15 Feb marks Singapore’s Total Defence Day. Singaporeanscan reflect upon the fate of the Ryukyu (琉球国)- a small, prosperous maritime kingdom located between China and Japan. Ryukyu consigned itself to the pages of history at the turn of the 19th century, not long after Singapore became a Crown Colony.
Shuri Castle, Seat of Authority of the former Kingdom of Ryukyu
How many of you have been to Okinawa (沖縄)? Have you ever wondered about the island’s cultural peculiarities – that it looks more ‘Chinese’ than ‘Japanese’. And for those who’ve been to Japan and shopped around for music, you might have noticed that Okinawan music has a section on its own. And Okinawan cuisine is also something of a specialty. Are these acknowledgements that Okinawan culture is something that stands apart from ‘mainland’ Japan? Perhaps, the Okinawans are a nation distinct from the Japanese?
Well, once upon a time, Okinawa didn’t belong to Japan. This island was part of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. Ryukyu was to known to the Western world as Lewchew or Loo Choo. This East Asian nation existed from the 15th (Ming dynasty in China; Warring States period in feudal Japan; then Singapore was part of the Malacca Sultanate) to the 19th century (Qing dynasty in China; Meiji Restoration in Japan; then Singapore had become a Crown Colony). The kingdom ruled the archipelago that stretched between the present day Taiwan and Kagoshima prefecture of Japan. Ryukyu kingdom’s capital was based in present day Okinawa.
Ryukyu’s Cartographic view of the World
This archipelagic nation off the eastern seaboard of China was under the suzerainty of China. Like the Malacca Sultanate, the Kingdom of Ryukyu paid tribute ot Ming China. Just like Korea and Japan, Ryukyu’s culture and political system came under the influence of the Chinese. Although the Ryukyuans did have their own native language and customs, there’s heavy Chinese influence in Ryukyu’s language, art, spiritual beliefs – and even martial arts. ‘Karate’ originated in Ryukyu – and it came by the way of Fujian (Southern-style Chinese Martial Arts – such as the Five Ancestors Fist [五祖拳]).
‘Traditional’ Ryukyu fashion
“Independence” and “Sovereignty” however, were elastic concepts in those time. The tributary system was more of a bottom-up approach, whereby weaker nations will voluntarily go over to the stronger nation to pay their respects. This is done for a variety of reasons – sometimes for protection against a neighbouring threat, or to gain access to lucrative markets.
Ryukyu National Flag
Being a vassal, Ryukyu had an exclusive ‘free trade agreement’ with China. The small Kingdom made its fortune from maritime trade, much like Singapore. It was a trading post for the merchants plying between East Asia and Southeast Asia. Ryukyu prospered for about 150 years because it had preferential trading status with China. But when the Ming government went deeper into isolationist mode (the declining years of the late 16th century), the fortunes of Ryukyu declined because they lost their main export market for goods coming from Southeast Asia. Besides, competition from the European maritime powers also took a bite off their takings.
Then, the Ryukyu’s sugar daddy was having some domestic problems of it’s own – the Emperor who came into power neglected his duties and wasn’t interested in running the country, and cared less about his vassals. That allowed the Japanese samurais to sail right into Ming’s front yard.
Earlier during 1590, the Japanese Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi had wanted to invade the Korean peninsular (Joseon Dynasty was incumbent power, but too was a vassal close ally of China), and asked Ryukyu to join the coalition. But Ryukyu declined because of Joseon’s relations with Ming China. [Note: Although Koreans hate the Chinese for most part of history, Ming China and Joseon Korea were rather buddy-buddy compared to their predecessors - because they both shared Confucian ideals, a common history - having emerged from Mongolian rule (Yuan Dynasty) and faced common threats - the Manchurian Jurchens and also Japanese pirates]. The Tokugawa Shogunate that succeeded Hideyoshi remembered the score and approved an invasion of Ryukyu. In 1609, the feudal lord of Satsuma [萨摩藩] (present day Kagoshima) stormed Ryukyu without much resistance and took the King of Ryukyu prisoner.
The King of Ryukyu was released after two years in detention. In exchange, Ryukyu ceded an island group to Satsuma (which remained till today with the Kagoshima prefecture rather than the Okinawa prefecture). Ryukyu was allowed to continue paying tribute to Ming China, although it had effectively became a puppet state of the Tokugawa Shogunate (Japan). Ryukyu was economically important to Japan because the kingdom still had trade ties (FTA) with Ming China. This offered Japan an indirect way of breaking into the Chinese market as the Ming government refused to trade with Japan. Ryukyu was “spit-roasted” by both China and Japan.
Some years later the Manchurian Jurchens overran China and established the Qing dynasty. Ryukyu continued to pay tribute to Qing China – and also to the Tokugawa shogunate of Edo Japan. When Qing China was stagnating in its comfort zone, Japan underwent the Meiji restoration. This was also the period when Japan strengthened her military [naval] capabilities after being threatened by the US. As Japan became stronger, Meiji Japan began insisting that Ryukyu “was theirs”.
A naval incident provided Meiji Japan an opportunity to wrest Chinese domains away from the Qing government, beginning with Taiwan. During those days, Taiwan was only under the nominal control of Qing dynasty [much like how present day Pakistan claims control over its Northwest Frontier Provinces where Pashtun tribes hold sway]. In 1871, a storm threw a Ryukyu fleet off course. One of the vessels was left shipwrecked on Taiwan. The survivors of the ship went ashore to Taiwan but was massacred by the aboriginal tribe of Paiwan. Meiji Japan demanded restitution from Qing China for the damages. The Qing government rejected that demand as Taiwan was deemed part of Fujian province. The incident was China’s “domestic affair” since Ryukyu was a vassal. the Meiji government had no authority to demand compensation on behalf of the Ryukyu kingdom. The Japanese ambassador pressed that four of the victims in the massacre were ‘Japanese nationals’ (natives of the Oda prefecture), to which Qing replied that the Paiwans were babarians and thus beyond its jurisdiction. Incensed, Meiji Japan hatched a plan for unilateral action to punish the Paiwan tribe.
In 1874, Japan was able to make good its claim over Ryukyu after a successful naval expedition to Taiwan. Post-conflict, Meiji Japan demanded compensation from Qing government for the ‘pest-control’ services rendered. The Japanese withdrew from Taiwan only after Qing paid up. Recognising the weakness of the Qing government, Japan pressed its claims – and by 1879, suzerainty over Ryukyu was transferred to Japan. Thereafter, the King of Ryukyu was removed from his throne, and the kingdom became the prefecture of Okinawa. That spelled the end of the Ryukyu nation.
The descendants of the Ryukyuans continue to suffer the ignominy of an American occupation. The Okinawans have been unable to dislodge the American bases in spite of demonstrated displeasure. The Japanese government are not able to offer the Okinawans any protection as US servicemen from time to time commit sexual assaults against Okinawan women, causing grievious hurt and death to Okinawan citizens in traffic accidents, and also damages to private and public property as a result of misconduct or training accidents – since the American troops have immunity under the State of Forces Agreement.
Republic of Ryukyu Flag
If the descendents of Ryukyuans demanded their independence, will the (Western) world give the present day Okinawans support just like they do for the Tibetans and the Taiwanese (although, most of the world do see that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China)?
Ryukyu was a small, prosperous nation whose geographic location allowed it to prosper from maritime trade. Yet, being militarily weak and politically inept, the nation had no control over its destiny. It became a piece of meat tossed between two regional powers. Over a span of 450 years, the state of Ryukyu became a footnote in history – and the nation…was subordinated. What’s left of Ryukyu – is but a tourist curiousity on Okinawa, and trivia on Wikipedia.