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  • History and Okinawans
  • Mitsugu Sakihara (bio)

Okinawans are a very history-conscious people. The small islands that constitute Okinawa have produced many writers-both scholarly and popular-who are deeply conscious of their tradition and culture. Without going back into pre-modern times, we can cite such outstanding scholars as Fuyū Iha, Kanjun Higashionna, Ankō Majikina, Shunchō Higa, and Zenchū Nakahara. The academic and literary products of these and other scholars run into thousands of publications. Even illiterate members of the older generations highly valued and preserved historical knowledge and legends. This predilection for history is undoubtedly a product of the Okinawan historical experience. Then, what is this historical experience?

From the viewpoint of culture, there is no question that Okinawan culture is but a variant of Japanese culture. However, it is quite another thing in regard to its political history. Located geographically in the periphery of the Japanese sphere, Okinawa has been in and out of the Japanese state throughout its history. As the long history of the Okinawa-Japan relationship is scanned, there seems to be a certain pattern. Okinawa may be likened to an offshore reef, which would be submerged and lose its own separate identity in high tide, but which would, in low tide, appear above water to form an independent entity. Whenever the central government in Japan was firm and strong, its influence would be extended, and Okinawa would be included within its borders. However, when that authority was on the wane, Japan's sphere of political influence would shrink, and the peripheral border regions of the Japanese archipelago, such as Okinawa, would become autonomous and independent.

Thus, in the late sixth and seventh centuries, when there emerged an ancient centralized autocratic government in Japan, the Southern Islands (Ryukyu Islands) appeared in the chronicles of Japan. During the seventh and eighth centuries of the Nara and early Heian periods, when the imperial government remained strong, there were frequent contacts between the Imperial Court and the Southern Islands. Islanders presented tributes to the emperor and received court ranks and titles, and some even took up permanent residence in the Japanese capital. In turn, the Court dispatched officials to the Southern Islands. In 735 A.D., the Southern Islands were [End Page 134] placed under the jurisdiction of the Dazaifu (Government of Kyūshū) in northern Kyūshū.

When Japan terminated the sending of embassies to China in 839 A.D., the Southern Islands' importance as the way station to China diminished. From the tenth century onward, the central authority in Kyoto gradually declined and paid less and less attention to the Southern Islands. In contrast was the emergence of local political power in Okinawa, as evidenced by the brisk castle-building activities of the tenth century and the appearance in 1187 of King Shunten, Okinawa's first historical ruler. Two hundred years later, in 1372, Ryukyu established a tributary trade relationship with Ming China, and later, trade was expanded to Southeast Asia. Ryukyu enjoyed prosperity as a maritime trading nation while Japan remained under the rule of the weak Muromachi shogunate and in the turmoils of civil war.

However, shortly after Japan was under the strong central authority established by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, Ryukyu was forcibly brought within Japan's sphere by the military action taken by the Shimazu daimyo of Satsuma in 1609. For the next three centuries, as a vassal of the Shimazu daimyo (who himself was a vassal of the Tokugawa shogun), Ryukyu was a part of Tokugawa Japan, yet retained its own "king." Tokugawa's nationwide laws and edicts, such as the requirements for the national census and the anti-Christianity rule, were enforced in Ryukyu as in the rest of Japan. Study of Japanese learning and arts was encouraged for the gentry. Yet, Ryukyu was ordered to maintain the facade of independence vis-á-vis China and other foreign nations. When Okinawans went to Japan, they were forced to act like aliens, but when they were in Okinawa, they were to act like Japanese. Yet when Chinese envoys arrived for the investiture of the king, Okinawans had to get rid of everything-ranging from all Japanese coins in circulation in...


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