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Reviewed by:
  • Maritime Ryukyu, 1050–1650 by Gregory Smits
  • Peter D. Shapinsky (bio)
Maritime Ryukyu, 1050–1650. By Gregory Smits. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2019. xiv, 304 pages. $68.00, cloth; $28.00, paper.

Ryukyu's pasts between the eleventh century and the conquest by Satsuma domain in 1609 have been the recipient of a welcome recent flurry [End Page 188] of English-language historical and archaeological scholarly publications. This important era encompasses the establishment of polities in the islands, political unification, and the rise and decline of Ryukyu as a nexus of trade between East and Southeast Asia. In general terms, scholars diverge on which external influence to emphasize: the importance of trade with China or the impact of Japanese culture.1 Studying this topic requires navigating material and conceptual challenges. Written evidence from Ryukyu in this period is scanty, while new archaeological finds continue to energize the field. Modern-day essentialist constructions of Okinawan culture based more on contemporary politics than historical evidence exert gravitational force.

To historicize the emergence of Ryukyuan culture, Gregory Smits presents in Maritime Ryukyu, 1050–1650 what he calls a "revisionist, interdisciplinary" (p. 1) account. Smits largely agrees with the Japan-impact side of Ryukyu studies, with important caveats. He sees the Ryukyuan islands as part of a "Japonic" (p. 156) "frontier" (pp. 7, 249). By Japonic, Smits means not the high culture of Kyoto, but the tongues, beliefs, experiences, and identity-performance modes of the wider China-Sea borderlands extending from Ryukyu to Kyushu and Tsushima. Instead of a story of Ryukyuan culture spreading outward from the main island of Okinawa, Smits argues that waves of north-to-south migration, mostly from Japan, but also including peoples from China and Korea, established multiethnic, hybrid societies in the Ryukyu islands, which eventually evolved into what Smits calls the "Ryukyu Empire."

Smits's revisionism begins with his approaches to sources. He rejects the treacherous teleological hand proffered by the official histories produced by the Ryukyu kingdom in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although their chronologies tend to be accepted in standard interpretations, Ryukyu officials crafted these Confucian morality plays to serve presentist ends, not the past. These take as proper and a given the rule by the Shō family as monarchs over the islands. For countervailing perspectives, Smits turns to the chants and songs known as omoro, which comprise much of the [End Page 189] available historical source-base from this era of Ryukyu's past, having been compiled beginning in the 1530s. To these he adds folklore and local tales, anthropological studies of religious customs, DNA evidence, stone inscriptions, and archaeological finds. He then triangulates information from these sources with data gleaned from materials from other countries such as the Veritable Records of Ming China and Joseon Korea.

In order to situate Ryukyu within the China Sea region, Smits highlights durable geographical and religious structures that bound the Ryukyu islands to the Korean peninsula, Tsushima, and Kyushu. Omoro contain lore related to island-hopping navigation and seasonal winds. Religious structures held in common include modes of worship related to rain, safe sea travel, as well as agriculture; burial customs; and the composition of as well as terminology for sacred sites. Belief in Hachiman further unified piratical populations from Tsushima to Ryukyu. The importance of iron tools as weapons and implements inspired tales of arrival from Japan of deities of the forge.

Analysis of archaeological finds and omoro leads Smits to argue that political and cultural formation in Ryukyu began in the eleventh century in the "northern tier" islands of Amami Ōshima, Tokunoshima, and Kikaijima. Kikaijima became a center for trade in commodities such as turbo shells (yakōgai), Kamuiyaki pottery, iron, and sulfur. This trade tied the islands more closely to each other and to the rest of East Asia, enabling migration and conquest from Ryukyu's northern tier southward. Among the important trade routes was one linking southern Chinese provinces to Higo in Kyushu via Ryukyu.

To explain human migration into the islands, Smits elects to use the term wakō, left untranslated. Although wakō is the Japanese rendering of a Korean and Chinese quasi-ethnographic historical label for Japanese...