  • Each of these divisions could be further separated into high, middle and low based on how those resources were used or spent.  
  • The basic resources were water, fire, earth, wood, and metal.  
  • To be prosperous, a nation required all five elements. 
Therefore, according to Sai On, Ryukyu was a Low-Inferior country.  It did not have many resources to begin with, and what it did have was used heavily. 

Basic Resources for Prosperity 

Sai On’s philosophy also delved more specifically into each of the critical resources:
  • Water, fire, and earth are ubiquitous to all countries, therefore not the deciding difference.
  • Wood and metal are the key elements to address in order to build up a country’s greatness. 
  • The Ryukyu Kingdom lacked metal but was rich in wood.  
  • Therefore, by exporting wood to Satsuma and importing metal from them in return, the Satsuma overlords allowed Ryukyu to have all five elements and to be complete.
Sai On was so concerned about Ryukyu’s resources that he developed and implemented a complex and effective forest management system.  (See below)

 More Changes for the Kingdom

In 1728 he was appointed to the Sanshikan, or Council of Three, and became the most powerful person in the royal court, for all practical purposes.  As such he was active in trying to implement a variety of additional social and cultural policy changes in:
1.       Ritual and ceremony
2.       Material prosperity
3.       Rectification of social life

 Changes in ritual and ceremony: 

Sai On felt that symbols were important items to be manipulated in order to create and maintain political authority.  He therefore sought to control and change the relationship between the Ryukyu King, the High Priestess, and God.
In the old order of authority the High priestess communicated directly with heaven, and heaven spoke directly to her. The King was considered to be a God.
Sai On’s new position was that the King, not the High Priestess, was the link to heaven and furthermore, the King was a Confucian sage.  Therefore the King had a primary and active role and the High Priestess held a secondary role.  In this way he tried to reduce the influence of women in court and government affairs.

Changes in Material Prosperity: 

Forest and agricultural policies were very much on Sai On’s mind because by 1735 timber resources were being severely depleted in Okinawa. Sai On became deeply interested in the scientific and technical investigation of cultivating crops, forest management, and hydraulic engineering.
He wrote handbooks on agricultural policies, and made implementation of these policies a part of each peasant’s duties.  Penalties were assessed for anyone found cutting trees without permission. On the other hand, he allowed the local peasants to share in the profit from government forest lands in exchange for their participation in his new policies.
In terms of agricultural engineering, he developed the “fish-scale” pattern of forest construction to gain more value from the lumber activities.  This method allowed more trees to grow straight and tall and therefore more valuable, since trees that were bent and gnarled by the wind were of lesser quality. 
His "fish-scale" method was as follows:
  • Old bent trees were cut down in many small semicircular blocks.
  • A thin ring of old growth was left in place, forming an interconnected network of semicircular old growth shells, in a honeycomb network. 
  • This protected the young trees from the wind, allowing them to grow tall and straight. 
  • He also used Ryukyu pines (called “Sai On” pines) as windbreakers, especially on roads. 
  • A thick sturdy shrub called adan was planted in between the spaces between trees, and together this made a natural wall that was thick and tall. 
  • This method was also used to protect field and crops from wind and waves. It was used along rivers and ditches too.

Control of local religion and social practices: 

Sai On viewed local Okinawan practices as being not only in conflict with Confucian morality, but also a drain on the kingdom’s wealth due to high costs of festivals, plus the time lost to agriculture productivity. As one example, mourning rites traditionally lasted 49 days.  Since it was typically the case that everyone in an entire village was related, this meant that no one in the village worked in the fields for that entire time.   
Therefore he attempted to place restrictions on local festivals and religious practices to try to increase the number of days per year that peasants spent working, as opposed to partying. 
Sai On also orchestrated a campaign against shamanism, but was not successful.  And Confucianism never caught on with the villagers. 

Sai On’s Supporters and Enemies 


While Sai On had the support of both the King and leaders in Satsuma Japan, nevertheless he had opposition from others. Resistance to Sai On came from three sources.
  • Peasants did not like his attempts to change their religion and culture, and therefore gave passive resistance when they could. 
  • The Elite of Kumemura felt themselves in a rivalry with Shuri royalty for influence, and for control of Confucian schools and teachers. 
  • Tei Junsoku and his followers had strong differences of opinion with Sai On’s views on Japan’s role in Ryukyu’s wealth and future. 
In 1734 a rival faction rose up against Sai On, accusing him of being too pro-Chinese, and led by a pair of scholar-bureaucrats, Heshikiya Chōbin and Tomoyose Anjō.  Before any plots against Sai On could be executed, however, Chōbin and fourteen others were arrested and put to death.

Legend says that Heshikiya Chobin and the daughter of Shō Kei had been in love, and that when he was executed, she threw herself from the castle walls, committing suicide.  Only her leg was found, and from then on a particular pavilion in the castle's gardens came to be known as "One-Leg Pavilion" (Kunra gushiku).

 “One Man’s Views”

 In 1750  Sai On wrote a treatise entitled “One Man’s Views” (Hitori Monogatari), which was an outline of key policy issues he documented for the benefit of future generations.  His points were that:
  • Satsuma’s control of Okinawa has been beneficial to Ryukyu. 
  • Even poor small countries can achieve peace and prosperity if they only adhere closely to “fundamental principles” of the “Way of Government.” 
  • Ryukyu has obligations to both China and Japan which it cannot fulfill, and yet it has survived. Why?  His answer was geomancy: 
    • The Okinawa mountain ranges all connect to form a shape like a dragon.  
    • Dragons are associated with concentrations of material energies. 
    • This geographical arrangement and concentration of energies helped Ryukyu in the past despite the lack of the “Way of Government”. 
    • Satsuma had brought to Ryukyu the “Way of Government”.
The first Okinawan to write an autobiography, he died in 1761.  His policies, however, continued to be embraced by all subsequent Ryukyu Kings up until the Meiji Restoration and subsequent dissolving of the Ryukyu Kingdom.


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: Sai On

Wikipedia:  Heshikiya Chobin

Wikipedia:  Pinus luchuensis


No comments:

Post a Comment