Maritime Empire of Ryūkyū—Analyzing the “Medieval” through Yaeyama, Miyako, and Amami History
Period Tuesday, March 16 –Sunday,May 9, 2021
Venue Special Exhibition Gallery A, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥600
college students: ¥250
* Free admission for High school age and below.

Hours 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:30 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)

Before the Age of Discovery, launched by Columbus, Magellan, and other explorers, cross-border trade was active in East Asian waters as early as the 14th Century. At the center of these transactions was the maritime nation, Ryūkyū. The brilliant history of the Ryūkyū Kingdom is widely known; however, its invasion of the surrounding islands, Yaeyama, Miyako, and Amami Island, is not well known. These islands had different languages and cultures, but the invasion significantly altered their respective societies, and this ultimately led to the definition of Japan’s current borders.

The history of these areas has been told based on the history books of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, since only a few pertinent documents have survived. However, a walk around the islands reveals the ruins of ancient villages in the jungle, where one can find many ceramic artifacts suggesting a world very different from that of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Focusing on the “imperial” aspect of Ryūkyū, which has hitherto received little attention, we recapture the history of Ryūkyū from the perspective of the surrounding areas such as the Yaeyama, Miyako, and Amami Islands. The National Museum of Japanese History has been conducting various joint research activities in this field since 2015, and museum visitors can see the research results in this exhibition. In addition, they can discover a new historical image of Ryūkyū, based on more than 400 historical artifacts, such as celadon porcelain, white porcelain, national treasure documents, temple bells of important cultural assets, folding-screen paintings, and drawings.

(1)-1 Folding-screen Painting of Shuri Naha Port,
19th Century, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection


Highlights of the exhibition

  • A collection of celadon and white porcelain artifacts found on the main island of Okinawa and other remote islands
    While there are high-class artifacts in Chinese celadon and white porcelain, most of the porcelain traded in East Asia were bowls and plates used in people’s daily life. A large number of porcelain pieces found on the southern islands suggest a rich cultural life at the time. Here, we bring together the celadon and white porcelain artifacts that have been found on the main island of Okinawa, and its other remote islands, such as Yonaguni Island, Iriomote Island, Hateruma Island, Kuroshima Island, Taketomi Island, Ishigaki Island, Miyako Islands, and Kikaishima Island.
  • Pictures showing the relationship between Ryūkyū and overseas countries
    The ships that traveled between Ryūkyū and China have appeared in paintings of the modern era. You can discover the characteristics of these ships in the paintings such as Ships Transporting Envoys Sent by the Chinese Emperor to Grant Ryūkyū a Formal State Recognition, which magnificently depicts Chinese and Ryūkyū boats (National Museum of Japanese History Collection), and the Folding-screen Painting of Shuri Naha Port (Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection; Exhibition period, April 20 to May 9). We can see the differences in medieval people’s interest in the aforementioned islands, in the contemporary maps made in Japan, Korea, and Europe.
  • Eight national treasure documents are on display (You can even find unique documents written in kana mixed with Chinese characters!)
    The Shimadzu family’s documents (a national treasure), collected in the Historiographical Institute at the University of Tokyo, include documents related to Ryūkyū and other islands. You can see documents combining kanji and hiragana, as well as unique vermilion seals. The eight national treasure documents are exhibited alternately.

Ⅰ. Ryūkyū in Pictures

Ryūkyū was said to be ‘beyond the ocean.’ In the maps made in the 14th century, Ryūkyū appeared as a small island named “Riukiu” in the corner of the maps, reflecting a situation that there was no accurate location information in Japan.

In the 15th Century, when Hakata (a port on Kyushu Island) merchants traveled between Korea, Japan, and Ryūkyū, more accurate sea charts, with ocean lines, were created. The Tokara Islands and Amami Islands, located between Kyushu Island and Okinawa’s main island, are depicted in considerable detail in these charts. However, the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, located beyond Okinawa’s main island, do not appear in the charts.

In the 16th Century, the Portuguese, based in Goa, India, expanded into the waters of Malacca, Macau, and East Asia, and discovered the “Lequios,” or Ryūkyū Islands. The new finding was brought to Europe by the Portuguese, and Ryūkyū then began to appear on world maps. The numerous islands between Taiwan and Ryūkyū, as drawn in those maps, are probably those of the Yaeyama Islands and Miyako Islands. These islands were open to the world.

(2) The Map of Ryūkyū Kingdom, 1969, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection

(3) Ortelius Asia map, 1575, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Ⅱ. Yaeyama and Miyako Life - Yaeyama Villages - Miyako Islands Villages

Far south of Okinawa’s main island are the Yaeyama Islands, which consist of Ishigaki Island, Iriomote Island, and other islands; and the area around the Miyako Islands. There were stone-fenced villages on these islands, which did not exist on the mainland of Okinawa, and a large amount of Chinese celadon and white porcelain has been found on the islands, suggesting that the islands had independent trade with China. Wood and cloth would have been their main export items.

After Ryūkyū gained power by unifying the mainland of Okinawa, it invaded the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. Consequently, the history of these areas, where only a few pertinent documents have survived, has been told based on historical narratives compiled by the invader. However, archaeological materials, such as village ruins and ceramics, have revealed how the invasion altered the Yaeyama and Miyako Islands’ societies. Many ceramic artifacts found on the islands tell a vivid story.

(4) Ceramics collection from the Iriomote Island Komi ruins, 13th to 16th Century, Private Collection

(5) Oyake Akahachi Statue, Ōhama, Ishigaki City (* panel exhibition only)


Ⅲ. Amami as a Boundary Region - Villages in Amami - The Amami Islands from the Northern Perspective

During the 10th through 13th centuries, Japan sought to expand into the area south of Kyushu Island, seeking products such as turban shells used in mother-of-pearl inlay work. Chikama Tokiie, a gokenin (immediate vassal of the shogun in the Kamakura Period), who owned territory in Southern Kyushu, passed on his rights and profits of the islands to his children.

In the 15th century, Ryūkyū unified the mainland of Okinawa, took military action to gain control of the northern islands, and finally expanded its territory to include Amami Ōshima Island and Kikaijima Island. Of course, Amami, located in between Japan and Ryūkyū, also had its own culture. The ceramics found in the village ruins show us the flow of goods from north to south which changed over time, and they tell us how such villages disappeared because of the Ryūkyū Empire’s invasion.

(6) Shellfish spoon made from turban shells, Contemporary period , Private Collection

(7) Part of a testament written by Chikama Tokiie (Reproduction; original in a private collection), 1306, National Museum of Japanese History Collection


Ⅳ. Unification and Centralization of Ryūkyū - Villages on Okinawa’s Main Island and Castles in the Ryūkyū Islands- Ryūkyū Kingship and Formal Recognition as a State by the Ming Dynasty

The leader of the Shō clan, who unified the mainland of Okinawa in the 15th century, was recognized as King of Ryūkyū and established his base in Shuri Castle. The ceramics found there were decorated with luxury items revealing the authority of the king.

Ryūkyū became a powerful trading nation, purged influential Aji (Ryūkyū chieftains), recruited the Chinese privileged class, and promoted centralization. In addition, Ryūkyū expanded its territory to include Amami in the north as well as Miyako and Yaeyama in the south, becoming an empire over a comparatively vast area. The temple bell made at the time of Shō Shin was engraved with the inscription “Emperor Shō Shin,” epitomizing the heyday of the empire.

(8) Large Celadon Porcelain Vase Engraved with Peony Flowers, 15th Century, National Museum of Japanese History Collection

(9) The Temple Bell from Enkakuji’s Back Hall (an important cultural property), 1495, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection


Ⅴ. Connecting Naha Port and the Islands - Shuri Royal Palace and Naha Port - Tōshin Route - Miyako Route - Wa Route

The contact hub of the Ryūkyū maritime state was Naha, an international trading port. The harbor was flooded with ships traveling overseas to destinations such as China, Southeast Asia, and Japan, as well as conquered areas such as Yaeyama, Miyako, and Amami. We show how the Naha port appeared at the time, with a folding-screen painting of the port, a model of the port showing its formidable defenses, and paintings of ships carrying Chinese envoys.

In its communication with China and other Southeast Asian countries, the Ryūkyū Empire exchanged documents using only Chinese characters. However, in its communication with the conquered areas, it used unique documents written in kana mixed with Chinese characters and affixed with red stamps, as was Ryūkyū proper style.

(1)-2 Folding-screen Painting of Shuri Naha Port (Partial view),
19th Century, Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection

(10) Diorama model of Naha Port (1:2000), Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum Collection

(11) Ships Transporting Envoys Sent by the Chinese Emperor to Grant Ryūkyū a Formal State Recognition, 19th Century, National Museum of Japanese History Collection

(12) Letter from Naha district chief and Takushi distruct chef (a national treasure), Late 15th Century to early 16th Century, Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo Collection


Ⅵ. In the Area between China and Japan - Japanese Domination and Ryūkyū - Early Modern Ryūkyū in the East Asian World

The prosperous Ryūkyū Empire succumbed to the Satsuma Domain’s military invasion in 1609 and came under Japanese rule. Ryūkyū’s pride nonetheless remained, as its head was appointed king by China's emperors (Ming and Qing).

Since Amami, which had been conquered by the Ryūkyū Empire, was ceded to the Satsuma Domain, Ryūkyū ruled the Yaeyama and Miyako areas more strictly. However, you can see in the pictures that people in these areas enjoyed their daily lives with a smile on their face, despite this strict rule.

(13) Letter written by Chūzanō Shōboku, 18th Century, National Museum of Japanese History Collection

(14) A group of Korean visitors on a castle tour, in the Yamashita Gomon Gate, in Edo, 19th Century, National Museum of Japanese History Collection