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A History of Ancient Ryukyu (古琉球史) - by John Michael Purves

This is a work under construction. As sections become available in lengthier form there will be a clickable link within the list below:

01. Geology versus Creation Myths
02. The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus
03. Early Mentions of Ryukyu and Amami
04. Stages of Community Development
05. Utaki and Makyo Village Formation
06. The Rise of the Aji and Development of Gusuku
07. From the Three Principalities (Sanzan) Era to Unification
08. Ming China and the Tributary System
09. Tribute and Investiture
10. Shou Hashi - The Military Unification of Okinawa
11. Naha and Kumemura
12. Shou Shin - The Centralization of Ryukyu
13. The Development of Relations with Satsuma



1. Prehistoric Ryukyu (琉球先史時代)

1. Times of Myth and Legend

We know nothing about the earliest period in the history of Ryukyu-Okinawa. We have the story of a Tenson Dynasty (てんそんし/天孫氏) streching back in excess of 18,000 years but we can understand this as being a Chinese style myth of an ideal past (one that later kings would obviously mess up, which is also where the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven comes in) that Haneji Choushuu used in the first narrative history of Ryukyu-Okinawa in 1650. In reality, we don't have any physical evidence of the existence of the early kings of Okinawa. We only have stories, none of which can be verified. But that's not to say that there's no truth in them.


Creation Myths

Patrick Beillevaire, “Agari-umaai, of the Eastern Tour: A Ryukyuan Royal Ritual and its Transformations” in Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan (Routledge 2007)

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. Chapter 2, pages 14-42.

仲原善忠, 外間守善著、 おもろさうし (定本). 東京:角川書店、1967. For those who would like more detailed information on the Omoro saushi, read the introductory chapter entitled “Omoro sousetsu” (おもろさうし総説) pages 13-53.

井上秀雄、”歴史教育における神話伝説の取り扱い.” 琉大史学 第9号、4月1977.

外間守善, 波照間永吉編著、琉球国由来記 (Ryuukyuu koku yuraiki. The Origins of the Kingdom of Ryukyu). 東京:角川書店、1997.




5. Utaki and Makyo Village Formation

Most likely introduced from Japan, rice cultivation began to develop throughout the Ryukyus, albeit unevenly. This led to the establishment of early communities in proximity to cultivated areas. Many obvious factors came into play when early villages sites were chosen but the identification of a sacred area, known as an utaki was a very important consideration. Village housing was arranged so that the founding family (families) would reside closest to the utaki. Branch families would be housed behind the founders. This earliest form of village is called a 'makyo.'


Utaki and Village Resources

仲松弥秀 (Nakamatsu Yashuu), 古層の村 (kosou no mura): 沖縄民俗文化論 (那覇: 沖縄タイムス社, 1977).

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. Chapter 3, pages 42-97.

(PDF document) "UTAKI in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage"

ASATO Susumu, “From Gusuku to Utaki: Okinawa’s Sacred Areas from an Archeological Perspective” in UTAKI in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage.

KAMINO Yoshiharu, “The Significance of Utaki as Cultural Heritage: Toward Integrated Preservation of Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage” in UTAKI in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage.

外間守善, 波照間永吉編著、琉球国由来記 (Ryuukyuu koku yuraiki. The Origins of the Kingdom of Ryukyu). 東京:角川書店、1997.

Masako Tanaka, Kinship and Descent in an Okinawan Village, Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, Dissertation Information Service, 1974.



6. The Rise of the Aji and Development of Gusuku

As the population of the island began to increase both through settled evolution in villages and continued migration from the north, more villages were established. Whereas the earliest settlers had plentiful lands and resources to utilize, the emergence of new villages led to issues about resource access and use which, in turn, led to the need for persons engaged to watch over the community and basic fortifications for defensive purposes. It is during this era, late in the Shellmound period from about the 11th century, that local leaders known as 'aji' or 'anji' emerged.



Gusuku-related Resources

安里進, 高良倉吉, 田名真之, 豊見山和行, 西里喜行, 真栄平房昭, 沖縄県の歴史:県史47 (Okinawa-ken no rekishi: kenshi 47. A History of Okinawa Prefecture: Prefectural Histories No. 47). 東京 : 山川出版社, 2004. Chapter 2 - “大型グスクの時代” - pages 39-57.

高良倉吉, 沖縄歴史論序説. 東京 : 三一書房, 1980.

ASATO Susumu, “From Gusuku to Utaki: Okinawa’s Sacred Areas from an Archeological Perspective” in UTAKI in Okinawa and Sacred Spaces in Asia: Community Development and Cultural Heritage.

Japanese: 安里進、琉球の王権とグスク (Ryuukyuu no ouken to gusuku. The Fortified Compounds and Royal Authority of Ryukyu). 東京:山川出版者、2006.

Japanese: 安里進、 グスク・共同体・村: 沖縄歴史考古学序説. 宜野湾: 榕樹書林、1998.

English: Richard Pearson, ‘Archaeological Perspectives on the Rise of the Okinawan State’. Journal of Archaeological Research, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2001, 243-285.

Pearson, R. (1997), 'The Chuzan Kingdom of Okinawa as a City State,' in Nichols, D.L. and T.H. Charlton., editors. The Archaeology of City-States: Cross-Cultural Approaches. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Gusuku Jouheki section of the Gusuku-Michi Website (Japanese only. An excellent resource, especially for those with a car and curiosity)

グスクみち - Gusuku-Michi Website


Clearly, conflicts ensued between local aji. Some villages were defeated and then incorporated into the victor's territory. In other cases alliances were formed. Those with sufficient wealth constructed fortified compounds with stone walls that were added to over time. Some built grand structures within the confines of the walls. These fortified structures are known as 'gusuku,' but 'gushiku' or 'suku' are regional variations. The term gusuku is commonly translated as castle but this is valid in only a few cases. Most were not.

7. From the Three Principalities (Sanzan) Era to Unification

Aji-village conflict and consolidation continued to a point where Okinawa Island was divided into three distinct principalities, the era known as the 'Sanzan Jidai.' Hokuzan in the north was the largest area but was predominantly hills and forests with few good ports and a small population. Nanzan in the south was the smallest of the three, but possessed good agricultural land areas and a number of ports. Chuuzan in the center of the island was blessed with the largest amount of agricultural land and two excellent deep water ports amongst others. Its final advantage in the race for territorial supremacy came with the Urasoe King Satto's establishment of relations in 1372 with the Ming Dynasty of China that had come into being just four years earlier.

The Legendary Early Kings of Chuuzan (中山) - Urasoe and Shuri

Shunten 舜天 1187-1237
Shun Bajunki 舜馬順熈 1238-1248
Gihon 義本 1249-1259
Eiso 英祖 1260-1299
Taisei 大成 1300-1308
Eiji 英慈 1309-1313
Tamagusuku 玉城 1314-1336
Seii 西威 1337-1354
Satto 察度 1355-1395
Bunei 武寧 1396-1405
Shou Shishou 尚思紹 1405-1421
Shou Hashi 尚巴志 1422-1429

The Legendary Kings of Nanzan (南山) - Ozato

Ufusato 承察度 1337?-1396?
Oueishi 汪英紫 1388-1402?
Ououso 汪応祖 1403?-1413
Tafuchi 達勃期 1413?-1414?
Taromii 他魯毎 1415?-1429

The Legendary Kings of Hokuzan (北山) - Nakijin

Hanishi 帕尼芝 1322-1395?
Min 珉 1396-1400?
Hananchi 攀安知 1401- 1416



The Three Principalities (Sanzan) Era to Unification

Yao, one of the mythical sage kings of China

Shun, another mythical sage king of China

The Chinese Zhou Dynasty

The well field system

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven

Kublai Khan (忽必烈汗)

Hokuzan principality

Chuuzan principality

Nanzan principality



8. Ming China and the Tributary System

Relations with China were based on Okinawa agreeing to pay tribute to the Ming Emperor on a regular basis and recognizing his, and his empire's greatness. China's obligation was to send an investiture mission to crown and, in so doing, legitimize the monarch of Okinawa as a subordinate to the Ming Emperor. The king of Okinawa would be obliged to defend China from attack if ever requested to do so. He never was. In accepting subordinate status to China the tiny island of Okinawa would receive significant material and technological benefits. Okinawans were also able to trade on China's behalf throughout Asia and, in so doing, become very wealthy. This period is referred to as ‘The First Golden Age of Okinawa,’ being based on technological progress and economic advancement. Ryukyuan vessels acquired goods in China, Japan and Korea that would be traded in the markets of Southeast Asia and would return with all manner of precious and exotic goods from East Africa, Arabia and India that could be traded in East Asia for significant profit. This was the business of transit trade with Naha becoming a storage and distribution center.



Ming China and the Tributary System

安里進, 高良倉吉, 田名真之, 豊見山和行, 西里喜行, 真栄平房昭, 沖縄県の歴史:県史47 (Okinawa-ken no rekishi: kenshi 47. A History of Okinawa Prefecture: Prefectural Histories No. 47). 東京 : 山川出版社, 2004. Chapter 3 - “古琉球王国の王統” - pages 59-96. Chapter 4 - “海外交易と琉球” - pages 97-123.

Takara Kurayoshi, ‘An Outline of Ryukyu’s Relation to China,’ in Josef Kreiner (Ed.), Ryukyu in World History (Japan Archiv, Vol. 2). Bonn: Bier'sche Verlagsanstalt, 2001.

東恩納寛惇、東恩納寛惇全集第1巻 (Higaonna Kanjun zenshu. The Collected Works of Higaonna Kanjun) [特に、琉球の歴史. 概説沖縄史. 沖縄渉外史. An Outline of Okinawan History. A History of the Foreign Relations of Okinawa]. 東京 : 第一書房、1978-82.

K.J. Holsti, International politics : a framework for analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1988. Useful in terms of setting the Chinese tributaty system in the context of other international relations systems.

The History of China

Portraits of Chinese Emperors

Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋)

Zhu Yunwen (建文)

Zhu Di (朱棣)

Zheng He


The Tributary System


Chinese history texts

Takara Kurayoshi, ‘The Kingdom of Ryukyu and its Overseas Trade,’ in Josef Kreiner (Ed.) Sources of Ryukyuan History and Culture in European Collections. Munich: Iudicium, 1996.

‘The Rekidai Hoan: An Introduction to Documents of the Ryukyu Kingdom,’ Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, Vol. 3, March 2003.

Atsushi Kobata & Mitsugu Matsuda, Ryukyuan Relations with Korea and South Sea Countries: An Annotated Translation of Documents in the Rekidai Houan. Kyoto: Atsushi Kobata, 1969.

高良倉吉, 琉球王国 (Ryuukyuu oukoku. The Kingdom of Ryukyu). 東京 : 岩波書店、1993.

高良倉吉, アジアのなかの琉球王国 (Ajia no naka no Ryuukyuu oukoku. The Kingdom of Ryukyu within Asia). 東京: 吉川弘文館、1998.

赤嶺守、琉球王国:東アジアのコーナーストーン (Ryuukyuu oukoku: higashi ajia no koonaasutoon. The Kingdom of Ryukyu: The Cornerstone of East Asia). 東京:講談社 , 2004.

沖縄国際大学公開講座委員会編、琉球王国の時代 (Ryuukyuu oukoku no jidai. The Kingdom of Ryukyu Era). 那覇: ボーダーインク、1996.

Ta-tuan Ch’en, ‘Investiture of Liu-Ch’iu Kings in the Ch’ing Period,’ in John Fairbank (Ed.), The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968.

安里進, “琉球王国の形成 [Ryuukyuu oukoku no keisei. The Formation of the Ryukyu Kingdom),” in 荒野泰典, 石井正敏, 村井章介編, アジアのなかの日本史IV:地域と民族 (エトノス) (Ajia no naka no Nihonshi IV: chiiki to minzoku. Japanese History in Asia: Region and Ethnos). 東京: 東京大学出版会, 1992), pp. 111-136.

Sakamaki, Shunzo, ‘Ryukyu and Southeast Asia,’ Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No 3, May, 1964.

Mitsugu Matsuda, The Ryukyuan Government scholarship students to China 1392-1868. Monumenta Nipponica: Studies in Japanese Culture, volume 21, Nos.3-4, 1962.

Takara, K. and M. Dana., editors (1993). Zusetsu: Ryukyu okoku. Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha.

Chen, Tetsuo. (1976). 'Min-Shin ryocho to Ryukyu Okoku koshoshi no kenkyu: Ryukyu Okoku sappu no shijitsu nitsuite.' Ryudai Shigaku 8.

Chen, Tetsuo (1977). 'Min-Shin ryocho to Ryukyu Okoku koshoshi no kenkyu: Ryukyugo to Chugokugo no kankei shijitsu nitsuite.' Ryudai Shigaku 9.



10. Shou Hashi - The Military Unification of Okinawa

In 1405, the forces of Hashi, son of the Sashiki Aji Nawashiro, took control of Urasoe gusuku and put his father on the throne. Teaming up with other Chuzan aji Hashi conquered Hokuzan in 1416 and wiped out the remaining resistance to the island's south by 1422 (or 1429). In honor of this achievement the Ming Emperor awarded Hashi the family name '尚 Shou' that all subsequent kings of Okinawa and the later Ryukyu Kingdom would continue using until 1879. Hashi also relocated the capital from Urasoe to Shuri.

Upon the death of his father Hashi ascended to the throne in 1422. He had unified Okinawa by sheer military force and had alliances in place with powerful aji who had served as military commanders during the civil war period. Shou Hashi himself would face no challenges as king at Shuri but subsequent rulers who were less feared would have to utilize diplomacy and intermarriage to keep the peace.

In all honesty, the only real threat to Shuri dominance was from Katsuren, an area rich in agricultural production and possessing one of Okinawa Island's two great deep water ports. Amawari, the aji of Katsuren, had a solid power base and all the means to cause trouble if he so desired. Not that he did. Shuri relied on old alliances forged by Shou Hashi to fortify the gusuku at Nakagusuku in the 1440’s and have its aji Gosamaru charged with keeping a careful eye on potentially treasonous activities at Katsuren. All hell eventually broke loose when inaccurate (if not deliberately planted) plot gossip pushed the Shuri King Shou Taikyu to attack his loyal ally Gosamuru (who is supposed to have "died in indignation") before crushing Amawari.

The Kings of the First Shou Dynasty (1405-1469

Shou Shishou 尚思紹 (1405-1421)
Shou Hashi 尚巴志 (1422-1439)
Shou Chuu 尚忠 (1440-1442)
Shou Shitatsu 尚思達 (1443-1449)
Shou Kinpuku 尚金福 (1450-1453)
Shou Taikyuu 尚泰久 (1454-1460)
Shou Toku 尚徳 (1461-1469)



Rekidai Houan

Shunsuke Fukushima, “長虹堤の跡を追って” 歴史に学ぶ シリーズ11 (しまたてい)

The Kingdom of Ryukyu






12. Shou Shin - The Centralization of Okinawa

The transferral of power from father king to prince son was traditional in Okinawa though there were exceptions. The ascendance of King Shou En to the throne was entirely different. Here, the royal court elders determined upon the death of Shou Toku that the seed of his heirs was not strong enough for the throne. Shou Toku had a reputation for being militarily gung-ho and exhibiting rather unconventional social habits (not quite sure what these were), Regardless, the court elders approached Kanemaru, a recently-retired government official, and asked him if he would take the job. He agreed. As such, the newly-installed King Shou En had no blood connection to the previous kings and had, in fact, begun life as a peasant farmer who had been accused of stealing water at night to irrigate his fields, on at least two occasions.

Shou En himself was not one of Okinawa's greatest kings in terms of personal achievements, though he did sire a son who would become Okinawa's longest-reigning monarch and probably the nation's greatest architect of reform and instigator of territorial expansion. It is only after Shou Shin that we can talk of a proper Ryukyu Kingdom from Yonaguni furthest south to Kikaigashima in Amami (Amami Oshima would be added to make the picture complete in 1571). Given that he was but a child when he first sat on the throne Shou Shin's initial policies were more likely the product of his mother or upper level officials administering in a regent-like capacity. Regardless, he was responsible for 1) quelling resistance on the fringes of the kingdom through military force, paving the way for successors to expand the territory under Shuri control (a process complete by 1571), 2) bringing about political centralization that eliminated danger of domestic challenges to the throne at Shuri, 3) reforming the Shuri Government and local administration, 4) reforming the social hierarchy with the idea of tracing and recording family lineage (that would eventually become a full genealogy department) and a basic system of ranks and grades, 5) organizing a comprehensive defense system for Shuri and Naha, 6) putting in place a religious hierarchy from Shuri itself down to individual districts and villages and 7) adding further to the majesty of Shuri and Naha with a number of important royal construction projects.

Early Kings of the Second Shou Dynasty (1470-1620)

Shou En 尚円 (1470-1476)
Shou Seni 尚宣威 (1477)
Shou Shin 尚真 (1477-1526)
Shou Sei 尚清 (1527-1555)
Shou Gen 尚元 (1556-1572)
Shou Ei 尚永 (1573-1586)
Shou Nei 尚寧 (1587-1620)


Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987.

上里 隆史、 琉日戦争一六〇九―島津氏の琉球侵攻。 出版社: ボーダーインク (2009/12)
ISBN-10: 4899821700  ISBN-13: 978-4899821700

高良倉吉、琉球王国の構造。東京 : 吉川弘文館, 1987.

Patrick Beillevaire, “Agari-umaai, of the Eastern Tour: A Ryukyuan Royal Ritual and its Transformations” in Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan (2007)

新城俊昭著 (Arashiro Toshiaki), 高等学校琉球・沖縄の歴史と文化 : 書き込み教科書 (糸満: 編集工房東洋企画, 2010) (¥1,500) ISBN 9784938984694

Ryukyuan social hierarchy

The Kingdom of Ryukyu



[PDF] 琉球王国時代に造られた石畳「金城の石畳道」



13. The Development of Relations with Satsuma

Okinawa had been trading with Japan under China's aegis on a regular basis since the early 15th century. The first port of call was usually the Satsuma domain centered in Kagoshima to take on food and water and prepare for the voyage to Japan's inland sea and Sakai. Because of the amount of piracy in the waters from Ryukyu to Japan it became practical to engage Satsuma vessels in a bodyguard-type role with Satsuma in turn getting first access to exotic goods from Southeast Asia and wares from China. Relations were firmly based on mutual benefit and Okinawa was in no way a tributary or dependency of Satsuma or, as Japan finally ended centuries of civil war and unified under Tokugawa Ieyasu early in the 17th century, of Tokyo (Edo). Great powers are wont, however, to trifle with matters of sovereignty regarding smaller states, even if they have no right to do so. Satsuma had loyalty issues with the Tokugawa Government and decided to use the Ryukyu Kingdom as a test case of its devotion. Because Ryukyu King Shou Nei had, quite rightly, refused to contribute to a proposed Japanese invasion of Korea (which would then have progressed on into Ming China) and because he had apparently disrespected the shogun by not sending a congratulatory mission to Edo (again, Ryukyu was not part of Japan and therefore had no obligation to go kowtowing in Edo), Satsuma stepped forward to valiantly propose a punitive expedition that the shogun agreed to.



沖縄県の歴史: Chapter 4 - “海外交易と琉球” - pages 114-124.

沖縄県の歴史: Chapter 5 - “東アジアの変動と琉球” - pages 125--137.

新城俊昭著 (Arashiro Toshiaki), 高等学校琉球・沖縄の歴史と文化 : 書き込み教科書 (糸満: 編集工房東洋企画, 2010) (¥1,500) ISBN 9784938984694

豊見山和行、琉球王国の外交と王権 (Ryuukyuu oukoku no gaikou to ouken. The Diplomacy and Royal Authority of the Kingdom of Ryukyu). 東京:吉川弘文館, 2004. (本館沖縄開架B - 201.18/TO)

豊見山和行, 琉球・沖縄史の世界. 東京: 吉川弘文館, 2003. (本館沖縄開架B - 201/TO)

高良倉吉, 琉球王国 (東京 : 岩波書店, 1993) Ryudai 201/TA

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. Chapter 2, pages 14-42. (Ryudai 911/SA - Okinawa)

The legend of Tametomo

Complete Listing of the Kings of Ryukyu [external Wikipedia website - Japanese - retrieved 16th October 2007]



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