Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島, Ryūkyū-shotō, Japanese
pronunciation: [ɾʲɯːkʲɯː], English: /riˈuːkjuː/),
more commonly known in Japanese as the Nansei Islands (南西諸島,
Nansei-shotō, lit. "Southwest Islands") and also known as the Ryukyu
Arc (琉球弧, Ryūkyū-ko), are a chain of Japanese islands that
stretch southwest from
Kyushu to Taiwan: the Ōsumi, Tokara, Amami,
Sakishima Islands (further divided into the Miyako and
Yaeyama Islands), with
Yonaguni the southernmost. The larger are
mostly high islands and the smaller mostly coral. The largest is
The climate of the islands ranges from humid subtropical climate
Köppen climate classification
Köppen climate classification Cfa) in the north to tropical
rainforest climate (
Köppen climate classification
Köppen climate classification Af) in the south.
Precipitation is very high, and is affected by the rainy season and
typhoons. Except the outlying Daitō Islands, the island chain has two
major geologic boundaries, the Tokara Strait between the Tokara and
Amami Islands, and the
Kerama Gap between the
Okinawa and Miyako
Islands. The islands beyond the Tokara Strait are characterized by
their coral reefs.
The Ōsumi and Tokara Islands, the northernmost of the islands, fall
under the cultural sphere of the
Kyushu region of Japan; the people
are ethnically Japanese and speak a variation of the Kagoshima dialect
of Japanese. The Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and
Yaeyama Islands have a
native population collectively called the Ryukyuan people, named for
Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled them. The varied Ryukyuan
languages are traditionally spoken on these islands, and the major
islands have their own distinct languages. In modern times, the
Japanese language is the primary language of the islands, with the
Okinawan Japanese dialect prevalently spoken. The outlying Daitō
Islands were uninhabited until the Meiji period, when their
development was started mainly by people from the
Izu Islands south of
Tokyo, with the people there speaking the Hachijō language.
Administratively, the islands are divided into Kagoshima Prefecture
(specifically the islands administered by Kagoshima District, Kumage
Subprefecture/District, and Ōshima Subprefecture/District) in the
Okinawa Prefecture in the south, with the divide between the
Okinawa Islands, with the
Daitō Islands part of Okinawa
Prefecture. The northern (Kagoshima) islands are collectively called
the Satsunan Islands, while the southern part of the chain (Okinawa
Prefecture) are called the
Ryukyu Islands in Japanese.
1 Island subgrouping
2 Names and extents
2.1 Nansei Islands
2.2.1 Historical usage
2.4 Southern Islands
3.1 The Eastern Islands of Liuqiu
3.2 Ancient Japan's Southern Islands
3.3 Kikaigashima and Iōgashima
3.4 Shimazu Estate and Kamakura shogunate's expansion
Tanegashima under the
3.6 Amami and Tokara Islands
3.7.1 Historical description of the "Loo-Choo" islands
4.1 Ryukyuan native people
5.2 Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama
6 See also
8 External links
The latest sunset in
Japan is seen from Yonaguni.
The Ryukyus are commonly divided into two or three primary groups:
either administratively, with the Northern Ryukyus being the islands
Kagoshima Prefecture (known in Japanese as the "Satsunan Islands")
and the Southern Ryukyus being the islands in
(known in Japanese as the "Ryukyu Islands"),
or geologically, with the islands north of the Tokara Strait (Ōsumi
and Tokara) being the Northern Ryukyus, those between the Tokara
Kerama Gap (Amami and Okinawa) being the Central Ryukyus,
and those south of the
Kerama Gap (Miyako and Yaeyama) being the
Following are the grouping and names used by the Hydrographic and
Oceanographic Department of the
Japan Coast Guard. The islands are
listed from north to south where possible.
Nansei Islands (南西諸島, Nansei-shotō)
Satsunan Islands (薩南諸島, Satsunan-shotō)
Ōsumi Islands (大隅諸島, Ōsumi-shotō) with:
Tanegashima, Yaku, Kuchinoerabu,
Mageshima in the North-Eastern Group,
Takeshima, Iojima, Kuroshima in the North-Western Group.
Tokara Islands (吐噶喇列島, Tokara-rettō): Kuchinoshima,
Nakanoshima, Gajajima, Suwanosejima, Akusekijima, Tairajima,
Amami Islands (奄美群島, Amami-guntō): Amami Ōshima, Kikaijima,
Kakeromajima, Yoroshima, Ukeshima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabujima,
Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島, Ryūkyū-shotō)
Okinawa Islands (沖縄諸島, Okinawa-shotō):
Okinawa Island, Kume,
Iheya, Izena, Aguni, Ie (Iejima), Iwo Tori Shima (Iōtorishima) 
Kerama Islands (慶良間諸島, Kerama-shotō): Tokashiki, Zamami,
Sakishima Islands (先島諸島, Sakishima-shotō, the "Further
Miyako Islands (宮古列島, Miyako-rettō): Miyakojima, Ikema,
Ōgami, Irabu, Shimoji, Kurima, Minna, Tarama
Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島, Yaeyama-rettō): Iriomote, Ishigaki,
Taketomi, Kohama, Kuroshima, Aragusuku, Hatoma, Yubujima, Hateruma,
Senkaku Islands (尖閣諸島, Senkaku-shotō, claimed by
Taiwan): Uotsurijima, Kuba Jima, Taisho Jima, Kita Kojima, Minami
Daitō Islands (大東諸島, Daitō-shotō): Kita Daitō, Minami
Daitō, Oki Daitō
The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, another government
organization that is responsible for standardization of place names,
disagrees with the
Japan Coast Guard over some names and their extent,
but the two are working on standardization. They agreed on February
15, 2010, to use Amami-guntō (奄美群島) for the Amami Islands;
prior to that, Amami-shotō (奄美諸島) had also been used.
Names and extents
The English and Japanese uses of the term "Ryukyu" differ. In English,
the term Ryukyu may apply to the entire chain of islands, while in
Japanese Ryukyu usually refers only to the islands that were
previously part of the
Ryūkyū Kingdom after 1624.
Nansei-shotō (南西諸島) is the official name for the whole island
chain in Japanese.
Japan has used the name on nautical charts since
1907. Based on the Japanese charts, the international chart series
uses Nansei Shoto.
Nansei literally means "southwest", the direction of the island chain
from mainland Japan. Some humanities scholars prefer the uncommon term
Ryūkyū-ko (琉球弧, "Ryukyu Arc") for the entire island chain.
In geology, however, the
Ryukyu Arc includes subsurface structures
such as the
Okinawa Trough and extends to Kyushu.
During the American occupation of Amami, the Japanese government
objected to them being included under the name "Ryukyu" in English,
because they worried that this might mean that the return of the Amami
Islands to Japanese control would be delayed until the return of
Okinawa. However, the American occupational government on Amami
continued to be called the "Provisional Government for the Northern
Ryukyu Islands" in English, though it was translated as Rinji Hokubu
Nansei-shotō Seichō (臨時北部南西諸島政庁, Provisional
Government for the Northern Nansei Islands) in Japanese.
The name of Ryūkyū (琉球) is strongly associated with the Ryūkyū
Kingdom, a kingdom that originated from the
Okinawa Islands and
subjected the Sakishima and Amami Islands. The name is generally
considered outdated[by whom?] in Japanese although some entities of
Okinawa still bear the name, such as the local national university.
In Japanese, the "Ryukyu Islands" (琉球諸島, Ryūkyū-shotō)
cover only the Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama Islands, while in
English it includes the Amami and Daitō Islands. The northern half of
the island chain is referred to as the Satsunan ("South of Satsuma")
Islands in Japanese, as opposed to Northern
Ryukyu Islands in English.
Humanities scholars generally agree that the Amami, Okinawa, Miyako,
Yaeyama Islands share much cultural heritage, though they are
characterized by a great degree of internal diversity as well. There
is, however, no good name for the group. The native population
do not have their own name, since they do not recognize themselves as
a group this size. Ryukyu is the principal candidate because it
roughly corresponds to the maximum extent of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.
However, it is not necessarily considered neutral by the people of
Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama, who were marginalized under the
Okinawa-centered kingdom. The
Ōsumi Islands are not included
because they are culturally part of Kyushu. There is a high degree of
confusion in use of Ryukyu in English literature. For example,
Encyclopædia Britannica equates the
Ryukyu Islands with Japanese
Ryūkyū-shotō or Nansei-shotō in the definition but limits its
scope to the Amami,
Okinawa and Sakishima (Miyako and Yaeyama) in the
"Ryūkyū" is an exonym and is not a self-designation. The word first
appeared in the
Book of Sui (636). Its obscure description of Liuqiu
(流求) is the source of a never-ending scholarly debate over what
was referred to by the name Taiwan,
Okinawa or both. Nevertheless, the
Book of Sui shaped perceptions of Ryūkyū for a long time. Ryūkyū
was considered a land of cannibals and aroused a feeling of dread
among surrounding people, from Buddhist monk
Enchin who traveled to
China in 858 to an informant of the Hyōtō Ryūkyū-koku ki who
traveled to Song
China in 1243. Later, some Chinese sources used
"Great Ryukyu" (Chinese: 大琉球; pinyin: Dà Liúqiú) for Okinawa
and "Lesser Ryukyu" (Chinese: 小琉球; pinyin: Xiǎo Liúqiú) for
Taiwan. Okinawan forms of "Ryūkyū" are Ruuchuu (ルーチュー) or
Duuchuu (ドゥーチュー) in Okinawan and Ruuchuu (ルーチュー)
in the Kunigami language. An Okinawan man was recorded as
having referred to himself as a "Doo Choo man" during Commodore
Matthew C. Perry's visit to the
Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1852.
From about 1829 until the mid-20th century, the islands' English name
was spelled Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew. These spellings were based on
the Chinese pronunciation of the characters "琉球", which in
Mandarin is Liúqiú, as well as the Okinawan language's form
Okinawa in Japanese, is originally a native name for
the largest island in the island chain. The Japanese map series known
as the Ryukyu Kuniezu lists the island as Wokinaha Shima
(悪鬼納嶋) in 1644 and
Okinawa Shima (沖縄嶋) after 1702. The
name was chosen by the
Meiji government for the new prefecture when
they annexed the
Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879. "Okinawa" never extends to
Kagoshima Prefecture. Outside the prefecture,
Okinawa Prefecture is
simply referred to as Okinawa. In
Okinawa Prefecture, however, Okinawa
is strongly associated with
Okinawa Island, and in this sense, Okinawa
excludes the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. People in the Yaeyama Islands
would use the expression "go to Okinawa" when they visit Okinawa
Island. People from the Amami Islands,
Kagoshima Prefecture would also
oppose being included in Okinawa.
Some scholars feel the need to group the Amami and
because Amami is closer to
Okinawa in some respects, for example from
a linguistic point of view, than Miyako and Yaeyama. Japanese scholars
use "Amami–Okinawa" while American and European scholars use
"Northern Ryukyuan". They have no established single-word term for
the group since the native population had not felt the need for such a
Kunio Yanagita and his followers used Nantō (南島,
"Southern Islands"). This term was originally used by the imperial
court of Ancient Japan. Yanagita hypothesized that the southern
islands were the origin of the
Japanese people and preserved many
elements that were subsequently lost in Japan. The term is outdated
Main article: History of the Ryukyu Islands
This section only describes one highly specialized aspect of its
associated subject. Please help improve this article by adding more
general information. The talk page may contain suggestions. (November
The Eastern Islands of Liuqiu
The first possible mentions of the islands are in the Annals of the
Qin Shi Huang
Qin Shi Huang heard of "happy immortals" living on the
Eastern Islands, so he sent expeditions there to find the source of
immortality, to no avail.[page needed] While some purport
that these expeditions reached
Japan and launched a social and
agricultural revolution, the same events are marked in Ryukyuan
folklore on Kudaka Island. The Eastern Islands are again mentioned
as the land of immortals in the Annals of the Han Dynasty.
In 601, the Chinese sent an expedition to the "Country of Liuqiu"
(流求國). They noted that the people were small but pugnacious. The
Chinese couldn't understand the local language and returned to China.
In 607, they sent another expedition to trade, and brought back one of
the islanders. A Japanese embassy was in Loyang when the expedition
returned, and one of the Japanese exclaimed that the islander wore the
dress and spoke the language of Yaku Island. In 610, a final
expedition was sent with an army that demanded submission to the
Chinese Emperor. The islanders fought the Chinese, but their "palaces"
were burned and "thousands" of people were taken captive, and the
Chinese left the island.
Ancient Japan's Southern Islands
The island chain appeared in Japanese written history as Southern
Islands (南島, Nantō). The first record of the Southern Islands is
an article of 618 in the
Nihonshoki (720) which states that people of
Yaku (掖玖,夜勾) followed the emperor's virtue. In 629 the
imperial court dispatched an expedition to Yaku. Yaku in historical
sources was not limited to modern-day
Yakushima but seems to have
covered a broader area of the island chain. In 657, several persons
from Tokara (都貨邏, possibly Dvaravati) arrived at Kyushu,
reporting that they had first drifted to Amami Island (海見島,
Amamijima), which is the first attested use of Amami.
Articles of the late 7th century give a closer look at the southern
islands. In 677, the imperial court gave a banquet to people from Tane
Island (多禰島, Tanejima). In 679 the imperial court sent a mission
to Tane Island. The mission carried some people from the southern
islands who were described as the peoples of Tane, Yaku, and Amami
(阿麻弥) in the article of 682. According to the Shoku Nihongi
(797), the imperial court dispatched armed officers in 698 to explore
the southern islands. As a result, people of Tane, Yaku, Amami and
Dokan visited the capital to pay tribute in the next year. Historians
identify Dokan as
Tokunoshima of the Amami Islands. An article of 714
reports that an investigative team returned to the capital, together
with people of Amami, Shigaki (信覚), and Kumi (球美) among
others. Shigaki should be
Ishigaki Island of the Yaeyama Islands. Some
identify Kumi as
Iriomote Island of the
Yaeyama Islands because Komi
is an older name for Iriomote. Others consider that Kumi corresponded
Kume Island of the
Okinawa Islands. Around this time "Southern
Islands" replaced Yaku as a collective name for the southern
In the early 8th century the northern end of the island chain was
formally incorporated into the Japanese administrative system. After a
rebellion was crushed,
Tane Province was established around 702. Tane
Province consisted of four districts and covered
Yakushima. Although the tiny province faced financial difficulties
from the very beginning, it was maintained until 824 when it was
merged into Ōsumi Province.
Ancient Japan's commitment to the southern islands is attributed to
ideological and strategic factors.
Japan applied to herself the
Chinese ideology of emperorship that required "barbarian people" who
longed for the great virtue of the emperor. Thus
Japan treated people
on its periphery, i.e., the
Emishi to the east and the Hayato and the
Southern Islanders to the south, as "barbarians". The imperial court
brought some of them to the capital to serve the emperor. The New Book
of Tang (1060) states at the end of the chapter of
Japan that there
were three little princes of Yaku (邪古), Haya (波邪), and Tane
(多尼). This statement should have based on a report by Japanese
envoys in the early 8th century who would have claimed the Japanese
emperor's virtue. At the site of Dazaifu, the administrative center of
Kyushu, two wooden tags dated in the early 8th century were unearthed
in 1984, which read "Amami Island" (㭺美嶋, Amamijima) and "Iran
Island" (伊藍嶋, Iran no Shima) respectively. The latter seems to
correspond to Okinoerabu Island. These tags might have been attached
to "red woods", which, according to the
Engishiki (927), Dazaifu was
to offer when they were obtained from the southern islands.
Sea routes used by Japanese missions to Tang China
The southern islands had strategic importance for
Japan because they
were on one of the three major routes used by Japanese missions to
China (630–840). The 702 mission seems to have been the first
to successfully switch from the earlier route via Korea to the
southern island route. The missions of 714, 733 and 752 probably took
the same route. In 754 the Chinese monk
Jianzhen managed to reach
Japan. His biography Tō Daiwajō Tōseiden (779) makes reference to
Akonaha (阿児奈波) on the route, which may refer to modern-day
Okinawa Island. An article of 754 states that the government repaired
mileposts that had originally been set in the southern islands in 735.
However, the missions from 777 onward chose another route that
directly connected Kyūshū to China. Thereafter the central
government lost its interest in the southern islands.
Kikaigashima and Iōgashima
The southern islands reappeared in written history at the end of the
10th century. According to the Nihongi ryaku (c. 11th–12th
centuries), Dazaifu, the administrative center of Kyushu, reported
that the Nanban (southern barbarians) pirates, who were identified as
Amami islanders by the Shōyūki (982–1032 for the extant portion),
pillaged a wide area of Kyūshū in 997. In response, Dazaifu ordered
"Kika Island" (貴駕島, Kikashima) to arrest the Nanban. This is the
first attested use of Kikaigashima, which is often used in subsequent
The series of reports suggest that there were groups of people with
advanced sailing technology in Amami and that Dazaifu had a stronghold
in Kikai Island. In fact, historians hypothesize that the Amami
Islands were incorporated into a trade network that connected it to
China and Goryeo. In fact, the Shōyūki recorded that
in the 1020s, local governors of southern Kyūshū presented to the
author, a court aristocrat, local specialties of the southern islands
including the Chinese fan palm, red woods, and shells of Green Turban
Shell. The Shinsarugakuki, a fictional work written in the mid-11th
century, introduced a merchant named Hachirō-mauto, who traveled all
the way to the land of the Fushū in the east and to Kika Island
(貴賀之島, Kikanoshima) in the west. The goods he obtained from
the southern islands included shells of Green Turban Shell and sulfur.
Shinsarugakuki was not mere fiction; the Golden Hall of Chūson-ji
(c. 1124) in northeastern
Japan was decorated with tens of thousands
of green turban shells.
Some articles of 1187 of the
Azuma Kagami state that
Ata Tadakage of
Satsuma Province fled to
Kikai Island (貴海島, Kikaishima) sometime
around 1160. The
Azuma Kagami also states that in 1188 Minamoto no
Yoritomo, who soon became the shōgun, dispatched troops to pacify
Kikai Island (貴賀井島, Kikaishima). It was noted that the
imperial court objected the military expedition claiming that it was
beyond Japan's administration. The
Tale of the Heike (13th
Kikai Island (鬼界島, Kikaishima), where Shunkan,
Taira no Yasuyori, and
Fujiwara no Naritsune were exiled following the
Shishigatani Incident of 1177. The island depicted, characterized by
sulfur, is identified as Iōjima of the Ōsumi Islands, which is part
of Kikai Caldera. Since China's invention of gunpowder made sulfur
Japan's major export,
Sulfur Island or Iōgashima became another
representative of the southern islands. It is noted by scholars that
the character representing the first syllable of Kikai changed from ki
(貴, noble) to ki (鬼, ogre) from the end of the 12th century to the
early 13th century.
The literature-based theory that
Kikai Island was Japan's trade center
of the southern islands is supported by the discovery of the Gusuku
Site Complex in 2006. The group of archaeological sites on the plateau
Kikai Island is one of the largest sites of the era. It lasted from
9th to 13th centuries and at its height from the second half of the
11th to the first half of the 12th century. It was characterized by a
near-total absence of the native Kaneku Type pottery, which prevailed
in coastal communities. What were found instead were goods imported
from mainland Japan,
China and Korea. Also found was the Kamuiyaki
pottery, which was produced in
Tokunoshima from the 11th to 14th
centuries. The skewed distribution of
Kamuiyaki peaked at Kikai and
Tokunoshima suggests that the purpose of
Kamuiyaki production was to
serve it to Kikai.
Shimazu Estate and Kamakura shogunate's expansion
Hōen era (1135–1141),
Tanegashima became part of Shimazu
Estate on southern Kyūshū. The Shimazu Estate was said to have
established at Shimazu,
Hyūga Province in 1020s and dedicated to
Kanpaku Fujiwara no Yorimichi. In the 12th century, Shimazu Estate
expanded to a large portion of the Satsuma and Ōsumi Provinces
Koremune no Tadahisa, a retainer of the Fujiwara family, was appointed
as a steward of Shimazu Estate in 1185. He was then named shugo of
Satsuma and Ōsumi (and later Hyūga) Provinces by first shōgun
Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo in 1197. He became the founder of the Shimazu
clan. Tadahisa lost power when his powerful relative Hiki Yoshikazu
was overthrown in 1203. He lost the positions of shugo and jitō and
only regained the posts of shugo of
Satsuma Province and jitō of the
Satsuma portion of Shimazu Estate. The shugo of
Ōsumi Province and
jitō of the Ōsumi portion of Shimazu Estate, both of which
controlled Tanegashima, were succeeded by the
Hōjō clan (especially
its Nagoe branch). The Nagoe family sent the Higo clan to rule Ōsumi.
A branch family of the Higo clan settled in
Tanegashima and became the
The islands other than
Tanegashima were grouped as the Twelve Islands
and treated as part of Kawanabe District, Satsuma Province. The Twelve
Islands were subdivided into the Near Five (口五島/端五島,
Kuchigoshima/Hajigoshima) and the Remote Seven (奥七島,
Okunanashima). The Near Five consisted of the
Ōsumi Islands except
Tanegashima while the Remote Seven corresponded to the Tokara Islands.
Jōkyū War in 1221, the jitō of Kawanabe District was
assumed by the Hōjō
Tokusō family. The
Tokusō family let its
retainer Chikama clan rule Kawanabe District. In 1306, Chikama Tokiie
created a set of inheritance documents that made reference to various
southern islands. The islands mentioned were not limited to the Twelve
but included Amami Ōshima,
Kikai Island and
Tokunoshima (and possibly
Okinoerabu Island) of the Amami Islands. An extant map of
Hōjō clan describes Amami as a "privately owned district".
Shimazu clan also claimed the rights to the Twelve. In 1227
Kujō Yoritsune affirmed Shimazu Tadayoshi's position as the
jitō of the Twelve Islands among others. After the Kamakura shogunate
was destroyed, the
Shimazu clan increased its rights. In 1364, it
claimed the "eighteen islands" of Kawanabe District. In the same year,
the clan's head Shimazu Sadahisa gave his son Morohisa properties in
Satsuma Province including the Twelve Islands and the "extra five"
islands. The latter must be the Amami Islands.
Tanegashima under the
Tanegashima clan came to rule
Tanegashima on behalf of the Nagoe
family but soon got autonomous. It usually allied with, sometimes
submitted itself to, and sometimes antagonized the
Shimazu clan on
mainland Kyūshū. The
Tanegashima clan was given
Kuchinoerabu Island by Shimazu Motohisa in 1415. In 1436, it was given
the Seven Islands of Kawanabe District,
Satsuma Province (the Tokara
Islands) and other two islands by Shimazu Mochihisa, the head of a
Tanegashima is known in Japanese history for the introduction of
European firearms to Japan. Around 1543, a Chinese junk with
Portuguese merchants on board was driven to Tanegashima. Tanegashima
Tokitaka succeeded in reproducing matchlock rifles obtained from the
Portuguese. Within a few decades, firearms, then known as tanegashima,
were spread across Sengoku Japan.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's reunification of
Japan finalized the Tanegashima
clan's status as a senior vassal of the Shimazu clan. It was relocated
to Chiran of mainland Kyūshū in 1595. Although it moved back to
Tanegashima in 1599,
Kuchinoerabu Island fall under the
direct control of the Shimazu clan. These islands all constituted
Satsuma Domain during the Edo period.
Amami and Tokara Islands
Amami Islands were a focal point for dispute between the
Satsuma Domain and the northward-expanding Ryukyu
Kingdom. In 1453, a group of Koreans were shipwrecked on Gaja Island,
where they found the island half under the control of Satsuma and half
under the control of Ryukyu. Gaja Island is only 80 miles from
Satsuma's capital at Kagoshima City. The Koreans noted that the
Ryukyuans used guns "as advanced as in [Korea]". Other records of
activity in the
Amami Islands show Shō Toku's conquest of Kikai
Island in 1466, a failed Satsuma invasion of
Amami Ōshima in 1493,
and two rebellions on
Amami Ōshima during the 16th century. The
islands were finally conquered by Satsuma during the 1609 Invasion of
Ryukyu. The Tokugawa shogunate granted Satsuma the islands in 1624.
During the Edo Period, Ryukyuans referred to Satsuma's ships as
Okinawa Islands during the Sanzan Period
Flag of the
Ryūkyū Kingdom until 1875
Polities of the
Okinawa Islands were unified as the Ryūkyū Kingdom
in 1429. The kingdom conquered the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. At its
peak, it also subjected the
Amami Islands to its rule. In 1609,
Shimazu Tadatsune, Lord of Satsuma, invaded the
Ryūkyū Kingdom with
a fleet of 13 junks and 2,500 samurai, thereby establishing suzerainty
over the islands. They faced little opposition from the Ryukyuans, who
lacked any significant military capabilities, and who were ordered by
Shō Nei to surrender rather than to suffer the loss of precious
lives. After that, the kings of the Ryukyus paid tribute to the
Japanese shōgun as well as to the Chinese emperor. During this
period, Ryukyu kings were selected by a Japanese clan, unbeknownst to
the Chinese, who believed the Ryukyus to be a loyal tributary. In
1655, the tributary relations between Ryukyu and Qing were formally
approved by the shogunate. In 1874, the Ryukyus terminated tribute
relations with China.
In 1872, the Japanese government established the Ryukyu han under the
jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry. In 1875, jurisdiction over the
Ryukyus changed from the Foreign Ministry to the Home Ministry. In
Meiji government announced the annexation of the Ryukyus,
establishing it as
Okinawa Prefecture and forcing the Ryukyu king to
move to Tokyo. When
China signed the
Treaty of Shimonoseki
Treaty of Shimonoseki after
its 1895 defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War,
abandoned its claims to the Ryukyus.
American military control over
Okinawa began in 1945 with the
establishment of the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu
Islands, which in 1950 became the United States Civil Administration
of the Ryukyu Islands. Also in 1950, the Interim Ryukyus Advisory
Council (臨時琉球諮詢委員会, Rinji Ryūkyū Shijun Iinkai)
was formed, which evolved into the Ryukyu Provisional Central
Government (琉球臨時中央政府, Ryūkyū Rinji Chūō Seifu) in
1951. In 1952, the U.S. was formally granted control over Ryukyu
Islands south of 29°N latitude, and other Pacific islands, under the
San Francisco Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan. The
Ryukyu Provisional Central Government then became the Government of
Ryukyu Islands which existed from 1952 to 1972. Administrative
rights reverted to
Japan in 1972.
Today, numerous issues arise from Okinawan history. Some Ryukyuans and
some Japanese feel that people from the Ryukyus are different from the
majority Yamato people. Some natives of the Ryukyus claim that the
central government is discriminating against the islanders by allowing
so many American soldiers to be stationed on bases in
Okinawa with a
minimal presence on the mainland. Additionally, there is some
discussion of secession from Japan. As the territorial dispute
Japan over the
Senkaku Islands intensified in the
early 21st century, Communist Party of China-backed scholars published
essays calling for a reexamination of Japan's sovereignty over the
Ryukyus. In 2013
The New York Times
The New York Times described the comments by said
scholars as well as military figures as appearing to constitute "a
semiofficial campaign in
China to question Japanese rule of the
islands", noting that "almost all the voices in
China pressing the
Okinawa issue are affiliated in some way with the government".
Many popular singers and musical groups come from
These include the groups Speed and Orange Range, as well as solo
Namie Amuro and Gackt, among many others.
Historical description of the "Loo-Choo" islands
The islands were described by
Hayashi Shihei in Sangoku Tsūran
Zusetsu, which was published in 1785.
An article in the 1878 edition of the Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal
Information describes the islands:
Loo-Choo, Lu-Tchu, or Lieu-Kieu, a group of thirty-six islands
Japan to Formosa, in 26°–27°40′ N. lat.,
126°10′–129°5′ E. long., and tributary to Japan. The largest,
Tsju San ('middle island'), is about 60 miles long and 12 [miles]
broad; others are Sannan in the [south] and Sanbok in the [north].
Nawa, the chief port of Tsju San, is open to foreign commerce. The
islands enjoy a magnificent climate and are highly cultivated and very
productive. Among the productions are tea, rice, sugar, tobacco,
camphor, fruits, and silk. The principal manufactures are cotton,
paper, porcelain, and lacquered ware. The people, who are small, seem
a link between the Chinese and Japanese.
Ryukyuan native people
Main article: Ryukyuan people
The residents of the island chain are currently Japanese citizens.
Labeling them as Japanese poses no problem with regard to the Ōsumi
Tokara Islands in the north, but there are problems about
the ethnicity of the residents of the central and southern groups of
the island chain.
Scholars who recognize shared heritage among the native population of
the Amami, Okinawa, Miyako and
Yaeyama Islands label them as Ryukyuans
(琉球人, Ryūkyūjin). But nowadays, the residents of these Ryukyu
Islands do not identify themselves as such, although they share the
notion that they are somewhat different from Japanese, whom they call
"Yamato" or "Naicha". Now, they usually express self-identity as the
native of a particular island. Their identity can extend to an island
and then to
Japan as a whole, but rarely to intermediate regions.
For example, the people of
Okinawa Island refer to themselves as
Uchinaanchu (ウチナーンチュ, people of Okinawa) and the people
Okinoerabujima in the
Amami Islands call themselves the Erabunchu
(エラブンチュ, people of Erabu), while referring to the
Okinawans as Uchinaanchu or Naafanchu (ナーファンチュ, people
of Naha), as they consider themselves distinct from the Okinawans.
Other terms used include Amaminchu (アマミンチュ) and Shimanchu
(シマンチュ) in the Amami Islands, Yeeyamabitu
(イェーヤマビトゥ) in the Yaeyama Islands, Yunnunchu
Yoronjima and Myaakunchuu
(ミャークンチュー) in the Miyako Islands.
Main article: Ryukyuan religion
Harimizu utaki (Harimizu Shrine), a Ryukyuan shrine in Miyakojima,
Ryukyuan religion is generally characterized by
ancestor worship (more accurately termed "ancestor respect") and the
respecting of relationships between the living, the dead, and the gods
and spirits of the natural world. Some of its beliefs indicative of
its ancient animistic roots, such as those concerning local spirits
and many other beings classified between gods and humans.
Ryukyuan religious practice has been influenced by Chinese religions
(Taoism, Confucianism, and folk beliefs),
Buddhism and Japanese
Roman Catholics are pastorally served by their own Roman Catholic
Diocese of Naha, which was founded in 1947 as the "Apostolic
Okinawa and the Southern Islands".
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Jōmon Sugi in Yakushima
Crossing the Tokara Islands, Watase's Line and marks a major
biogeographic boundary. The north of the line belongs to the
Palaearctic subregion while the southern portion is the northern limit
of the Oriental subregion.
Yakushima in Ōsumi is the southern limit
of the Palaearctic subregion. It is featured with millennium-old cedar
trees. The island is part of
Kirishima-Yaku National Park
Kirishima-Yaku National Park and was
World Heritage Site
World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.
Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama
Yonaguni Monument, a rock formation theorized by some to be
The south of Watase's Line is recognized by ecologists as a distinct
subtropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion. The flora and fauna of
the islands have much in common with Taiwan, the Philippines, and
Southeast Asia, and are part of the
The coral reefs are among the World Wildlife Fund's Global 200
ecoregions. The reefs are endangered by sedimentation and
eutrophication, which result from agriculture as well as fishing.
Mammals endemic to the islands include Amami Rabbit,
Iriomote cat, the
Ryukyu flying fox, the Ryukyu long-tailed giant rat, the Ryukyu mouse,
Ryukyu Inu and the Ryukyu shrew.
Birds found in the Ryukyus include the Amami woodcock, the Izu thrush,
the Japanese paradise flycatcher, the narcissus flycatcher, the
Okinawa rail (yanbaru kuina), the Lidth's Jay, the Ryukyu kingfisher,
the Ryukyu minivet, the Ryukyu robin, the Ryūkyū scops owl, the
extinct Ryukyu wood pigeon,
Amami woodpecker and the Okinawa
Approximately one half of the amphibian species of the islands are
Endemic amphibians include the sword-tail newt, Anderson's
crocodile newt, Hyla hallowellii, Holst's frog, Otton frog, Ishikawa's
frog, the Ryukyu tip-nosed frog, Namiye's frog, and the Kampira Falls
Various species of snake known locally as habu also inhabit the
Ryukyus, including Trimeresurus elegans, Trimeresurus flavoviridis,
Trimeresurus tokarensis, and Ovophis okinavensis. Other snakes native
to the Ryukyus are Achalinus werneri, Achalinus formosanus, Elaphe
carinata, Elaphe taeniura, Cyclophiops semicarinatus, Cyclophiops
herminae, Dinodon semicarinatum, Dinodon rufozonatum, Calamaria
pfefferri, Amphiesma pryeri, Calliophis japonicus, Laticauda
semifasciata, and Hydrophis ornatus.
Lizards native to the islands include Kishinoue's giant skink,
Kuroiwa's ground gecko, Japalura polygonata, Plestiodon stimpsonii,
Plestiodon marginatus, Scincella boettgeri, Scincella vandenburghi,
Ateuchosaurus pellopleurus, Cryptoblepharus boutonii nigropunctatus,
Apeltonotus dorsalis, and Takydromus toyamai.
Subspecies of the
Chinese box turtle
Chinese box turtle and the yellow pond turtle are
native to the islands, as is the Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle.
Tanegashima Space Center
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This article incorporates text from the 1878 edition of the Globe
Encyclopaedia of Universal Information, a work in the public domain
A Brief History of the Uchinanchu (Okinawans)
National Archives of Japan: Ryukyu Chuzano ryoshisha tojogyoretsu,
scroll illustrating procession of Ryuku emissary to Edo, Hōei 7
Historic maps in the
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection by the
Army Map Service, Ryukyu Retto 1:50,000 Series L791, 1943 - 1945
Regions and administrative divisions of Japan