The “Weaponless Kingdom”

[This article was first published in: Quast, Andreas: Karate 1.0. 2013]

One-hundred and fifty years after the visit of William Adams and his troupe to Okinawa in 1614-15, the Hungarian baron Benyowsky managed to escape his exile in Siberia. Benyowsky sailed–via the Kuril Islands, Aleutian Islands and Alaska–to Japan. On August 14th, 1771, he left Deshima, near Nagasaki, and on the 15th reached the island “Usmay Ligon,” which he described as part of the Ryūkyū Islands and so it was considered that he actually visited Okinawa. There are several reasons, though, why this island was not Okinawa. Benyowsky reported of a large Christian community, a situation that never existed on Okinawa. Furthermore, the Dutch in the sixteenth century referred to Okinawa as “Lequeo Minore,” and the Amami Islands as “Lequeio mggre.” In addition Benyowsky’s reports are generally considered a mixture of truth and fiction. It can be assumed that the Baron actually landed on Amami Ōshima, from where he left on the 20th of August, reaching Formosa (Taiwan) on the 26th.

Hence, the first eye-witness report of a Western encounter with Ryūkyū after Adams and Wickham (1614/15) is given by Jean-François de Galaup de la Pérouse, who made land near the island of Yonaguni on May 5th, 1787. He visited an island for a view hours and wrote on the inhabitants, that

“they wore a shirt and trousers made of cotton cloth, their hair tied back over the top of their heads was twisted around a pin which seemed to be made of gold; each one had a dagger, the point and handle of which were also made of gold,”

thus proving the possession of weapons among the officials of the Sakishima Islands.[1]

In November 1793, an embassy to Beijing on their return trip along the Chinese coast got into shallow waters,[2] with the barges needed to be drawn manually and peasants removing the pebbles from the bottom of the river to form an artificial channel for the passage. On that occasion they happened to meet the envoys of a Ryūkyūan tribute mission, of which a report was given.[3]

In 1797 William Robert Broughton, captain of the H.M.S. Providence, sailed towards Miyako Island. On May 16th, 1797, Broughton sent out a boat to an island they called “Patchusan” by its inhabitants, and the landing crew reported that “their hair was rolled up to the crown of the head, and fastened with two metal pins” and that “they appeared harmless and inoffensive in their manners; nor did they shew any arms or weapons of defence.”[4] However, they observed a guard-house[5] and we can tell this was not a coincidence. Later that day his ship struck a reef near Miyako,

“and the violent shocks she received, rendered it doubtful whether the masts would stand. […] The officers were unanimous with me in my opinion, that nothing could be done to safe the ship; […] As nothing more could be procured for the present, the ship’s crew were sent into the boats, which was happily effected without any accident; and soon after 11 o’clock they reached the schooner in safety, and with the loss, both officers and men, of everything belonging to them.”[6]

On May 19th the first officers entered Miyako, called Typinsan by the inhabitants, and were welcomed in the friendliest manner.

“Several venerable old men encircled our party, dressed in large loose gowns of fine manufacture, similar to tiffany, of various colours and different patterns. These flowing garments were tied round the middle with a sash; and they also wore trousers and sandals. The crowns of their heads were shaved, and the hair from behind brought up to a knot on the top, and securely fastened by metal pins, in the Malay style. They made use of fans universally; and some wore neat straw hats tied under the chin. The aged men had most respectable beards. The house appeared to belong to the principal people, and was situated in an elevated situation, at some little distance from the sea, environed by a square wall of stones 12 feet high, leaving a gateway to enter by, over which was a guard-house.”[7]

Six weeks following his departure from Miyako, Broughton returned to Ryūkyū and on the 10th and 11th of July 1797 anchored in the harbor of Naha. Although the inhabitants welcomed him friendly and helpful, he wouldn’t obtain permission to enter the shore. The only instances he could catch personal impressions of the islanders were the numerous boat visits:

“Every boat that came off always brought different people, seemingly to gratify their curiosity in seeing the vessel: and observing our people at their meals much excited their attention.”[8]

From the beginning of the nineteenth century the Napoleonic wars led to a decline of European activities in the Far East. Basil Hall, born in Edinburgh in 1788, aged fourteen years joined the Royal British Navy in 1802 and early in 1816 he was appointed commander of the Lyra, a small sloop equipped with ten cannons. Together with the frigate Alceste commanded by Captain Maxwell, the Lyra served as an escort for the second British embassy to China under Lord Amherst. Reason for this visit was an investigation into complaints by English merchants about the behavior of Chinese mandarins. After the mission had reached the Chinese coast and his lordship and entourage continued to travel to Beijing via land, Hall and Maxwell took the opportunity to explore the areas of the East China and Yellow Sea, hitherto inadequately explored and sometimes termed the “barbaric circles.” After reaching the west coast of Korea, Lyra and Alceste continued to sail to the Sulfur Islands (Iwojima). Although Hall could see from afar the “sulphuric volcano from which the island takes its name,” a landing was prevented by “high wind, which caused so great a surf all around the island.” So they sailed on, reaching “the Great Loo-Choo Island” (Okinawa) and on September 16th, 1816, let go anchor in the harbor of Naha. His enchanting descriptions of the nature and appearance of the island make it a recommendable read. And he provided the first reference to historical Karate in Western sources.

On October 19th, 1816, a dinner was given by Captain Maxwell to the Ryūkyūan dignitaries “Ookooma, Shayoon, Issacha Sandoo, Jeema, and Issacha Hackeboocoo,” as well as the assistant Madera.[9] The dinner was followed by an hour and a half of “drinking with tolerable spirit” and quite a number of toasts and it was all about drinking and party, the Ryūkyūans lighting their pipes, laughing and joking “that it was agreed on all hands, that conviviality is no where better understood than at Loo-choo (Okinawa).” After more drinking games, which “caused a good deal of noisy mirth,” and the performance of Ryūkyūan dances in the cabin, dancing commenced among the sailors on deck which the Ryūkyūans observed.

“On returning to the cabin to tea, they were all in high spirits, and while amusing themselves with a sort of wrestling game, Ookooma, who had seen us placing ourselves in sparring attitudes, threw himself suddenly into a boxer’s position of defence, assuming at the same time a fierceness of look which we had never before seen in any of them. The gentlemen to whom he addressed himself, thinking that Ookooma wished to spar, prepared to indulge him; but Madera’s quick eye saw what was going on, and by a word or two made him instantly resume his wonted sedateness. We tried in vain to make Madera explain what were the magical words which he had used to Ookooma. He appeared anxious to turn our thoughts from the subject, by saying. ‘Loo-choo [Okinawa] man no fight; Loo-choo man write–no fight, no good, no, no. Ingerish [English] very good, yes, yes, yes; Loo-choo man no fight.’ Possibly he considered that Ookooma was taking too great liberty; or, perhaps, he thought even the semblance of fighting unsuitable with the strict amity subsisting between us. […] When they put off for the shore they began singing, and never left off till they landed.”[10]

On the possession of weapons Hall noted, “We saw no arms of any kind, and the natives always declared that they had none. Their behavior on seeing a musket certainly implied an ignorance of fire-arms. In a cottage at the north end of the island, we saw a spear which had the appearance of a warlike weapon, but we had every reason to believe that this was used for the sole purpose of catching fish, having seen others not very dissimilar actually employed in this way. They looked at our swords and cutlasses, and at the Malay creeses and spears, with equal surprise, being apparently as little acquainted with the one as with the other. The chiefs carried little case knives in the folds of their robes, or in the girdle, and the lower orders had a larger knive, but these were always of some immediate practical utility, and were not worn for defence nor as ornaments. They denied having any knowledge of war either by experience or by tradition.”[11] M’Leod noted that the

“proud and haughty feeling of national superiority, so strongly existing among the common class of British seamen, which induces them to hold all foreigners, often calling them outlandish lubbers in their own country, was, at this island, completely subdued and tamed by the gentle manners and kind behavior of the most pacific people upon earth”

and that

“not a single quarrel took place on either side during the whole of our stay.”[12]


“Crimes are said to be very unfrequent among them, and they seem to be perfectly unarmed, for we observed no warlike instruments of any description, and on our guns, shot, and musketry, appeared to be objects of great wonder to them.”[13]

Eddis noted the same, saying

“They appeared by nature to possess the virtues, without the vices of what we call civilized life, I did not observe the appearance of any offensive weapon whatever.”[14]

One of the Ryūkyūan officers, “a man of dark and peculiar aspect,” was fitted by the British of Hall’s squadron with the nickname Buonaparte, “so named because he was suspected of being the most inclined to keep us at arm’s length.”[15] Basil Hall, on his return journey from Okinawa to England, on August 13th, 1817, entered St. Helena, where the real Napoleon I. Bonaparte lived in exile. Hall had himself presented to Napoleon. So, as soon as the exiled emperor heard Hall’s name, he ordered to let him in and excitedly strode towards him: “I knew your father at Brienne, he was a good mathematician.” When Hall expressed his astonishment about Napoleon’s memory, the latter ironically replied: “Oh, that’s not surprising at all! James Hall is the first Englishman I caught sight of in my life; therefore your father always was memorable to me.”[16] On the same evening of August 13th, 1817, Hall wrote a detailed report about this audience.[17] He reported that Napoleon was quite surprised with respect to the descriptions of the people of Ryūkyū, and Hall “had the satisfaction of seeing him more than once completely perplexed, and unable to account for the phenomena which I related.” But he was most astonished by the information that the Ryūkyūans did not possess weapons:

“«Point d’armes»! he exclaimed; «c’est-à-dire, point de cannon–ils ont de fusils?» Not even muskets, I replied. «Eh bien done– des lances, ou, au moins, des arcs et de flèches?» I told him they had neither one nor other. «No poignards?» cried he, with increasing vehemence. No, none. «Mais!» said Buonaparte, clenching his fist, and raising his voice to loud pitch, «Mais! Sans armes, comment se bat-on?» I could only reply, that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any wars, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. «No wars!» cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly.”[18]

In the following years the picture created by Hall and members of his fleet portraying Ryūkyū as a weaponless country was relativized. In 1819, on the basis of the travel accounts provided by Hall, Maxwell, and Clifford, a certain Amicus concluded that “Both sides were acting an artificial part” and that the observations of the voyagers were “very limited, and whatever lies the people of Loo-choo (Okinawa) chose to tell, the English had no means of detecting them,”[19] pointing to the circumstance that the Ryūkyūans declared that they “had no weapons, not comprehend the use of a weapon, nor had an occasion for the infliction of punishment.” Amicus also noted that King Shunten laid the foundation of the Ryūkyū kingdom by military force, and that still in the temple dedicated to Shunten “an arrow is placed before the tablet on which his name is inscribed, and which tradition says, is in conformity with his dying will, to show that his kingdom was founded by military prowess.”[20] The same fact is confirmed by the Tsūkō-ichiran, noting that a Shintō shrine had been built in reference of Minamoto no Tametomo (1139-1170),[21] where his bow and arrows were “still worshiped today,” referring to the mid-nineteenth century.[22]

Peard for the year 1827 reported on Yarazamori and Miegusuku forts on both side of the Naha harbor entrance and also on loop holes in the parapet of these and other forts. However, they saw no cannon, nor did they get satisfactory answers to their inquiries concerning weapons in use among the Ryūkyūans. The fourteen junks in the harbor also appeared to have been unarmed.[23] As we know for sure that cannons and other firearms did exist in Ryūkyū, the above is an unequivocal proof of the successful obfuscation of these facts.

One of the chief objects of Beechey, who stayed in Naha from the 11th to the 25th of May, 1827, was to inquire into the “supposition that the inhabitants of Loo Choo (Okinawa) possessed no weapons, offensive or otherwise.”[24] His descriptions allow for a closer view of the circumstances in the kingdom of the time concerning weaponry and military preparations and basically correspond in parts of what we know today. He described the Yarazamori and Miegusuku forts protecting the entrance to Naha harbor since the sixteenth century, reporting:

“To the right of the town a long stone causeway stretches out into the sea, with arches to allow the water a free access to the harbor at the back of it, and terminates in a large square building with loop-holes”[25]


“Their harbor being defended by three square stone forts, one on each side of the entrance, and the other upon a small island, so situated within the harbor, that it would present a raking fire to a vessel entering the port; and these forts having a number of loop-holes in them, and a platform and parapet formed above, with stone steps leading up to it in several places.”[26]

He characterized the inhabitants as “less warlike, cruel, and obsequious than the Japanese” and that they are “exceedingly timorous and effeminate, so much so that I can fancy they would be induced to grant almost anything they possess rather than go to war.”[27]

Inquiring about the weaponry on Beechey’s ship, a Ryūkyūan official called Anya asked

“Plenty guns?” “Yes.”

“How many??” “Twenty-six.”

“Plenty mans, plenty guns! What things ship got?” “Nothing, ping-chuen [it is a man-of-war]”[28]

“No got nothing?” “No nothing.”

“Plenty mans, plenty guns, no got nothing!”[29]

Naturally, this was the typical procedure of detailed inquiries by Ryūkyūan officials, as shown in a similar entry found at Williams:

“Dis what ship? Dis Amelekan [American] ship?” “Yes,” we told him.

“How many mans?” “Twenty-right men.”

“Plenty mans! Have got guns?” “No; this is a merchant ship.”

“Plenty mans! Plenty guns! I talkee mandarin.”[30]

Returning to Beechey’s notes, he wasn’t satisfied with the results of his investigation into the arming of the kingdom, as they “never saw any weapon whatever in use, or otherwise, in the island; and the supposition of their existence rests entirely upon the authority of the natives, and upon circumstantial evidence. The mandarin Ching-oong-choo, and several other persons, declared there were both cannon and muskets in the island; and An-yah distinctly stated there were twenty-six of the former distributed among their junks. We were disposed to believe the statement, from seeing the fishermen, and all classes at Napa [Naha], so familiar with the use and exercise of our cannon, and particularly so from their appreciating the improvement of the flint-lock upon that of the match-lock, which I understood from the natives to be in use in Loo Choo (Okinawa); and unless they possessed these locks it is difficult to imagine from whence they could have derived their knowledge.”[31] He also presented one of the officials with a pair of pistols, “which he thankfully accepted, and they were taken charge of by his domestics without exciting any unusual degree of curiosity.” Upon questioning where the government procured its gunpowder the immediate response was that it came from Fujian.[32] However, that was a diplomatic answer as the gunpowder magazine was under management of the Satsuma Resident Commissioner.

Another description relates to a temple in Tomari[33] which was used as a special station for Westerners, and this was most probably the Rinkaiji, or Ocean‑View Temple. At the further end of the garden was a joss house with

“a screen that was let down before the three small images on the inside. It was made of canvas stretched upon a frame forming two panels, in each of which was a figure; one representing a mandarin with a yellow robe and hatchee-matchee, seated upon a bow and quiver of arrows and a broad sword; the other, a commoner of Loo Choo (Okinawa) dressed in blue, and likewise seated upon a bow and arrows. The weapons immediately attracted my attention, and I inquired of my attendant what they were, for the purpose of learning whether he was acquainted with the use of them, and found that he was by putting his arms in the position of drawing the bow, and by pointing to the sword and striking his arm forward; but he implied that that weapon belonged to the mandarins only.”[34]

Beechey also referred to Xu Baoguang, 1719, who not only explicitly stated that arms were manufactured in Okinawa, but also that they sent swords as tribute to Japan.[35]

Continuing with material gleaned from Western sources, in 1832 Klaproth correctly noted that “Les présens que le roi de Riou kiou envoie à l’empereur du Japon, consistent en sabres.”[36] Gutzlaff in 1834 noted that the Ryūkyūans are, “however, by no means those simple and innocent beings which we might at first suppose them to be. Upon inquiry we found that they had among them the same severe punishments as at Corea; that they possessed arms likewise, but are averse to use them.”[37] Elijah Coleman Bridgman, publisher of The Chinese Repository, in 1837 noted that the military weapons and various modes of punishment prevalent in the country are the same as in China.[38]

When in Okinawa in 1937, Samuel Wells Williams noted that his group saw no arms, neither swords, nor matchlocks, nor knives and draw a comparison between the Japanese and the Ryūkyūans to the “Philistines when ruling over the Hebrews,” who “had taken away their arms, and forbade them the usage of weapons.”[39]

Smith provided a description of Ryūkyū, borrowed from a manuscript written by Bettelheim some months prior to October 1850. According to it, “as an instance of the wrong impressions which formerly existed in the minds of Europeans as to the total absence of military armor and accoutrement among the Ryūkyūan people,” Bettelheim described his discovery of a Japanese garrison quartered in Naha, with “Japanese soldiers engaged in cleaning and polishing their fire-arms.”[40] It gets clear that Bettelheim completely understood the political relationships of Ryūkyū of the time, and this was probably the real reason he was so closely monitored, policed, and even beaten.[41]

Despite the conflicting descriptions, the notion of an innocent, “weaponless kingdom” has persisted to this day. The reason is probably simple: Okinawa played an artificial role towards Westerners, simply as an easy way to gather military intelligence to be forwarded to Satsuma.


[1] Pérouse 1797: 260.

[2] Beillevaire 2000, 1: 12.

[3] Staunton, George: An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China [etc.]. Volume 3. London, 1797: 290-91.

[4] Broughton 1804: 193.

[5] Broughton 1804: 203.

[6] Broughton 1804: 196-97.

[7] Broughton 1804: 203.

[8] Broughton 1804: 240.

[9] The translator Madera or Medera was Maehira Bōshō 真栄平房昭, born 1787. His younger colleague Anya was Aniya Seiho 安仁屋政昭. Another translator called Jeeroo was Yakabishi Jiryō 屋嘉比思次良. They all helped Clifford compiling his dictionary, the first of its kind. Cf. 朝美豊平:文献紹介:幕末の異国船来琉記と当時の琉球の状況 ①. 琉球大学附属図書館所蔵沖縄関係資料から. In: 琉球大学附属図書館報, Vol. 34. No.3, July 2001, p. 6. Sueyoshi Bakumondō (1886-1924) (末吉麦門冬) also wrote on “Maedaira Bōshō–the Expert of English a Century ago” 「眞栄平房昭ー百年前の語学者」, first published in Ryūkyū Shinpō in April 1915, and later in Okinawa Kyōiku (沖縄教育), Nr. 137 (May 1924).

[10] Hall 1818: 162-169.

[11] Hall 1818: 210.

[12] M’leod 1817: I, 98; II, 108.

[13] M’leod 1817: I, 112-113; II, 122-123.

[14] Eddis 1818: 3.

[15] M’Leod 1817, 1: 74.

[16] Chamberlain, Houston Stewart: Lebenswege meines Denkens, Autobiographie, 2. Ausgabe. Herausgegeben von F. Bruckmann A.G., München 1922: 13. Sir James Hall completed part of his training at the Royal Military School at Brienne, France, where he became acquainted with Napoleon I. Bonaparte. During math lessons Hall came into comradely contact with the eight years younger Corsican. Sir James Hall was the father of Captain Basil Hall, grandfather of Basil Hall Chamberlain and great-grandfather of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

[17] Hall 1827: 314-319. Besides the interview was published in: “The Nineteenth Century,” 10/1912: 718 et sqq., as well as excerpts in Kerr 1958: 258-259.

[18] Hall 1827: 315.

[19] Amicus 1819: 5.

[20] See also Qi Kun and Fei Xizhong 1808: 琉球自舜天以武定國始著武事至今先王廟中舜天位前有箭一枝相傳是其遺意.

[21] Chinzei Hachirō Tametomo 鎮西八郎為朝. Also frequently found in works prepared by the royal government explaining the history of the kingdom, both Shunten and Tametomo are not historically verified to have been active in Okinawa. Notwithstanding, their cult definitely existed.

[22] Cf. Tsūkō-ichiran, Vol.  2: Ryūkyū-kunibu 1. 平均始末 Heikin Shimatsu, referring to informations from the Shōsai Hōshi Ryūkyū Monogatari 定西法師琉球物語.

[23] Peard 1973: 212.

[24] Beechey 1831: 187.

[25] Beechey 1831: 144-45.

[26] Beechey 1831: 188.

[27] Beechey 1831: 181.

[28] bīngchuán 兵船, man-of-war.

[29] Beechey 1831: 147-48.

[30] Williams 1837: 214.

[31] Beechey 1831: 187-88.

[32] Beechey 1831: 189.

[33] Given as Potsoong, that is Chinese Pocun 泊村, i.e. Tomari village. At this building the officers of Sir Murray Maxwell’s squadron and of the Blossom had been entertained.

[34] Beechey 1831: 159-160.

[35] Beechey 1831: 189-90.

[36] Klaproth 1832: 179.

[37] Gutzlaff 1834: 368. Okinawa, which Gutzlaff reached in August 1832, is described in Chapter VII: 289-296.

[38] Anonymous (E.C.Bridgman) 1837: 117.

[39] Williams 1837: 226.

[40] Smith 1853: 62. 

[41] For the detailed reasoning and example given by Bettleheim, see Smith 1853: 62-65.

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