A Brief History of Okinawa


Continuous human habitation may be traced to about 4,000 years ago. Two northern island groups (Amami-Oshima and Okinawa) show evidence of southwarad migration from Kyushu, whereas in the two southern island groups (Miyako and Yaeyama) evidence points to Melanesian cultural strains from the South.


In the 11th century, castles began sprouting all over Okinawa symptomizing a period of struggles among the emerging petty rulers. In the late 12th Century, one of the petty rulers founded Shunten Dynasty (1187-1259). It was followed by the Eiso Dynasty (1260-1349), the Satto Dynasty (1350-1405), the First Sho Dynasty (1406-1469), and the Second Sho Dynasty (1470-1879). The last dynasty was replaced by Okinawa prefecture with governors appointed from Tokyo until 1945. During the 27 year American interlude from 1945 to 1972, Okinawa was under the U.S. military government.

The first three dynasties exercised their control probably only in their adjacent areas. But King Satto is known for establishing tributary relationships with China in 1372. This relationship with China greatly accelerated Ryukyu's cultural and political development. The First Sho Dynasty achieved the political unification of Okinawa in 1422.

Chronology of Okinawan History


Okinawan History: A Chronology

PRIMEVAL Old Stone Age
Shell Mound Age
605 The Chinese Emperor Yo (Sui Dynasty) sends Shu-Kan to the Ryukyus
608 From about this time, the "Southern Island" people pay tribute to the Japanese Imperial Court.
1187 Shunten becomes overlord of Central Okinawa
1260 Eiso beomes new overlord
1296 A Mongol invasion army attacks Okinawa and is repulsed
1317 Miyako islanders drift ashore in China while enroute to trade in Souteast Asia
1326 At about this time, the Three Kingdoms in Okinawa (Hokuzan, Chuzan, and Nanzan) begin their rivalry
1349 Satto becomes ruler of Chuzan and increases its influence
1350 Nanzan (the southern kingdom) sends tribute to the Ming
1383 Hokuzan (the northern kingdom) sends tribute to the Ming
1392 A group of Chinese, now known as the "Thirty-six Families" are naturalized in Chuzan.
1404 A Siamese shop comes to Okinawa to trade
1416 The Chuzan King, Sho Hashi, captures Nakijin Castle and brings about the downfall of Hokuzan.
1425 Sho Hashi sends trading vessles to Siam
1428 Sho Hashi sends trading vessels to Palembang (Sumatra)
1429 Sho Hashi conquers Nanzan and is the first to succeed in uniting all Okinawa. (Beginning of the First Sho Dynasty.)
1430 Trading ships are sent to Java
1431 Sho Hashi establishes formal diplomatic relations with Korea and initiates trade
1451Sho Kimpuku builds the Chokotei (a road around Naha inlet)
1458The Gosamayu Awamari rebellion takes place. A large bell (the Bankoku Shinryo), on which there is an inscription concerning the prosperity of the Ryukyus, is cast.
1459Kanemaru Uchima is appointed Foreign Trade Minister.
1463Trading ships are sent to Malacca
1466After an audience with the Shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate (Japan), a Ryukyuan friendship mission sets off gunpowder outside the gates in celebration and astonishes the people of Kyoto.
1470Kanemaru Uchima overthrows the First Sho Dynasty, begins a new (the second) Sho Dynasty, and assumes the name of Sho En.
1492The Enkakuji Temple is built
1498Trade begins with Patani (on east coast of Malaysa)
1500Sho Shin conquers Miyako Island, he also puts down the rebellion led by Oyake Akahachi of Yaeyama Island and assumes rule over the castles of Saki Shima (the "Southern Island" as Miyako and Yaeyama were then known.)
1511Portugal causes the downfall of Malacca and strengthens it to be used as a base for the invasion of Asia.
1532The first volume of the Omoro Soshi (a compendium of ancient songs and rituals) is compiled.
1534The Chinese Ming Emperor sends an envoy, Chin Kan, and party to visit the Ryukyus
1553Yara Castle is built at Naha Harbor and coastal defenses are prepared
1579A tablet inscribed "Country and Propriety" is placed on public display at Shuri Castle. (Translator's Note: This tablet had been presented to the King at Shuri by the Chinese Emperor in recognition of the Ryukyuans' strict adherence to the Chinese rules of ritual and etiquette.)
1592Hideyoshi Toyotomi (the Japanese Shogun) orders the King of the Ryukyus to assist in the invasion of Korea; the King ignores the order.
1600The Eastern army wins the great Battle of Sekigahara (in Japan). Ieyasu Tokugawa establishes his leadership in Japan.
1609Ichisa Shimazu of Satsuma sends 3,000 troops and subjugates the Ryukyu Kingdom. (The Shimazu Invasion)
1611The Satsuma Clan looks into the productive capacity of the Ryukyus; divides the Amami Oshima area (the islands north of Yoron Island) from the Ryukyus: and hands down the Okite Jugo Jo (fifteen ordinances to be obeyed by all in the Ryukyus).
1614The Satsumas order strict surveillance of all shipping into and out of the Ryukyus.
1623Compilation of the Omoro Soshi (22 volumes) is completed
1631As a means of keeping the Ryukyus under control, the Satsuma send a permanent administrator to Naha.
1634The system of sending missions of congratulation and gratitude to Edo (Tokyo) is begun.
1637A poll tax is levied on Miyako and Yaeyama Islands
1644The Ching Dynasty succeeds the Ming Dynasty in China
1650Sho Jo-Ken (Choshu Haneji) prepares the "History of Chuzan."
1667Sho Jo-Ken orders acquisition of an elementary knowledge of the Japanese performing arts.
1711A dictionary of the old Ryukyuan language (Konkoken Shu) is compiled
1719Chokun Tamagusuku composes the Kumi Udui (odori) and the first performance is presented
1728 Sai On becomes a member of the Regency Council of Three (Prime Minister).
1734The scholar Chobin Hishicha is executed for political offenses
1771A tidal wave strikes Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, causing great damage
1798A state school is founded at Shuri for the upper class descendants of samurai
1816The British warships Alceste and Lyra call on the Ryukyus on their way home from China. Captain Basil Hall of the Lyra later stops briefly at Helena and tells the exiled Napoleon of the Ryukyus.
1844The French warship Alemene calls and puts a Christian missionary at Naha
1846An English warship brings the active missionary Bettelheim to Naha.
1851Perry, leading an American naval force, comes to Naha and visits Shuri Castle
1854Russian warships call on Naha. Perry returns and a compact between the United States and the Kingdom of "Lew Chew" is signed.
1859The Makishi-Onga incident occurs
1866Sho Tai receives seals and documents of investiture as King from the Manchurs; he is the last to receive these and is also the last King of the Ryukyus.
1868The Tokugawa Shogunate is overthorwn and a national government under the Emperor Meiji is realized.
1871A ship manned by Miyako Islanders is shipwrecked on Formosa, and fifty-four men are murdered by aborigines. (The Formosan Shipwreck incident)
1872The Meiji government abolishes the Kingdom of the Ryukyus and establishes the Ryukyu Han (feudal clan).
1879In order to make the Ryukyus an integral part of Japan, although opposed by the hereditary lords of the Ryukyus, Meiji abolishes the Ryukyu Han and sets up Okinawa Prefecture.
1880The Chinese Manchus strongly protest the Meiji rule over the Ryukyus; the question is resolved through the arbitration of ex-U.S. President Grant.
1881The Meiji government decides to preserve and utilize the old system of rule within Okinawa Prefecture.
1893Okinawa's first newspaper, the "Ryukyu Shimpo," begins publication.
1894 Because of China's loss in the Sino-Japanese War, anti-Japanese factions in Okinawa rapidly lose influence.
1898 The rivalry between a faction centered around Noboru Jahana, which demands revision of unjust political practices in Okinawa, and the old school deepens. Military conscription laws are put into force.
1903 Land reform is completed; new land distribution and taxation systems are established.
1909The first election of assemblymen and convocation of an Okinawan Prefectural Assembly take place.
1911 The Okinawan historian, Fuyu Iha, publishes his great work Ko Ryukyu (Ancient Ryukyu).
1914World War I breaks out.
1919Laws concerning election of representatives to the House of Representatives are applied fully to Okinawa for the first time.
1925Due to a severe recession, the three banks on Okinawa suffer management difficulties.
1926There is great controversy centered around the novel "A Wandering Ryukyuan."
1928Numerous labor disputes arise in Okinawa.
1934A social science research association is formed.
1938An Okinawa executive committee to arouse national spirit is established, and militaristic wartime systems are strengthened.
1940A dispute about the use of the Okinawan hogen (dialect) takes place.
1941World War II breaks out.
1944Okinawa undergoes a great raid by American forces and Naha suffers grave damage. (The October tenth air raid.)
1945American forces invade Okinawa. Japan surrenders unconditionally.
1946General MacArthur declares Japan and the Nansei Shoto (all islands from Amami Oshima south to Yaeyama) to be under separate administrations.
1949The Republic of China (Formosa) is established.
1951San Francisco Peace Treaty puts Okinawa under American administration.
1960The Okinawan Reversion Council is formed.
1969Japan and the U.S. issue a joint declaration that, by mutual consent, Okinawa will be reverted to Japan on May 15, 1972.
1972Administration of Okinawa reverts from U.S. to Japan on May 15th.
1975The first International Ocean Expo opens on Okinawa's Motobu Peninsula.

Indigenous Okinawan Religion

Animism and Shamanism

Okinawa’s indigenous religion is animistic and shamanistic. But it is believed that Okinawan animism and shamanism have been transformed and influenced by Shintoism, Buddhism, and Taoism, religions transmitted to Okinawa from Japan and China. According to Okinawan animism, the world is inhabited by a myriad of spirits – ancestral spirits, heart spirit, well spirit, spring spirit, house spirit, tree spirit, rock spirit. These spirits, or kami, are considered sacred and supernatural; and the Okinawan people believe that by placating and pleasing the gods through religious rituals, misfortunes are warded off and blessings incurred. Thus, many religious rituals are performed throughout the year in their behalf; rituals are observed before and after a harvest to give thanks for the year’s crop and gratitude are offered to the well and spring gods for the water which sustains life; rites are performed for the mischievous tree and boulder gods that may cause harm; and prayers to the gods for any human concerns, such as good health, a safe journey, and success in an undertaking, are customary. The utaki (sacred grove) and uganju (lit., "honorable praying place"), located in hills and forests, are the most hallowed sites of worship in Okinawan animism.

The kaminchu and yuta are the two principle figures of Okinawan shamanism, which holds that good and evil spirits pervade the world and they can be summoned or heard through mediums. Both roles are assumed by women. In the Okinawan villages, the kaminchu is a priestess in charge of religious rites. As the office of the kaminchu is hereditary, she is selected from a specific family lineage and holds the position, which usually begins in middle age, for life. Originally, the kaminchu was a shaman possessed with supernatural powers, but today shamanism is no longer associated with the kaminchu, her function limited only to the performance of religious rites.

The yuta, or shaman, is an intermediary between the worlds of the spirits and the living. The yuta, with supernatural powers of seeing and hearing, are believed to be able to discern the causes of misfortunes and suggest proper action to be taken. Thus, they are called upon when tragedies strike or when any unusual, ominous events occur. Examples of problems for which they are consulted include ill health, dream analysis, suitability of marriage partner, matters related to the tomb, selection of a house site, economic hardships, and even politics. In Okinawa, where women have traditionally held the predominant role in religion, the yuta and her practices are deeply rooted in the social structure.

Playing a lesser role than the kaminchu and yuta in Okinawan shamanism, the sanjinso is a fortune teller or diviner who determines personal fortunes. Men have exclusively held this profession. Unlike the yuta who possesses supernatural powers, the sanjinso makes his prognosis from the lunar almanac, I Ching, and other books on Chinese occult lore. The sanjinso is consulted when selecting auspicious days for engagements, marriages, funerals, buying and selling houses, moving, and traveling.

Fire God

The fire god, or hinukan, is worshipped at the kitchen hearth in every Okinawan home. The fire god is believed to serve as a messenger carrying requests and announcements from the family to the gods in heaven. In the past, the hearth itself, constructed of three large stones placed in a layer of ashes in a box was placed in back of or beside an oil stove and worshipped. Today, a ceramic censer (kouro) is used to offer prayers to the fire god. Together with the ancestral shrine, the kitchen hearth is an important center of religious activity within the home. But many Okinawan religionists believe that worship of the fire god precedes worship of ancestral spirits. They claim that a house can exist without an ancestral shrine but cannot exist without a hearth and accompanying rites to the fire god. Even today, at important religions functions, prayers are first offered at the hearth, followed by prayers at the ancestral shrine. Rituals to the fire god at the hearth are always conducted by the oldest woman in the house. (This, however, is not thought to be related to the fact that the god is a female.) She offers prayers on the first and fifteenth of each month and on all other ritual occasions. Men of the house do not usually pray at the hearth. When the oldest woman of the house dies, the old censer is disposed and anew one set up with her successor.

Ancestor Worship

Together with Buddhism, ancestor worship was first transmitted to Okinawa in the fourteenth century from China. But it was not until the seventeenth century that ancestor worship became prevalent throughout Okinawa. The basic tenet of ancestor worship claims that ancestral spirits are always nearby, observing the life of their descendents. Thus, proper performance of religious rituals to the ancestral spirits will elicit their benevolence and compassion, while negligence of rituals will incur their wrath, resulting in misfortunes for the descendents.

In ancestor worship, the center of religious activities is the ancestral shrine. The ancestral shrine is an alcove with sliding doors about one meter from the floor located in one of the main rooms of the house. It consists of three shelves: the top shelf holds the memorial tablets, or ihai, with a flower vase on each side; the middle shelf holds a censer and two cups; and the lowest shelf is reserved for offerings of food and gifts. Within the ancestral shrine, the memorial tablets are considered highly sacred for the spirits of the ancestors are believed to reside in the tablets. The names of ancestors and some biographical data are written on the tablets in silver letters. Encased in a small, lacquered cabinet, the memorial tablets are mounted in two rows, the upper row for the men and the lower row for the women. On festivals, such as the midsummer Bon Festival of the Dead, and on other ceremonial days of the year, the ancestral shrine is decorated with flowers, food, and drinks. On these occasions all members of the family gather together, burn incense, and offer prayers to the ancestral spirits.

The oldest woman in the family, the wife or husband’s mother, is in charge of all religious activities related to the ancestral shrine. It is her duty to watch the lunar calendar and announce upcoming religious rituals, prepare the ceremonial foods and place them on the ancestral shrine, and on minor religious occasions pray for the welfare of the family.

The family tomb is equally important as the ancestral shrine is a place of worship of ancestral spirits. But unlike the ancestral shrine, which is located within the home and is the focus of continual worship throughout the year, the family tomb is located in remote parts of towns and villages and prayers offered only on special occasions. These special occasions include the Seimei Festival when family members visit the tomb with delicacies and pray to their ancestral spirits; Tanabata, or Star Festival, on July 7 of the lunar calendar; and the New Year’s Day of the Dead on January 16 of the lunar calendar.

In conclusion, it might be said that although foreign religious beliefs, such as Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and Christianity, have been introduced to Okinawa through the centuries, Okinawa’s indigenous religion remains strong and intact and continues to flourish in society today.


Okinawan Prefectural Government. (1992). Keys to Okinawan Culture, author, (excerpt

available on-line at http://www.okinawa.com/religion.html)

Okinawan Prefectural Government. (1992). Okinawa, The Tropical Travel Destination:

Background & History - The Jewel in the Pacific:, author, (excerpt available on-line at

Unknown, (2000). Okinawa FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions and Glossary, (available

on-line at http://www.okinawa.com/faq.html)

E-mail comments Here! . Last modified on 20 June 2002.