One of my niche interests as of late has been Ryukyu Kingdom coinage. I first heard of the Ryukyus when I watched the show Samurai Champloo in high school; one of the protagonists hailed from the Ryukyu Islands. The next time I encountered the Ryukyus was in the Imperial Academy in Beijing, which had special quarters for students from Ryukyu. As far as I’m aware, no other foreign country was allowed that privilege in the Imperial Academy, which piqued my interest. When I began to research Ryukyuan history, I was hooked, and when I found out that there were things as Ryukyuan cast coins (a numismatical interest of mine), it was all over.
Geographically, the Ryukyu Islands are a chain of islands running from the South of Japan in an arc to the north of Taiwan. The history of the kingdom was quite complex, and its early history quite mysterious. At one point it was three kingdoms that united into one. It then existed as an independent kingdom, serving as a tributary to Ming China, before eventually being invaded by a daimyo from southern Japan, who allowed it to nominally remain independent for diplomatic reasons, before being formally annexed around the time of the Meji Restoration.
One of my favorite things about Ryukyuan history is how syncretic its culture and history is, perhaps an inevitable outcome from Ryukyu’s position in-between China, Korea, and Japan. One of the most famous artifacts from Ryukyu is the “Bridge of Nations” Bell, which is a huge cast bronze bell that describes Ryukyu as having close relations with these three countries.
As hinted above, the early history of Ryukyu is quite mysterious. There is archeological evidence of influences from Korea, Japan, and China. Early Ryukyuan earthenware showed influences from all three countries, and coins from various neighboring countries have been discovered in Ryukyu. Chinese coinage as early as Yan ming knives have been found in Ryukyu (circa 400–200 B.C.). At the same time, many local legends and religions seem highly similar to traditions found in Japan. Early settlers might have been highly multi-ethnic, and almost certainly related to the “wako.” Wako is a term that today is mostly associated with pirates, typically of Japanese ethnicity, but historically, wako were likely multi-ethnic seafaring peoples, who could act as raiders, mercenaries, or even occasionally official government functionaries. They were not unlike Vikings, who raided but also settled and occasionally acted as paid bodyguards (i.e. the Varangian Guard). Some may have been losers of civil wars in their homeland, such as the fleeing remnants of the Southern Court in Japan (14th century). Whatever the exact relationships and identity of the wako, they started to settle and consolidate on the Ryukyu Islands in fortresses called “gusukus.”
Chinese Trade Relations
We must make a quick detour to China, as its relationship with Ryukyu is key to understanding Ryukyuan history. At the time of the Song Dynasty (circa 900–1200 A.D.), the Chinese government had allowed relatively free overseas trade. This openness resulted in the rise of powerful private merchants and overseas trading networks, as well as the establishment of Chinese merchant communities abroad, including in Ryukyu. The boon in unregulated trading ended with the start of the Ming Dynasty around the mid-14th century. The first Ming Emperor, who had started a peasant rebellion against the ruling Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty (the dynasty between the Song and Ming), had trouble controlling Chinese coasts. Evidentially, anti-Ming elements, including Yuan loyalists, had banded with existing wako to create a serious security issue for the Ming government, and the only way to clamp down was to completely end Chinese overseas trade. From then on, all trade would be highly regulated as part of tribute missions.
Under traditional Confucian-influenced political ideology, the Chinese Emperor was regarded as the highest ruler in the Chinese sphere of influence. Rulers from abroad, were expected to recognize this fact by only calling themselves kings (not emperors), and expected to engage in certain diplomatic protocols towards each other, and towards the Chinese emperor. These kings were expected to send tribute, ordinarily exotic or useful goods, to the Chinese emperor and officially recognize the emperor as supreme. But the benefits did not flow only one way. In return for their recognition, the Chinese emperor would give gifts back to those foreign rulers, and the rulers’ prestige was increased by the formal recognition of the Chinese emperor (Ryukyu had elaborate investiture ceremonies, involving decrees and envoys from China when a new king was crowned). Also importantly, officials sent on tribute missions were allowed to trade on their own behalf, so missions which were nominally about the sending of tribute were in reality large and lucrative trading opportunities. When the Ming government ended private overseas trade, tribute trade became the sole source of Chinese trade.
During one failed mission to induce Japan to join in this tribute system, Chinese emissaries landed in Ryuyku and convinced one of the Ryukuan kings (at this time Ryukyu was divided into three competing kingdoms) to join the tribute system. For one reason or another, Ryukyu was given exceedingly favorable trading status. While most countries, including Korea and Japan were limited to one tribute mission every few years, and only allowed to trade at designated ports, Ryukyuans were allowed to send unlimited tribute missions, and trade at multiple ports. The Chinese government even paid for ships to be manned by Ryukyuans for this trade. This made Ryukyu very important in the trading networks in the area, as it effectively gave Ryukyu monopoly status over the Chinese overseas trade. One theory for why this favorable trade status was given to Ryukyu was that it redirected wako attention away from Chinese ships and towards the sea hardy Ryukuans. Another theory is that the Ryukuans themselves were the problematic wako, so the granting of monopoly status was a sort of accommodation or bribe. This revisionist theory also suggests that the “three kingdoms” of Ryukyu were probably not well geographically defined, and may have been “shell corporations” for the purposes of tribute trade. The tribute trade, as explained above, was not a net negative for the de jure tributee, so the “three” kingdoms may have been an attempt to send more tribute missions to China (under more kings) and increase the benefit of the trade for Ryukyu.
The Ryukyuan Kings and Their Coinage
The first king of a united Ryukyu was Sho Hashi, who appears to have displaced another king who upset the Yongle Ming emperor by sending him eunuchs as tributes. Sho Hashi may have been the descendent of a wako Southern Court remnant from Japan, and his coup against the offending king may have been helped by Chinese functionaries, who were needed to execute all the niceties of the tribute trade. As to Sho Hashi’s descendants, it’s unclear what exactly the relationship is between him and his successors. Official stories claim that they are his biological descendants but some scholars suspect that more often than not, the ruling king was actually just the dominant strongmen who, for the purposes of investiture and trade tribute, simply reported to the Ming emperor that they was biologically related to his predecessor. There appears to be some contradictions between official histories and inscriptions, making some of the biological relations implausible. Sho Hashi was officially followed by his son, Sho Chu, then followed by Sho Chu’s son Sho Shitatsu. At that point, it jumps back to Sho Hashi’s other son Sho Kinpuku. Sho Kinpuku was followed by Sho Taikyu. It’s unclear whether Sho Taikyu was Sho Kinpuku’s son or brother. Sho Taikyu was the king that cast the famous Bridge of Nations bell mentioned above, and minted the first Ryukyuan coins, the Taisei coins pictured below.
These coins are quite varied, and the leading theory is that they were made using Yongle coins. The Yongle coins would have been used as “mother coins” for the production of these Taisei coins. The top and bottom character of the Yongle coin would have been carved off and replaced with new vertical characters. Then, the newly carved coin would be pressed into molds and removed. These molds would then be filled with melted bronze to form the coins. This would explain the general consistency of the horizontal characters, which were original to the Yongle coins, and the heterogeneity of the vertical characters, which were added by hand. Another fact that supports this theory is that Ryukyuan coins are slightly smaller than Yongle coins. Since copper shrinks when it cools, it would make sense that the Ryukyuan coins are slightly smaller than the Yongle coins that created the mold for the Ryukyuan coins.
Yongle coins were also quite common throughout Asia over this time. They were in fact, minted for the purpose of encouraging overseas trade. The Yongle coins appear not just in Ryukyu, but also extensively in Japan, where they played a pivotal role in pre-Tokugawa history.
Before a major battle, Oda Nobunaga asked the gods to send him a sign. Nobunaga then threw a handful of Yongle coins into the air, which all landed heads up. After winning the battle, Nobunaga adopted the Yongle coins as his battle standard. In another version, it was only one coin thrown into the air, and after the battle, Nobunaga revealed that his coin had the same obverse and reverse the entire time.
Sho Taikyu was followed by Sho Toku. Sho Toku is remembered as a bad king, probably to legitimate his successor, Sho En. Sho En was actually not related to Sho Toku or any of the earlier Sho’s. For this reason, historians call the kings from Sho Hashi to Sho Toku, the “First Sho Dynasty” while Sho En and onwards is called the “Second Sho Dynasty”. Sho En appears to have been a servant or retainer of Sho Taikyu. In the official version of the story, Sho Toku behaved in wicked ways, and consequently he lost the mandate to rule. This concept of “Mandate of Heaven” originates in Chinese political ideology and the Ryukyu sources explicitly compare Sho Toku to the premier examples of Chinese Kings who lost the Mandate of Heaven, including King Jia of the Xia, and King Zhou of the Shang. Both those historical Chinese kings were properly replaced by virtuous rulers who started new dynasties. As King Jia and Zhou acted wickedly and were properly replaced by new families, so too was Sho Toku replaced by a non-relative, Sho En. Sho Toku’s heir was hunted down and killed, and some sources indicate that Sho En claimed that Sho Toku had adopted him as the heir.
Sho Toku also minted his own coins, likely off the same techniques as Sho Taikyu’s coins, using Yongle coins as the mother coins for the Seiko coin, pictured below.
Sho En himself also issued coins, pictured below. It appears from the the higher quality of the coins compared to his predecessors’, that his mint had access to better technology.
After Sho En, however, Ryukyu did not appear to have issued coins with script until after the invasion of the Satsuma lords a few hundred years later.
The Satsuma Conquest of Ryukyu
The Satsuma lords, which controlled parts of Southern Japan became increasingly assertive towards Ryukyu, insisting that Ryukyu reject ships without licenses from Satsuma and claimed the ability to regulate Ryukyuan trade. At the same time, Ryukyu lost some of its favored status with China (supposedly due to the uncivilized conduct of the Ryukyuan envoys, including a murder supposedly committed by a Ryukyuan), some yearly limits were imposed, and the arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia weakened Ryukyu’s trading dominance. Around the end of the 16th century, Satsuma demanded Ryukyu send it supplies for Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempted invasion of Korea. Ryukyu apparently promised to send supplies but ended up squelching, which gave Satsuma the excuse to invade Ryukyu. After that, Ryukyu was de facto controlled by the Satsuma, and would pay homage to the shogan while de jure continuing to be a tributary state of China. Japan had an interest in maintaining this arrangement, as its trade relations with China were poor, and it hoped to use Ryukyu as a straw man. There were great efforts to hide the de facto rule of Ryukyu by Japan, including laws that banned the use of Japanese coins when Chinese envoys were in Ryukyu, and procedures for burning Japanese documents on Ryukyuan boats that shipwrecked near Chinese waters. Ryukyu consciously adopted more Sinicization policies in this vein, including the arrangement of its buildings according to feng shui policies, likely to help maintain its independence from the Satsuma. The Chinese government seemed, to some degree, to be aware of this charade, given that Ryukyuan tribute missions often included tributes of goods that could only likely come from mainland Japan.
Ryukyu’s tightrope act persisted until around the time of the Meji Restoration (mid-19th century), at which point Ryukyu was formally brought into Japan’s prefecture system and the Ryukyuan king was forced to come to Edo and join the Japanese peerage system. The Ryukyuans protested, and appealed to their nominal suzerain, the Chinese emperor. While some of the powerful Chinese officials advocated on Ryukyu’s behalf, a hoped-for intervention (similar to Chinese intervention in Korea) was ultimately not forth coming.
During WWII, Okinawa, one of the most important Ryukyuan islands, was the site of a major American Pacific campaign. Some of Ryukyu’s prized treasures, including royal crowns (one of which is pictured below) were either lost, destroyed, or stolen. And in 2000, UNESCO declared many of the gusuku fortresses World Heritage Sites.
The history of Ryukyu is understudied and underrated. Considering the fascinating blend of indigenous, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures that existed in Ryukyu for hundreds of years, as well as the country’s international role in sea trade that existed for just as long, Ryukyu has a fascinating story with more lessons to teach us in the 21st century than ever before.
Much thanks to Thomas and Mika, for encouraging (enabling?) my numismatic interest in cash coins. Special thanks to Mika for my first Ryukyu coin, and Thomas’s kind gift of a Japanese Yongle Tong Bao.
Thanks to Nastassia, who is, as usual, my best editor.
Early Japanese Coins- David Hartill
The Ryukyu Kingdom, Cornerstone of East Asia- Mamoru Akamine
Maritime Ryukyu, 1050–1650- Gregory Smits
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