The Defense of Ryūkyū: What Went Wrong

In this post I will explain why Satsuma won the Invasion of Ryūkyū in 1609, and how Ryūkyū could’ve stopped it.

In the early 1590s, Japan invaded Korea, and Satsuma’s samurai were the spearhead. They marched through the countryside, setting everything on fire to cause confusion, killing soldiers and civillians alike, and when they came upon the walled cities of Korea, they swept the walls with volleys of gunfire, scaled the walls with ladders, and busted through the gates with heavy axes and hammers. They fought like this for almost a decade, and they would use this same tactic on Okinawa to great effect.

Ryūkyū was an early adopter of firearms, its soldiers often armed with three-barreled “hand cannons”, and having some of the best artillery in East Asia. However, by 1609, Satsuma had acquired European muskets, which were far more superior to the hand cannons still used by Ryūkyū.

In addition, the design of Ryūkyūan gusuku also gave advantages to Satsuma’s tactics. Gusuku walls are relatively low, and the parapets are also low. In order to fire on the enemy from the wall, one had to expose themself. There were gunports near the gates, but the gatehouses were often made of wood.

Lastly, Satsuma split its forces in half to make a two-pronged attack, one by sea and one by land. This split was decisive in the capture of Shuri Castle.

As for Ryūkyū’s shortcomings, there were many, but the most glaring of which being, for a nation famed for wide-spread maritime trade used to fighting off pirates, there was zero response from Ryūkyū’s navy. Intercepting Satsuma’s fleet before they reached Okinawa, or even Amami Ōshima, would’ve been a game changer. Satsuma had 3,000 men in a fleet of 100 ships. Ryūkyū’s navy had 70–100 ships. Had there been a naval battle, given the prowess of Ryūkyūan sailors, Satsuma’s army would’ve been crippled and would certainly struggled to capture even the Amami Islands.

The second major failure was the response from the Ryūkyūan army after Satsuma landed on Okinawa. When the Satsuma fleet came to Unten Harbor in Northern Okinawa, the troops in nearby Nakijin Castle did nothing. Satsuma attacked and captured the castle. An army of reportedly 1,000 marched north to assist the defenders at Nakijin, but reportedly half the army was lost. After that, Satsuma landed an army in Yomitan, near where the Americans would land 336 years later, and very near Zakimi Castle. Three more major gusuku were between the samurai and Shuri Castle: Katsuren, Nakagusuku, and Urasoe. Again, the defenders stayed in their positions and let the samurai pass. Satsuma attacked and captured Urasoe Castle before moving on Shuri. Had the Ryūkyūan soldiers stationed at the other gusuku actually attempted to attack Satuma’s forces, the samurai would’ve been stopped and possibly surrounded.

The last major failure was actually in part due to Ryūkyū’s only success: the defense of Naha from the naval attack. While Satsuma’s army marched overland towards Shuri, their fleet attemped to capture Naha via Naha Port. On either side of the entrance to the harbor stood a gusuku with an iron boom chain between them. Each gusuku had heavy artillery which blasted Satsuma’s ships. Most of Ryūkyū’s soldiers in the Naha-Shuri area moved to defend the harbor, but this left Shuri Castle’s defense weak and open to attack. Reportedly 3,000 troops had assembled to defend Naha from the naval attack. Had such a large force been present at Shuri Castle, the samurai wouldn’t have even gotten close with only half their army. The only reason why Satsuma won even when they were outnumbered is because they captured King Shō Nei. Had the King retreated to a gusuku further south or even to the southern islands of Miyako or Ishigaki, Satsuma’s army would’ve been crushed even after taking Shuri Castle. This is the senario that played out in Korea almost two decades earlier.

In conclusion, I would say that Ryūkyū lost the war due purely to strategic incompetence. It is a shame and wonder that such a small force could conquer a whole kingdom in a couple of months. But I will repeat: Ryūkyū could’ve won. It was far from the meek, defenseless and peace-loving country that many people believe it was. In fact, Ryūkyūan peichin had defeated Satsuma samurai numerous times while Ryūkyū expanded north, as far as Gajajima, just 80 miles from Satsuma’s homeland.

My next post will be about the American bases in Okinawa today.


Heroes and Cowards

Although it’s been a while since my last post, I will finally compare and contrast four Ryūkyūan kings: Shō Hashi, Shō Shin, Shō Nei, and Shō Tai. Shō Hashi is famous for founding the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Shō Shin is known for the success of his rule, Shō Nei was the king during Satsuma’s invasion, and Shō Tai was the last king of Ryūkyū.

Shō Hashi overthrew the King of Chūzan in the first decade of the 15th century. Instead of taking the throne for himself, he put his father, Shō Shisō, on the throne. He waited until his two neighbors were weak, and conquered first Hokuzan in 1416 and then Nanzan in 1429. According to the Chūzan Seifu, Shō Hashi’s campaigns were bloody and fierce, with “grass stained with blood” and “bodies lining the streets”. He then placed relatives and his supporters in positions of power, notably his brother as “Lord of Hokuzan” and giving one of his generals, Gosomaru, permission to build Zakimi Castle. The Chinese Emperor gave Shō Hashi the title “King of Ryūkyū”. His decendants would make up the First Shō Dynasty.

Shō Shin was the grandson of Shō En, the founder of the Second Shō Dynasty. His uncle had been forced to abdicate in favor of him. He was responsible for the conquests of the Miyako, Yaeyama, and Amami Islands. His army outfought Satsuma samurai on Amami Ōshima. To further consolidate his power and prevent rebellion, he confiscated all weapons from the peasants and forced the local lords to move to Shuri so that only the military had weapons and the military was loyal only to the King. He built a vast defense network of roads and castles in and around Shuri and Naha and created the Hiki system used by the Ryūkyūan military. He also introduced hiragana into the Okinawan writing system. Trade with other countries was at its high, and his reign is known as the “Great Days of Chūzan”.

Shō Nei was the ninth king of the Second Shō Dynasty. In 1589, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had conquered most of Japan, demanded that the Ryūkyū Kingdom send troops to help Japan invade Korea and attack China. Shō Nei claimed that Ryūkyū had few soldiers to spare, but could send supplies. He then sent less than half of the agreed upon supplies. A few years later, he was again asked to send supplies, but this time he ignored them. Finally, when Tokugawa Ieyasu became the new Shōgun, Shō Nei ignored a request to send an envoy to congratulate him. Shimazu Iehisa asked Tokugawa’s son for permission to attack Ryūkyū in retaliation, and led a large fleet with 3,000 samurai in 1609. The samurai landed on every island between Kyūshū and Okinawa, where they met fierce resistance on all but one island. They took many casualties capturing Nakijin Castle, and then their fleet was driven away from Naha harbor. However, they were able to capture Urasoe Castle and then march on Shuri Castle. Most of Shuri’s defenders were in Naha, and by the time they realized that Satsuma was outside the capital, the samurai had scaled the castle walls. It was only at this moment that Shō Nei famously said “命どぅ宝” (life is a treasure) and surrendered. This is often said to prove the myth of “Ryūkyūan pacifism”, saying the King prefered to surrender rather than lose precious Ryūkyūan lives, which obviously wasn’t the case. After being captured by Satsuma, he was taken back to Kagoshima and forced to sign a treaty that vassalized him and his kingdom. One of his advisors, Jana Ueekata Rizan, refused to sign such a humiliating treaty and was executed by Satsuma. Shō Nei was then taken to the retired Tokugawa Ieyasu for an apology, and then paraded in front of the Japanese government in Edo. He finally returned to Okinawa and continued to rule until his death. He willed to be burried in the royal tombs of Chūzan, at Urasoe Castle, because he felt that he wasn’t worthy to be buried with his relatives at the Tamaudun tombs at Shuri Castle for his failure.

Shō Tai was the last king of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. He was still a child when he became King, and during Commodore Perry’s visits to Ryūkyū in the early 1850s his mother and Prime Minister dealt with the Americans in his stead. In 1871, a Ryūkyūan ship was shipwrecked on Taiwan and the crew was massacred by the locals. Instead of going to China, Satsuma pressured him to ask Japan for help, which eventually led Japan to invade Taiwan in 1874. In 1872, Emperor Meiji demanded that Shō Tai travel to Tokyo and submit to him, however the King claimed to be ill and sent his uncle and a minister in his place. In response, Emperor Meiji proclaimed that Shō Tai was now Domain Head of Ryūkyū Domain. The Emperor sent advisers to reorganize Ryūkyū under the Foreign Ministry. In 1875, after Shō Tai had sent another trade mission to China, the Emperor moved Ryūkyū from the Foreign Ministry to the Home Ministry and took more administrative control away from the Ryūkyūans. Lastly, in 1879, Shō Tai again refused to appear before the Emperor in Tokyo due to illness, and the Emperor proclaimed Okinawa Prefecture and demanded that Shō Tai abdicate. Although urged to refuse and resist, Shō Tai repeated what Shō Nei had said: “命どぅ宝”. He moved to Tokyo and was given the title of Marquis, and lived there until he died at the turn of the century. He was the last King buried in the Tamaudun tombs at Shuri Castle.

Now I’ve titled this “Heroes and Cowards”, however that can’t truly be said of any of these men. They had their strengths and their weaknesses. Shō Hashi and Shō Shin both achieved legendary fame, though they did so by sometimes ruthless means. To be fair, Satsuma had superior firearms and used extremely effective tactics, but from my perspective Shō Nei could’ve won the war had he made more tactically and even strategically sound decisions. However, the King manned his post until the samurai were in his courtyard. And as for Shō Tai, what more could be expected than to take the abuse from Japan? If Ryūkyū had resisted or rebelled, they could expect the full force of the Japanese military. Their only hope would’ve been if China or the West came to their defense. In this sense, Shō Tai truly lived by the meaning of “命どぅ宝”, unlike his predecessor.

my next post will be about how Ryūkyū could’ve defeated Satsuma’s invasion in 1609.


In 1872, Emperor Meiji of Japan told the Ryūkyūan King that his Kingdom was henceforth a feudal Domain of Japan, and that he was the “Domain Head.” Ryūkyū Domain was administered by the Japanese Foreign Ministry until 1875, when it was put under the Home Ministry. From this point, the process of “Japanification” and “De-Ryūkyūanization” began. The Chinese calendar was replaced by the Japanese calendar, many Ryūkyūan holidays were banned and Japanese holidays enforced, and the Ryūkyūan government was purged of anti-Japanese officials. Four years later, on March 11, 1879, the Domain Head was told to step down and move to Tokyo, and that Ryūkyū Domain was now “Okinawa Prefecture.” The royal palace at Shuri Castle became a barracks for the Japanese army.

The greatest change after the annexation was in education. Ryūkyūan education was not mandatory, and parents would save every penny to send their most promising child to school because, like in China, getting a good government job could elevate an entire family. The first thing the Japanese did after taking the islands was to close all of the Ryūkyūan schools and open Japanese ones, which were compulsory by 1890. Curriculum was taught in Japanese only, although none of the common people in the islands spoke Japanese. In order to enforce the new language, teachers would punish students for speaking their native language. Students were told that their native language was a “dialect” of Japanese, and that they had to speak the “common” language, that the Ryūkyūan people were part of the Yamato (the name of the Japanese) race, and that Ryūkyū had always been a part of Japan. An example of punishment would be the “dialect card,” which was given to a student to wear if he spoke a “dialect,” which would be passed around to whoever spoke a “dialect” next, with the last wearer at the end of class receiving severe corporal punishment. Teachers would also encourage students to rat out whoever spoke a “dialect.” The belief that Ryūkyūan languages such as Okinawan are just dialects has persisted even today, where Okinawans will refer to the language as “Hōgen” (方言 dialect). Eventually the population was bilingual, and today most young Ryūkyūans can only speak Japanese.

Another important aspect was that while teaching Ryūkyūans that they were Japanese, they were also treated as second class citizens by Japanese. Ryūkyūans came to believe that being Ryūkyūan was “backwards,” and longed to be “more Japanese.” After learning Japanese in school, many Ryūkyūans moved to Japan to look for work, however they were met with discrimination. Many workplaces and even services refused them. They would be met with signs that read “No Koreans or Ryūkyūans” (as Korea was also annexed and Japanified). In response, some Ryūkyūans, especially ones that looked more Japanese, would change their name. For example, 大城, which is read as Ufugusuku in Okinawan, would be Ōshiro in Japanese.

On this note, while Ryūkyūans would change the reading of their name to a Japanese one to avoid discrimination, the Japanese government changed the reading of place names. This is the point where Ruuchuu became Ryūkyū and Uchinaa became Okinawa. Almost every city, town, and village had a name change in 1908. Before that year, Okinawa still used its native names and used the Ryūkyūan Magiri as a division. Magiri are similar in power to Japanese Prefectures, but on a smaller scale. In 1908, each Magiri was redesignated as either a city, town, or village based on population, and given a Japanese name. So 那覇 (Naafa) was made a city and renamed Naha, 勝連 (Kacchin) was made a town and renamed Katsuren, and 具志川 (Gushichuu) was made a village and renamed Gushikawa. This is where we get the English names, as opposed to Chinese-based names like Lew Chew. The Japanese even went a step further: the Amami Islands, which the Ryūkyū Kingdom had taken from Satsuma, were renamed the “Satsunan Islands” (literally “South of Satsuma”), and the Ryūkyū Islands were then renamed the “Nansei Islands” (“Southwest”). This is geopolitics, where the Japanese wanted there to be no doubt that the islands belonged to them. They also did this in Korea and Ezo (Hokkaido).

The Japanese wanted the Ryūkyū Islands to protect the mainland from Europeans, and to this it especially served its purpose in World War 2. Okinawa was used as a “human shield” by Japan. The Japanese committed many atrocities against the Okinawan people during the Battle of Okinawa. Okinawans were forced to go out into the open to get food and water for Japanese soldiers, shot for speaking Okinawan, and told that they would be raped and tortured if they surrendered, and given hand grenades and instructed to kill themselves. 1/3–1/2 of the population was killed, most of the survivors were homeless, and hundreds of thousands of historical documents and buildings were destroyed. Most of what the Japanese hadn’t erased of the Ryūkyū Kingdom was gone after this battle, which would later serve to further Japanify the archipelago.

My next post will be about the strengths and weaknesses of Ryūkyūan Kings.

The cure to ignorance is education

When I first came to Okinawa Island a few years ago, I thought it was just another part of Japan. The people all spoke Japanese, there was Japanese writing everywhere, and everyone “looked” Japanese (I hadn’t been around enough Asians to differentiate between Asian ethnicities prior to this). Living on an American military base, I started to learn the differences between the diversity of Asians I interacted with, and after a few months and a trips to mainland Japan, I noticed that the majority of the “Japanese” in Okinawa didn’t look Japanese. They have faces that more closely resemble Taiwanese or Chinese, and are usually darker-skinned (although this may be from the climate).

Similarly, while sightseeing with some Okinawans, we came across an old monument with Japanese writing on it. I asked them what it said, but they said they couldn’t read it, because it wasn’t Japanese. I learned that Okinawans had a separate language, the Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi 沖縄口), which uses Chinese and Japanese characters to write. Apparently mostly older Okinawans are fluent, as the younger generations prefer Japanese. The Okinawan language, while looking the exact same as Japanese in writing to a foreigner, is almost completely incomprehensible to a Japanese speaker, the same as if you were speaking Korean or Greek. Yet, due to historical circumstances (which I’ll delve into in a later post), the Okinawan language has been labeled as a “dialect” of Japanese.

Another thing is the word “Ryūkyū” itself. When I first heard this word, I was told that it was another name for Okinawa. Later I found that it’s the name of all the islands between Japan and Taiwan. Before Japan began to aggressively conquer its neighbors, the Ryūkyū Islands were actually an independent country, the Ryūkyū Kingdom. I’ve even learned that in the 16th century the Ryūkyūan army defeated Japanese soldiers many times while the Kingdom took control of the Northern Ryūkyū Islands. There are four main reasons why Okinawa now belongs to Japan (which I’ll briefly explain here):

1) In 1609, an army from the Japanese feudal Domain of Satsuma invaded the Ryūkyū Kingdom, and the Ryūkyūan King surrendered. The King was made to pledge his allegiance to Satsuma, although Ryūkyū remained independent.

2) In the 1860’s, mainland Japan was unified. The Japanese Emperor Meiji wanted to expand the Japanese Empire to protect the mainland from foreigners. Because Satsuma merged with Japan, the Ryūkyūan King’s allegiance was now to the Emperor, who annexed the Kingdom and forced the King to step down.

3) After the Kingdom was annexed, it was reorganized as Okinawa Prefecture. The biggest concern of the Japanese was that the Ryūkyūans were Ryūkyūan. In order to “solve the problem”, the Japanese gradually outlawed Ryūkyūan culture, especially their language. This suppression was mostly aimed at Ryūkyūan children, who were compelled to go to Japanese schools, taught the Japanese language, and were punished for speaking their native language. As the older generations died, they were replaced by Ryūkyūans who believed that being Ryūkyūan was backwards, and wanted to be as Japanese as possible.

4) After Japan lost the Second World War, they lost almost all of their conquered territories, including the Ryūkyū Islands. The archipelago became an American territory. In 1953, because Japan had been essential as a staging ground for Americans in the Korean War, and as an act of good will, the United States gave the Northern Ryūkyū Islands back to Japan. Okinawans had hoped for a once-again independent Ryūkyū, but as this seemed unlikely with the American “need” to have military bases there, and because of my above third reason, by the 1960’s most Okinawans favored returning to Japan, which happened in 1972 (although I will point out that the majority of Okinawans supporting reversion to Japan believed that the American bases would go away afterwards, which they didn’t).

Hopefully by now whoever is reading this realizes that Ryūkyū is as much a part of Japan as Korea (Korea and Ryūkyū have many things in common in relation to Japan).  It took me almost three years to learn what you just read in a few minutes, and I hope you cherish that. To wrap this up, I’d just like to point out now that most of my posts will have an “anti-Japanese” tone. It’s not that I’m anti-Japanese, it’s that most of what Japan had done (and to a degree still does) is wrong. My next post will be on “De-Ryūkyūanization”.