In many ways, the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom previous to the Meiji Restoration provides a depiction of an island kingdom that maintained a high degree of national sovereignty that was eventually shattered by colonial domination by the Satsuma-han in the 17th century. From the earliest times, the Ryukyu Kingdom occupied a privileged position to the south of Japan due largely to its trade and cultural links with China.
Despite the fact that Japan had exercised brief contacts with the kingdom from the 7th to the 9th century, it’s attempts to interfere with Ryukyuan domestic affairs virtually disappeared from Ryukyuan history until the 17th century. Until that time, the Ryukyu Kingdom maintained it’s strongest economic and cultural ties with China, and remained in somewhat constant contact with the Asian continent, through China. From the 14th century on, the Ryukyu Kingdom developed a tributary relationship with China, which while symbolically signifying the Ryukyu Kingdom’s status under China (as demonstrated in a pledge of loyalty made by the Ryukyuan King to the Chinese Emperor) basically maintained the Ryukyu Kingdom’s independent status as a nation. In no way did China seek to interfere in Ryukyuan domestic affairs, but merely sought to maintain cordial relations with the kingdom (which by the 16th century had consolidated all of the islands in the archipelago under centralized monarchical rule, with it’s capitol at Shuri castle on the island of Okinawa). China’s preeminent status had several key implications for the Ryukyuan people. It provided legitimacy to the Ryukyuan Monarchy, and also established the manner in which Chinese ethics and cultural customs were able to enter into the Ryukyus. Most importantly, however, it’s status as a tributary allowed the Ryukyu Kingdom access to trade with China, which would serve to boost the Ryukyus status in terms of mercantile affairs.
The most significant change in status for this time period came in 1609 with the invasion of the Ryukyus by the Satsuma-han of Japan. In this time period, Satsuma took control of the Ryukyus from the Ryukyuan monarchy, and placed the northern islands of Amami under direct Satsuma rule, while allowing the rest of the kingdom to remain under a sort of semi-colonial jurisdiction. In many ways, the experiences of the Amami islands differed vastly from the rest of the kingdom. The Amami islands (part of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) quickly became integral to the growth of Satsuma’s economy and consequently to it’s growth in military strength. With the rapid introduction of the sugar cane industry into the islands and the increasing harshness of Satsuma domain’s leadership in extracting labor from the residents there, islanders underwent a period that they refer to as “Sato jigoku,” or “Sugar Hell.” Through this period of time, they were quickly integrated into Satsuma-han, as a part of Japan.
The rest of the Ryukyu Kingdom, however, was able to maintain some appearances of sovereignty despite the nature of their domination by the Satsuma domain. For the most part, the Sho dynasty, which had previously ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom, was able to remain intact along with its administrative structures. This occurred largely because it was in Satsuma’s political and economic trade interests to keep up the pretense that the Ryukyu Kingdom was still an independent nation. Since the Ryukyu Kingdom had been able to maintain economic trade relations with China, and Japan had broken off those same relations, Satsuma had a vested interest in keeping up Ryukyuan trade activities with China in order to economically prosper. To that end, the Ryukyus proved indispensable, since by practicing the deception that the Ryukyus were still an independent nation free from Japanese control, Satsuma was able to use the Ryukyus as a means in which to trade Japanese goods with China. Thus, the situation for the Ryukyus proved especially interesting, since it remained in Satsuma’s best interests to keep the Ryukyus as an independent nation (at least on the surface), while in the Amami islands, Satsuma favored complete integration of the islands into it’s territory.
This relationship, however, changed with the arrival of the western colonial powers, as personified in the arrival of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s “Black Fleet” in 1854. Stopping first in Okinawa before heading to Tokyo Bay, the Americans that Perry represented became the first colonial threat that Japan was forced to deal with after hundreds of years of isolationism. Faced with this threat, Japan felt the need to take several steps in order to protect itself from colonial encroachments, as had been seen in places like China, “Indochina,” and any of the other colonized Asian nations. Japan quickly embarked on an ambitious program to develop internally on the model of the modern western nation-state. Towards those ends, Japan began a rapid process of industrialization, heightened its sense of national unity, and solidified its borders. In order to learn how to engage in this process of modernization, Japan sent a number of delegations to various western nations to learn from their models, but sadly enough, they learned these lessons at the tail end of the main period of outright western imperialism, and quickly latched onto the model of colonialist expansion and empire building.
Ironically enough, Perry’s initial contact with Okinawa was not only the first moment of contact between the United States and Okinawa, but also the first time that U.S. military forces committed crimes against the Okinawan people. Shortly after docking, an American sailor broke into the house of an Okinawan woman and raped her. Upon hearing the woman’s screams, several villagers gave pursuit, and Board either fell into the port or was drowned. Following this incident the villagers involved in this incident were punished for their role in the sailor’s death, and Perry presented the woman who was raped with a few yards of cloth as compensation for the assault. This incident of violence against Okinawan women represented a theme that would return again later when Okinawa was placed under United States occupation.
After Perry’s visit, and after being introduced to western models of colonialist expansion, Japanese leaders felt the need to legitimize Japan’s nation-state status, and this provided the rationale for the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which signaled the end of Ryukyuan sovereignty, with the push for the full integration of the Ryukyu Kingdom into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture. There were several reasons for this at that time. First of all, the Satsuma domain and the Choshu domain (called the Sat-Cho clique) played a very central role in creating the circumstances for the Restoration, since they were battling the Tokugawa bakufu for control of Japan. The full integration of the Ryukyu Kingdom into the Satsuma domain represented a move to legitimize the Satsuma domain since the increased land and resources of the Ryukyus would give more power to the Satsuma domain in national affairs. More importantly, however, in looking at the Meiji Restoration as the means in which Japan sought to protect itself from western imperialism, Japan found it increasingly important to develop a strong sense of itself as a nation with clearly delineated borders. The Ryukyu islands presented an intolerable gray area in Japan’s national boundaries due to it’s place of “dual subordination” to Japan as well as China, and Japanese leaders felt it necessary to legitimize it’s borders in the light of western international law. Even further than this, Japan felt the intense need to develop some form of geo-political buffer zone to protect itself from possible military encroachments by western powers. The Ryukyu Islands presented the perfect candidate for such protection, by providing some form of security on Japan’s southern front, and this need for military security took precedence over the need to maintain trade relations with China. In order to fully protect it’s interests in the region, Japan forced the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, thus establishing full control of the Ryukyus in Japan’s hands and ending the ruse of Ryukyuan sovereignty. In all of these manners, the newly formed Okinawa prefecture would prove invaluable for Japan’s military security.