The Indigenous Ryukyu People of Okinawa

The Indigenous Ryukyu People of Okinawa

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The view from Manzamou
Picture: たっきー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Discover the history of the indigenous Ryukyu people, the culture that inhabited Okinawa before it was ever even a part of Japan.

Before Okinawa was ever even a part of Japan, it still flourished greatly as a part of a different culture. That culture was the indigenous Ryukyu people.

The Indigenous Ryukyu People: A Questionable Ethnicity

Nowadays, Ryukyuans mostly inhabit the prefectures of Okinawa and Kagoshima. However, they have lived on these islands for centuries. And because their existence predates their connection to Japan, there is often debate and confusion in regards to their ethnicity.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was the first documented civilization on these islands. However, archaeological evidence points to life existing here way before then. Unfortunately, not much is known about these very early people, leading to many questions about the precise history of early Okinawans.

Currently, Japanese authorities recognize present-day indigenous Ryukyu/Okinawan people[1] as a subgroup of descendants of the Yamato (the ancestors of Japan). However, some genetic and anthropological studies reveal that Ryukyuan people are more closely related to the indigenous Ainu people who lived in Japan before the colonization of Hokkaido. The reasoning is the shared ancestry with East Asian migrants during the Jomon and Yayoi Periods.

Prehistoric Ryukyu

The earliest human remnants discovered were about 32,000 years old and named the Yamashita Cave People. Slightly younger were the Pinza-Abu Cave Man, dated about 26,000 years old, and the Minatogawa Cave People, dated about 18,000 years back. These early Okinawan ancestors[2] most likely came through China, though there’s no evidence telling us how long these people lived here.

The Jomon Period (the “shell-midden period” of Ryukyu) was an important period of their growth. They began as hunter-gatherers but developed a more structured culture centered on fishing. At this time, the North and South Ryukyus still existed in isolation from each other, so certain developments progressed at different paces.

Despite this isolation, there was still contact with a select few other regions, especially Southeast Asia. The first documentation showing evidence of interaction with China and Japan dates back to the 7th century. By the 10th century, the North and South Ryukyus had come together in a cultural unification.


The Gusuku Period (1187~1314)

Katsuren-gusuku ( 勝連城), the remnants of a castle from the Gusuku period. (Picture: y.uemura / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The name “Gusuku”[3] comes from and refers to the distinctive type of castles and fortresses the early Ryukyuans constructed at this time. This was also a notable time period when the Ryukyu people made tremendous political, social, and economic growth, including the introduction of agriculture and the Japanese writing system. The porcelain trade also began between Ryuku and other countries.

Because the center of power relocated from the seaside to more inland areas, the structure of buildings underwent some changes as well. These buildings, the gusuku, were fortresses with castle-like fortifications, built on higher-altitude land. The Gusuku are now World Heritage Sites, registered by UNESCO under the classification, “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu”[4].

Three Kingdoms/Sanzan Period (1322~1429)

The Sanzan Period[5] was the year when the three separate regions of the Ryukyus would become one. In 1404, Sho Hashi, member of the then-ruling Sho family, conquered Chuzan, the middle kingdom. His father, Sho Shisho, claimed the title of their new king. Under the power of this new king, he continued to conquer the other surrounding lands, Hokuzan (the northern kingdom) and Nanzan (the southern kingdom). In 1429, King Sho unified the three lands into one new kingdom, the Ryukyu Kingdom.

King Sho’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed by the Emperor of China. At this time, Ryukyu was still an independent kingdom and still had a good relationship with China. After gaining recognition by the rulers of the Ming Dynasty, the Ryukyu Kingdom began its tributary relationship with China. And thus, the official reign of the Ryukyu Dynasty began.

Ryukyu Dynasty (1429~1879)

An Honest Nation

After the unification of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Sho Kings continued to rule the land. During their reign, they gained a powerful reputation as an honest and diplomatic kingdom. 

They did not take part in the battles and power struggles that plagued many other countries at the time. Instead, they survived and grew through trade and diplomacy alone. The Ryukyu Kingdom had actually developed a maritime trade route with the Chinese Ming Dynasty in 1372, before establishing a tributary relationship with them after gaining recognition.

They had good relationships with other surrounding Asian countries[6], as well, and even established trade routes from Siberia through Siam. In fact, the Ryukyu Kingdom didn’t even have a military force. Their strong trade alone made them an important and valuable asset to many other countries. That plus their good reputation made them practically immune to the wars and invasions that were wreaking havoc on other nations.

The Ryukyu Kingdom’s strongest diplomatic relationship was, naturally, with China. This close relationship is also visible through the predominantly Chinese influences in many parts of the culture, especially in terms of design. Most structures of importance, such as the castles, incorporated Chinese architecture and aesthetics. 

The most famous of these buildings was Shurijo Castle, which was the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Shurijo Castle served not only as the most important political and cultural building and trade hub for Ryukyu but also maintained its importance through the centuries. It even reached World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2000, and became a popular tourist attraction in modern days, all the way up until its tragic burning in an electrical fire in October of 2019.

First Conflicts

The Ryukyu kingdom continued their peaceful lives of all trade and no war until about 1590. Although their contact with Japan had been minimal for most of the time up until now, it was this moment that Japan would come to them for a favor. Toyotomi Hideyoshi approached the rulers of Ryukyu and asked for their help… to conquer Korea. Followed by China.

Because of their good relations with both countries, naturally, the Ryukyus refused. And naturally, that refusal didn’t go over so well with Japan. So in 1609, as a form of payback, the feudal lord of Satsuma invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom and put a halt on life as they knew it.

The Satsuma Invasion

King Shou En, the second king of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1469-1476). Painting produced in 1796 by royal painter Shou Genko. (Picture: WIkipedia)

Because the Ryukyu Kingdom had virtually no military forces at all, they were an easy win. The lords of Satsuma, the Shimazu Clan, were able to capture the king with little effort and force the allegiance of the Ryukyus to Japan.

The Shimazu Clan took over every aspect of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s lives, including their trade. The Amami Islands suffered the most, facing direct control by the Shimazu Clan. Many were severely exploited for the sake of the Satsuma region’s growth in economy and power. 

One of the most infamous incidents of this period was the “Kokuto Jigoku,” or “Brown Sugar Hell”[7]. This period saw the introduction of sugar cane crops, now a popular local Okinawan crop, to the Amami Islands. However, rather than provide any benefit or opportunity of growth for the indigenous Ryukyu people inhabiting these islands, the Shimazus forced them into labor for their own reward. It was then that the Amami Islands officially became a part of Japan as Kagoshima Prefecture.

Double Agent

Despite the unfortunate fate of the Amami Islands, the rest of the Kingdom was able to maintain some level of independence. However, the Sho family that still ruled the Ryukyus weren’t completely off the hook.

The Shimazu Clan recognized the power they had and decided to exploit them in a different way. The Shimazus forced the Ryukyu Kingdom to keep open their trade routes with China, while still pretending to be an independent nation. However, now it was the Satsuma region that would benefit economically from this relationship.

The Shimazu Clan would keep up this cunning guise for the next 250 years or so, using the Ryukyu islands as the main port of trade with China while Japan remained in a period of isolation and China remained completely oblivious to their connection at all.

Stockholm Syndrome?

In order to keep from blowing their cover, the Shimazu Clan refrained from any immediately obvious forms of colonization of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This unique position ended up benefiting all involved. The Sho family were safe from meeting the same fate as the Amami Islands. And the Shimazu Clan and ruling Japanese shogunate benefited from Chinese trade without having to open up their doors.

In order to keep up the ruse, however, the Shimazu put strict rules in place. This was to make the Ryukyu Kingdom appear as “non-Japanese” as possible. For example, the general Japanese population was forbidden from visiting the islands. And the Ryukyuans were restricted from adopting any Japanese customs including but not limited to wearing Japanese clothes and using Japanese names. 

Yet somehow despite all the strange restrictions and exploitation of their people and politics, there was a certain level of respect that developed on both ends.

The Threat of Colonialism

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry visited the Ryukyu Kingdom himself. He was warmly welcomed by the Ryukyu King. Because the Kingdom had managed to maintain its power for so long, with the exception of some initial confusion, they didn’t see the visit as a threat. They were in for a surprise.

The arrival of Perry’s “Black Fleet” in 1854 would change everything. This marked the first colonial threat to Japan after centuries of isolation, and they stopped in Okinawa first. Japan, wanting to resist colonization themselves, decided to take certain measures. Despite taking the opportunity to quickly modernize according to Western-based industrialization, they also decided to take several political actions to make themselves more powerful as an individual nation. One of these actions was defining its national borders.

The Meiji Restoration and the End of a Kingdom

The Ryukyu Kingdom went about minding their own business. Meanwhile, Japan was facing internal battles of the Meiji Restoration on its own. This was when the Tokugawa Shogunate was fighting for control over Japan. The Shimazu Clan, amongst others, also fought during the power struggle.

In an attempt to increase their power, the Shimazus realized the beneficial role the Ryukyus could play. By fully integrating the kingdom into the Satsuma domain, they would stand a better chance in domination. As an added plus, this would remove the “gray area” the Ryukyus posed in terms of Japan’s national boundaries.

And so, Japan ordered the Ryukyu Kingdom to cut their tributary relationship with China in 1875. They severed all ties completely by 1879. And thus, the Ryukyu Kingdom became the prefecture of Okinawa[8], marking the end of their independence.

The Birth of “Okinawa”

After this integration came heavy assimilation. This included establishing new schools on the islands, if only for the sake of teaching them Japanese. At first, it was a welcome process, as education was not so easily attainable during the Ryukyu reign. However, soon enough, the native Okinawan people would recognize the truth. The sneaky attempt to completely eliminate the native Okinawan languages, and establish Japanese nationalism in the youth. Unfortunately, by that time, it was already too late.

Students were already enrolled in schools. It was essential to learn Japanese to get by under the new government. Citizens faced punishment for using their native tongue. A new printing press was established and began distributing newspapers entirely in Japanese. It was becoming painfully obvious that this was less of an attempt of educating, and more of a forced assimilation into Japanese nationalism.

As an added blow, the Ryukyu languages – including Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi) – were reduced to nothing more than “dialects.” Officials even began placing Shinto shrines, dedicated to Japanese deities, over ancient ancestral shrines.

Cultural Revolution, War, and a Fight for Independence

2,000 silently protest in 2016 after the rape and murder of a woman by a US Marine. The continued American military presence in Okinawa continues to be a sore point, not just between America and Okinawans, but between Okinawa and the Japanese government. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Eventually, this forced nationalism pushed the indigenous Ryukyu people to the edge. In the 1930s, many came forward in a sort of cultural revolution, encouraging others to reclaim their dying heritage. Many came forth in protest. However, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

With World War II on the horizon, they got caught between a rock and a hard place. To America, they were the enemy. To Japan, they were conveniently expendable. Many Okinawans lost their lives in war as members of the Japanese military.

With the end of the war came the American occupation. However, despite Japan gaining sovereignty in 1952, Okinawa remained under US military control. Okinawa saw this as a strategic betrayal on Japan’s part, sacrificing them for freedom despite having fought for Japan. Okinawa continued to serve as an American military base through the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Present-Day Okinawa (and Ryukyu)

Traditional Eisa (エイサー) dance
Drummers and dancers in Okinawa in 2018 performing in a traditional Eisa (エイサー) dance. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Despite strong Okinawan protests during the 1960s for independence from both America and Japan, efforts fell short. In 1971, both countries came to an agreement to give Okinawa back to Japan. However, the military bases still remained. And so did the growing resentment by the Okinawan people, who felt like nothing more than a hot potato passed back and forth between two more powerful nations.

Even today, there is much debate about Okinawa’s role in Japan and Japanese politics. Many still face discrimination by raging nationalists. And the overall population remains concerned over possible health and environmental effects from military activity. Military bases make up about 20% of the land area, and 40% of arable land that could otherwise support agriculture.

And remember the royal Sho family mentioned earlier? Most people do not realize it, but the descendants of this family also coexist with the general population today. The Sho son (who would be “prince” today) lives and works in regular society. Rumor has it he actually runs a restaurant and bar joint in Tokyo.

As for the rest of the descendants? Many run local jobs around Okinawa and other parts of Japan, such as schools and other small businesses. Most of the important artifacts related to their heritage are now safely on display in museums and other cultural centers. And they keep traditions alive privately within their own family affairs, including holding gatherings and continuing to speak their native tongue with each other.

Okinawan Names: A Language History


[1] 沖縄の歴史.

[2] 山下洞人と港川人.

[3] - グスクと沖縄の歴史 -. Washimo-Web

[4] Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryuku. UNESCO

[5] 3つの国から成り立つ三山時代.

[6] 東南アジアとの交易.

[7] 黒糖焼酎の歴史を知る!奄美大島と黒糖焼酎の関係. Amamibussan

[8] 沖縄の歴史・琉球処分と大戦その後.

Other Resources

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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