A view of the sea from Okinawa. Beautiful sea with mountainous islands in the distance.

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands Part 1

Flavors of Okinawa – The Unique Culture of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands

Each prefecture in Japan comes with its own features and quirks. Take a closer look, and you’ll see the uniquely Japanese spirit to them. From the snowy mountaintops of Hokkaido to the steamy hot springs of Kyushu, sceneries change across Japan but the culture stays more or less familiar.  But go far enough south, to the hundred (and more) small islands around Okinawa, and you’ll feel the unique energy of Okinawa amd the Ryukyu Islands unfold before you.

Today, we’ll explore Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands. With its distinct culture and language, Ryukyu feels exotic and foreign, even to people who live in inner Japan.

Let’s take a look at Ryukyu’s wonderfully mixed-and-matched culture: the various cultural influences from China, Japan, Thailand, and the US.

We’ll walk you through the key factors that shaped Okinawan and Ryukyuan people into the unique civilization they are today. Once you understand more about Ryukyu culture and history, jump to our next blog post that discusses the ins and outs of Ryukyu cuisine and Okinawa foods.

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands - the gate to Shuri castle
Palace Gateway in Okinawa

Where Are Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands?

The Ryukyu archipelago spreads between Kyushu and Taiwan, and it was once a kingdom of its own.

In Japan, you’ll hear the whole stretch from Japan to Taiwan called the Nansei Islands (南西諸島), the Southwest archipelago.

The Japanese usually use the term Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島for the area of the long-gone Ryukyu kingdom. The island groups are listed north to south:

  • Amami (Kagoshima prefecture), including Amami, Kikai, Kakeromajima, Yoroshima, Ukejima, Tokunoshima, Yoronjima, Edateku, Sukombanare, and Yubanare islands.
  • Okinawa (Okinawa prefecture), about 350 miles south of Kyushu. Including Okinawa, Iheya, Izena, Ie, Sesoko, Yokatsu islands, Kume, Kerama islands, and Aguni islands.
  • Miyako (Okinawa prefecture), including Miyako, Ikema, Irabu, Kurima, Oogami, Shimoji, Tarama, and Minna island.
  • Yaeyama (Okinawa prefecture), including Ishigaki, Aragusuku, Hateruma, Iriomote, Kayama, Kohama, Kuroshima, Taketomi, Yubu, Hatoma, and Yonaguni island.

While the entire Ryukyu Arc (or Nansei islands) encompasses nearly 200 islands, we’ll focus on the rich historical and cultural heritage of the Ryukyu kingdom.

A map showing Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands
Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands

The Ryukyu region enjoys an ever-warm sub-tropical climate, with occasional strong winds and typhoons. The larger islands among these are volcanic, while the smaller ones are formed out of coral.

Thanks to these conditions, the islands’ ecosystems are home to many indigenous animals and plants.

What Makes Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands Special?

Apart from the pleasant climate and fantastical beaches, Ryukyu Islands come with their own cultural flair too.

Throughout history, many countries influenced the Ryukyu people, their cultural heritage bending and reshaping to reflect it all.

For a long time in history, the islands weren’t a part of Japan at all. Instead, the Ryukyu Kingdom swore allegiance to China in its early history, became a part of Japan in the 17th century, and went through a period under US control for a few decades after WW2.

Despite all of those political influences, the Ryukyu Kingdom was practically independent. It managed to do that by harboring good trade and diplomatic relationships with the big powers surrounding it – Japan and China.

The Ryukyu people speak their own language (or better said – group of languages) called Shimakutuba (シマクトゥバ) – “island speak”. Today, most people use Japanese in their everyday life, but efforts are made to preserve the native language of that region.

The Ryukyu culture doesn’t pride itself in war victories. Instead, it harbored a diplomatic society with a history rich with trade, dance, fine cuisine, and exquisite handicrafts – especially textiles and lacquerware.

Ryukyu Trade

In a way, Ryukyu served as a cultural and physical bridge between China and Japan. Ryukyu, and especially the city Naha in Okinawa, was an important trading hub that connected Japan, China, and Southeast Asia.

Thanks to its location and the entrepreneurial spirit of local people, Ryukyu’s trade routes spanned from Siam (Thailand) to Siberia. They traded in Japanese swords, fans, and decorative lacquerware, Chinese medicines and tinctures, ceramics, and textiles, Indian ivory and spices, and Southeast Asian materials like wood, iron, and rhino horn.

Ryukyu, with its capital in Naha, Okinawa, quickly became a buzzing hub full of trade, performing arts, delicate handicrafts, and delicious bites.

Awamori

Trade with Thailand brought many quality materials and resources via the Ryukyu Islands. However, one of the most precious results of this trade of goods and culture is the alcohol distilling technology used to make the Okinawian local spirit, Awamori.

Awamori served in a traditional ceramic pitcher decorated with a shisa lion
Awamori, traditional Okinawa spirits, served in a ceramic pitcher decorated with a “Shisa” lion

Ryukyuan merchants brought home the technology to make Thai drink Lao Khao. Adapted to local resources and tastes, the drink soon became Okinawa’s own Awamori.

The strong spirit is made out of distilled long-grain indica rice – an imported kind of rice that’s quite different from the short-grained Japanese rice.

Diplomacy, Lacquerware, and the Shuri Castle

From its establishment in 1429, the Ryukyu kingdom skillfully juggled between Chinese and Japanese state guests.

As a tributary state of imperial Ming China (essentially a friendly, independent state that recognizes China’s dominance in East Asia), Ryukyu nobility welcomed Chinese envoys on rich feasts and rituals involving music and dance.

As a tribute to the Chinese king, Ryukyuans presented the guests with fine lacquered tableware and cookware, decorated with fine drawings and even iridescent seashell flake inlaying. The Chinese diplomats, who stayed as envoys for months or years, in turn, introduced their local cuisine, arts, and technologies to the islands.

One of the testaments of the Chinese cultural influence in Okinawa is the “shisa” – little guardian lion statues that can be found everywhere and anywhere on the island.

A “shisa” lion overlooks a bay in Okinawa
A “shisa” lion overlooks a bay in Okinawa

Whether Chinese, Japanese, or another nation, diplomats were greeted in the majestically multi-cultural Shuri castle in the heart of the capital Naha, Okinawa. The castle was home to the Kingdom’s ruler and a diplomacy hub for many officials and merchants.

Since its establishment in the 15th century, Shuri castle burnt to the ground several times. Yet, it was rebuilt each time – stronger, more beautiful, and more refined with each reconstruction.

In a way, Shuri castle is a testament to the Ryukyuans’ and Okinawians’ strong spirit, persistence, and drive to rebuild.

Dance, Bingata textiles and Ryukyuan Missions to Edo

For formal occasions, Ryukyuans would organize lively entertainment, especially local dances featuring dazzling costumes.

Locally made and often finely decorated in Bingata textile painting technique, Ryusou (琉装) is the Okinawan dress. Reflecting the area’s unique cultural mix, ryusou’s design is a mixture of the Japanese kimono and the Chinese hanfu.

The Ryukyu kingdom became a part of Japan following a 1609 invasion. While the Kingdom became a vassal state to Japan, it continued its trade and diplomatic relations with both China and Japan.

On several occasions during the Edo period, the Ryukyu kingdom sent missions to Edo (today known as Tokyo). Around 100 representatives of Ryukyu, including princes, officials, merchants, craftsmen, and scholars, would travel a long way to Edo for diplomatic missions. They made a point of showcasing the unique dress, dance, and customs of their homeland.

Shuri Castle is an example of Ryukyu architecture

The US Left a Mark on Ryukyu and Okinawa

After the 1609 invasion, Okinawa was an official part of Japan for most of that time – except for over 25 years of US occupation between 1945 and 1972.

Apart from being a home to US military bases and a strategic location that helped the Alliance win WW2, the American presence on Okinawa left its mark on the island too.

The materials brought by the US military were a key factor in rebuilding Okinawa after the devastation of war. Only about 10% of pre-war buildings remain on the island.

Today, most of Okinawa and Ryukyu islands is built out of concrete blocks. Walk the streets of Ryukyu Islands and you’ll notice a lot of grey, brutalist buildings and houses proudly standing in contrast to the tropical view.

Okinawa architecture is often decorated with elegantly shaped “hana-blocks” (flower-shaped blocks). These concrete bricks feature holes shaped to create optical illusion-like designs.

Cube shaped Houses lined up in Okinawa
Today, many houses in Okinawa are grey and boxy

Okinawa – The Tropical Garden of Cultural Heritage

The Ryukyu Islands, with Okinawa as its crown jewel, harbored a unique cultural heritage. The local culture, language, mentality, and cuisine are bent and shaped by various influences that hit it from all sides.

This veritable hub of multiculturalism has a lot to offer – and even if you’re quite familiar with Japanese culture, you’ll find a lot of surprising, novel things to see if you visit Okinawa.

Next time, we’ll do what we do best – focus on the delicious local cuisine and the various foods of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands, so stay tuned!

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