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1. Prehistoric Ryukyu (琉球先史時代)

1-1. 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.


1-2. The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus

Archaeological evidence points to early human habitation in the region 32,000 years ago. The oldest human remains discovered at Minatogawa in southern Okinawa in the 1960's and have been carbon-dated as 18,000 years old.

The dominant current theory is that the first arrivals into the Ryukyus (and Japan) were early-Mongoloids who came via land bridges from Southeast Asia. Genetic traces of these earliest arrivals are still found in Okinawa and in Hokkaido. The theory goes on to posit that later mass Mongoloid arrivals from Northeast Asia into Japan via the Korean Peninsula pushed the earlier settlers to the peripheries.

The predominant culture throughout the Ryukyu Islands, as everywhere else in the world, was hunter-gather for many thousands of years. Rice farming was first introduced from China to Japan along with the mass arrival of a second wave of Mongoloids during the Yayoi Period (300 BC to 300 AD) from Northeast Asia via the Korean Peninsula. The long hunter-gather period in the Ryukyus is known as the Shellmound Period (Kaizuka jidai). It is thought that migration into the Ryukyus slowed considerably as rice farming took root in Japan leading to the formation of settled communities. Archaeologists find plenty of artifacts from the earlier Jomon era (14,000 BC to 300 BC) in the northern Ryukyus but far less in terms of Yayoi artifacts.


The Earliest Humans and Migration into the Ryukyus

"Pleistocene human remains from Shiraho-Saonetabaru Cave on Ishigaki Island, Okinawa, Japan, and their radiocarbon dating" written by RYOHEI NAKAGAWA, NAOMI DOI, YUICHIRO NISHIOKA, SHIN NUNAMI, HEIZABURO YAMAUCHI, MASAKI FUJITA, SHINJI YAMAZA


安里進、土肥直美, 沖縄人はどこから来たか: 琉球=沖縄人の起源と成立 (Uchinanchu wa doko kara kitaka? Ryuukyuu-Uchinanchu no Shigen to Seiritsu - Where do Okinawans come from? The Origins and Formation of the Ryukyuan-Okinawan People). 那覇:ボーダーインク,1999.

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

Hanihara Kazuro, “The Origin of the Japanese in Relation to Other Ethnic Groups in East Asia”, in Richard Pearson (Ed), Windows on the Japanese Past: Studies in Archaeology and Prehistory, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1986.

Pearson, R.J., editor (1969). Archaeology of the Ryukyu Islands: A Regional Chronology from 3000 BC to the Historic Period, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mark Hudson, Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.


Ancient Japan: Jomon and Yayoi http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ANCJAPAN/YAYOI.HTM



小田静夫, 琉球弧の考古学 -南西諸島におけるヒト・モノの交流史-




1-3. Early Mentions of Ryukyu and Amami

The first mention of a 'Country of Ryukyu' (Ryukyu-koku) that can be reached by five days of sailing from China is mentioned in the 7th century Chinese history text the 'Sui Shu.' Amami (part of the Ryukyu Archipelago) is first mentioned in the 'Shoku Nihongi,' an 8th century official Japanese history text.




Liang Chia-pin, "On the “Liu-ch'iu” in the Sui-Shu", Chinese Culture Vol. 10, No. 1, March 1969. If you can acquire this it is an interesting read on the issue of whether Liuchiu actually referred to Okinawa or Taiwan. The issue was eventually sorted by the Portuguese who referred to Okinawa as Lequio Grande and Taiwan as Lequio Pequeno.

Etymology resources

小玉正任、史料が語る琉球と沖縄 (Shiryou ga kataru: Ryuukyuu to Okinawa. Ryukyu and Okinawa: As Mentioned in Historical Sources). 東京: 毎日新聞社、1993.


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.




1-4. Primary Ryukyu-Okinawa History Resources

Chuuzan Seikan (中山世鑑)

(1650) The first official history of Ryukyu was edited and compiled by Haneji Choushuu (or Shou Jouken). Katrien Hendrickx suggests that the appearance of genealogical records commissioned by the Shimazu clan and the Tokugawa bakufu (Hayashi Gahou and Hayashi Razan, ‘Kan'ei shoka keizu-den’ [寛永諸家系図伝] was a genealogy of feudal lords and warrior families written between 1641-43) provided the catalyst for such a work in Ryukyu.

Based on a range of inputs including the Okinawa-Amami songs and poems that were gathered and recorded as the ‘Omoro Saushi’ during the early part of the 17th century, Chinese-style classics and myths, and the travel diaries of the Chinese Imperial envoy Chen Kan and the Japanese Buddhist priest Taichuu. The style is also said to resemble the war chronicles of 12th century Japan known as ‘The Tale of Hougen’ (Hougen Monogatari 保元物語).

Chuuzan Seikan was purposely written in Japanese to reflect the post-Satsuma conquest political situation. It accentuates Ryukyu-Japan historical ties (with the first king of Ryukyu, Shunten, claimed as being of royal Japanese ancestry), it supported the vassalage of Ryukyu to Satsuma and worked to weaken Chinese influences which were seen as having led to moral decline and, eventually, the conquest. The administrative rulers of Ryukyu from the second Shou Dynasty onwards were reduced in rank from king, or Ou (王), to lord, or Kou (公).


Reference: Katrien Hendrickx, The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan (Studia Anthropologica). Leuven University Press (November 1, 2007).

Rekidai Houan (歴代宝案)

First compiled between 1697-8, the Rekidai Hoan, Precious Documents from all Historical Eras, is a large collection of Chinese documents detailing Ryukyuan overseas voyages to China, Korea, and eight Southeast Asian countries from 1424-1867. It was kept by successive kings covering almost 450 years of both investiture and trade missions.



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


Chuuzan Seifu (中山世譜)

This was a Chinese language (kanbun 漢文) translation of Haneji Choushuu’s 1650 ‘Chuuzan Seikan’ with some revisions, carried out by Sai Taku (察鐸 1644-1724), the father of Sai On, between 1697-1701. Sai On himself worked on the Chuuzan Seifu in 1725, introducing amendments and revisions. The text continued to be written up until 1876.


Ryukyu-koku Yuraiki (琉球国由来記)

Ryukyu-koku Yuraiki (Records of the Origins of the Country of Ryukyu) is a topography of ancient Ryukyu compiled by the Royal Government at Shuri in 1713. It described the official functions and government post system at Shuri as well as the origins and records of ancient customs of all locations throughout the kingdom. It was revised, translated into kanbun (classical Chinese) and published again as ‘Records of Old Ryukyu’.


Reference: 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)

Ryukyu Karitsu (琉球科律)

Penal Code of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Passed in 1786, these (103 articles in) 18 volumes constitute the first penal code of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Written in Japanese, it draws upon Japanese and Chinese laws as well as taking account of traditional customs and practices in Ryukyu. Additional laws were added and this was published as ‘Shinshu Karitsu’ in 1831. For the purpose of ensuring that the general population was fully aware of the laws of the land the penal code was published as ‘Houjou’ in 1860.

宮城栄昌 (Miyagi Eishou)、琉球科律糺明法条(東京 : 吉川弘文館、1965)

Reference: 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)

Kyuuyou (球陽)

The Kyuuyou is (as far as was possible for the editors) a factual chronology of history. It was edited and compiled between 1743-45 by Tei Heitetsu (who was also known by his Ryukyuan name Kohagura Uekata [1695-1760]), a Ryukyu Government official of the Chinese community in Kumemura (he had studied in Qing era China and took part in Ryukyu tribute missions). Thereafter it was written by the Genealogy Department of the Royal Government and continued to be updated until 1876, the 29th year of King Shou Tai. The ‘Irosetsuden’ was the name of an additional chapter of the ‘Kyuuyou’ that presented old stories and legends from around Ryukyu.


Reference: 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)

Omoro Saushi (おもろさうし)

Perhaps the most interesting of all of the principle written historical resources is the Omoro Saushi, or Anthology of the Poems of Sentiments. Although the first volume was not compiled until 1531-32 (Volume II in 1613, and Volume III in 1623) the Omoro contains poems and songs describing life in Okinawa and Amami from as far back as the early 12th century. The Omoro is sometimes referred to as the Okinawan equivalent of the Manyoshu (万葉集), ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves,’ the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime in the Nara or early Heian periods. Prior to the 17th century, history was transferred orally from generation to generation in songs and poems and always in the various dialects of Ryukyuan. These provide clues to the nature of society and culture from the 12th to the 17th century. As such, they constitute the earliest tangible record of Okinawa's history. They were gathered together and committed to paper in the 17th century, but in such a way that scholars still struggle to find objective meaning in some of the texts. Scribes, often barely familiar with Ryukyuan, attempted to render original verses into Japanese. While dedicated scholars have spent decades trying to decipher meaning and have been able to offer interpretations for most of the verses there are still sections which remain largely indecipherable.

In the Miyako region the Omoro equivalent is the Aagu or Ayagu.

外間守善、 おもろさうし (Omoro saushi). 東京:角川書店、1993. Presents the original Omoro script above and Hokama’s modern rendering of its meaning in Japanese below. Hokama Shuzen is the most experienced living scholar of the Omoro. He joins a very short list of distinguished scholars who devoted a significant portion of their academic lives to understanding and disseminating to a wider audience the meaning of the Omoro. Previous luminaries include Iha Fuyu and Nakahara Zenchu.

仲原善忠, 外間守善著、 おもろさうし (Omoro saushi). 東京:角川書店、1967. The best of all Omoro-related books. A two-volume set. The original text is included with Japanese translation and annotations. For background on the Omoro locate the excellent “[おもろさうし]総説” pages 13-53.

Sakihara Mitsugu, A Brief History of Early Okinawa based on the Omoro Soshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. The best text in English explaining the meaning of selected passages of Omoro text in the context of a narrative history of early Okinawa.



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