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HISTORY

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Kurayoshi TakaraProfessor Emeritus,
University of the Ryukyus
(Doctor of Literature, History of the Ryukyus)

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A historian specializing in the history of the Ryukyus, Dr. Takara has particularly devoted his research to the internal structure of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the history of its exchanges with Asia. After successive service in positions at various institutions, he served as a vice governor from 2013 in the prefectural government under former Governor Hirokazu Nakaima. Dr. Takara has also published many books related to the Ryukyus.

#01

Shurijo Castle – a Symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s History

There are many castle ruins called gusuku at various places in Okinawa. Their sizes vary from very small to large, some of which have impressive limestone walls. Many of these gusuku were seats of political power of regional leaders called aji who went through tumultuous times as they aimed to expand their sphere of influence. The five castle ruins registered as UNESCO sites—Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren, Nakagusuku, and Shuri—are heritage sites representing all gusuku.

In 1429, the forces that held the Shurijo Castle (Shuri gusuku) unified Okinawa, giving birth to the Ryukyu Kingdom, ruled by a single king.

While governing the Ryukyu Kingdom and the islands stretching from Amami Islands to the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, the ruling power prospered as a maritime kingdom that promoted active diplomacy and trade with China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asian countries.

In the spring of 1609, the Satsuma forces from the Japanese island of Kyushu who had overwhelming military power invaded Ryukyu and soon defeated the kingdom’s defenders. The kingdom continued, but was now controlled by the Satsuma Domain and by extension, the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was behind Satsuma. The Amami Islands were separated from the kingdom and put under the direct control of the Satsuma Domain.

The Ryukyuan people courageously endured these difficult years. They tried to create a unique position for the kingdom by planning for a complete renewal of the politics and administration at the same time that they promoted industry and projects that increased cultural sophistication. The royal Shuri government, located in Shurijo Castle, managed those projects. As an example, for the largest diplomatic event held with the delegates dispatched by the Chinese emperor, the people prepared a special stage on the square of Shurijo Castle (una) and displayed their Ryukyuan performing arts. The Ryukyu Mission that was sent to the Tokugawa Shogunate to pay their respects also exhibited their Ryukyuan performing arts at Edojo Castle. The bureaucrats of the royal Shuri government participated in these performances, seeking to display their cultural sophistication.

Japan, however, forging the path to becoming a modern nation-state after the Meiji Restoration (1868), abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and turned it into Okinawa Prefecture and implemented policies making the area a Japanese territory.

In the spring of 1879, the Meiji government mobilized the military and police to pressure the last Ryukyu King to surrender Shurijo Castle. The King did not resist and left the castle with his court officials. This incident marks the end of the 450-year history of the Ryukyu Kingdom with its seat of power at Shurijo Castle.

After Okinawa Prefecture was instated, Shurijo Castle was sometimes used as military barracks, sometimes as a school, and also for other purposes, but the building continued to age. In the latter part of the Pacific War, Japanese garrison forces dug a tunnel under the castle and built their headquarters there. Because of this, Shurijo Castle was heavily bombed, resulting in its complete destruction. After the end of World War II, the castle ruins became the University of the Ryukyus campus.

When the University of the Ryukyus moved to a new campus, the project to rebuild Shurijo Castle on the ruins began. The reconstruction was completed in February 2019 after more than 30 years of sustained effort. (As of November 2019, only parts of the Shurijo Castle Park are open.)

The rebuilt Shurijo Castle consisted of three main zones. The western zone centering on the Seiden (Main Hall) is the government and administrative area that housed the royal Shuri government’s headquarters. The eastern zone of the Seiden is called “Uuchibara” and was the living quarters of the King and his family. The southwestern zone of the castle called “Kyo-no-Uchi” is a forest with absolutely no building structures, because it was a holy site for communicating with the gods that protected the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The gods came down from heaven to the forest of Kyo-no-Uchi. Only women took the role of inviting the gods who communicated with them while they chanted songs. Having holy sites like this is a unique characteristic of the Okinawan gusuku, including Shurijo Castle.

The western zone centering on the Shurijo Seiden also features many characteristics unique to Ryukyu.

In particular, the Seiden, which is the symbol of Shurijo Castle in its entirety, is a unique work of architecture that displays a Ryukyuan aesthetic sensibility while incorporating Chinese and Japanese architectural culture. This building was once called “Momo Urasoe Udun,” which means the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Seiden expresses a sense of pride of the Ryukyuan people, stating, “We are Ryukyu,” even while continuing to interact with Asian countries through the times and learning from those cultures. The Seiden symbolizes the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Spot

Shurijo Castle Park Management Center

Address: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha City, Okinawa
Website: http://oki-park.jp/shurijo/en/
Due to the fire that occurred on October 31, 2019 at Shurijo Seiden, only some facilities are open at the Shurijo Castle Park. For information on future openings, etc., please check Shurijo Castle Park’s official website.

#02

The Golden Age of Maritime Trade with Asian Countries

The Ryukyu Kingdom actively interacted with other Asian countries from the late 14th century through the mid-16th century. Ryukyuan ships sailed throughout Asia including China, Japan, Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia (present day Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam). That period is frequently called the Ryukyuan “golden age of maritime trade.”

The population of Ryukyu at the time is estimated to have been around 80,000 people—a small kingdom. Why was it then that this small country, Ryukyu, was able to actively interact with its Asian neighbors?

The main reason lies in the policy pursued by the Ming Dynasty, the new Chinese dynasty established in 1368. The Ming Dynasty only allowed interaction with foreign countries that accepted the authority of the Chinese emperor and swore loyalty to him. The only partners officially acknowledged as trade partners were the kings who sent delegates to the emperor and offered tributes. Kings of many Asian countries accepted this demand and chose to become vassals to the emperor because they wanted to promote active trade by agreeing to diplomatic relations with the powerhouse that was China.

However, the Ming Dynasty did not allow free trade and added restrictions to every country. For instance, Vietnam and Indonesia had severe restrictions such as trading only once every three years. To obtain Chinese products despite such restrictions, other countries had to find ways to have Chinese trade ships come to their ports. This was made difficult, however, because the Ming Dynasty had a strict policy that mostly forbade the Chinese populace to go abroad. As a result, the supply of Chinese products for the Asian people decreased drastically.

There was a country that the Ming Dynasty favored among the Asian countries. That was the emerging Ryukyu Kingdom, which was allowed to go to China most frequently and gained an opportunity to obtain large volumes of Chinese products.

The Ryukyuan ships sailed to Fuzhou in China almost every year and brought in large amounts of Chinese products to Naha. The Ryukyuans then took those products back to their ships, and this time they sailed out to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. After having sold Chinese products at their destinations, they then acquired regional specialties at these ports and brought them back to Naha. After which, they turned around and shipped those products to China. In other words, Ryukyu acted as the intermediary trading point between China and the Asian countries, replacing Chinese people whose power had diminished as a result of the Ming Dynasty’s policies.

The King residing in Shurijo Castle operated this foreign trade business. The King’s officials would board the ships and sail to their destinations carrying the King’s message, tributes, and presents. Those ships also carried Chinese people who lived in Ryukyu. These Chinese people had left their homeland, which was under strict ordinance that did not allow foreign travel and had acquired licenses to participate in businesses the Ryukyu King was operating. That is, the Ryukyu people were leveraging the Chinese who possessed excellent shipbuilding and sailing skills, as the indispensable talent necessary to propel their national interests.

Ryukyu actively traded with Asian countries as an intermediary trading point. In 1458, it posted a sentence, “We, the Ryukyu, use boats to act as the bridge for Asia” to proudly announce its importance in its own headquarters, Shurijo Castle.

Those who sailed the Asian oceans were men, but we cannot forget the role women played during this period.

While their husbands and sons travelled abroad over rough oceans, the women prayed for the safety of the journeys and their safe return home. There are many songs they composed that tell of their respect for the gods and their earnest prayers. For instance, there are lyrics that say, “Please god, lend me your powers so that they can return even just a day earlier, allow southerly winds to blow in the favorable direction.” At the time in Ryukyu, women were believed to have spiritual powers that protected men (referred to as the Onarigami belief), and they were using those powers to participate in the golden age of the maritime trade.

The interaction with the Asian countries was not limited to diplomacy or commercial trade. Various customs and ideas were brought to Ryukyu, greatly enriching the Ryukyuan culture. Awamori, the drink still widely consumed in Okinawa today is a choice alcoholic drink refined by the Okinawan climate and made using brewing techniques brought from abroad. Sanshin, a three-stringed instrument indispensable to Okinawan music, originally came from China and then evolved here.

By the late 16th century, the Ming Dynasty’s declining power allowed the Chinese to start sailing abroad again. Portugal and Spain began entering Asia, and Ryukyu’s golden age of maritime trade came to a close. Since then, the Ryukyuan ships sailed only to China and Japan.

Spot

Shurijo Castle Park Management Center

Address: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha City, Okinawa
Website: http://oki-park.jp/shurijo/en/
Due to the fire that occurred on October 31, 2019 at Shurijo Seiden, only some facilities are open at the Shurijo Castle Park. For information on future openings, etc., please check Shurijo Castle Park’s official website.

#03

Ryukyu Kingdom, a Fascinating Era with a Culture of Prayer

As he looked down on the earth from heaven, a small island spoked out of the sea. “It is a blessed place; I will go down and bring prosperity to that island,” said the son of Tentei (Emperor of Heaven) to his father. He then began creating the island of Okinawa. First, he built a sacred place called utaki. . Mythology explains the beginning of Okinawa in this way.

The following episode is told in another version. A pot washed ashore on a beach on Kudakajima Island. An islander opened the pot and found that it contained grain seeds necessary for farming. It was a gift from gods living in Niraikanai(*).

Although Mother Nature sometimes brings disasters like typhoons, she also provided seas with rich coral reefs around the islands of Okinawa. Supported by the bounties of the sea such as fish, shells, and seaweed, as well as agricultural crops produced on the island, the people of Okinawa have trodden the path of history. To express gratitude to the gods, they never forgot to pray at utakis and hold their hands together in prayer toward Niraikanai.

Eventually, leaders called aji appeared at various places in Okinawa, and an era where they built gusuku (castles) and engaged in battle emerged. The competition to keep rivals in check and aim at becoming the ruler of the whole island of Okinawa became intense. The forces at Shurijo Castle emerged victorious, leading to the establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1429, and Shurijo Castle became a special gusuku where the king reigned.

However, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus did not confine itself to the coral reef islands. The Ryukyuan people built large ships and conducted diplomacy and trade with China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and countries of Southeast Asia (present-day Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam). Displayed in Shurijo Castle, which was the headquarters of the exchange business, was the following message: “We are using ships to play the role of a bridge across Asia.”

Sake and awamori, which are products that represent Okinawa, were produced with skills learned through exchanges with Asia. Also, the sanshin, a three-stringed instrument that is essential to Okinawan music, was an improvement on instruments introduced from China. While Ryukyuan men conducted activities going beyond the seas of Asia, their wives and mothers prayed at the holy utaki for safe voyage. Actually, it was the women who gave names to the ships on which the men were riding. For example, a certain ship was named “Sejiaratomi.” In the old Okinawan language, it means “ship full of spiritual power.” In Okinawa in those days, it was believed that women were more spiritual than men and capable of protecting them.

In 2000, nine cultural properties that convey the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom era to the present day, were registered as World Heritage sites. There are five gusuku, including Shurijo Castle, and the remaining four are tombs and second residences, places of worship, and utaki. They are valuable cultural assets, through which you can learn how the Ryukyu Kingdom was formed and developed. It is noteworthy that there are many places dedicated for praying at those World Heritage sites in Okinawa.

For example, there is a magnificent castle wall at the ruins of Nakijinjo Castle (gusuku), which lost in the competition with the forces of Shurijo Castle, but inside the castle, there is a sacred place to pray for the gods. There are also many places to pray at Sefa-utaki, from where you can get a distant view of Kudakajima Island, where the gods of Niraikanai delivered the grain seeds. At Shurijo Castle, the center of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus, there are many sacred places, but it was the women, not the king, who prayed there. The culture of prayers expressing gratitude to the gods is the foundation of the Okinawan culture.

However, there are no idols that represent gods at the sacred places in Okinawa. Nature itself in the form of forests, rocks, and beaches is the place for praying, where women created images of the power of the gods in their minds. Even though it is simple, this culture of prayer has connected people together and fostered the spirit of mutual aid.

Okinawa has a tradition of spiritual culture that continues from the Ryukyu Kingdom era. I want people to visit Okinawa to experience this. Okinawa is an attractive place open to all the people of the world.

* Niraikanai:
This refers to a world view that a paradise known as Niraikanai exists beyond the ocean from where gods bring abundance and happiness. It also refers to the faith that worshipping ancestors will lead to continued peace and prosperity.

Spot

Okinawa Prefectural Museum and
Art Museum

Address: 3-1-1 Omoromachi, Naha-shi, Okinawa
Website: https://okimu.jp/en/
Hours: 9am to 6pm (open until 8pm Fridays & Saturdays)
Closed: Mondays (closed on the following weekday when Monday is a Japanese national holiday)