The history of Okinawa [沖縄の歴史(おきなわのれきし)]

The Prehistoric Period

Nansei Islands[南西諸島(なんせいしょとう)] including Okinawa[沖縄(おきなわ)] was once connected with the continent but it is unclear when people began to settle in Okinawa.

In 1967, the bones were found in Gushigami Village(present Yaese Town). That was named "Minatogawa Person[港川人(みなとがわじん)]" and the bones were estimated to be 18,000 year old. They were found in almost perfect condition and were preserved as important specimens.

Sanzan Period[三山時代(さんざんじだい)]

In Okinawa, the period of hunting and gathering had continued for a long time but agrarian society started in the 12th century.

Accordingly, ruling people called "Aji[按司(あじ)]" appeared. They built castles called "Gusuku[グスク]" and they tried to expanding their power. In the 14th century, three kingdoms, Nanzan[南山(なんざん)], Chūzan[中山(ちゅうざん)] and Hokuzan[北山(ほくざん)] were founded in Okinawa(This period is called "Sanzan Period".).

Nakijin Castle Site
Nakijin Castle[今帰仁城(なきじんじょう)] Site: Nakijin Castle was the residencial castle of Hokuzan kings.

The period of Ryūkyū Kingdom[琉球王国(りゅうきゅうおうこく)]

The Aji of Sajiki[佐敷(さしき)] Gusuku at Nanzan, Shō Hashi[尚巴志(しょうはし)] defeated the Chūzan king, Bunei[武寧(ぶねい)] and enthroned his father, Shō Shishō[尚思紹(しょうししょう)] in 1406.

After that, Hashi destroyed Hokuzan and succeeded the throne after his father's death. Hashi defeated Nanzan king, Tarumii[他魯毎(たるみい)] and established the unified kingdom which is called Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1429.

Main Hall of the Shuri Castle
Main Hall of the Shuri Castle[首里城(しゅりじょう)]: Shuri Castle was used as a residence of Ryūkyū kings.

Ryūkyū developed as a hub for trades with Ming[明] Dynasty(1368-1644) in China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Korea. At that time, Ming closed the country and prohibited trade in order to prevent the activity of international pirates called "Wakō[倭寇(わこう)]".

But Ming only permitted the trade as gifts in return given by the emperor when the countries which were subordinate to Ming brought tributes to him. Therefore, Ryūkyū became a dependent country of Ming.

Furthermore, the emperor of Ming gave a title to someone who was subordinate to Ming. Ryūkyū was originally a Chinese name of Okinawa and the king was bestowed the title "The King of Ryūkyū" by the emperor of Ming.

By the way, Japan became also a dependent country of Ming in the Muromachi Period(1336-1573) in order to trade with Ming but the trade stopped late in the period.

When the 6th king, Shō Toku[尚徳(しょうとく)] died in 1469, vassals recommended Kanamaru[金丸(かなまる)], who was one of a vassal and had originally been a farmer, for a king instead of the son of Shō Toku. It is thought that it was a coup d'etat. When Kanamaru ascended to the throne, he called himself Shō En[尚円(しょうえん)]. 

After him, his descendants succeeded to the throne from generation to generation until the collapse of the kingdom.

Tamaudun[玉陵(たまうどぅん)]:That is a mausoleum of Ryūkyū kings and was built as the mausoleum for Shō En by King Shō Shin[尚真(しょうしん)] who was a son of Shō En. Kings after Shō En were buried here.

Ryūkyū Kingdom under the control of Satsuma Domain

In the Edo Period(1603-1868), Bakufu[幕府(ばくふ)](shogunate) asked Ryūkyū to mediate between Japan and Ming.

The relationship between the both countries had worsened due to the dispatch of troops to Korea(1592-1593, 1597-1598) by Hideyoshi Toyotomi[豊臣秀吉(とよとみひでよし)](This dispatch had intended to create the basis for invading Ming.). But Ryūkyū did not accept this request. Besides, Satsuma Domain[薩摩藩(さつまはん)](present Kagoshima Prefecture), which had a border with the territory of Ryūkyū, wanted further territory and incomes because Satsuma was suffering from fiscal deficit.

Under these circumstances, Bakufu gave permission for Satsuma to conquer Ryūkyū and the troop occupied Ryūkyū in 1609.

Due to the incident, Satsuma got Amami Islands[奄美群島(あまみぐんとう)](Amami Islands is a part of Nansei Islands and is located in the middle between Kagoshima and Okinawa.). Japan and Ryūkyū had disputed about Amami but Ryūkyū had completed to conquer Amami Islands in the middle of 15th century.

Ryūkyū was placed under the control of Satsuma. Satsuma did not abolish the kingdom because Satsuma wanted Ryūkyū to continue trading with Ming and wanted to acquire the benefits. And Ryūkyū had to send the mission called "Syaonshi[謝恩使(しゃおんし)]" every time the Ryūkyū king changed and the mission called "Keigashi[慶賀使(けいがし)]" every time the Shōgun[将軍(しょうぐん)] changed, to Edo.

From the Meiji Period to the Pre-WWII

Edo Bakufu was overthrown and Meiji Period(1868-1912) started in 1868. Meiji Government established Ryūkyū Domain[琉球藩] in the kingdom and the king, Shō Tai[尚泰(しょうたい)] became the lord of the domain in 1977.

Meiji Government ordered Ryūkyū to stop paying tribute to Qing[清](the dynasty after Ming) but Ryūkyū rejected that. Because of that, in 1779, the government sent troops and police officers to Ryūkyū and they occupied the Shuri Castle which was the residence of the king. And the government established Okinawa Prefecture[沖縄県] and the history of Ryūkyū Kingdom ended.

Shō Tai.jpg
Shō Tai (Source: National Diet Library)

Okinawa people suffered from the poverty due to the depression after the WWI. Some people ate Sotetsu[ソテツ](cycad) which is a poisonous plant and survived(This was called "Sotetsu hell[ソテツ地獄(じごく)]".). Under this circumstance, many people in Okinawa immigrated to Hawaii, Brazil and Peru.

The Pacific War(World War II)

After the Pacific War broke out, air bases were built in Okinawa as a front line for defending Japan. The situation gradually became worse and in Okinawa, Tekketsu Kinnōtai[鉄血勤皇隊(てっけつきんのうたい)] which is the troop consisting of junior high school students and Himeyuri Gakutotai[ひめゆり学徒隊(がくとたい)] which is the troop of military nurses consisting of female students were organized and mobilized into the war.

On October 10th, 1944, Okinawa was thoroughly attacked by air raids and about 90% of Naha[那覇(なは)] City was burnt down.

In March 1945, US Military landed on Okinawa and fierce battles revolved. Japan's defeat in the war was decisive at that point and there was no longer any chance to win for Japan. The battle lasted for three months but the main battle of Okinawa was finished by the suicide of a Japan's commander, Mitsuru Ushijima[牛島満(うしじまみつる)] on June 23th. In this battle, Japanese and American fatalities amounted to about 200,000.

The Conerstone of Peace
Photo by photolibrary
The Cornerstone of Peace[平和の礎(へいわのいしじ)]: That is a monument engraved with names of all victims of the battle of Okinawa.


After the Japan's defeat in the WWII, Okinawa was put under the rule of U.S. forces. In 1950, an autonomous organization, Government of the Ryūkyū Islands[琉球政府(りゅうきゅうせいふ)] was founded but that was a subordinate organization of the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands(USCAR) and USCAR had the final decision.

Okinawa became the important base in the Far East against communism after the WWII and U.S. forces requisitioned the land of Okinawa for constructing military bases.

Because of the forced land requisition and crimes by U.S. military personnel, some people came to protest against U.S. military and the campaign transformed into the Okinawa's reversion movement to Japan.

In 1969, the reversion was confirmed between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japan's Prime Minister Eisaku Satō[佐藤栄作(さとうえいさく)], and U.S. and Japan concluded the Okinawa Reversion Agreement[沖縄返還協定(おきなわへんかんきょうてい)] in 1971. On May 15th, 1972, the administration of Okinawa was returned to Japan.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū Kingdom were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.

In the same year, the G8 summit was held at Okinawa and Kyūshū[九州(きゅうしゅう)]. Because the summit was held in millennium year, 2,000 yen bill was issued commemorating that and Shurei-mon Gate[守礼門(しゅれいもん)] of Shuri Castle appears on that.

Shurei-mon Gate of Shuri Castle
Shurei-mon Gate

In Okinawa, railways had not existed after the war but Okinawa City Monorail[沖縄都市モノレール](a.k.a.Yui Rail[ゆいレール]) opened in 2003.

Okinawa City Monorail
Okinawa City Monorail

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