The Forgotten Dynasty Of The Ryukyu Islands

Japan has more than one royal family. The Sho kings ruled present day Okinawa for more than four centuries, but not many people realize they were/are a thing. Their reign ended in 1879 but the family’s descendants live on among the common folk today. Their lives are anything but lavish. So what happened to this other, lesser known ruling family and how are they keeping their royal traditions alive?

The Okinawan Kings

Ryukyu_KingdomThe Sho kings ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom (archipelago between Taiwan and Kyushu) from the early 15th century through 1879. What really set them apart was the fact that they had no standing army and survived by trade and diplomacy alone. The region they’re located in was very turbulent but they still managed to establish strong trade routes stretching from Siberia to Siam.

Ryukyuan ships, often provided by China, traded at ports such as Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Java, Malacca, Pattani, Palembang, Siam, Sumatra, China, and many others. They traded Japanese materials (silver, swords, fans, lacquer ware, folding screens), Chinese materials (medicinal herbs, minted coins, glazed ceramics, brocades, textiles), Southeast Asian materials (sappanwood, rhino horn, tin, sugar, iron, ambergris), Indian ivory, and Arabian frankincense.

Container aus China

While other nations were plotting invasions and developing schemes, the Ryukyu Kingdom earned a reputation as an honest broker. They were known to China as the “country of courtesy”. The Ryukyu Kingdom was filled with peace, trade, and a lively local culture.

The kingdom also managed to avoid any invasions thanks to the integral role it played in international trade as well as the support it received from Chinese emperors. It’s important to keep in mind that Okinawa was not actually part of Japan at this point. The Ryukyu Kingdom was truly its own kingdom.

The Invasion

japan-invasionWhich brings us to the next point – when the Ryukyu Kingdom finally was invaded. By Japan. Around 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi asked the Ryukyu Kingdom to help him conquer Korea. If successful, Hideyoshi planned to take on China next. Since the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, they refused the request.

This ticked off Japan, so in 1609 the feudal lord of Satsuma invaded the Ryukyu Islands and put an end to the kingdom’s prosperity. The king was kidnapped, and the Ryukyu Kingdom was forced to swear allegiance to Satsuma. The Satsuma clan also took over all their trade as well.

Even though the kingdom’s independence was gone, the Sho family continued to reign for 270 more years. During this time, the kingdom walked a fine line between the Chinese and Japanese emperors. The Ryukyu Kingdom was still paying tribute to China, and during Japan’s 250 years of isolation, the kingdom was Japan’s main avenue of international trade.

perry-arrives

Commodore Matthew Perry even paid a visit to the kingdom. In 1853 he demanded an audience with the king and was received warmly (albeit a little perplexed) by the Ryukyu court. Perry thought the place was “as pleasant as any in the world”. This sounds like a pretty neutral way to refer to a place, but since he took home a number of gifts, he probably enjoyed the time he spent there.

Sneaky Trade Ensues

Shady-DealingChina was more or less kept in the dark concerning the Japanese influence on the Ryukyu Kingdom. Though it was technically under the control of Satsuma, Ryukyu was given a great degree of autonomy. The reason for this was trade with China.

Ryukyu was a tributary state of China, and since Japan had no formal diplomatic relations with China, it was essential that Beijing not realize that Ryukyu was actually controlled by Japan. So even though Satsuma and Japan were now in control of Ryukyu, they had to leave them alone for the most part. Otherwise China would know something was going on.

satsuma

Because of this, Japan was unable to visibly occupy Ryukyu or directly control the policies and laws there. The Ryukyu royal government, the Satsuma daimyo, and the shogunate itself all benefited from this strange arrangement.

They made Ryukyu seem like as much of a distinctive and foreign country as they possibly could. Japanese people were prohibited from visiting Ryukyu without explicit permission and the Ryukyu people were forbidden from taking Japanese names, wearing Japanese clothes, or adopting Japanese customs.

The Ryukuans were even forbidden from expressing any knowledge of the Japanese language during their trips to Edo. As the only clan to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained a significant amount of respect from Ryukyu’s exoticism, further reinforcing that it was an entirely separate kingdom.

Eventually, Japan began to harass China for total control over the Ryukyu Kingdom. Japan ordered them to stop paying tribute to China in 1875 and China’s relationship with the islands was abolished in 1879. The kingdom itself was then abolished, and the islands annexed as Okinawa Prefecture. However, the Ryukyuans were not truly considered a part of Japan and the Ryukyu people were not considered to be Japanese.

The Sho Family Today

SONY DSC

Shuri Castle today

Prince Tsuguru Sho does not live the life of a prince. He owns a bar in Tokyo and hardly anyone realizes he is of royal blood. Tsuguru is too busy running the bar and serving food to care. Sho’s Zen restaurant is just down the street from Japan’s Imperial Palace too.

As for myself and my relatives, we take great pride in the name Sho. But the Ryukyu Kingdom has become Okinawa Prefecture, and we go about our business as normal citizens.
– Tsuguru Sho

The Ryukyu court is gone and their treasures and artifacts now rest in museums inside and out of Japan. The family keeps their traditions alive through use of their own court dialect, much like Japan’s imperial family. They speak it with each other, most often at family gatherings.

ryukuans

They have these family gatherings because these days the family is pretty spread out. In Okinawa, family members run prep schools, nurseries, and parking garages. When the family’s reign officially ended, Japan gave them numerous privileges and signs of respect. They were given seats in the House of Peers, and some of them even married into the imperial family.

Unfortunately, these privileges ended with the battle of Okinawa during World War II. More than 90% of Okinawans were homeless near the end of the war in 1945, including the Sho family. Shuri Castle was reduced to rubble (it’s since been restored) and the House of Peers was disbanded. Okinawa was now under the control of the United States and remained that way for 27 years until it was finally returned to Japan in 1972.


So the Sho family basically lives like any other Japanese family these days. Some family members are worried that the younger generations might not keep with tradition and carry on things like the family’s court dialect, but overall things are pretty decent for the Sho family today. Regardless of how well known they are today, their legacy will always live on in the history books.


Sources Referenced:
Okinawa Prefecture Wikipedia
Ryukyu Kingdom Wikipedia
Baltimore Sun

  • Maruku

    Lol @ Age of Empires picture.

  • Aya’s Father

    When I started reading this, I thought the bearded bard (aka John) would finally reveal the royal blood in Koichi’s veins.
    Koichi, the Destroyer of the Japanese Language Industry…and Koichi, the Prince.

  • John

    Shh! We’re not yet ready to go public with that information.

  • altgrave

    fascinating, if sad.

  • KinokoHime

    …Gackt. Wasn’t his mother part of that family? I dunno. Feel like I read that somewhere.

  • John

    He’s from a Ryukyuan family, but as far as I know they aren’t related to the Sho family. Correct me if I’m wrong though!

  • Beetle BANE

    You mean to say that Koichi was formerly known as Prince??
    Woah. Mind blown!

  • Beetle BANE

    Dude this was really interesting! I told so many people about this neat little information after reading it.
    On the bright side though, even if they aren’t exactly at their former par, at least it is somewhat of a happy ending in that they are taking it in good spirits and live pretty nicely. :-)

  • John

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Nick Nakao

    I have read a little on the Ryukyu Islands and how they became a part of Japan. But, I never heard about the family’s role in modern times. Very interesting! I am half Japanese, but no very little about my Japanese side of the family. Pretty much, all I know is, my grandfather came from Okinawa. I originally looked up Okinawa (Ryukyu Islands) because he would, sometimes, say he was Okinawan and not Japanese. He said there was a difference. I’m hoping to be able to visit Japan and Okinawa someday and learn more about my family.

  • マイケル

    Nice article!
    But wait, where is Tsuguru Sho’s restaurant? I’m living near Shimbashi right now, maybe I could visit. Y’know buy a few drinks, get his autograph, the usual hanging out with royal family things =P

    Or maybe it’s a secret???

  • John

    It’s on the same street as the imperial palace I think. Other than that, I’m not too sure as to the exact location haha.

  • Colin

    I’ve read pretty much everything on here and I have to say that this article has been one of the most interesting of them all. It helps me understand why Okinawans have such a distinct identity in Japanese culture. The statement from Sho Tsuguru is very interesting in what it reveals about Okinawans (Ryukuns); the hallmark of their kingdom was diplomacy and it’s clear from their attitude toward their absorption into Japan that it’s something that truly runs in their blood.

    Again, great article.

  • DAVIDPD

    Wow. This is cool. Dat Palace.

  • John

    Thanks, that really means a lot!

  • KinokoHime

    Well, I thought I’d read it in that weirdo autobiography of his years ago. I’m pretty sure he was a rich kid, though, so… perhaps not. Unless, his mom just married well due to her royal blood! :D lol Anyway, nice article. I like stuff like this. Localized history. You should do more? :)

  • John

    If I dig up more stories worth writing about, I most certainly will!

  • InsideJapan James

    Nice little bit of history in a nutshell. Thanks!

  • Kasma88

    I’ve got to say, your posts are always the most interesting on Tofugu. You clearly take a lot of time researching your topic and it’s alway original, concise and well written! Keep up the good work, you’re the main reason I keep coming bacl to this blog!

  • Jonathan Harston

    A bit like a cross between Scotland and the Venetian Republic.

  • DenjinJ

    It’s hard to tell with Gackt… He’s said some bizarre things about his background. :p

  • KinokoHime

    exactly. Can’t tell if I made up or he made up. ;p

  • Jessha

    Whenever I see “Dynasty” and “Ryukyu” I just think of how some people believe that the original dynasty in 1187 was actually the defeated Heike fleeing after the battle of Dannoura.

  • hoihoi

    Kishaba choken
    http://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/storyid-41041-storytopic-121.html

    he was a a close adviser of Sho. he wrote a process of Disposition of Ryukyu、a book 『琉球見聞録]
    there is a truth in his book..
    http://kaihousyoukoku.asablo.jp/blog/2010/12/31/5616048

    http://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/storyid-139465-storytopic-12.html

    according to his book p.21, it was a kind of emancipation of slaves

  • hoihoi

    emancipation of slaves by meiji government
    p21
    http://ir.lib.u-ryukyu.ac.jp:8080/bitstream/123456789/2834/1/No4p184.pdf

  • SamuraiAvenger

    My Okinawan friend says,
    Yui Aragaki doesn’t look like a typical Okinawan.

  • http://www.mangrovemission.com/ Tokyo_Ben

    This is a great article! I spent 2 years and met my wife in Okinawa. They truly have a unique culture and history. It is unfortunate the discrimination many Okinawans have faced over the years. In Japan, its hard to be different from everyone else. If you want to be really shocked, look up the history of the WWII battle of Okinawa and how they were treated by imperial troops. That would make a good (though morose) article.

  • Terry Maccarrone

    Ansei Ueshiro was from Kin, Okinawa in the northern part. b 1933 d 2002
    he was nephew to Ankichi Aragaki..related to the Sho family.
    and uncle also lived in Hawaii
    serverely injured he came to America to teach karate.

  • Terry Maccarrone

    Okinawa Association of America
    Martial Arts Committee 2014
    American Sport Karate…..
    Traditional Okinawan roots karate-do