East Asian History from Ryukyu’s Perspective

Henning Wittwer

Recently, I have been contacted by a German public service radio broadcaster who planned to produce a radio documentary on the history of one of Okinawa Prefecture’s best known cultural exports – karate. Besides recording an interview for the programme the editorial staff asked me if I could suggest a good introductory book on the general history of Okinawa in German or English. Well, the timing for this question was perfect. Without hesitation I counselled them to read Mamoru Akamine’s The Ryukyu Kingdom. Just a couple of months before, the same question would not have been so easy to answer. In English, there is, of course, ‘the classic’ written by George Kerr. Originally authored in 1958, it may be considered dated now; and it has problematic parts as demonstrated by Mitsugu Sakihara’s afterword provided for a revised edition of Kerr’s work published in 2000.[i] Besides Kerr’s tome it used to be hard to find a book in English covering a comprehensive view on Okinawa’s history.

A bulk of Japanese literature on Okinawa and its history is available for the obvious reason that Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture since the late 19th century. Among this literature a title with the eye-catching Anglicism ‘cornerstone’ came out over a decade ago. Its author confidently termed the Ryukyu Kingdom, i.e. the predecessor of today’s Okinawa Prefecture, the ‘cornerstone of East Asia’.

This book has been competently translated into English and published as a nice hardcover as well as an e-book. Since it is a translation, it is opportune to mention that the translator and editor created a great and highly-readable English version. Furthermore, together with the author, they included endnotes with information on sources, references and supplementary information. This is certainly a welcomed initiative. Another innovation was a website with a Chinese character glossary of specific terms used in the text, although this was not yet available during the review process (www.ryukyucornerstone.com).

In his historical survey, Akamine understands and presents Ryukyu as an integral part of the East Asian sphere, and not as some small isles disconnected from the outside world. Not only does he highlight and examine its most important relationships to both Japan and China, but also to Korea and nations in Southeast Asia. Following the developments from the pre-kingdom era until the end of the kingdom and the establishment of the prefecture, Akamine convincingly demonstrates the role, occasionally an important one, it played in East Asia. Moreover, he matter-of-factly cites where Ryukyu’s actual place was – according to the protocol of its powerful neighbours China and Japan – and when it had to accept the role of a rather helpless bystander, even when duped by foreign interests. The latter can be observed best in the events leading to and following the abolishment of the kingdom.

Some aspects are more relevant than others in Akamine’s chronicle and are therefore covered in greater lengths. One example is piracy, which is a problem in some parts of the globe even nowadays. Students of Japanese and Chinese history know well about the ‘Japanese pirates’, even though this appellation was used to describe pirates of other nations too. Akamine reveals fascinating insights into this subject by exposing how deeply trading, military, and political strategies were interconnected. His account of how the pirate problem was managed by the early Ming government has caused Ryukyu more problems, but at the same time suddenly elevated its status within the tribute network, is exciting. Simply put, the topic of the ‘Japanese pirates’ cannot be fully grasped without knowing Ryukyu’s function in the whole scene.

Out of personal interest, I looked into the number of men in the Japanese army that attacked and subdued Ryukyu in 1609. I was surprised by the number Akamine gave which was ‘more than three thousand men’ (p. 63). According to the research of German Japanologist Rolf Binkenstein the so-called ‘center army’ alone consisted of around 3,700 men. In addition to that, there was also the vanguard and the rear guard. Thus, making it an army of more than 100,000 men.[ii] While the result of this short, fateful war was a disaster for the island kingdom, reading of its defeat is different when one assumes that the invading army was 100,000 men strong.

This issue aside, Akamine clearly avoids drawing a one-dimensional picture by using a wide array of resources. He skilfully disentangles and illuminates various narrative threads, prompting me to shake my head, realising to what degree China, Japan, and Ryukyu tried to manipulate each other in every direction. His writing is mostly based on primary sources and is entertaining in places. In Akamine’s opinion, today’s unique Okinawan culture is the result of various influences caused by the traverse historic events described in the book (p. 164). In other words, in order to comprehend Okinawan culture, one has to know its history.

Akamine finishes his text in a notable way that still puzzles me somehow. It appears to me that for Akamine the question of whether Okinawa is and should continue to be a prefecture of Japan or regain independence as a self-governing nation is not decisively solved. Thus, he is providing additional material for forthcoming discussions.

In short, Akamine’s work fills a long existing gap and offers anyone in search of an English survey of Ryukyu’s past a handy, well–researched, and referenced book. Students of Japanology and Sinology as well as persons engaged in cultural endeavours native to Okinawa will find it to be a helpful introduction.

[i] George H. Kerr, Okinawa: The History of an Island People, revised edition, Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
[ii] Rolf Binkenstein, Die Ryukyu-Expedition unter Shimazu Iehisa (The Ryukyu expedition under Shimazu Iehisa), Monumenta Nipponica 4(2), 1941: 625.