Fly the Flag – Did Ryukyu Adopt the Banner of Sea Adventurers and Pirates?

The military equipment during the 1st Dynasty of Ryūkyū included armor, helmets, bows and arrows, spears, shields, and there were also many short, regular, and long swords decorated with gold and silver, which were imported from Japan. There were also blacksmiths that produced swords, hoes, as well as knives, and there were also blacksmiths around the villages who produced edged tools. The warriors wore the formal Japanese attire of the samurai, called hitatare, rode horses with saddles painted in red, and wore sandals made of goat skin.

During the fifteenth century, following military leader Shō Hashi, the kingdom further expanded its sphere of authority and Ryūkyūans clashed with Japanese warriors in the Amami Ōshima region. It is estimated that the main island of Amami-Ōshima itself was brought under Ryūkyūan military control already around 1440 and that “Ryūkyū stubbornly defended their occupation of the Amami Islands against any attempt by Satsuma to recapture them.”

From the account of shipwrecked Koreans in the Joseon Wangjo Sillok we know that Gajiya Island, belonging to the Tokara chain situated between southern Kyūshū and northern Amami-Ōshima, in 1450 was controlled half by Satsuma and half by Ryūkyū. Subsequently the shipwrecked Koreans were taken to Kasari at the northern end of Amami-Ōshima, which they reported was under jurisdiction of a local Ryūkyūan military commander. This commander sent the Koreans to Shuri where they subsequently served close to King Shō Kinfuku and lived in the royal castle until about the end of the 1452. The reports of these Koreans demonstrate the existence of Ryūkyūan firearms (hand cannons) of an advanced design. The Koreans studied these weapons with the aid of a royal official charged with the oversight of these firearms.

While the sphere of influence grew under Shō Hashi’s militaristic government, it is said that he didn’t grant adequate treatment toward the conquered states. This was probably the reason for the civil unrest and war campaigns that broke out following his death.

Later, after the death of 5th generation Shō Kinfuku, in 1453 a war of succession broke out between the heir, crown prince Shiro, and Shiro’s younger brother Furi, who demanded the succession of the royal line (Shiro Furi no Ran). When their troops clashed, the soldiers of both armies killed each other recklessly. During the battles, the whole of Shuri castle and the government treasury were set on fire and burned down. Both Furi and Shuri were heavily injured and died. The gilded silver seal granted by the Chinese emperor was also destroyed.

Shiro’s other younger brother Shō Taikyū was nominated and ascended the throne in 1454. Under his reign, two powerful military leaders closely related to the royal family, namely lord Gosamaru of Nakagusuku castle and lord Amawari of Katsuren castle, were both killed in a series of military actions stirred by what is thought to have been high-treason (1458). Amawari, as general of the government forces, first attacked Gosamaru, but shortly afterwards turned against his lord and attacked Shuri castle. Defeated by government forces he took a flight and was killed. It seems obvious that these incidents took place due to members of the royal family fighting for power.

King Shō Toku (rg 1461-1469), last generation of the 1st Shō Dynasty, ascended the throne at the young age of twenty years. At this time, swashbuckling pirates and armed groups of privateers roamed the nearby seas. Ryūkyū itself was part of the smuggling network of the pirates and Ryūkyūan seamen even sailed Chinese junks and operated on behalf of private–that is, illegal–Chinese merchants. King Shō Toku is portrayed as having “fancied himself one of these fearless sea barons and proposed to emulate them in making himself a power on the high seas,” and adopted as his banner the symbol of Hachiman, the Japanese tutelary deity of war, who was considered the patron of sea adventurers and pirates. During the Muromachi era (1336/1338–1573 or 1392–1573), this banner was also used by Japanese naval vessels as well as kango (license) trading vessels. During the early period of the Wakō pirates, until the fifteenth century, when most members of the pirates where Japanese using the Inland Sea and Northern Kyūshū as their bases, they also used the Hachiman symbol as their sign, and their ships were even commonly called hachiman-sen.

Shō Toku sailed to Kikai Island twice, leading his troops himself, and in 1465 the islands eventually became part of Ryūkyū’s territory. The following historical narrative relates some of the points concerning Shō Toku.

Although Amami Ōshima had been incorporated into the Ryūkyū Kingdom by around 1440, Kikai Island, situated along the bidirectional trading route with southern Kyūshū and Japan, didn’t come to Ryūkyū’s shores to offer tribute. Many times, and over many years soldiers had been dispatched on expeditions to the island, yet no result was achieved. Prompted by this offensive behavior, King Shō Toku decided to personally command a punitive expedition to Kikai Island to pacify the enemy. Meanwhile, in Asato village, a bird flew by crying. The king, taking hold of his bow, faced towards heaven, and asked for divine acknowledgement: “If I am to pacify Kikai Island, then one arrow will kill the bird. If not, the arrow will fail.” Finishing his prayer, he released the arrow and while the bowstring still echoed, the bird dropped dead to the ground. On 1465/02/25, a navy consisting of 50 ships with more than 2,000 troops set sails in Naha. At the time they reached the open sea, the king had a vision of a large hanging bell rocking in the wavefront. Upon this divine sign, on board of the ship gifts were offered to the tutelary deity of war, Hachiman Daibosatsu. On 02/28 they reached Kikai Island. The enemy had blocked the harbor entry and fire-arrows and stones rained down on the attackers, so they could not advance. The king, getting very angry, sent more battle troops to attack, and the number of casualties was countless. One of the key retainers advised the king, saying the enemy soldiers are brave but had no wisdom. In order to defeat them the attack should be delayed a few days and then the enemy can be defeated. The king followed this advice. Coming the night of the 5th day of the 3rd month, with drizzling rain, the skies so black it wasn’t possible to see face-to-face. A fraction of the army proceeded towards the island, feigning to attack. Seeing this, the enemy troops set out to defend the harbor. Meanwhile the key retainer, having set out with several hundred soldiers in small boats, carrying large numbers of torches, got in the rear of the enemy burning huts and houses. The king, delighted, ordered the other troops to land also, and, “with battle cries shaking the sky,” to set fire to the houses and burn everything down. The enemy soldiers, with body and soul detached lost their fighting spirit, and capitulated in countless numbers. The enemy’s ringleaders, whose strength was exhausted, were caught and put to death. The king appointed other chieftains to govern the commoners, and on 03/13 they set sails homeward. Returning to Ryūkyū, the king ordered to establish a temple at the place where he shot down the bird, to place a bell in it and to name it Hachiman-gū, i.e., the Shrine of the God of War. And he also ordered to build a temple and name it Shintoku-ji, i.e. the Temple of Divine Virtues, and a large bell was cast and hung in it.

The above-mentioned events confirm the military nature of the 1st Dynasty and are considered a sign of its generally weakened foundation. The various regional rulers (aji) and the people lost all respect for the royal family and Shō Toku fell from grace. He was either killed or died in 1469 at age 29. His heir was also killed.

A former official for external affairs, named Kanemaru, was installed as king under the name Shō En. The entire faction of the 1st Royal Dynasty of Ryūkyū was banished from the royal capital of Shuri. By these events, the 2nd Royal Dynasty of the Shō Clan was founded, and, though the official histories tell the story of a “peaceful overthrow by men of letters,” this was apparently a forcible coup just as in the many preceding cases.

In 1471, Shō En, calling himself the “royal successor of Chūzan in the Country of Ryūkyū,” dispatched the envoy Sai Yo and others to the Chinese Emperor, offered local products as tribute, announced the death of King Shō Toku, and asked for being enthroned himself. In the same year, the 8th Ming Emperor Xianzong dispatched Qiuhong and others to Ryūkyū, and bestowed the title of “King of Chūzan” to Shō En. That is, Shō En, though not a member of the previous royal lineage, was made legitimate heir of the royal dynasty and carried on the Shō clan’s name. Just as in the case of Shō Hashi before, the Ryūkyūans “stole the throne one after the other, but they did not dare to change their surname.”

Summarizing the above it can be said that the 1st Shō dynasty was a continuation of the struggles of the Era of Fortresses on a larger scale and constituted a further consolidation and geographical expansion of the Ryūkyūan becoming-of-state, characterized by the use of military power. Accordingly, the life in Ryūkyū was characterized by continuous war turmoil for the span of 150 years straight, which spawned the proverb wallowing in the blossoms of battle (ikusahana sasobi).

© 2022, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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