- The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia by Mamoru Akamine
The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia is a translation of Akamine Mamoru’s 2004 book Ryūkyū ōkoku: Higashi Ajia no kōnāsutōn (Kōdansha). Although taking the form of a survey history, this relatively short volume focuses on Ryukyu’s early modern (kinsei) era, conventionally defined as 1609–1879. The volume also focuses on Ryukyu-Chinese relations and cultural influences, highlighting Akamine’s expertise in Chinese history. The translation is the result of an effort by the Center for Okinawan Studies at the University of Hawai‘i to make the work of Okinawan scholars available to supplement the relatively sparse English-language literature on Ryukyu/Okinawa.
Evaluating a book produced under these circumstances poses some challenges because of the temporal and linguistic gap between the original volume and its translation. The original is thirteen or so years old, and Ryukyuan history is a vigorous field of research. The translation process further distances the book from its original context. Finally, given the relative scarcity of English-language literature on Ryukyuan history, the volume is likely to have a much greater impact in English than it did and does in Japanese. It will therefore be necessary to mention some of the vast terrain of Ryukyuan history that The Ryukyu Kingdom does not engage.
Survey histories that seek full coverage often tend toward similarity and blandness, and histories of Ryukyu or Okinawa are no exception. This book, however, is different. Moving quickly through the period prior to 1609, it focuses on the process of sinification that took place from approximately the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. The overall argument, mostly implicit but sometimes explicit, is that Ryukyuans labored mightily to carve out a national existence by forging a close relationship with China, which enabled their kingdom to maintain some cultural and political distance from Japan. Ryukyuan history is thus a distinct entity from Japanese history. Variations of this argument have been common in the Japanese-language historical literature since Okinawa’s “reversion” to Japan in 1972; by contrast, the typical emphasis in books published during the era of US control (1945–1972) was on Okinawa’s close historical and cultural ties with Japan.
Akamine’s argument is likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of English-language readers interested in Ryukyu/Okinawa, who will also learn many fascinating details about early modern Ryukyu. Thanks to the comprehensive endnotes added by Robert Huey, those who read Japanese will be able to follow up on most topics Akamine presents. The translation is well done, and I applaud the inclusion of tone marks for most Chinese words. It is probably impossible to come up with an ideal [End Page 92] way of romanizing Ryukyuan terms for modern readers, and the editorial decision to use modern Japanese as the “pillar” language makes good sense. Putting out an error-free version of a book like this is nearly impossible, and one significant error slipped through the cracks: the Ryukyuan king mentioned several times in the section “Satsuma Gains Ascendancy” (chapter 3) should be Shō Gen, not Shō En, who reigned approximately a hundred years earlier.
Translation involves interpretation and choices. For example, it is common in the Japanese-language literature to refer to the Ryukyu Islands circa 1400 as an ukezara for pirates, a term Akamine uses as well. “Receptacle” would be a straightforward translation, while it appears as “decoy” in The Ryukyu Kingdom (pp. 29–30). Either word works, but there is a difference in nuance with respect to the relationship between the denizens of Ryukyu and the pirates (wakō). Likewise, although “pirates” is probably the best single word for wakō, those mariners also functioned as merchants, diplomats or envoys, and security forces, depending on circumstances.
One of the many strengths of The Ryukyu Kingdom is a clear and realistic explanation of the origins of Ryukyu’s tribute trade with China in the 1370s...