Q: Here on Okinawa, I sometimes hear this island and the smaller ones scattered north and south of it referred to as “the Ryukyus.” What’s up with that?

A: Most of the islands south of Kyushu, mainland Japan’s southernmost island, once were part of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent entity with its capital on Okinawa.

According to several histories, China took an interest in 1372 and began requiring tribute payments from the Ryukyu Kingdom. In 1609, a Japanese prince captured the kingdom, and then the Ryukyus were making payment to both China and Japan. Predictably, this dual claim wasn’t sustainable — in 1879, Japan announced it was annexing the Ryukyus. The Ryukyuan king sent representatives to Beijing to ask China to protect the islands from Japanese control. But instead of sending military protection, China made only a diplomatic protest. U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant was asked to settle the dispute, and he sided with the Japanese government. So the annexation went forward, and it wasn’t peaceful. The Japanese military killed Ryukyuan opponents to the annexation, and children were taught only Japanese language and culture. Teaching Ryukyuan subjects, including the kingdom’s distinct language, was forbidden.

But despite all the custody battles in their history, many Ryukyu cultural traditions still thrive today. Particular styles of lacquer and fabric arts like weaving and dyeing are native to the Ryukyus, and Ryukyu folk music still is made on sanshin, a stringed instrument native to the islands.

So the Ryukyu Kingdom may no longer exist as a political entity, but its culture lives on in Okinawa and beyond.

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at:

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