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Examining the Myth of Okinawan Pacifism

Historians/History




Gregory Smits is an Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University. He is a social and cultural historian of Japan, whose interests range from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries. A specialist in the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he is the author of Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics and co-editor with Bettina Gramlich-Oka of Economic Thought in Early-Modern Japan.

On August 28, 2009 the Okinawa Association of America marked its one hundredth anniversary by hosting the musical King Sho Hashi—a truly positive impact on the country.  I want to take that passionate Okinawan tradition and convey it to future generations using King Sho Hashi as the motif.”  The promotional poster for the musical says of Shō Hashi that “His vision united a kingdom.”

Perhaps the most obvious critical detail that comes to mind in examining the discourse surrounding King Sho Hashi—Dynamic Ryukyu is the peculiarly modern conception of Okinawa’s distant past that assumes some kind of meaningful “Okinawan” identity already existed when Shō Hashi began his conquests.  Both Hirata and the promotional poster suggest that there already was a “country” or a “kingdom” of Okinawa, and that Shō Hashi (1372-1439; r. 1422-1439) performed a glorious service for the people living in this place by uniting them.  In this view, Okinawa has become a timeless entity, a screen onto which contemporary people can project identities, values and aspirations.  Significantly, the promotional literature connected with King Sho Hashi—Dynamic Ryukyu is silent about the potentially problematic issue of Okinawa’s relationship with Japan.  Moreover, the celebratory nature of this musical drama and the literature surrounding it elides something that might seem essential to even the most basic telling of Shō Hashi’s story:  military violence. Shō Hashi ruled Chūzan at a time when Okinawa was home to three small states.  He waged bloody military campaigns in the north and south of Okinawa to conquer Hokuzan (also called Sanboku, destroyed in 1416) and Nanazan (also called Sannan, destroyed in 1429).  Shō Hashi was surely ambitious, but if his main goal was any more elevated than that of other conquerors, there is no good evidence of it.  Prior to their violent unification, the three Okinawan states maintained tributary relations with the Ming Chinese court via the Ōsōfu, a quasi-independent office located in Chūzan and staffed by Chinese expatriates.

Let us consider a different celebratory version of Shō Hashi’s unification, that found in the Chūzan seikan (Mirror of Chūzan, hereafter “Seikan”) The Seikan was the Ryukyu’s first official history, completed in 1650 by Shō Shōken (Haneji Chōshū).  Interestingly, the Seikan account of Shō Hashi’s conquest is much longer than that of Satsuma’s conquest of Ryukyu in 1609.  Roughly like King Sho Hashi—Dynamic Ryukyu, the 1650 account of Shō Hashi contained an agenda that spoke to its contemporary audience.  In the classical Chinese manner of writing history, Shō Shōken described Shō Hashi as a virtuous ruler who brought order to a chaotic Okinawa.  Indeed, Shō Hashi “went hungry himself when the people were starving and suffered cold himself when the people were cold.”  One might wonder how severely the people of Okinawa suffered from the cold, but such language was boilerplate praise.  Furthermore, Shō Hashi was sagacious, his words and deeds were good, and he was free of desires—like King Wen, celebrated founder of the Zhou dynasty in China.  By contrast, the king of Sannan frequently hosted “large, drunken pleasure banquets” and was without decorum or loyalty.  Owing to the influence of Chinese dynastic histories, historical sensibility throughout East Asia in the seventeenth century required that the founder of a dynasty be virtuous and the last ruler of a state be depraved.  Similarly, though for different ideological reasons, modern Okinawan nationalism tends to romanticize the Ryukyuan past.

There is, however, one major difference between the seventeenth century account of Shō Hashi and the contemporary musical drama:  the emphasis in the former on military conquest.  The bulk of the description of Shō Hashi in the Seikan details the battles and troop movements that resulted in his ultimate victory.  In response to an alleged plan to conquer Shuri by the king of Sanboku, Shō Hashi appointed the aji (local warlords) of Urasoe, Goeku, and Yomitan as generals, assembled an army, and set out from Shuri Castle, arriving in Nago several days later.  At one point, the Chūzan forces outmaneuvered the enemy and their arrows “fell upon them like rain.”  Another fight involving two hundred defenders of a northern castle and five hundred Chūzan attackers “stained the grass with blood, and corpses sprawled along the roadway.”  In addition to swords and arrows, a small band of twenty attackers crept quietly into the castle and set fires.  Blood-stained grass and corpses lining the roadway were stock metaphors for describing warfare.

Regardless of the precise appearance of the grass or roadway, the Seikan account is generally accurate in pointing out that Shō Hashi’s accomplishment was the result of hard-fought battles in which many Okinawans perished.  From the standpoint of 1650, there was no particular reason to elide or minimize Shō Hashi’s conquest, unlike the case of Ryukyu’s disastrous war with Satsuma in 1609.  Indeed, that war with Satsuma is described only in the historical overview that serves as the Seikan’s introduction, and only in brief, sterile terms.  We read that Shimazu Iehisa dispatched Kabayama Kenzaemon [Hisataka] as a general, who invaded Ryukyu and captured the king.  There is no account of specific battles, Iehisa is described as “benevolent and decorous,” and a few lines later as a “wise ruler.”  Shō Hō reinstated Ryukyu’s “old ceremonial customs and music,” thus presumably restoring harmony to Ryukyu in classic Confucian style.

Particularly after 1609, Ryukyu’s elites had to tread very carefully to maintain some degree of political autonomy.  Their general approach was to use connections with China, bakufu fears of military conflict with the Qing court, and features of the Tokugawa-era hierarchy as a counterbalance to Satsuma’s power.  As part of this process, Ryukyuan elites became increasingly skilled at managing the kingdom’s image.  They sought to convey to outsiders the image of a small, peaceful kingdom, where Confucian-style virtue mitigated or even eliminated the need for coercive force to maintain domestic order or to defend against external threats such as pirates.  Herein lies the basic origin of the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism, which retains widespread currency today.


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