I’ve always taken Napoleon’s side when it comes to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. No, his ambitions never extended that far east. I’m referring to an 1817 conversation Napoleon – then a captive on the lonely island of Saint Helena – had with British naval officer Captain Basil Hall. As described in Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-Choo Island in the Japan Sea, Captain Hall stopped off in Saint Helena on his return from Lord Amherst’s failed diplomatic mission to China and more successful surveys of Korea and the Ryukyu Islands. 

When Hall met Napoleon, their conversation turned to Okinawa. Hall explained that it was a peaceful kingdom where the art of war was unknown and no weapons existed. No arms? No wars? The great general scoffed at the assertions. Napoleon was right to scoff. It was nonsense then and it remains nonsense today. Over the years, a lot of romanticized rubbish has been – and continues to be – written about historical Okinawa. 

Gregory Smits, a professor of Japanese history at Pennsylvania State University and author of the brave revisionist rewriting of Ryukyuan history, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, says:

Romanticised Ryukyu typically takes the form of a pacifist island paradise. This imaginary Ryukyu is European in origin, and first developed as a reaction to the Napoleonic Wars. Those bloody conflicts created an understandable desire to find proof, even if just a single case, that a state could exist without violence or warfare.

Captain Basil Hall’s grandson, pioneering Japanologist Basal Hall Chamberlain, contributed to the myth, writing in an 1895 journal article:

The most prominent race-characteristic of the Luchuans is not a physical, but a moral one. It is their gentleness of spirit, their yielding and submissive disposition, their hospitality and kindness, their aversion to violence and crime.

As Smits says, this “romanticized Ryukyu is very much alive and well today, having been passed along by

[George] Kerr and others, and of course, being inherently attractive.” 

Smits was originally drawn to the history of the Ryukyus because of his interest in researching Confucianism outside of China. His first book, Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics (1999, 2017), focused on the politics and ideology of eighteenth-century Okinawa. He took a ten-year break from the subject to do research related to earthquakes, then returned to write a history on the early Ryukyus.

And what an absolutely magnificent book it is! It’s like being handed a decoder key – suddenly all those nagging doubts are cleared up and previously confusing things make sense. 

Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650 is an interdisciplinary, revisionist history covering the period from 1050, which “marks the approximate beginning of the “Gusuku Period” in the Ryukyu islands, a time when power centres emerged,” until 1650, when Reflections on Chuzan (Chuzan seikan), Ryukyu’s first official history was published. Not that Smits reads faithfully from that work. Ryukyuan official accounts are unreliable; they painted an idealized Confucian world of moral rulers and “exaggerated the antiquity of a unified Okinawan state, positing its origins around 1200, approximately three centuries too early.”

Smits’ book places the Ryukyus within a regional context; look at the map on the book’s cover and note the highlighted arc from southern Korea through Kyusyu, the Ryukyus, and northern Taiwan, to Fujian; this was an active zone of trade, cultural exchange, and migration. The traditional approach to Ryukyuan history (in both Japanese and English) starts with Okinawa as if people and culture just sprung up there. However, the northern islands in the chain played a dominant role in early Ryukyuan history. Smits describes a 2006 archaeological discovery on Kikai Island which places it as an important center of trade and technology a millennium ago. 

Okinawa did not become the political or economic center of gravity in the Ryukyu islands until the fourteenth century. Similarly, Ryukyuan culture did not spring from the soil of Okinawa.

The biggest revelation in Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650 is the role of the wako the development of early Ryukyu. The term wako is usually translated as “Japanese pirates.” It’s useful shorthand but an inadequate term, seeing as they included Chinese and Koreans and they did more than piracy; they were traders, mercenaries for hire, farmers and fishermen. Japanese was a common language, and most of their bases were in Japan, primarily in Japan’s Inland Sea and in western Kyushu. 

Because they lacked a literary culture they did not leave behind written documents, but they did have a rich oral tradition of songs, and these provide clues. Smits draws on scholarship of the Omoro soshi– a collection consisting of 1,553 songs.

The Ryukyu Islands were “an ideal abode for international mariners who operated outside of state boundaries and formal law.” 

The author is good at questioning basic assumptions. Why, he wonders, were there so many gusuku (fortresses/castles) on Okinawa? There were about one hundred by the fifteenth century, a number incompatible with the local fishing and farming potential.

The answer lies with the wako and early Ming dynasty rulers who brought them into China’s newly formalized tribute trade system in order to deal with issues of piracy and smuggling. Dealing with the pirates and thus gaining some control over them was thought a more effective option than attempted suppression.

In effect, the port of Naha became the Ming dynasty’s shipping terminal at a time when security policies prohibited Chinese merchants from conducting foreign trade under their own auspices.

The Ryukyus received preferential treatment: “Despite its relatively small size and dearth of resources, Ryukyu sent more tribute embassies to China than did any other country.”

Ryukyuan trade was actually managed by the Chinese: the Ming court provided the large ships used for the trade, and the captains, and clerks in Okinawa to oversee the tribute and trade. Not until the 1580s is there evidence of a Ryukyuan captain. 

When Ryukuans sailed to to Southeast Asia, usually via Fuzhou, they were using Chinese-made ships with Chinese captains and officers. As Smits says, “the common image of Ryukyuan mariners independently sailing to a variety of far-flung kingdoms requires some modification. In many respects, during the late fourteenth century and well into the fifteenth, ‘Ryukyu’ functioned much like a shipping company.” Furthermore, “Chinese merchants in Naha constituted a shadow government that held the real power in early Ryukyu.”  

Ryukyu’s “golden age” was built on Okinawa being a pirate stronghold run by outside forces, a shipping corporation for the Ming dynasty, set up to stem piracy and get around Ming trade restrictions. Naha served as shipping corporation, and a dummy corporation at that.

Another cornerstone of Okinawan history has been the idea of early Okinawa being divided into three small kingdoms. Smits thinks that “the sudden proliferation of kings in late fourteenth-century Okinawa was the result of local rulers rushing to get on board the Ming gravy train.” By this he means that having three kingdoms and by extension three kings allowed for more opportunities to trade with China. “King” is a Chinese term and was basically a license to trade. There were kings for the northern, central, and southern areas, but Smits believes this was a bogus setup to increase tribute trade. Goods went through the deep-water port of Naha, often in joint shipments. The three different states were three different brand names from the same shipping entity.

Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650 is almost too good. There’s a lot of material to digest. The great amount of information could have been overwhelming but thankfully the chapters are largely independent, which makes absorbing things easier.

Many of the relatively small readership capable of appreciating this book will have already invested too much in the old paradigms and/or be too squeamish to take hold of the challenge to further explore the questions Smits raises. Travis Seifman, a freshly minted PhD and now a researcher at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute, makes a similar point in his review of the book: “Although measured in tone, it’s incendiary in its content; the kind of book that makes academics, writers, activists cry in anger and despair as they understand that their years of work have been in error.”

Seifman describes Maritime Ryukyu as multi-faceted revisionist masterpiece, yet raises an interesting point about the nature of history and identity. How much does it matter if the pre-1650 image of Ryukyu is an illusion if the elements of that illusionary distinct Ryukyuan culture and identity emerged in later centuries? 

However, with Gregory Smits currently working on a modern history of the Ryukyus some of the received wisdom of the period is in danger. I’m looking forward to a replacement to George H. Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People (1958). Smits gently pokes fun at Kerr’s depiction of Ryukyu’s distant golden age of peace, prosperity, and freedom, but admits he owes him a debt: “had I not more or less randomly pulled his book off a library shelf as an undergraduate, Ryukyu might never have come to my attention.”

An updated edition of Kerr’s influential work came out in 2000, and included an afterword by historian Mitsugu Sakihara who wrote that Kerr was “consistently a friend of the weak and oppressed; however, in his zeal to right wrongs, he was sometimes less than impartial.” Sakihara corrects the assertion of a weaponless island.

As Kerr expert Jonathan Benda outlines in the introduction and biography to the 2018 edition of Formosa Betrayed, Kerr’s experiences as a U.S. consul in post-World War II Taiwan are vital to understanding his Okinawa book. Kerr unsuccessfully warned about and witnessed the Chinese Nationalist’s (KMT) bloody suppression of the Taiwanese. Kerr left the diplomatic service in 1947 for a life in academia. His anti-KMT political positions caused him trouble in the McCarthy era. Because of the Cold War political atmosphere and his traumatic memories of the “March Massacres” of 1947, it was not until 1965 that his Formosa Betrayed was published.

Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650 is published by the University of Hawaii Press. It’s also available from various retailers such as Amazon.com.

I also recommend listening to a podcast interview Professor Smits did with Victoria Oana Lupascu on the New Books in East Asian Studies of the New Books Network.