- The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia by Mamoru Akamine
The English-language scholarship on Okinawan history, while populated with specialized monographs and edited volumes, has few accessible historical surveys that provide broad overviews of the islands' complex history. Mamoru Akamine's work translated into English by Lina Terrell as The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia and edited by Robert Huey fills this gap in several important ways. Focusing on Okinawa's history when the islands were the Ryukyu Kingdom, the book emphasizes the importance of the kingdom's relationship with China, underscores the kingdom's dynamic culture and economic success that came from its place as a "cornerstone" in the "East Asia Trade Sphere," and casts it as an active political actor, highly protective of its autonomy, that was relatively successful in negotiating daunting challenges in geopolitical contexts it had little control over.
Japanese-language surveys of Okinawa's history commonly cast the Gusuku period as the first step in the development of the islands' political culture and structure. Akamine too starts his story here but gives the period added significance by suggesting that two important characteristics of the kingdom were formed at this time. First, the joining of the "northern Ryukyu cultural sphere" (with its links to Japanese Jōmon and Yayoi culture) with the "southern Ryukyu cultural sphere" (with its connections to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Polynesia) to form the "Greater Ryukyu Culture" laid the foundation for the Ryukyu Kingdom's cultural dynamism and openness to diverse cultural influences (p. 12). Second, the economic vitality of the Song dynasty led to the formation of the "East Asian Trade Sphere," and the Ryukyu Islands took their place in this extensive trade network as one of its pivotal, if more modestly sized, centers.
Given that the islands' economic prosperity is often linked to the Ryukyu Kingdom's participation in China's tribute system, Akamine's argument [End Page 418] shifts the islands' emergence as an economic center to this earlier period. At the same time, his attention to early trade networks foregrounds the central role the economic sphere plays in the kingdom's emergence. Chapters 2 and 3 cover the kingdom's quick and dramatic ascent to its position as a "cornerstone" in the East Asia Trade Sphere. Central to its rise was its close relationship with Ming China enacted through the tribute system, which Akamine suggests the Ryukyu Islands joined willingly and quickly (pp. 22–23), demonstrating their astute recognition of the significance of Chinese power. For Akamine, the Ryukyu Islands' connection to China is of the utmost importance. In addition to providing the structural conditions for the kingdom to accumulate economic power, Chinese influence on the kingdom was profound. An overseas Chinese community settled in Naha and went on to play key roles in the kingdom's politics as Ryukyu leaders depended on community members for assistance with the tribute trade; Chinese merchants took advantage of the trade opportunities the islands offered, and flourished. This relationship also had influence beyond trade as the kingdom played a part in China's strategy to deal with pirates on its coast (p. 30), its members serving as personnel at Chinese military fortifications, sources of information, and liaisons with Japan, and supplying military goods (p. 31). For its part, China recognized the Ryukyu Kingdom's value and gave the kingdom preferential treatment within the tribute system.
Akamine's representation of the kingdom's relationship with China as a mutually beneficial coexistence of a larger power with a small polity is noteworthy for how it contrasts with the association the Ryukyu Kingdom came to have with mainland Japan. Akamine points to a certain level of "Japanization" of the kingdom as the frequent influx of Japanese people and goods introduced Japanese cultural forms such as Buddhism to the islands (p. 40). Yet, by situating the kingdom's relations with Japan within the larger context of the Ryukyu Kingdom's involvement with China and its extensive...