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 CE 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 too and they traveled as far as today’s Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, where they exchanged Chinese products for Southeast Asian spices, rhinoceros horn, ivory and frankincense.
During the Ming dynasty, 1368–1644 CE, many Chinese people settled on the islands, some working as officials for the Ryukyu government. The importance of the islands increased dramatically once the Chinese authorities 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 Chinese market. In 1609, the islands were invaded by soldiers from Satsuma in southern Japan. Although they maintained their independence even after this date, the islanders were forced to start paying taxes to the Japanese. During the sakoku period, when Japan too banned foreign trade, traders from Satsuma continued to transport their wares to China via the Ryukyus. The Ryukyu islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1879. 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 took until 1972 before Okinawa was returned to Japan. 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.