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For much of its history, the Ryukyu archipelago functioned as a frontier region connecting China, Japan and Korea. Stretching over more than 1,000 kilometers in the East China Sea, its dozens of islands stood in relative isolation, comparatively difficult to reach, forming an ideal refuge for smugglers, marauders and a colorful cast of adventurers, none of whom felt a particularly strong allegiance to any of the regional hegemons.

As a fulcrum of exchange, the Ryukyu was multilingual and multicultural from its earliest days. Its first center was not Okinawa, but the Amami Islands, now under the administration of Kagoshima Prefecture. Political and economic power, along with cultural prestige, shifted south only later, firmly coalescing around Naha in the early 16th century.

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