Commenting on the pervasiveness of his own culture while on a trip to Indonesia, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I see India everywhere.” A traveler to Okinawa today from continental Asia, might well say, “I see China everywhere.”

When coins made during the Chinese Kingdom of Yan, a feudal dynasty that fell in 265 B.C., were unearthed at a shell heap in Gusukudake, a short distance from Naha, the assumed timeline for contact between Okinawa and the Chinese imperium that would come to play such an important role in the history of these southern islands shifted from centuries to millennia.

Trade with China and other Asian nations was already well-established by the 14th century, at which time Okinawa’s three separate principalities competed with each other for Chinese attention and recognition. The first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Hung Wu Ti, had sent envoys to Okinawa in 1372. Cognizant that their prosperity depended upon marine commerce, Okinawan rulers formally submitted to Chinese hegemony, sending their own representatives to Nanking with gifts sealing the recognition of Chinese suzerainty over the islands. A senior Chinese official accompanied the Okinawan mission on its return, carrying a seal and documents that would grant China the right to confirm and oversee the official investiture of kings. From this point onward, Ryukyu royalty could only be officially enthroned once they were granted permission from the Chinese emperor, the Son of Heaven.

Commenting on the significance of the year 1372, George H. Kerr, in his “Okinawa: The History of an Island People,” wrote that “it marked the beginning of a formal relationship between the court of China and the Ryukyu Islands that was political, cultural and economic in character, and was destined to be maintained without interruption for 500 years.” By and large, it was a hugely beneficial arrangement for the kingdom. Provided that Okinawans accepted the tributary relationship and were willing to fulfill ceremonial obligations regulating relations, China would not interfere in its internal affairs.

A community of Chinese craftsmen, officials and specialists in specific scholastic fields were sent by the imperial government to assist Okinawans in the running of their affairs. The newly arrived immigrants were well-received, especially by officials grateful for the transmission of expertise that would significantly raise levels of both civic administration and civilization. Among the Chinese who settled on land provided with tax-free privileges in the Naha district of Kume were navigators, shipwrights and practitioners of arts and crafts. Highly literate paper, brush and ink makers were eagerly sought out as teachers in the writing of the Chinese language, a requisite skill for engaging in communications over an increasingly thriving trade with China.

Okinawa had considerably less to offer China, a great imperial nation, then, as now, the most powerful economic machine in Asia. Okinawan horses, textiles, fishing nets, copper and shells were well-received, but its role as a trans-shipment point for goods coming from Japan and traveling in the opposite direction from China and Southeast Asia made it a major entrepot. The Ryukyu Kingdom also stood as a further example of the expanding Chinese sphere of influence in Asia.

Sanshin maker Toshio Matayoshi plays one of his creations. This instrument originated in China, where it was known as the sanxian. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Sanshin maker Toshio Matayoshi plays one of his creations. This instrument originated in China, where it was known as the sanxian. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Ryukyuan emissaries to the Qing dynasty court were pleased to note that the emperor was enthralled by the seashells that were plentiful on Miyako Island. The profits they made — from an object that was of little use to them — inspired them to establish a maritime network that would scour the seas for items likely to please the Chinese court. The more novel, they soon discovered, the higher its value. This included quantities of whale excrement, an ambergris matter that fascinated Chinese emperors.

The Chinese officials and craftsmen living in Kume — disseminating skills in governance, shipbuilding, food preparation, music and religion — were creating a new social ecology. Promising young Okinawan men, initially recruited from the royal household and families of high-ranking retainers, were eligible to enroll in the Kuo Tzu Chien, a school for foreign students in the imperial Chinese capital. The institution served to facilitate smooth diplomatic relations between China and its tributary states and, in the case of the Ryukyu Kingdom, promote stronger trading ties. The school taught ethics, history and poetry, but also an appreciation of the fine arts and the mastery of the civilized discourse so valued by the Chinese. The two or three years Okinawan students spent in China exposed them to not only the intricacies of diplomatic language, but also the administrative system in China, which would eventually influence bureaucratic practices in the kingdom.

Chinese influence would spread beyond the waterfront quays, the cultural and civic workshop of Kume Village and royal chambers of Okinawa, seeping into remote villages and outer islands, where it would blend with indigenous culture as well as social and religious life. Even festivals such as dragon-boat racing, a popular event in southern China, were adopted by coastal villages and are still practiced today.

Pig's trotters reflect Okinawans' love of pork, a taste acquired from China. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Pig’s trotters reflect Okinawans’ love of pork, a taste acquired from China. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The design of traditional Okinawan tombs is based on those found in China’s Fujian province. Okinawan faith is a holy blender of ancestor worship introduced from China, native shamanism and animism, and the later import of Shinto and Buddhism. The configuration of traditional Okinawan sarcophagi, known as kameko-baka (“turtle-back tombs”), is said to resemble the position taken by a pregnant woman when giving birth, the inner crypt forming the shape of a womb. Here is the reassuring synergy of life and death offering the prospect of rebirth. Part of the great Chinese legacy that impregnates these islands, this style of tomb was introduced to Okinawa some 700 years ago.

In April, families gather around these tombs to honor their ancestors. After cleaning them, songs and dances are performed to entertain the souls of the dead and food offerings are made at the entrances to the tombs. The observance, known as Seimeisai, is of Taoist origin. Adapted by King Sho Boku in 1768, it was practiced exclusively by members of the royal family before the ritual was adopted by commoners.

Interestingly, the performance of meditational rituals at tomb sites, strictly practiced according to Chinese geomantic principles determining the management of social space and measured by the lunar calendar, were synchronized with rituals at both the Ryukyuan court and China’s imperial court. Some of the grander private residences in Okinawa conformed to this divine schemata. The compound of Nakamura-ke, for example, a well-preserved home in the district of Nakagusuku, was constructed in a design that would incorporate it into both the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Chinese court’s spatiotemporality. Christopher Nelson writes that the colonization of Okinawa by the Japanese, its evisceration of the kingdom and termination of relations with China “fragmented the ostensive referentiality of these practices.”

Enter the dragon: A monument to Chinese sailors lost off the coast of Ishigaki Island. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Enter the dragon: A monument to Chinese sailors lost off the coast of Ishigaki Island. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Okinawa fell under the heel of Kagoshima’s Satsuma clan after its invasion of the kingdom in 1609. Largely unbeknown to China, they swiftly took over the lucrative trading expeditions. Extracting the lion’s share of the profits and imposing harsh taxes on Okinawa, the Satsuma invaders inflicted unspeakable suffering. Their monopolizing avarice and insensitivity to the well-being of Okinawans was expressed by the Okinawan scholar Iha Fuyu, when he wrote, “The Okinawans must be compared with the cormorants of the Nagara River in Japan; they are made to catch fish that they are not permitted to swallow.”

Okinawa, however, even under the suzerainty of Satsuma, continued to maintain a formal — though increasingly fictive — subordination to China as a vassal or tributary state. Its age-old status was a point of dispute that would dog Sino-Japanese relations in the 19th century, as a more assertive, ascendant Japan faced off with an increasingly emaciated China.

The unilateral seizure of Okinawa by Japanese forces in 1879, executed against the will of its populous, the removal of the royal family to Tokyo and the subsequent enforcement of programs designed to assimilate Okinawans into mainstream Japanese life and culture were only partially successful in erasing a resilient identity among islanders cognizant of their own distinct history and strong Chinese links.

The effort among academics and ethnographers to disassociate Okinawa from China was apparent in the 1920s in the work of Kunio Yanagita. His trips to Okinawa convinced him that the islands represented a living embodiment of ancient, premodern and, thereby, unsullied Japanese culture. Closer to wishful meditations on the past than empirical ethnography, Yanagita’s fantasies of returning to a purer, premodern Japan had a profound effect on the way mainland Japanese have perceived the southern islands. Okinawa was crucial to Yanagita as his earlier theories of the Japanese as a mountain people shifted into a new characterization of them as the inhabitants of a collective island culture. This severance from continental Asia, represented by China, and countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Siam (Thailand) and Indonesia, with which Okinawa enjoyed fruitful trade and cultural links, was engineered to reinforce the notion of Okinawa’s cultural ties to mainland Japan.

According to Yanagita and those who shared his views, the emphasis on social harmony and spirituality that supposedly characterize island cultures was irrefutable evidence of a historical commonalty between Okinawa and mainland Japan. Yanagita’s theories on the quintessentially Japanese character of Okinawan culture required some careful tinkering with the facts. In his first book on Okinawa, “Kainan Shoki” (“A Brief Record of the Southern Seas”), published in 1925, Yanagita went to considerable lengths to minimize the influence of China and Southeast Asia on Okinawa and promote the essentially Japanese nature of Okinawan culture.

Yanagita also posited the idea that Okinawa had acted as a conduit for the transmission of wet rice culture into mainland Japan, thereby linking the islands with a crop embodying a potent symbol of Japanese cultural identity. His claims to have rediscovered a shared cultural evolution and ethnicity appealed to a growing nationalist movement promoting racial and cultural homogeneity.

The Chinese legacy, openly acknowledged by Okinawans, is being contested once again. Writing for Japanese-run publications, I have been asked to excise positive remarks pertaining to China’s transference of culture and knowledge to Okinawa.

A Chinese moon door frame in Naha's Fukushu-en. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A Chinese moon door frame in Naha’s Fukushu-en. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Sadly, the mood has turned nasty in regard to current Japan-China relations, with large segments of the Japanese public dutifully echoing the hostilities of the government. The sentiments of the Japanese public, increasingly embittered at being supplanted by an economically ascendant China, are not necessarily shared by Okinawans with their more benevolent view of China. History is a thorny issue in Japan. China’s long and largely cordial relations with Okinawa do not square with the nationalist political script being penned by Tokyo, where contested history is invariably reducible to the sensitive issue of national identity and ethnicity.

Perhaps the final word should go to the photographer Shomei Tomatsu, who, seeking the origins of Japanese identity in these southern islands, concluded that centuries of cultural accretion resulted in a rich Okinawan mix, the “qualities of which are not southeastern Asian, not Chinese and not Japanese.” Special to the Japan Times

Miyara Dunchi might well have been built by a Chinese wizard, or an eccentric Taoist, perhaps, so fabulist are the garden’s rock clusters. One could easily imagine the Western Jin dynasty poet Pan Yue idling away his time in contemplation of the garden’s craggy landscapes.

Built in 1819 by the magistrate for Okinawa’s Yaeyama Islands, one Miyara Peichin Toen, a Chinese-style screen wall greets visitors once they step into the garden. Behind this barrier against evil spirits is a shallow pond supporting water plants, and small, jagged rocks. These bear a strong resemblance to suiseki displays, the term meaning “water stone.” Originating some 2,000 years ago in China, interesting, rare or well-formed stones were placed and displayed in watered trays.

A statue of the Chinese sage Confucius at Fukushu-en in Naha. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A statue of the Chinese sage Confucius at Fukushu-en in Naha. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

A fondness for stones — the sharp, spiny rocks of their own coral islands, so different from the smooth, darker varieties found in mainland Japanese gardens — typifies this and many other Okinawan landscapes. If rocks represent mountain ranges, they also evoke the coastal cliffs and offshore formations of Okinawa. Never far from the sea, these stone arrangements are doubtless modified versions of the complex, interlocking rock piles found in classic Chinese gardens, many of them representing the mythic Islands of the Immortals. The coral and limestone compositions of the Chinese garden consisted of piles of energizing rocks full of blowholes, scooped surfaces, cavities and hollows, a playful effect still much beloved of the Chinese. The texture of Ryukyu sekitangan, the local coral stone, lends itself to similar flights of fancy.

Any direct or overwhelming resemblance to the literati gardens of China dissolves, however, when one reflects on the absence of any figures akin to the scholar-philosophers of the Middle Kingdom in Okinawa. The stone clusters of this small garden may resemble Chinese rockeries in their wrinkled and perforated forms, but in place of the lotuses, chrysanthemums and willow trees of the Chinese garden are fallen bougainvillea and hibiscus petals, a barrier of typhoon-resistant fukugi trees and the ghostly roots of the ficus tree.

Naha has its very own Chinese garden: the Fukushu-en. Its reconstructions of buildings from the province of Fujian are connected by carp ponds, moon doorways, stone paths and fantastically shaped rocks. It’s a good introduction to some of the Chinese influences that have been soaked up elsewhere in Okinawa.

Assertively Okinawan but with unmistakable Chinese influences, the formal grounds of the royal garden of Shikina-en served as the second residence for the royal family in the days when Okinawa was an independent kingdom. Its red-tiled, detached villa was used to host Chinese envoys attending coronations. Much of this UNESCO World Heritage site resembles a flourishing botanical garden, an arboretum of tropical specimens such as banyan, clumps of birds’ nest fern, cycads and even a grove of banana trees. Strolling its expansive grounds, we might be excused for thinking we are in the Chinese landscape world of the Humble Administrator’s Garden or the Garden of Cultivation in Suzhou.

But the Chinese influence, however important, should not be overemphasized at the expense of native Okinawan instincts. Although there was symbolism embedded in the gardens of the Okinawan royalty, the adoption of Chinese forms was mostly visual and aesthetic.

Complex notions such as the belief among Taoist scholars that a private garden — “simple, formless, desireless, without striving” — was an articulation of a yearning for a graceful, happy, long life in retirement had little place in the exuberant flower- and plant-filled gardens of these islanders. Metaphysics have never much appealed to the Okinawan mind.

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