China and East Asia

The Ryukyu islands as the center of the world


The Ryukyu islands, a chain of islands which extend from the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu all the way to Taiwan, was from the fifteenth-century until the nineteenth-century an independent kingdom which played a central role in the trading networks of East Asia. From their capital on Okinawa, the largest island in the group, the Ryukyu kings dispatched tribute-bearing missions not only to China but also to Korea and Japan where their colorful clothes and exotic gifts met with much amazement. During the Ming era, Ryukyu merchants traded in Chinese ports and they traveled as far as today’s Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, exchanging Chinese products for Southeast Asian spices, rhino-horn, ivory and frankincense.

During the Ming dynasty, 1368—1644 CE, many Chinese people settled here, some working as officials for the Ryukyu government. The importance of the Ryukyu islands increased dramatically after the Chinese decided to limit trade with the rest of the world and to ban ocean-going ships. Since Ryukyu merchants were exempt from these rules, they could vastly increase their share of the now even more lucrative market. In 1609 the islands were invaded by soldiers from Satsuma in southern Japan, and although they maintained their independence even after this date, they were forced to start paying tribute to the daimyo of Satsuma. During the sakoku period, when Japan too banned foreign trade, traders from Satsuma continued to transport their wares back and forth to China via the Ryukyus.

The Ryukyu islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1879, and the last Ryukyu king, Shō Tai, died in Tokyo in 1901.

During World War II an intense battle, the Battle of Okinawa, was fought here in which some 75,000 Japanese and 15,000 American soldiers died. The ferocity of the fighting contributed to the American decision to use the atomic bomb in order to speed up Japan’s surrender. Although America’s occupation of Japan ended in 1952, it would take until 1972 before Okinawa was returned to Japan, and the United States still maintains a number of large air-force bases here. The American military presence has been a source of considerable controversy, not least as a result of several highly-publicized rape-cases involving American soldiers.

One of the Ryukyu islands, an uninhabited islet known in Chinese as Diaoyudao and in Japanese as Senkaku, has been claimed both by China and Japan, and the competing claims have been a source of considerable political tension. The truth is of course that the islet in question belongs to the ancient Ryukyu kingdom and to no one else.