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Contours of the Ryukyu Empire

Sat, June 25, 1:00 to 2:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 115


The Ryukyu Islands were not a homogenous region in any sense. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a variety of economic, political, and cultural communities developed throughout the island chain, from Amami and Kikai in the north to Yonaguni in the southwest. During the first three decades of the fifteenth century, the Chūzan polity defeated its rivals militarily and consolidated power over the Island of Okinawa. Soon thereafter, the kings of Okinawa began expanding to the north and south, conquering the other Ryukyu Islands either directly through invasion or by wielding the threat of military force. Conquest typically resulted in the installation of a compliant local overlord to sent taxes to the royal court in Shuri and maintain political order. Rebellious local leaders sometimes required Shuri to launch military campaigns. One well-known example was Oyake Akahachi on Ishigaki in 1500, crushed by an army from Okinawa in cooperation with allied lords from the region. Other than the imposition of basic political order and resource extraction, Shuri did not seek to impose cultural or administrative uniformity on the Ryukyu Islands. This paper argues that the Ryukyu Kingdom (ca. 1429-1879) is best characterized as a small-scale, culturally heterogeneous Island empire held together by military force or the threat of such force. A thorough understanding of Ryukyu therefore requires examining the empire from a variety of non-Okinawan perspectives.