The Ryukyu Kingdom was a feudal state that ruled over the southern Ryukyu Islands in the late 14th century, and its last ruler was the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shō Tai. The kingdom was very prosperous and, at its peak, became a significant military power in East Asia.
The Ryukyu Islands are an archipelago of Okinawa Prefecture, in the East China Sea. They comprise the southernmost part of Northeastern Japan.Their name is derived from the Ryukyuan languages, which are spoken on the islands. The islands were first unified into Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 at the time of the Meiji Restoration, and the Ryukyu Domain was declared in 1879 .Due to the naval Battle of Okinawa during World War II, the Okinawan islands were occupied by the Imperial Japanese military on May 9th, 1945. In August 1945, the Battle of Okinawa began, and the islands were occupied by United States forces on April 1st, 1972.
The Ryukyu islands of northern Japan are known for their breathtaking kushikina sand dunes, beautiful mountains that form a protective barrier between Japan and neighboring China, and villages that are steeped in tradition and culture. For centuries, Ryukyu maintained an independent culture and had little contact with the outside world. That all changed in 1609, when the first European contact was made with the Ryukyu islands.. Read more about okinawa and let us know what you think.
The island nation of Ryukyu relinquished its sovereignty to Japan in 1609, straddling a rich commerce route between empires.
Matthew Perry, Commodore
The US Navy flag officer cautiously went among worn stone ruins on the East China Sea island of Okinawa, clothed in a gold-embroidered blue frock coat with epaulets. He walked the grounds as though on vacation, marveling at the artistry of Nakagusuku Castle and oblivious to any potential risk from residents who had congregated to ogle at the new and evidently important visitor. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, unaware of the island’s lengthy history and the lives of the people who lived there, could only admire the fortifications for their overwhelming military grandeur. It was the year 1853. He delivered a clear message to the islanders and their Japanese overlords: trade must be allowed or else.
Many people nowadays are probably aware of Okinawa’s historical significance. The horrific 98-day war that took place there near the end of World War II has cemented the island’s reputation as a dangerous spot in military history. The story of the Kingdom of Ryukyu—as the islands was known when Perry visited—is, however, far longer and more complicated. Whether viewed through a military, economic, or political lens, the narrative of how the Japanese took the once affluent realm is interesting.
32,000 years ago, the first people arrived to the Ryukyus Islands. The same East Asian migration that helped develop the Yamato people—now known as the Japanese—also helped populate the archipelago’s 100-plus islands, which run over 400 miles from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost Home Islands, southwest to Taiwan. Mariners from China and Southeast Asia had been shipwrecked on Ryukyu shores for ages. Instead of attempting to return home, they made new lives where fate had left them. Because of the mingling of various East Asian DNA strains, the Ryukyu people were exposed to a wider range of influences than other societies. The resulting culture was distinct from the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures that dominated the region at the time.
Despite having a total land mass of just about 877 square miles, the kingdom had broken into three independent realms centered on Okinawa by 1314: Hokuzan in the north, Chuzan in the middle, and Nanzan in the south. Each ruler was in charge of his own castle, which were located in Nakijin, Shuri, and Ozato, respectively. By 1429, the lord of Chuzan had vanquished his neighbors after a century of battle and the construction of many castles, ushering in more than two centuries of consolidated dominance.
During this time, military activity was limited to infrequent clashes with Japanese clans over the Amami Islands, located north of Okinawa. As the tranquil monarchy sought to capitalize on its unique position in the globe, such quarrels were uncommon. The Kingdom of Ryukyu benefitted from its reputation as a welcoming stopover for mariners, as it was located along the primary commerce route from Malay and Siam to both Japan and Korea. The influx of foreign commodities boosted the kingdom’s riches, as both the Ming court in China and feudal lords in Japan observed.
Trade envoys from “Lewchew,” who first visited the mainland in 1374, were frequently described as “civilized” by the Ming. Given the Ming dynasty’s generally sour relationship with Japan, the Chinese called on Ryukyuan rulers to intercede on numerous occasions, though with little success. Despite its failings, Ming China regarded Ryukyu as a tributary state.
Sho Nei, the Ryukyu Kingdom’s ruler / Sho Genko
Regardless of China’s position, Japanese monarchs in Satsuma, Kyushu, have long claimed the islands to the south. “Lord of the Twelve Southern Islands,” a reference to the Ryukyus, was one of the official titles of the Japanese king in Kagoshima Castle as early as 1206. The title, however, was really a ruse because the Satsuma lacked the strength and ambition to conquer and keep the archipelago.
The Sengoku (“Warring States”) period of Japanese history, which began in 1467, channeled all of the samurai’s energy into a seemingly endless succession of internal wars. Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s campaign to conquer Kyushu in 1587 brought the period to a close. Within a few years, he’d overcome the last of his opponents, achieving Japan’s long-awaited unity. Satsuma had unexpectedly become a vassal state. As a result, when Hideyoshi conducted his ill-fated invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597, the province supplied almost 10,000 troops. Ryukyu, being Satsuma’s ostensible tributary, was also commanded to provide assistance. In order to appease Hideyoshi while not provoking the Koreans or the Chinese, the little kingdom provided only the most basic provisions to the invasion soldiers.
Though unexpected at the time, the failure of those two invasions, as well as a subsequent succession struggle following Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, proved disastrous for the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
Since 1196, the Shimazu clan had dominated Satsuma and the surrounding regions, and they were a prosperous and venerable samurai family. The Shimazu, descended from the ancient Minamoto family, were known for the fierce loyalty of their retainers and army. The Shimazu had done well during the Sengoku period, but they found themselves in dire straits after their capitulation to Hideyoshi, the loss of thousands of their men in Korea, and defeat by feudal forces led by Ieyasu Tokugawa at the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara. They actively pursued all options to turn around the clan’s fortunes throughout the next decade.
For the belligerent Shimazu, the wealthy trade flowing through Ryukyu presented alluring temptation. An effort to definitively take the lucrative trade route offered more than just the promise of money gain, given the clan’s existing—albeit tenuous—claim to the islands. It was a chance to placate the Tokugawa administration in faraway Edo (modern-day Tokyo), secure territory in the shogun’s name, and make tax payments easier.
The shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, agreed to and ordered the 1609 invasion in response to Ryukyu’s persistent refusals to fully surrender to his authority. The lord of Satsuma at the time, Shimazu Tadatsune, summoned 3,000 samurai and faithful ashigaru. 2,000 workmen and 3,000 sailors manning a fleet of about 100 ships supported these riders, spearmen, archers, and harquebusiers. This army was a brutally efficient and terrifying enemy, made up of veterans of the Sengoku period, the Korean campaigns, and the fatal struggle against the Tokugawa.
The samurai elite corps was significantly more effective than one might think from such a small army. Tadatsune ordered his troops to embark on April 8 under the command of senior officer Kabayama Hisataka.
Sho Nei, Ryukyu’s ruler, had been notified of the imminent attack. The monarch sent reinforcements north to the islands of Oshima and Tokunoshima, believing the Shimazu attack would be limited to the Amamis. However, the quick Japanese advance would crush any ambitions of keeping fighting to the kingdom’s northern outskirts.
The island of Okinawa appeared to be well prepared for an attack, especially one by such a small enemy force. From Nakijin to the palace at Shuri, a network of stone castles (gusuku in Ryukyuan) stretched 40 miles north to south. Major defenses at Nakagusuku and Katsuren, as well as the largest of all at Urasoe, peppered the island’s many steep slopes.
The gusuku borrowed from their forefathers’ fortifications, as befitting a people with varied beginnings. The gusuku had a series of overlapping baileys topped by wooden structures, similar to the terrain-following walls of China and Korea, as well as a series of overlapping baileys topped by wooden structures, as seen in Japan. Their stone parapets, which were only found on high land, rose to astonishing heights, allowing sentries to immediately notice and isolate would-be invaders. However, because gusuku walls lacked crenellations through which to peep or shoot, exposed defenders were vulnerable to the type of long-range, massed harquebus fire perfected by the Japanese during the Korean battles. That fault in the design would have disastrous consequences in the upcoming war.
While Shuri Castle protected Sho Nei and functioned as the seat of royal authority, the port of Naha, a few miles west, served as the main conduit for trade and diplomacy. Recognizing Naha’s expanding importance, the court ordered the construction of harbor fortifications and a road connecting Shuri and the port in 1546. Yarazamori and Mie, sister stone fortifications that jutted into the sea on either side of the harbor, were intended to defeat recurring pirate attacks during the time of the invasion. A massive iron net was slung between them, which defenders could lower to allow ingress or elevate to block it.
Despite being a modest invading force, the Shimazu clan’s 3,000 samurai and ashigaru were battle-hardened and brutally efficient soldiers. / Photo: Getty Images
Despite the fortifications’ strength, the army defending Ryukyu was no match for the veteran samurai force approaching. In more than two centuries, Ryukyuans had not fought a major campaign on their own soil. They couldn’t have been prepared for the approaching storm by sporadic skirmishes on distant islands. The king’s men were equipped with a mishmash of conventional Japanese and Chinese weapons, including spears, bows, short swords, and antiquated, tri-barreled Chinese-style firearms, which were outclassed in range and precision by the Shimazu’s Portuguese-derived harquebuses.
On April 11, the Japanese landed on Oshima, kicking off the campaign. The attackers pushed south over the island, seizing it by the 20th, easily brushing aside the meager opposition of native Ryukyuan soldiers. Oshima was under direct Shimazu control for the first time in two centuries, a promising start to the project.
The invasion force then sailed south, arriving on the 24th at Tokunoshima. The Shimazu encountered their first substantial opposition there, with 200 to 300 troops led by Jana Teido’s son-in-law, a member of Sho Nei’s Sanshikan (“Council of Three”), the king’s closest counselors. Despite their lack of weapons, the defenders fought valiantly before fleeing under heavy gunfire. Japanese attempts to raid local homes were greeted with fierce opposition from the peasantry, who defended their homes with hatchets.
The invaders boarded their ships on April 28 and proceeded south to Okinoerabujima, which surrendered without a fight. The troops were grateful for the opportunity to rest and prepare for the final part of the assault because it was the last significant island north of Okinawa proper.
The fleet anchored in Unten port, on the northeast coast of Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula, the next morning. Nakijin Castle, an immense stronghold and the seat of Ryukyu power in northern Okinawa, controlled Unten, a huge, sheltered anchorage. Despite this, the garrison made no effort to prevent the Japanese from landing. Sho Kokushi, the warden of the north and Sho Nei’s son and successor, instead sent news to Shuri, outlining the situation and appealing for assistance.
The main Ryukyuan army had congregated in a single area, ready to march in any direction on short notice, unsure where along the approximately 300-mile-long coastline the invaders could land. A thousand troops were sent north right away to protect Nakijin from the imminent onslaught.
On April 30, Kabayama stormed the stronghold. Sho Kokushi and nearly half of the men deployed to hold the citadel were killed in the quick but severe battle. It’s unknown if the reinforcements arrived in time to protect the fortress or joined the fight after it fell to the Japanese. Regardless, Sho Nei’s citadel and a large amount of his army were destroyed.
After securing the citadel, the samurai boarded their ships and set sail down the west coast, arriving in Yomitan, near Zakimi Castle, on May 3. Katsuren and Nakagusuku castles stood to the east and south, respectively. Despite the fact that the trio of garrisons marked the kingdom’s guarded heart, none of them were willing to leave their defenses and face the Shimazu in the open.
During a siege, Japanese infantrymen advance with a mortar. / Alamy
To instill fear in the minds of the people, Kabayama set fire to the village of Yomitan in full view of Zakimi’s walls. He then divided his army into sea and land armies, sending the former south to Naha and the latter inland to Shuri Castle and the recalcitrant king inside.
The Japanese marched quickly overland, taking Urasoe Castle in stride and robbing and torching nearby Ryufuku-ji Temple. They resumed their march into Shuri, ransacking and burning structures along the route, sowing even more panic among Sho Nei’s fleeing followers.
General Goeku Ueekata attempted to hold the Taihei Bridge, a tiny stone span at Tairabashi, with only 100 soldiers in a final, ill-fated attempt to prevent the invaders from reaching the capital. The Japanese annihilated the holding force with gunfire before beheading one of the wounded officers, scattering defenders who had never seen volley harquebus fire, let alone such blatant barbarism. The path to Shuri was clear.
Kabayama’s fleet was significantly less successful in its attempt to seize Naha, the ultimate prize, off the coast a few miles to the west. On the 4th of May, artillery from the Ryukyuans’ flanking fortifications blasted Shimazu ships, preventing Kabayama’s flagship from approaching the imposing works. Jana Teido and 3,000 soldiers manning the ramparts at Yarazamori repelled the attack with cannon and small-arms fire. The assaulting ships swiftly retreated out of range, much to the delight of the defenders. However, the cunning invaders may have accomplished exactly what they were out to do.
Sho Nei had left Shuri Castle vulnerable to the battle-hardened troop of samurai heading down from Tairabashi by deploying so many of Ryukyu’s limited forces to protect Naha. Kabayama’s failed attack on the port immobilized the Ryukyuan army, which should have been defending Shuri inland. The king would live to rue his error, but it was too late by the time his counsellors grasped what was going on.
On the 4th of May, the Shimazu marched uphill toward Shuri’s red palace walls, pausing only to shower fire on the ramparts. The ashigaru brought up climbing ladders while the Japanese harquebusiers effectively kept the defenders’ heads down. The samurai quickly poured over the ramparts, capturing Shuri’s lower baileys one by one.
The attack happened so quickly that the courtiers hardly had time to flee. The desperate defenders’ only possible stumbling block to Kabayama’s strategy was an unusual ruse. Days before the approaching threat, islanders scoured the jungle for as many indigenous—and highly venomous—habu snakes as they could locate, then deposited the vipers along the attack route, according to local legend. Even if this were true, a swarm of venomous reptiles would be powerless to stop the process.
Sho Nei, who was still at his command post as Shimazu forces stormed the royal courtyard, quickly surrendered to avoid more bloodshed. The Japanese moved their focus to the walls surrounding Naha, which were virtually unprotected from a landward assault, leaving only a tiny detachment to guard the king. The fleet was able to securely enter the harbor in a short time, and the victorious invading force was reunited once more.
The 14th century Shuri Castle was destroyed during World War II and reconstructed on the same place after the war. A fire in 2019 destroyed much of the building. / Photo: Getty Images
Following the invasion, the Japanese took Sho Nei and his key counselors as hostages to Satsuma. Finally, in 1611, Shimazu Tadatsune dispatched the captured monarch and his counsellors to Sunpu, where they met with retired Tokugawa Ieyasu, and then to Edo, where they met with Ieyasu’s son, Hidetada, the current shogun. Hidetada forced Sho Nei and the others to sign a humiliating pledge of loyalty, declaring fealty to the lord of Satsuma, before allowing them to return home.
Sho Nei’s Sanshikan adviser Jana Teido, the courageous defender of Naha, resisted the Tokugawa terms and was executed on the spot in a horrific conclusion to the story.
The Shimazu had earned the respect of Japan’s new shogun after winning their reward. Their task, however, was far from finished. To ensure the surrender of the Ryukyuan Sanshikan, Kabayama first dispatched the remaining members of the Ryukyuan Sanshikan southwest by ship to Miyako and Kumejima islands. After that, the Shimazu packed their belongings and returned home, leaving behind a small contingent of samurai as a makeshift occupation force. If the winners were to actually profit from the venture, they would need to have a tiny presence.
The Ming court was well aware of their valuable trading partner’s change in sovereignty. While direct trade between Japan and China was banned due to the Japanese refusal to acknowledge the Ming’s tributary connection, Tadatsune banked on China’s propensity to look the other way if not immediately challenged with a policy violation. His assumption proved to be right.
Whenever Chinese ships arrived in port over the next three decades, the Shimazu overseers quietly retired into the bush until the visitors had left. This masquerade persisted until 1644, when the Manchus overthrew the Ming, putting an end to Ryukyu’s long-standing tribute ties. The archipelago re-established tributary connections with the Qing dynasty in 1655, with the consent of the Tokugawa shogun. By that time, however, all trade earnings had gone to the Shimazu, and Ryukyu had begun its lengthy descent into servitude.
When Commodore Perry visited Shuri Castle, he had no idea. His advent in Ryukyu, however, disturbed the Japanese, prompting the Meiji Restoration, a period of imperial rebirth. The forces he unleashed would change the course of Japan’s history and nearly destroy the lovely island kingdom to its south.
Until 1879, when Japan acquired Ryukyu as the Okinawa Prefecture, Ryukyu enjoyed the trappings of sovereignty. The language and culture of ancient Ryukyu were all but destroyed from that point forward, in accordance with Meiji-era policy. When Okinawa became the final big battleground of World War II, that process was still in progress. The archipelago remained under American military administration until 1972, when the Americans handed back control of the previously rich and independent Ryukyus to Japan. MH
M.G. Haynes, a U.S. Army veteran with a degree in Asian studies, is a military and historical fiction novelist. He suggests George H. Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People and Stephen Turnbull’s The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609 for further reading.
Military History magazine published this piece in their July 2023 issue. Subscribe here for more stories, and follow us on Facebook:
In 1609, seventy years earlier, the kingdom of Ryukyu was founded in what is now called the Ryukyu Islands. In that year, the kingdom was invaded by Soun, the son of the chief of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Western Army, and the emperor’s youngest brother, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Soun was given the title of “King of Ryukyu”, but he was in fact governor of the entire Ryukyu Archipelago, which included the islands of Kyushu and Taiwan, under the shogunate.. Read more about okinawa and china and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
When did Japan conquer Ryukyu Islands?
The Ryukyu Islands were conquered by Japan in 1879.
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The Ryukyu Islands are an autonomous prefecture of Japan.
What happened to Ryukyu?
Ryukyu is a region of Japan.
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