On May 15, Japan will mark the 45th anniversary of the return of Okinawa.

The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, by Mamoru Akamine, Translated by Lina Terrell.
200 pages

For 27 years prior, the U.S. administered the islands, a continuous period of occupation that began after the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945. This makes the new translation of Mamoru Akamine’s “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia” both welcome and timely. Many Okinawans today still feel like the put-upon runt of Japan’s prefectural litter.

Okinawa enjoys very little investment, its people have relatively low employment prospects and the prefecture shoulders the burden of hosting and supporting 50,000 U.S. armed forces personnel. For many Okinawan people, this has meant putting up with noise, threats of air crashes (such as happened in 2016), and a string of crimes committed by U.S. servicemen.

It is worth remembering amid all this that the island chain was once an independent kingdom, and according to Akamine, something of an important power broker in the region. In fact, he goes so far as to call it, in his subtitle, a “cornerstone of East Asia.”

The book begins by outlining the Gusuku Period (roughly the 11th and 12th centuries), when many of Okinawa’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Nakagusuku Castle, were built. He then moves on to the rise of the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 14th century and its relationship with Ming Dynasty China. Central to Akamine’s thesis is the idea that the four power brokers in the region were China, Japan, Korea and Ryukyu, with China in the most prominent position, the self-styled center of the world, and with the other three, to a greater or lesser extent, in a tributary position. As Japan’s power rose through the Warring States Period (1482-1573) and into the Edo Period (1603-1868), the balance of power shifted and Ryukyu found itself caught between China and Japan. Akamine shows how the kingdom walked a fine line of divided loyalties, pledging allegiance and vassal status to both China and Japan while attempting to retain independence.

Ryukyu’s power was based on shipping, with its ports being key in Asia’s trade networks. However, increased trade in the region, both among the Asian powers and with the newly arrived Portuguese and Spanish merchants, hit the kingdom hard and its power and influence began to decline.

Through a series of diplomatic maneuvers, 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded in bringing Ryukyu into the Japanese feudal system — at least in theory. In practice, the kingdom paid lip-service to some of its expected roles while flatly refusing to comply with others, such as offering men for military service and paying taxes. This came to a head in 1605, when the Satsuma domain (modern-day Kagoshima) invaded the kingdom as punishment for refusing to send an envoy to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s court in Edo.

From that moment on, Ryukyu’s fate was sealed, though it took centuries for the endgame to play out. The kingdom continued to carve a niche for itself midway between China and Japan, and culturally was never fully integrated into the nascent Japanese state. Its status remained unresolved until the 1895-96 Sino-Japanese war ended all hopes in the kingdom of Chinese power forcing a stalemate that could maintain some kind of independence. But it was not until the end of World War II that Okinawa’s status as a Japanese prefecture — and not an overseas possession — was confirmed and ratified by the international community. It was only in 1972 that it took its place as the 47th prefecture.

The book is intended as an undergraduate text and as a result tends to sacrifice enjoyable narrative for thesis progression. Some fascinating stories are touched upon but never developed, such as the dissolute behavior of Ryukyu people on trade delegations to Fuzhou in China and the passionate but unsuccessful resistance movement to Japanese suzerainty that saw one member of the royal court disguise himself as a Chinese merchant, with shaved pate and braided hair, and escape to China to beg for an intervention. These episodes give tantalizing glimpses of a dramatic, human narrative being played out, but Akamine side-steps them in favor of details about trade and royal investiture ceremonies.

The reality of Ryukyu’s history and its loss of independence is a story only vaguely known inside and outside Japan, but the tale told here is key to understanding modern issues on the islands. Is Okinawa truly part of Japan now? Or is it something of an anomaly, officially Japanese but never quite shaking off its “foreignness”?

With a distinct culture and heritage, and evidence that the central government keeps Okinawa far down its list of priorities (a political reality with a long history, which Akamine explores), it is perhaps unsurprising that a small but vocal independence movement exists on Okinawa, which in 2014 sent an envoy to Scotland to explore how the independence movement there moved public opinion from low numbers in the late 1970s to figures high enough to demand a referendum.

It may be early days, but perhaps the last chapter of the Ryukyu Kingdom has yet to be written.

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