March 11 – Anniversary of the Overthrow of the Ryukyus


On 11 March 1879, King Sho Tai was forced by Japan to vacate his throne, leave Shuri Castle, and relocate to Tokyo.

In January 1879, 160 military police and 400 soldiers from Japan seized control of the Ryukyus.  In February 1879, China through formal diplomatic communications urged Japan not to unilaterally annex the Ryukyus.  On 18 March 1879, Nabeshima Naoyoshi was installed as the first governor of Okinawa Prefecture.  This annexation is known as the Ryûkyû shobun (琉球処分).

Matsuda Michiyuki returned to Ryûkyû in January 1879, and again in March, this time bringing with him a considerable entourage including 160 military police, and 400 soldiers from the Kumamoto Garrison. In February, Beijing sent diplomatic communications formally urging Tokyo to not unilaterally annex the Ryukyus. On March 27, Matsuda presented to Prince Nakijin the formal document declaring the abolition of the Ryûkyû Kingdom and the annexation of its lands as Okinawa Prefecture. King Shô Tai was given until March 31 to vacate the castle and leave for Tokyo; there, he would officially submit to the Emperor, be stripped of his title as “King” (or, by this time, han’ô), and be absorbed into the Japanese peerage as a Marquis (kôshaku). The king did so on March 30, and Japanese authorities immediately took over Shuri castle, installing a military garrison there.  Source

US forces from USS Boston in support of the overthrow

The Kingdom of Hawaii would share a similar tragedy in 1893 when Her Majesty Queen Lili`uokalani was forced by Americans to vacate her throne.  The Hawaiian islands were annexed by US Congress in 1898 against the express wishes of the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population and without a referendum of any kind.  Today both islands bear the burdens of military occupation and mainland colonialism.

Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono – The island’s sovereignty is perpetuated by rightness.


Ryukyus and International Economy


The recent discovery of ancient coins at Katsuren Castle in Uruma, Okinawa shows that the Ryukyu Kingdom was a vital part of international trade between Asia and the West.

The coins date as early as the third century during the time of Constantine I, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, to the Ottoman Empire of the seventeenth century.

Katsuren Castle was built by the Aji (Lord) of Katsuren, Amawari (d. 1458).  Through maritime trade Amawari acquired considerable wealth and power.  He married Momotofumi Agari, the daughter of King Sho Taikyu (reigned 1454-1460), further solidifying his power.  In 1458, the King, discovering Amawari’s treachery, led an attack on Katsuren castle and killed him.  Today the ruins of Katsuren Castle is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Katsuren Castle

In the past the Ryukyu Kingdom was an important entrepôt (center of trade) much like present day Singapore.  An awareness of our Uchinanchu history helps us to escape the present day nationalist narrative which depict Okinawa as one of the poorer prefectures lying on the edge of Japan and instead envision an Okinawa thriving under conditions of greater political and economic independence.


Ancient Roman coins unearthed from castle ruins in Okinawa.Japan Times 26 September 2016.

Next Meeting: October 9, 2014

Agenda: Prof. Robert Huey will talk about Prof. Mamoru Akamine’s forthcoming book Ryukyu Kingdom, Cornerstone of East Asia.  This book surveys the history of the Ryukyus from the time of the three kingdoms up to the Japanese annexation.   

Date: 6:00 pm  October 9, 2014    Thursday

Location:      Maple Garden Restaurant       909 Isenberg Street



Okinawa’s Endangered Languages


Okinawa’s unique culture and languages are slowly disappearing. When we say “Okinawa,” it is important to keep in mind that Okinawa is one island in the diverse Ryukuan archipelago. The Ryukus is home to several islands and languages. After a century of Japanese rule Okinawa’s unique culture and language and that of its sister islands are in danger of being wiped out.

Below is a chart of the different Okinawan languages, their local names, and how they would say: “Thank You.” When we compare the local Okinawan expressions against mainland Japan’s “arigato gozaimasu,” we soon realize that we are talking about different languages, not dialects.

Below is a map showing the endangered languages in Japan.

Screen shot 2013-07-06 at 2.24.09 PM

The yellow tabs indicate “definitely endangered,” while the orange tabs indicate “severely endangered.”

Languages do not die overnight, but slowly and gradually. They are gradually pushed out of the schools and government offices, and confined to the privacy of the homes. After several generations knowledge of the culture and language begin to fade away, then disappear forever. A chart showing the stages of language degeneration can be found on

The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus published an article “Wanne Uchinanchu: I Am Okinawan” by Fija Bairon and Patrick Heinrich in 2007. The article is about the slow death of the Okinawan language and the attempts by some to revive the Okinawan language and culture. Fija and Heinrich noted:

The Ryukyuan languages are severely endangered today, because domains of Ryukyuan language uses have been continuously lost since the start of Japanese language spread in the 1880s. The expansion of one language always coincides with the contraction of another. Languages are thus not lost word by word but domain by domain. Once those domains in which the language is naturally transmitted are lost, the language is endangered in its survival. From that point on, languages are lost speaker by speaker. While Japanese was largely restricted to official domains until the 1940s, shift to Japanese in private domains such as the family and the neighbourhood meant that natural intergenerational language transmission was interrupted. Since the 1940s two predominantly Japanese monolingual generations have been raised in the Ryukyu Islands (Heinrich 2004). It now only takes knowledge about average life expectancy, Ryukyuan demographics and a little mathematics to calculate the future decline of the Ryukyuan languages in the event that no effective counter action is taken. I will refrain from doing such maths here since language shift can be reversed. – See more at:


The Okinawan language is dying in part because of Japan’s nationalistic policies. In its quest to become a modern nation-state the Japanese government sought to eliminate regional differences and impose national uniformity. Japan’s national bureaucracy sought and still seeks to impose linguistic uniformity throughout its territories. One vivid example of the attempts to impose linguistic standardization is the “hogen fuda” or “dialect tag.” It was the practice to shame students who spoke non-Japanese by hanging the “hogen fuda” around their neck. This was meant to be a badge of shame. Its purpose was to discourage students from speaking their native language and force them to adopt the new official language. Nowadays less visible means are used. The approval process for school textbooks by Japan’s Ministry of Education not only ensures the dissemination of the Japanese language, but also an “impartial” presentation of Japan’s history.

Philippa Fogarty of BBC News described the dramatic language shift in post-World War II Okinawa. Even as late as 1945 many Okinawans still spoke Uchinaaguchi. Then during the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the US military presence there was a push to become more Japanese. Parents stopped using Uchinaaguchi with their children thinking that by learning Japanese their children would have a better chance of getting jobs. Today Uchinaaguchi is spoken only among the elderly.

After more than a century of political hegemony, assimilation, and centralization, there is a need for an alternative discussion that focuses on the themes of autonomy, decentralization, cultural diversity, and indigeneity. Hawaii’s recent history contains valuable lessons that can stimulate discussion of alternative paths to the future.

How the Hogen Fuda was used.

How the Hogen Fuda was used.

Cultural Revival In Hawaii

Hawaiian was the dominant language until 1893 when the sugar planters with the aid of the US military overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom. Then in 1898 Hawaii became a US possession and English became the new official language. Hawaii’s political and social history in the twentieth century is the story of how Americans sought to assimilate Hawaii’s multi-cultural society into mainland haole culture. This involved the marginalization of Hawaiian, the language of the indigenous inhabitants, and the suppression of Pidgin, a creole that originated on Hawaii’s plantations and is spoken by about half of Hawaii’s residents today. See: “Language and Power in Hawaii.”

In recent years there has been a cultural revival in Hawaii. After decades of pressure to assimilate into mainland American culture, the tide has shifted and many people in Hawaii are looking into their family history and seeking to recover their cultural heritage. In the 1980s there was a growing interest among the Hawaiians in reviving the Hawaiian language. A similar interest began among the Locals to affirm Pidgin as an expression of Local identity.

The 1980s also saw the flourishing in Uchinanchu pride through the construction of the Hawaii Okinawan Center and the popularity of the Okinawan Festival. For more information on the Okinawan revival in Hawaii, see Wesley Ueunten’s doctoral dissertation: “The Okinawan revival in Hawai’i: Contextualizing culture and identity over diasporic time and space.”

This has led to greater interest in Uchinaaguchi (the Okinawan language). At present Uchinaaguchi is being taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (JPN 472) as well as in less formal settings in several locations in Hawaii. It has been said that the revival of Uchinanchu culture in Hawaii may one day bring about a similar revival in Okinawa.

Robert Arakaki

Royal Parades from Okinawa to China

Historically, the kingdom of the Ryukyus maintained an active relationship with China from the 1300s to the 1800s.  This can be seen in the diplomatic processions between the two countries.  This contrasts with mainland Japan which cut off ties with the outside world during the Tokugawa era.  This relationship with China put Okinawan culture on a different trajectory from mainland Japan.

In February 2013, a symposium was held at the University of Hawaii at Manoa which examined this historic scroll for clues about the political order and cultural ties between Okinawa and China.

University of Hawaii librarian, Tokiko Bazell, recently uploaded papers and PowerPoint presentations from the symposium held in February 2013.  Click here to access the site.


Note: “Ryukyu” is the name of the royal kingdom and the island chain; “Okinawa” is the name of the largest island in the Ryukyuan archipelago.  I use the two terms interchangeably because “Okinawa” is more widely known today than the historic name “Ryukyu.”  Hopefully, that will change with the rise of Uchinanchu consciousness.