Ryukyu Islands

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Ryukyu Islands
Ryukyuan languages:
Japanese language:
Nansei-shotō(南西諸島, Southwest Islands)
Ryūkyū-shotō(琉球諸島, Ryukyu Islands) [1]
Location of the Ryukyu Islands.JPG
Location of Ryukyu Islands
LocationOn the boundary between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea
Coordinates 26°30′N128°00′E / 26.5°N 128°E / 26.5; 128 Coordinates: 26°30′N128°00′E / 26.5°N 128°E / 26.5; 128
Total islands100+
Major islands
Area4,642.11 km2 (1,792.33 sq mi)
Highest elevation1,936 m (6,352 ft)
Highest pointMt. Miyanoura-dake
Flag of Japan.svg  Japan
Demonym Ryukyuans
Population1,550,161 (2005)
Pop. density333.93 /km2 (864.87 /sq mi)
Ethnic groups

The Ryukyu Islands [note 1] (琉球諸島,Ryūkyū-shotō), also known as the Nansei Islands(南西諸島,Nansei-shotō, lit. "Southwest Islands") or 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, Okinawa, and Sakishima Islands (further divided into the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands), with Yonaguni the westernmost. The larger are mostly high islands and the smaller mostly coral. The largest is Okinawa Island.

Kyushu Third largest island of Japan

Kyushu is the third largest island of Japan's five main islands. Its alternative ancient names include Kyūkoku(九国, "Nine Countries"), Chinzei(鎮西, "West of the Pacified Area"), and Tsukushi-no-shima(筑紫島, "Island of Tsukushi"). The historical regional name Saikaidō referred to Kyushu and its surrounding islands.

Geography of Taiwan geography of the island in East Asia

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), is an island state in East Asia. The main island of Taiwan, known historically as Formosa, makes up 99% of the area controlled by the ROC, measuring 35,808 square kilometres (13,826 sq mi) and lying some 180 kilometres (112 mi) across the Taiwan Strait from the southeastern coast of mainland China. The East China Sea lies to its north, the Philippine Sea to its east, the Luzon Strait directly to its south and the South China Sea to its southwest. Smaller islands include a number in the Taiwan Strait including the Penghu archipelago, the Kinmen and Matsu Islands near the Chinese coast, and some of the South China Sea Islands.

Ōsumi Islands island group

The Ōsumi Islands is an archipelago in the Nansei Islands, and are the northernmost group of the Satsunan Islands, which is in turn part of the Ryukyu Archipelago. The chain extends from the southern tip of Kyushu to Yakushima. Administratively, the group belongs within Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.


The climate of the islands ranges from humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classification Cfa) in the north to tropical rainforest climate (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.

Humid subtropical climate category in the Köppen climate classification system

A humid subtropical climate is a zone of climate characterized by hot and humid summers, and cool to mild winters. These climates normally lie on the southeast side of all continents, generally between latitudes 25° and 35° and are located poleward from adjacent tropical climates. While many subtropical climates tend to be located at or near coastal locations, in some cases they extend inland, most notably in China and the United States, where they exhibit more pronounced seasonal variations and sharper contrasts between summer and winter, as part of a gradient between the more tropical climates of the southern coasts of these countries and the more continental climates of China and the United States’ northern and central regions.

Köppen climate classification climate classification system

The Köppen climate classification is one of the most widely used climate classification systems. It was first published by the German-Russian climatologist Wladimir Köppen (1846–1940) in 1884, with several later modifications by Köppen, notably in 1918 and 1936. Later, the climatologist Rudolf Geiger introduced some changes to the classification system, which is thus sometimes called the Köppen–Geiger climate classification system.

Tropical rainforest climate

A tropical rainforest climate is a tropical climate usually found within 10 to 15 degrees latitude of the equator, and has at least 60 mm of rainfall every month of the year. Regions with this climate are typically designated Af by the Köppen climate classification. A tropical rainforest climate is typically hot, very humid and wet.

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 the former 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.

Kagoshima dialect

The Satsugū dialect, often referred to as the Kagoshima dialect, is a group of dialects or dialect continuum of the Japanese language spoken mainly within the area of the former Ōsumi and Satsuma provinces now incorporated into the southwestern prefecture of Kagoshima. It may also be collectively referred to as the Satsuma dialect, owing to both the prominence of the Satsuma Province and the region of the Satsuma Domain which spanned the former Japanese provinces of Satsuma, Ōsumi and the southwestern part of Hyūga. Although not classified as a separate language, the Satsugū dialect is commonly cited for its mutual unintelligibility to even its neighbouring Kyūshū variants. It shares over three-quarters of the Standard Japanese vocabulary corpus and some areal features of Kyūshū.

Yaeyama Islands island group

The Yaeyama Islands are an archipelago in the southwest of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, and cover 591.46 square kilometres (228.36 sq mi). The islands are located southwest of the Miyako Islands, part of the Ryukyu Islands archipelago. The Yaeyama Islands are the remotest part of Japan from the main islands and contain Japan's most southern (Hateruma) and most western (Yonaguni) inhabited islands. The city of Ishigaki serves as the political, cultural, and economic center of the Yaeyama Islands.

The Ryukyuan people, also Lewchewan or Uchinaanchu, are the indigenous peoples of the Ryukyu Islands between the islands of Kyushu and Taiwan. Politically, they live in either Okinawa Prefecture or Kagoshima Prefecture. Their languages make up the Ryukyuan languages, considered to be one of the two branches of the Japonic language family, the other being Japanese and its dialects.

Administratively, the islands are divided into Kagoshima Prefecture (specifically the islands administered by Kagoshima District, Kumage Subprefecture/District, and Ōshima Subprefecture/District) in the north and Okinawa Prefecture in the south, with the divide between the Amami and 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 Chinese.

Kagoshima Prefecture Prefecture of Japan

Kagoshima Prefecture is a prefecture of Japan located on the island of Kyushu. The capital is the city of Kagoshima.

Kagoshima is a district located in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.

Kumage Subprefecture

Kumage Subprefecture is a subprefecture of Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. The subprefectural office is located in Nishinoomote.

Island subgrouping

The last sunset in Japan is seen from Yonaguni. Lastsunsetjapan.jpg
The last sunset in Japan is seen from Yonaguni.

The Ryukyu islands are commonly divided into two or three primary groups:

The following are the grouping and names used by the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Department of the Japan Coast Guard. [3] The islands are listed from north to south where possible.

Japan Coast Guard Coast guard of Japan

The Japan Coast Guard is the Japanese coast guard. Comprising about 12,000 personnel, it is under the oversight of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, and is responsible for the protection of the coastline of Japan. It was founded in 1948 as the: Maritime Safety Agency; known by its initials as: MSA.

Satsunan Islands A geopolitical name for a group of islands that forms the northern part of the Ryukyu Islands

The Satsunan Islands is a geopolitical name for a group of islands that forms the northern part of the Ryukyu Islands. The whole island group belongs to Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.

Tanegashima island in Kagoshima, Japan

Tanegashima (種子島) is one of the Ōsumi Islands belonging to Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. The island, 444.99 km2 in area, is the second largest of the Ōsumi Islands, and has a population of 33,000 persons. Access to the island is by ferry, or by air to New Tanegashima Airport. Administratively, the island is divided into the city, Nishinoomote, and the two towns, Nakatane and Minamitane. The towns belong to Kumage District.

Yakushima island in Kagoshima, Japan

Yakushima (屋久島) is one of the Ōsumi Islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. The island, 504.88 km2 (194.94 sq mi) in area, has a population of 13,178. Access to the island is by hydrofoil ferry, slow car ferry, or by air to Yakushima Airport . Administratively, the whole island is the town of Yakushima. The town also serves neighbouring Kuchinoerabujima. The majority of the island is within the borders of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park.

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. [3] 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. [5]

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 Islands

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. [3]

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. [6] 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 the islands 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. [7]


The name of Ryūkyū(琉球) is strongly associated with the Ryūkyū Kingdom, [8] a kingdom that originated from the Okinawa Islands and subjugated 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, [9] 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, and 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. [6] [10] 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. [10] 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 content. [11]

Historical usage

"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 Tang China in 858 to an informant of the Hyōtō Ryūkyū-koku ki who traveled to Song China in 1243. [12] 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. [13] [14] 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. [15]

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 , [16] as well as the Okinawan language's form Ruuchuu(ルーチュー). [17]


Uchinaa(沖縄), 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. [10]

Some scholars feel the need to group the Amami and Okinawa Islands 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" [18] while American and European scholars use "Northern Ryukyuan". [19] They have no established single-word term for the group since the native population had not felt the need for such a concept. [10]

Southern Islands

The folklorist 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 today. [10]


The Eastern Islands of Liuqiu

The first possible mentions of the islands are in the Annals of the Qin Dynasty. 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. [20] [ 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. [21] 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. [22]

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 Chinese 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. [23]

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 (then Fujiwara-kyō) 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 to Kume Island of the Okinawa Islands. Around this time "Southern Islands" replaced Yaku as a collective name for the southern islands. [23]

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 Tanegashima and Yakushima. Although the tiny province faced financial difficulties from the very beginning, it was maintained until 824 when it was merged into Ōsumi Province. [24]

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. [23]

Sea routes used by Japanese missions to Tang China Kentoshi route.png
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 Tang 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. [23]

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 sources. [25]

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 Kyūshū, Song 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. The 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. [25]

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. [25] The Tale of the Heike (13th century) depicted 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(, noble) to ki(, ogre) from the end of the 12th century to the early 13th century. [26]

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 of 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. [27]

Shimazu Estate and Kamakura shogunate's expansion

Around the 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 including Tanegashima. [24]

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 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 Tanegashima clan. [24]

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. After the 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 Japan held by the Hōjō clan describes Amami as a "privately owned district". The Shimazu clan also claimed the rights to the Twelve. In 1227 Shōgun 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. [28]

Tanegashima under the Tanegashima clan

The Tanegashima clan came to rule Tanegashima on behalf of the Nagoe family but soon became autonomous. It usually allied with, sometimes submitted itself to, and sometimes antagonized the Shimazu clan on mainland Kyūshū. The Tanegashima clan was given Yakushima and 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 branch family. [29]

Tanegashima matchlock TanegashimaGun.jpg
Tanegashima matchlock

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, Yakushima and 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

The Amami Islands were a focal point for dispute between the southward-expanding 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]". [30] 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 "Tokara ships".

Okinawa Islands

Okinawa Islands during the Sanzan Period Ryukyu Kingdoms of Sanzan era.jpg
Okinawa Islands during the Sanzan Period
Flag of the Ryukyu Kingdom until 1875 Flag of Ryukyu.svg
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 King Shō Nei to surrender rather than to suffer the loss of precious lives. [31] 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. [32] In 1655, the tributary relations between Ryukyu and Qing were formally approved by the shogunate. [33] In 1874, the Ryukyus terminated tribute relations with China. [34]

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. [34] In 1879, the Meiji government announced the annexation of the Ryukyus, establishing it as Okinawa Prefecture and forcing the Ryukyu king to move to Tokyo. [34] When China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki after its 1895 defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, China officially abandoned its claims to the Ryukyus. [34]

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 the Ryukyu Islands which existed from 1952 to 1972. Administrative rights reverted to Japan in 1972, under the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

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. [35] As the territorial dispute between China and 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. [36] In 2013 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". [37]

Many popular singers and musical groups come from Okinawa Prefecture. These include the groups Speed and Orange Range, as well as solo singers 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. [38]

An article in the 1878 edition of the Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information describes the islands: [39]

Loo-Choo, Lu-Tchu, or Lieu-Kieu, a group of thirty-six islands stretching from 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. [39]


Ryukyuan native people

The residents of the island chain are currently Japanese citizens. Labeling them as Japanese poses no problem with regard to the Ōsumi Islands and 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.[ citation needed ]

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 of 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. [10] 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(ユンヌンチュ) on Yoronjima and Myaakunchuu(ミャークンチュー) in the Miyako Islands.

Harimizu utaki (Harimizu Shrine), a Ryukyuan shrine in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture Miyako harimizu utaki.jpg
Harimizu utaki (Harimizu Shrine), a Ryukyuan shrine in Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture


The indigenous 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 are 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 Shinto. [40]

Roman Catholics are pastorally served by their own Roman Catholic Diocese of Naha, which was founded in 1947 as the "Apostolic Administration of Okinawa and the Southern Islands".



Jomon Sugi in Yakushima Jhomonsugi in Yaku Island Japan 001.JPG
Jōmon Sugi in Yakushima

Crossing the Tokara Islands, Watase's Line 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 and was designated as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.

Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama

The Yonaguni Monument, a rock formation along the south coast of Yonaguni Island Yonaguni Ruins Scuba.jpg
The Yonaguni Monument, a rock formation along the south coast of Yonaguni Island

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 Indomalaya ecozone.

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, Ryukyu flying fox, Ryukyu long-tailed giant rat, Ryukyu shrew and perhaps Iriomote cat.

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 woodpecker.

Approximately one half of the amphibian species of the islands are endemic. Endemic amphibians include the sword-tail newt, Hyla hallowellii , Holst's frog, Otton frog, Ishikawa's frog, the Ryukyu tip-nosed frog, and Namiye's frog. Other rare amphibians include Anderson's crocodile newt and the Kampira Falls frog. [41]

Various venomous species of viper known locally as habu also inhabit the Ryukyus, including Protobothrops elegans , Protobothrops flavoviridis , Protobothrops 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, Lycodon rufozonatus , 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 and the yellow pond turtle are native to the islands, as is the Ryukyu black-breasted leaf turtle.

See also


  1. Pronunciation: Japanese pronunciation:  [ɾʲɯːkʲɯː] , English: /riˈkjuː/ [2]

Related Research Articles

Sakishima Islands island group

The Sakishima Islands are an archipelago located at the southernmost end of the Japanese Archipelago. They are part of the Ryukyu Islands and include the Miyako Islands and the Yaeyama Islands. The islands are administered as part of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

Gusuku castle or fortress in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan

Gusuku often refers to castles or fortresses in the Ryukyu Islands that feature stone walls. However, the origin and essence of gusuku remain controversial. In the archaeology of Okinawa Prefecture, the Gusuku period refers to an archaeological epoch of the Okinawa Islands that follows the shell-mound period and precedes the Sanzan period, when most gusuku are thought to have been built. Many gusuku and related cultural remains on Okinawa Island have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites under the title Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.

Ryukyuan languages language family

The Ryukyuan languages are the indigenous languages of the Ryukyu Islands, the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago. Along with the Japanese language, they make up the Japonic language family. The languages are not mutually intelligible with each other. It is not known how many speakers of these languages remain, but language shift towards the use of Standard Japanese and dialects like Okinawan Japanese has resulted in these languages becoming endangered; UNESCO labels four of the languages "definitely endangered" and two others "severely endangered".

Ryukyu Kingdom Historical kingdom in parts of present-day Japan

The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent kingdom that ruled most of the Ryukyu Islands from the 15th to the 19th century. The kings of Ryukyu unified Okinawa Island and extended the kingdom to the Amami Islands in modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture, and the Sakishima Islands near Taiwan. Despite its small size, the kingdom played a central role in the maritime trade networks of medieval East and Southeast Asia, especially the Malacca Sultanate.

Amami Islands island group

The Amami Islands is an archipelago in the Satsunan Islands, which is part of the Ryukyu Islands, and is southwest of Kyushu. Administratively, the group belongs to Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan and the Japan Coast Guard agreed on February 15, 2010, to use the name of Amami-guntō(奄美群島) for the Amami Islands. Prior to that, Amami-shotō(奄美諸島) was also used. The name of Amami is probably cognate with Amamikyu (阿摩美久), the goddess of creation in the Ryukyuan creation myth.

Tokara Islands island group

The Tokara Islands is an archipelago in the Nansei Islands, and are part of the Satsunan Islands, which is in turn part of the Ryukyu Archipelago. The 150 kilometres (81 nmi) chain consists of twelve small islands located between Yakushima and Amami-Oshima. The islands have a total area of 101.35 square kilometres (39.13 sq mi). Administratively, the whole group belongs to Toshima Village, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Only seven of the islands are permanently inhabited. The islands, especially Takarajima, are home to the Tokara Pony.

Administrative divisions of the Ryukyu Kingdom a type of administrative district of the Ryukyu Kingdom

The administrative divisions of the Ryukyu Kingdom were a hierarchy composed of districts, magiri, cities, villages, and islands established by the Ryukyu Kingdom throughout the Ryukyu Islands.

Tanegashima clan

The Tanegashima clan is a Japanese clan that originated on Tanegashima Island, just south of Kyūshū. From the late Sengoku era to the start of the Meiji era, the Tanegashima were retainers of the Shimazu clan of the Satsuma Domain.

Invasion of Ryukyu invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom by the Satsuma Domain, resulting in the former’s being reduced to a vassal state of the latter

The invasion of Ryukyu by forces of the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma took place from March to May 1609, and marked the beginning of the Ryukyu Kingdom's status as a vassal state under Satsuma. The invasion force was met with stiff resistance from the Ryukyuan military on all but one island during the campaign. Ryukyu would remain a vassal state under Satsuma, alongside its already long-established tributary relationship with China, until it was formally annexed by Japan in 1879 as Okinawa Prefecture.

Kikaijima one of the Satsunan Islands

Kikaijima is one of the Satsunan Islands, classed with the Amami archipelago between Kyūshū and Okinawa.

As Japanese citizens, people of the Amami Islands today only have family names and given names. They are known for many unique one-character surnames that date back to the Edo period. A survey on telephone directories of 2002 shows that 21.5% of the residents of the Amami Islands have one-character surnames. Famous people with one-character surnames include Atari (中) Kōsuke, Hajime (元) Chitose and Nobori (昇) Shomu.

The Kikai language is spoken on Kikai Island, Kagoshima Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is debated whether it is a single dialect cluster. Regardless, all Kikai dialects are members of the Amami–Okinawan languages, which are part of the Japonic languages.

Kamui ware (カムィ焼), from Tokunoshima kamïyaki, is grey stoneware produced in Tokunoshima, the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan from the 11th century to the early 14th century, or from the late Heian period to the Kamakura period.

Ryukyuan music, sometimes called Nanto music, is an umbrella term that encompasses diverse musical traditions of the Ryukyu Islands The term "Southern Islands" is preferred by Japanese scholars in this field. Unlike in the West, the Japanese notion of "Ryukyu" is associated with the former Ryukyu Kingdom based on Okinawa Island and its high culture practiced by the Yukatchu class in its capital of Shuri. By contrast, most scholars cover a much broader region and lay emphasis on folk culture.

The Northern Ryukyuan languages are a group of languages spoken in the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture of southwestern Japan. It is one of two primary branches of the Ryukyuan languages, which are then part of the Japonic languages. The subdivisions of Northern Ryukyuan are a matter of scholarly debate.



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