views updated May 17 2018


ETHNONYMS: Ryukyu, Liu-Kiu, Liu Ch'iu, Loochoo


Identification and Location. The Okinawans live in the Ryukyu Archipelago, a chain of 170 islands that stretches in a 750 mile (1200 kilometer) arc from Kyushu, Japan, to Taiwan. The islands range in form from large volcanic islands to small flat coral reefs. Warmed by the northward-flowing Black Current (Kuroshiwo), the climate is subtropical and humid. The islands are subject to torrential rains and frequent typhoons. Amami Oshima Island is one of the wettest, with an average annual rainfall of 120 inches (3,086 millimeters), with the heaviest rainfall occurring from March to June. Okinawa is the largest island, 85 miles (135 kilometers) long and 17 miles (28 kilometers) wide. The island of Okinawa and all the islands south constitute Okinawa Prefecture, and those north of Okinawa are part of Kagoshima Prefecture.

Demography. In 1998 the population of Okinawa was 1.31 million, not including the approximately 300,000 Okinawans who live in Japan proper and the 300,000 who live overseas. Naha is the capital and the largest city with a population just over 300,000. Ninety percent of Okinawans live on Okinawa Island.

Linguistic Affiliation. Japanese and the Ryukyun languages spring from a common parent language dating back 1300 years. The Ryukyun dialects are 62 to 70 percent cognate with the Tokyo Japanese dialect. The ability to speak and understand standard Japanese and the local dialect varies by generation. Okinawans under twenty years of age speak only standard Japanese. Those between twenty and fifty understand the local dialect but speak Japanese, whereas those over fifty may understand standard Japanese but speak only the local dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

The earliest prehistoric site in the Ryukyus is Yamashito-cho, which dates back to 30,000 b.c.e. Other later sites include Pinzu-abu (23,800-24,800 b.c.e. and Minatogawa (14,600-16,250 b.c.e.). The Minatogawa people are considered the direct ancestors of the Okinawan people and are believed by some scholars to have migrated north from the Sunda Shelf along what was then the Ryukyun peninsula before the end of the last ice age (10,000 b.c.e.). A Paleolithic Yaeyama culture in the central and southern half of the Ryukyus has strong affinities with Indonesian and Melanesian cultures. On the island of Okinawa the Yaeyama culture is overlaid by the Neolithic Jomon culture, which is found throughout Japan.

References to the Ryukyus as the "Islands of the Eastern Seas" or "Southern Isles" are found in seventh-century historical records of China and Japan. The southern sea route between China and Japan passed by the Ryukyu Islands, which became a temporary refuge for shipwrecked sailors as well as travelling ambassadors and priests. Okinawa also became a permanent home for officials and nobles banished from the Japanese court. Okinawan myth points to a great cave on Iheya Island as the ancestral home of the Okinawan people and to Kudaka Island just east of Okinawa as the place where the gods introduced agriculture, the "five fruits and grains." Wet-rice cultivation spread to the Ryukyus between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed the rise of fortified villages and conflict among local chiefs (aji); this eventually led to the consolidation of power in three major kingdoms in 1310 and the unification of the island under the first Sho Dynasty in 1416. Although a minor kingdom with poor resources, Okinawa became a wealthy trading center, transshipping cargo between Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan. Okinawans looked to China as the center of civilization and sent tributary delegations to the Middle Kingdom on a regular basis. The court adopted Chinese manners and dress. The ruler Sho Shin (1477-1526) abolished feudalism and established a Confucian state that included a hereditary social system with nine ranks and eighteen grades. The aji were not allowed to carry arms and had to live in the capital. Students were sent annually to Beijing, and Chinese teachers, artisans, and traders lived in a special section of the Okinawan port of Naha, where they had a great influence on Okinawan architecture, law, ritual, and dietary customs. The period between 1400 and 1550 often is called the Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

In 1609 the Japanese warlord Satsuma invaded Okinawa because the island did not support the Shogun Hideyoshi's planned invasion of Korea. He also wanted control of the island's overseas trade. Okinawans maintained their tributary relationship with China even though they had become a vassal state of Japan. This pretense was maintained for the next three hundred years. Beginning in 1724, the aji were allowed to settle in the countryside to alleviate overcrowding in the capital. In the nineteenth century various Western powers made calls to Naha and signed treaties, including the American Commodore Perry in 1853. Fearful of foreign intrusions, the Meiji government officially annexed Okinawa in 1871 and abolished the kingdom in 1879. The Meiji government imposed a program of assimilation, forbidding the use of Ryukyun language. During that period many Okinawans emigrated overseas (nearly 200,000 between 1920 and 1940) to places such as Hawaii, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, Taiwan, New Caledonia, and Micronesia. In 1945, the last battle of World War II was fought on Okinawa. Lasting three months, the "Iron Typhoon" claimed the lives of 150,000 Okinawans and left 90 percent of the population homeless. Okinawa remained under American occupation until 1972, when it reverted to Japan. To counteract pressure for reversion and prolong the military occupation, the Americans adopted a program of "Ryukyuization" in which they encouraged the use of Ryukyun language in schools and on the radio and funded historical research that favored an indigenous perspective. The United States still maintains a large military base on the island. Tensions continue to exist between Okinawans and Japanese over ethnic versus national identity, diversity versus homogeneity, and local versus central control.


Fifty of the 110 islands in Okinawa Prefecture are inhabited. The largest and most populated island is Okinawa. The most common type of village is called Shima, or "island," and ranges in size from fifty to two hundred closely built homes surrounded by fields. These villages are the oldest type of settlement on the island and are found in the valleys. In the upland country there are dispersed homesteads (Yaadui) whose occupants are the descendants of nobles who were permitted to settle the countryside after 1724. Stringlike settlements along highways are a postwar phenomenon.


Subsistence. In 1960 half of the population engaged in farming, but by 1990 that proportion dropped below 10 percent. A quarter of the land on the island of Okinawa is cultivated. The main crop is sweet potatoes, followed by soybeans, rice, and sugarcane. Sugarcane is a cash crop that was introduced in 1623. Wheat, millet, barley, and Irish beans are important crops on other islands. The most commonly cultivated fruits and vegetables are wax melons, green beans, muskmelons, bananas, eggplant, tomatoes, pumpkins, and cucumbers. Okinawans also raise rabbits, goats, pigs, horses, and oxen. Fishing is a major occupation in coastal villages. The principal fish caught are bonito, sea turtle, sea bream, whitefish, and globefish. A typical meal consists of boiled sweet potatoes, miso soup, a vegetable, and noodles.

Commercial Activities. Many vegetables are grown for sale in urban markets. The major commercial activities on Okinawa are food processing (sugar and pineapples), oil refining, and tourism (over four million tourists annually). Other commodities produced and exchanged on the islands are tobacco, firewood, charcoal, fish cakes, dried bonito, seaweed, and sea salt. Other economic activities include fishing for tuna, raising cattle, raising silk cocoons, making tea, tanning, limestone quarrying, and distilling.

Industrial Arts. Okinawa is famous for a colorful batik cloth called bingata. In earlier times bingata kimonos were worn by Naha's upper class. The oldest surviving piece of bingata cloth dates back to the 1470s. Tsubaya pottery and lacquerware were also famous Ryukyun manufactures and trade goods. Today the Japanese government is attempting to establish Okinawa as a "Multimedia Island" (MMI), a center for research and development in CD-ROM and Internet technology.

Trade. For centuries Okinawans conducted a profitable transshipment trade between East Asia and Southeast Asia. Some of the most profitable exports were textiles, dyes, lacquerware, fans, colored silks, paper, porcelains, gold, copper, grains, fruits, and vegetables. In the first half of the twentieth century Okinawa produced sugar for export.

Division of Labor. In general, women work in and around the home and men work in the fields. Women's work includes child care, maintaining the house and surrounding grounds, doing laundry, preparing food, taking rice to the mill, hoeing sweet potatoes, and feeding pigs. Men plant and transplant rice, prepare the rice fields, harvest rice, and build and repair houses. Men weave baskets and mats. In fishing villages men catch the fish and maintain the boats and gear; women sell and distribute the fish. The major occupations are agriculture, fishing, wood gathering, and stone cutting.

Land Tenure. Meiji land reforms in the period 1899-1903 introduced the Japanese system of private property and ended the communal land tenure system. Before land reform villagers had the right of cultivation but not that of ownership. Village elders redistributed the land every two to ten years according to an allotment system (jiwanseido) in which every member of a family, young and old, male and female, received a share.


Kin Groups and Descent. Okinawan kinship includes two distinct systems: a commoner, household-based system (uji) and a noble, genealogy-based system (munchuu). The latter system was keyed to a founding ancestor and observed strict patrilineal rules; the former system was cognatic and bilateral, permitting various choices for heirs to the estate. Commoners lived in shima villages with only three to four descent groups. Nobles lived in upland villages, some with as many as ninety descent groups. Noble genealogies were registered in the capital. The development of a new class system over the last hundred years has favored the munchuu system, which has absorbed the uji system. The destruction of many genealogies during the war and the loss of family members have complicated this process. Okinawans attribute half of their illnesses to irregular descent lines, which shamans try to rectify by engaging in "munchuu-making."

Kinship Terminology. In the past the noble and commoner classes used different sets of kinship terms. Today there are three distinct kinship terminological systems that correlate with kinship, household, and village structures. The same kin term, such as ottoo (father), can be found in more than one system. The first system is egocentric and bilaterally symmetrical: Persons are classified by sex, generation, and relative age. The second system distinguishes between an individual and age groups senior to that individual. It also distinguishes between community leaders and ordinary persons. Socioeconomic status is relevant in this system. In the third system kin terms are used in combination with the household name, such as Hampata n choonan, "the heir of the Hampata household." The branch houses of younger brothers and collateral kin are built around the main house (muutuyaa) and are named in relation to the main house, such as "Little Hampata," "East Hampata," or "Behind Hampata." The use of Japanese terms, which distinguish between the nuclear family and extended kin, has become more common and may reflect nuclearization of the Okinawa family.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Beginning in the mid-1700s, it was official policy to restrict movement of peasants, village endogamy was mandated by law, and the penalty for marrying outside the village was a fine equivalent to a year's wages. In the past women married as young as thirteen and fourteen years old. A diviner was consulted to find a propitious wedding date. Since the 1890s the Japanese have discouraged endogamy, and young people today consider it barbaric; nevertheless, a large percentage of marriages continue to be transacted in this way, perhaps as a result of a long tradition of mutual aid among village households. Marriage involves a betrothal ceremony (ubukui) and the exchange of a bride-price (injoojing). On the wedding day the wedding party first visits the bride's house and offers her family gifts. Then everyone returns to the groom's house for a ceremonial exchange of drinks. The groom and bride then celebrate separately with their own friends and reunite the next day. In the countryside families may forgo the wedding ceremony. Residence is virilocal.

Domestic Unit. The household (yaa) is the basic social unit and source of identity in Okinawan society. One can be a member of only one household, and family members who leave the house are struck from the household roll. Households have their own names, which are used as terms of reference for individuals. The household has one vote in village-level politics. The household is also an economic and ceremonial unit. Households have their own fields, and members participate as a unit in village ceremonies and communal work groups. A household consists of a couple, their unmarried children, and the father and mother of the oldest son. Each family keeps a set of ancestral tablets and worships deceased members of the household. A family is considered connected to the ancestors through the house lot.

Inheritance. The first son succeeds as the head of the house. If he emigrates, the second son can replace him as a temporary head. If there are no male heirs, a daughter may succeed to the household head and then pass the estate to her oldest son. Inheritance occurs at retirement or death of the father. The first son receives about 50 to 60 percent of the land, and the rest is divided among the younger brothers. Because of land scarcity there is pressure on younger brothers to emigrate or move to the city and engage in another profession. A daughter's inheritance comes at marriage and consists of such goods as a kimono, chest, mirror, pillow, and futon.

Socialization. While growing up, children have a close relationship with their parents and grandparents. Although children are given a lot of leeway, they are scolded severely for serious offenses and can be sent out of the house or tied up. Respect for education is deeply rooted. There are nine years of compulsory schooling, after which schooling is limited. After graduating from school, young people usually join a youth organization, which they stay in until age thirty for men and until marriage for women. Youth group members get together for music and dancing and work on cleanup and repair projects or on farms. Young men tend to associate with each other in clubs or gangs and get together with women their age to drink, sing, and dance at informal "rowdy houses" (yagamayaa). Only 28 percent of young men and women go to college, compared to 44 percent for the rest of Japan. Institutions of higher learning are Okinawa University, Kokusai University, and the University of the Ryukyus, which are all on the island of Okinawa.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Each village usually is subdivided into neighborhoods or wards (kumi). Kumi members cooperate in labor exchanges during the harvest, for house construction and repair, and for government labor details. In the past there were class divisions between a commoner class (hakusoo) of farmers and merchants and an upper class (yukatchu) of gentry and nobility. The gentry lived in villages separate from the commoners and had little contact with them except in an official capacity. The Japanese abolished the landlord class and all class divisions, but pride in having noble origins lingers in upland villages. In shima villages, prestige is accorded to the direct descendants of the founding household (niiyaa), or root house. Today great emphasis is placed on education, in part because it is an avenue for upward mobility. Teachers, doctors, and government officials are highly regarded.

Political Organization. The hereditary fiefs of the ají became administrative districts (majiri) under the centralized Shuri government, which appointed district officers. A district consisted of several villages (mura) and was the landdistributing unit in the system of communal land tenure. Most districts remained intact under the Meiji government. Today districts and villages are called son and ku (or aza), respectively. Most of the islands except for the larger ones constitute a district. Naha is the capital of Okinawa Prefecture. The chief functions of the district government are to collect taxes and keep records, including household registers (Koseki) and land registers. The district mayor soncho) is elected to a four-year term. There are departments of general affairs, economy and finance, school affairs, agriculture and industry, public welfare and social affairs, and land affairs.

Social Control. The members of a community were bound together by customary exchanges of labor and goods that occurred at times of harvest, house building, birthday ceremonies, and funerals. The close and cooperative relationship between "true" relatives who live together in the same wards and neighborhoods creates a homogeneous and relatively peaceful community. The individual's obligations to village and family curb inappropriate behavior, as does the threat of ridicule, censure, and ostracism. Police are highly respected and have the authority to settle minor disputes. They deal with problems of juvenile delinquency, petty theft, drunkenness, and prostitution.

Conflict. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Okinawa was beset by constant warfare as petty kingdoms vied for power and control. That period was succeeded by an era of total peace when the island was unified under one kingdom and all warriors were disarmed. The nobility then settled down to a quiet life of luxury and ease, supported by a profitable long-distance trade and a serflike peasant class. Early travelers from the West commented on a society with no arms and no violence. However, the aji took up martial arts, and karate originated on Okinawa. In the Japanese era Okinawans suffered from discrimination by the Japanese, who considered them backward. Tensions continue to exist between Okinawans and Japanese and between Okinawans and the fifty-thousand American military personnel and their families who in 2001 continued to live on the island's thirty-nine U.S. military bases. In 1995, eighty-five thousand Okinawans demonstrated in downtown Naha after the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen. A Japanese court found the servicemen guilty of abduction and sexual assault and sentenced them to seven-year prison terms.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Okinawans believe in supernatural entities called kami, of which there are five categories. There is the supreme heaven kami and those for the sea, sun, and water. Next are the place kami, who dwell in the well, hearth, paddy, and toilet. Occupational kami include the tutelary spirits of carpentry, boat building, and blacksmithing. Ancestral spirits (futuki) are an important link between the living and the supernatural realm. The final class of kami includes living persons, such as the village priest, who manifests a kami spirit. Kami have the capacity to alter, supervise, and influence life events. They form a reciprocal relationship with people that is maintained through rituals. Kami and ancestors must be notified of all life cycle events, including graduation from high school. Misfortune is viewed as resulting from an impaired relationship with the supernatural, caused by the neglect of ritual or prayer, damaging a sacred grove, or disrespecting the ancestors.

Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners are almost all women. In the past neighborhood, village, kin group, and nation each had a head priestess (noro), usually the wife of the political leader. The noro preside over all ritual acts, including fertility, rain-making, installation, ancestral, hearth, travel, house construction, and boat-launching rites. A psychosomatic disorder called taari that involves weakness, loss of appetite, auditory and visual hallucinations, and disturbing dreams usually precedes a calling to the priesthood. Other practitioners of the supernatural include sorcerers (ichijamaa) and diviners (sanjinsoo) ; the latter are usually men. Diviners use horoscopes and diving sticks and consult books of signs to determine propitious dates for house building, marriage, bone washing, and tomb building.

Ceremonies. The major public celebrations are based on the lunar calendar and are occasions to honor the dead and give thanks. The two most important holidays are the Lunar New Year and the Festival of Oban (O-Bon). New Year's is both a private and a public affair. A family recounts its past bad deeds and vows to do better. Special offerings are made to the ancestors and gods at the family altar. It is a time for family reunions, and families visit the place of the first ancestor of the village. There is much feasting and drinking among neighbors and relatives in the village. On the sixteenth day of the first lunar month the family visits and prays at the family tomb. The Festival of Oban on the fifteenth and sixteenth of the seventh lunar month is a ghost festival during which the spirits of the dead are welcomed back to their earthly homes for a couple of days and then sent quickly back to the afterworld. Lanterns light up doorways to show ghosts the way, and prayers and offerings are made to them. Other holidays include the Festival of the Full Moon (fifteenth day of the sixth lunar month, hereafter 15/6), Chrysanthemum Day (9/9), a rice cake festival (8/12), the spring equinox festival of Higan (15/2), the Doll Festival (3/3), Boys' Day (5/5), and a thanksgiving festival (15/5).

Arts. Okinawa's peak period as an independent kingdom was from the twelfth to beginning of the seventeenth centuries. This era produced Okinawa's greatest work of literature, the twenty-two-volume "Omoro Sōshi," a compilation of songs that were transcribed between 1532 and 1623. The earliest song dates back to 1260. The sanshin is a three-string instrument that accompanies singing and dancing. There are three types of dance: court, semiclassical, and folk. The most famous poets are the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women poets Yoshiya Chiruu and Un'na Nabii.

Medicine. Bad winds (yankaji) and retributive spirits are sources of sickness. Illness also can result from the loss of one's soul (mabui) or essence (shii), as a result of sorcery (ichijama), or because one has offended the ancestors and other spirits. Shamans (yuta) preside over curing rites and attempt to retrieve lost souls. Other medical practices include the use of herbal remedies for digestive disorders, bloodletting, and salt for purification. Bush doctors (yabuu) practice moxibustion (the use of burning punk on meridian points on the skin) and acupuncture and prescribe herbal remedies. Okinawa has modern medical facilities, although it has been difficult to extend medical care to the remote islands. In 1999 the Remote Medical Care Assistance Information System for Isolated Islands and Remote Areas in Okinawa Prefecture was set up and includes a diagnostic support Intranet and Internet system, teleradiology (remote radioimaging diagnosis), and telepathology (remote pathological imaging diagnosis) instruments.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place within a few hours of death. The ancestors are notified by the burning of a large bunch of incense. The family then notifies the mayor, neighbors, and relatives. A policeman is summoned to determine the cause of death and do the paperwork. The body is washed and dressed in the deceased's best clothes. Mourners arrive with small gifts of money. The body is placed in flex position in a simple wooden box-shaped casket. Close neighbors help serve tea, candy, and cake. A professional wailer is hired. The casket is placed in the village funeral palanquin, and the funeral procession makes its way to the family tomb. There is much wailing and weeping along the way and at the grave-site. The mourners pray and burn incense, and the casket is placed in the tomb. Sandals, a cane, a paper umbrella, a lantern, flowers, and memorial tablet are some of the things left at the tomb door for use by the deceased. The funeral is followed by a forty-nine-day mourning period that involves a series of seven memorial rites at the tomb held every seven days. Memorial observances are held at the first, third, seventh, twenty-fifth, and thirty-third anniversaries of death. After the thirty-third year the deceased joins the ranks of ancestors and is no longer mourned as an individual. Bone washing occurs one to three years after burial.

For the original article on the Okinawans, see Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia.


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views updated Jun 27 2018


The Okinawans (Amamijin, Loochoo Islanders, Okinawajin, Ryuku Islanders, Ryūkyūjin, Sakishimajin) are Japanese people who inhabit the Ryukyu Islands, a group of small islands 640 kilometers south of Japan. Most Okinawans live on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. Okinawans speak a dialect of Japanese, and in some ways they differ culturally from the Japanese. Okinawan people were independent for most of their history, until they were conquered by the Meiji regime in 1872. The Okinawan king was removed, and the Japanese have followed a forceful policy of assimilation since that period. The Okinawans lost 150,000 people in the Allied invasion of World War II, many killed by Japanese soldiers who doubted their allegiance.

Okinawa remained under the control of the United States until 1972, with the agreement of Japan but without consultation with the Okinawans themselves. During the late 1940s the United States built military bases, intended to be permanent, that take up 20 percent of the land on the island of Okinawa. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Okinawan economy grew quickly as it adapted to servicing the needs of the U.S. bases and military personnel.

The Okinawan people supported the return of Japanese control in 1972, but many now regret the transfer because they have less autonomy than they did under U.S. control. A special problem has been the opening of Okinawa to Japanese economic competition, which has resulted in high unemployment. There is now a movement toward independence, led by a number of groups including Shima-okoshi (Island Revival Society). Agriculture is now almost nonexistent and the new growth industry is tourism.

A small percentage of the people living in Okinawa face an unusual and distinctive problem. These are the children of American fathers and Okinawan mothers. They are frequently the object of abuse by Okinawans, and, owing to the vagaries of Japanese and U.S. laws, they have no legal citizenship whatsoever.

See also Japanese


De Vos, George A., William O. Wetherall, and Kaye Stearman (1983). Japan's Minorities: Burakumin, Koreans, Ainu, and Okinawans. London: Minority Rights Group.

Kanaseki, Takeo (1978). Ryūkyū minzokushi (Ryuku folklore). Tokyo: Hōsei Daigaku Shuppankyoku.