Okinawa’s earliest forms of community organization: the Makyo

  • Note: The following short article was planned to be included in Karate 1.0, but was not. It is about the earliest form of community organization in Okinawa, established by consanguineous groups called Makyo. The time we are talking about here is the centuries towards the 12th century.

20there is a Omoro or ancient Okinawan song-poetry called “Building a Village”. It relates to the process of founding a village in ancient northern Okinawa.

By the side of that grove, it looks auspicious for raising a village. By the side of that hill, it looks auspicious for raising a country. Strike with the five-bladed hoe, strike with the seven-bladed hoe, and cut down the cliffs.


Villages were usually located on hilltops or in the mountainside for economic and geographic reasons, such as the existence of an auspicious site for the village’s sacred ground or Utaki, fertility of soil, availability of fresh water, ample sun, sanitation and the like. It had to provide for protection from typhoons and floods as well as for easy defence. Downhill, away from the houses, a plain or valley with a stream or spring would be where the villagers had their rice paddy fields.

The earliest form of community organization were found by consanguineous groups called Makyo and existed by virtue of the relationship between these Makyo and the deity of an Utaki related to this group and the village.

The word Makyo マキョ meant the consanguineous group as well as the village it composed. The traditional view of the Makyo village communities as consanguineous groups was established and maintained by Iha Fuyū, Nakahara Zenchū, Imamura Kenpu, and Higa Shunchō, and Sakihara Mitsugu adpted this view, not without noting that a new theory, not wholly negating the traditional view, was defined by Nakamatsu Yashū as “a village community, not necessarily consanguineous, which shares a common Utaki or sacred grove.” Cf. Sakihara 1987.

02pristessesEvery Okinawan village, except the out-of-job upper-class Yadori settlements of the 18th-19th centuries, had such an Utaki at its physical and spiritual centre. They usually consisted of a dense thicket or grove and shrubbery, like the tall Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis) or the black boxtree as the most distinctive kinds, as well as the Ryūkyū laurel (Aucuba japonica) and others which were also considered appropriate. In its centre was situated a small clearing, where a large rock, a censer, and sometimes a three-stone hearth was found. The Utaki are considered to have originated as a site for the grave of the village founder. After many generations, the function of the Utaki underwent change until it finally came to be considered a sacred grove for the worship of gods. The village community originated from this Utaki, and the village organization was formulated with the belief in the Utaki deity at its centre, protecting the village and ensuring its welfare and prosperity, and with all social and ritual activities in the village revolving around it. In other words, this is the origin of the ancient Okinawan worship of ancestry which can still be found today.

The consanguineous Makyo community originated with the founding clan called Neya, inalienably assuming not only the highest status and honor, but also the role of ruler and leader. However, its political and religious prestige was not derived from their village founding only, but largely from their relationship with the deity of the Utaki. That is to say, the founding clan established the Utaki and thereby gained jurisdiction over its rituals and ceremonies.

Neya 根屋, literally root house. Also Nedokoro  根所, root place.

islandThe founding clan was represented by its head, the Nebito or founder, and his sister, the Negami or foundress. The former had control over political and administrative aspects of the Makyo community, and the latter was in charge of religious and ceremonial aspects. Here, the earliest form of the brother-sister dual sovereignty in Okinawa becomes visible, which continued in different forms of leaders and holy women all through the kingdom era. Their authority was not as strong as that of the later feudal lords (Anji) or the kings and the holy women spiritually supporting them, but they were the rulers of their village community as bilateral mediators in relation to the deity. For this reason, the founding clan was at the center of all social activities, that is, all economic, political, recreational, or familial aspects of communal life to greater or lesser degree. Religious and secular matters coincided completely, which provided the ultimate momentum for the inner cohesion of the village groups.

Nebito 根人, literally root man: the founder.

Negami 根神, literally root deity, the foundress and ancestress of the later holy women called Onarigami.

The Makyo community both physically and geographically developed with the founding clan at its center. Gradually the clan increased in number of households by adding branch households. At the same time, as families belonging to other clans also settled in and the village expanded, the original Makyo community lost its consanguineous character. From that state on the Makyo communities began to be labelled by the more recent term of Mura, or village proper.

Bunke 分家: branch households.

mura 村= village, derived from mure 群れ, meaning group, throng, or crowd.

Each of the two or more consanguineous Makyo groups now constituting the village, then, came to be called Monchū, signifying the continuation of the individual clans as a patrilineal descent group. These Monchū systematically expanded according to two basic rules.

門中, i.e. inside the gates, or possibly as 門人.

03utakiThe first rule related the location of the branch households relative to the founding clan. It specified that the founding clan was to be located closest to and in front of the Utaki. Branch households were located to the left or right in front of the founding clan. The more recent the branch household, the farther it stood from the Utaki. The second rule pertained to the name of the household. This rule required that all branch households denote, by means of a prefix or suffix to the household name, their relation with or location towards the founding clan. In this manner, theis names read like New House, Eastern House, Eastern Gate, Root-of-the-Small-Pine, In-Front-of-the-Parents, and so on.

Ya no na 屋の名, the name of the household

Niiya 新屋, Agariya 東屋, Agarijo, Iri-imui, Matsuni-gwa 松根小, Mae-ufuya 前親.

In this way, the founding clans maintained and secured their prestige and authority based on ancestor worship. This fundamental concept played an integral role not only in the original villages, but in fact also in the history of Ryukyuan society as well.

Uganju – The original dōjō of Okinawa

There were also other holy sites called Uganju which, located at the foot of a great tree or rock, roughly encircled the old villages. The Uganju were closely related to the Utaki and the Okinawan villages from earliest times through to the 20th century.

Uganju 御願所, generic term of places used for prayers for divine assistance and wellbeing, often connected to Utaki.

They were described by Chamberlain (1895, I):

“Large open grassy spaces, often appearing as glades in the forest form a characteristic adjunct to Ryukyuan villages which perplexed the early foreign visitors.”

The functions of these areas were plentyfold.

“Called ‘race-courses,’ these spaces also serve a variety of other purposes. Here rice is laid out to dry, and the village council meets – or met in old days – goods were bartered, justice was administered, rewards and punishments meted out, festivals celebrated.”

As of February 1854, Perry’s Fleet Surgeon Dr. D. S. Green in his report described an

„open and level grounds found in populous neighborhoods, which seem to be designed as arenas for athletic exercises and games. These are some hundred yards long, and some twenty or thirty wide, and, being perfect level, are well adapted to racing, whether on horse or foot, wrestling &c., and to ball-playing.“ (Cf. Hawks 1856)

mura_boIn more recent history the oral tradition of Bōjutsu masters of the early 20th century had been handed down: their training and that of other youngsters from the villages took place in front of the Uganju. Before the training they would fold their hands in prayers, and afterwards the students were taught (Cf, OKKJ 2008). This is the tradition of Mura-bō, which greatly helped to revive modern, more martial Bōjutsu (Cf. Taira 1964).

From the above we can see that conceptions such as Uganju in name and function had survived a thousand years in Okinawa.

© 2015, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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