Ryukyu Islands

Ryukyu Islands
Native name: 琉球諸島 (Ryūkyū-shotō)
Nansei Islands (南西諸島 Nansei-shotō)
Location of Ryukyu Islands
Location of Ryukyu Islands
Location East China Sea
Total islands over 100
Major islands Okinawa
Prefecture Satsunan Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture and Ryūkyū Shotō, Okinawa Prefecture
Demonym Ryukyuans

The Ryukyu Islands (琉球諸島 Ryūkyū-shotō?), also known as the Nansei Islands (南西諸島 Nansei-shotō?, literally Southwest Islands),[1] is a chain of islands in the western Pacific, on the eastern limit of the East China Sea and to the southwest of the island of Kyūshū in Japan. From about 1829 until the mid 20th century, they were alternately called Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew, akin to the Mandarin pronunciation Liuqiu. They stretch southwest from the Japanese island of Kyūshū to within 120 kilometres (75 mi) of the island of Taiwan.

The islands are administratively divided into the Satsunan Islands to the north, belonging to Kagoshima Prefecture, and Ryūkyū Shotō to the south, belonging to Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. Yoron Island is the southernmost island of the Satsunan Islands, and Yonaguni is the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands. The largest of the islands is Okinawa Island.

The islands have a subtropical climate with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very high, and is affected by the rainy season and typhoons.

The archipelago is home to the Ryukyuan languages. The original dialects are native to each island and distinct from one another.

On February 27, 2010, at 5:31 a.m. local time, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurred 80 kilometres (50 mi) east-southeast of Naha at a depth of 22 kilometres (14 mi),[2] but no major damage was reported. At least eight recorded aftershocks were reported, with magnitude up to 5.3[3]




In Japanese, the definition of the Ryūkyū Shotō (琉球諸島?)[4], literally meaning "Ryukyu Islands", is somewhat different from the English definition[5] of the word. In Japanese, the term Ryūkyū Shotō is used to refer to the part of the Nansei Islands which is in Okinawa Prefecture (the southern half), as opposed to islands of the same group located in Kagoshima Prefecture (the northern half).

Modern usage of the word Ryūkyū (琉球?) in Japanese, however, is usually replaced by the word Okinawa (沖縄?), which is considered its synonym.[6] When referring to the region in the broad sense, the Nansei Islands are sometimes referred to as Amami-Okinawa Chihō (奄美・沖縄地方?), literally "Amami-Okinawa Region", or variations thereof.[7] For example, the Japanese train timetables JR Jikokuhyō (JR時刻表?) uses variations of Nansei Shotō, Okinawa, Amami, etc., but completely avoids using the word Ryūkyū.[8]


In English, until well into the late 1800s (Meiji period in Japan), the word "Ryukyu" was spelled Luchu, Loo-choo, or Lewchew. These spellings were based on the Chinese pronunciation of the characters for "Ryukyu", which in Mandarin is Liúqiú.[9]


Uchinaa flag until 1875
Uchinaa flag from 1875 to 1879

The Ryukyu Kingdom was once an independent kingdom occupying the island chain, from Yonaguni Island in the southwest to Amami Ōshima in the north. In 1372, it became a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1609, Shimazu Tadatsune, Lord of Satsuma, invaded the Ryūkyū Kingdom with a fleet of 13 junks and 2,500 samurai, thereby establishing suzerainty over the islands. They faced little opposition from the Ryukyuans, who lacked any significant military capabilities, and who were ordered by King Shō Nei to surrender peacefully rather than suffer the loss of precious lives.[10] After that, the kings of the Ryukyus paid tribute to the Japanese shogun as well as the Chinese emperor.

In 1879, the Meiji government announced the annexation of the Ryukyus. Messengers sent by the Ryukyuan king had knelt outside the Zongli Yamen, the Chinese foreign affairs office in Beijing, for three days, pleading not to be separated from China. China, weakened from internal corruption and colonial occupation, refused the request to send military protection. Instead, China made diplomatic objections and asked former United States President Ulysses S. Grant to arbitrate. Grant decided that Japan's claim to the islands was stronger and ruled in Japan's favor. The claims of the indigenous Ryukyuans to the land were ignored.

In the process of annexation, the Japanese military assassinated Ryukyu politicians and civilians who opposed the takeover. The Ryukyu Kingdom became part of its northern neighbor, the Satsuma han. Later, it became its own prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture, when the prefectural system was adopted nationwide. Compulsory Japanese education was enforced on the Ryukyu children, whereby they were taught Japanese language, culture and identity, while strictly forbidden the use of their native language.

Military activity on the island, before and during World War II, especially the Battle of Okinawa, had a devastating effect on the Okinawan people. A huge loss of civilian life left many feeling that they were being mistreated by both the Japanese and American military. Okinawa remains the poorest prefecture in Japan to this day.

The US was granted control over Ryukyu Islands south of 29°N latitude amongst other Pacific islands, under the San Francisco Peace Treaty between the Allied Powers and Japan. US military control over Okinawa began in 1945 with establishment of the Okinawa Advisory Council. This organization eventually became the government of the Ryukyu Islands which existed from 1952 to 1972. Sovereignty was given to Japan in 1972.

Today, there are a number of issues arising from Ryukyuan history. Some Ryukyuans and some Japanese feel that people from the Ryukyus are different from the majority Yamato people. Some natives of the Ryukyus claim that the central government is discriminating against the islanders by allowing so many American soldiers to be stationed on bases in Okinawa with a minimal presence on the mainland. Additionally, there is some discussion of secession from Japan.

Many popular singers and musical groups come from the Ryukyus. These include (among many others) the pop groups Begin (ビギン) and Orange Range, singers Namie Amuro and Gackt, as well as the group Da Pump. See also Ryukyuan music.

Historical description of the 'Loo-Choo' islands

An article in the 1878 edition of the 'Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information' described the islands as:[11]

Loo-Choo, Lu-Tchu, or Lieu-Baeu, a group of thirty-six islands stretching from Japan to Formosa, in 20°-27° 40' N. lat., 126" :o'-!29° 5' E. long., and tributary to Japan. The largest, Tsju San ('middle island') is about 60 miles long and 12 broad; others are Sannan in the S. and Sanbok in the N. Nawa, the chief port of Tsju San, is open to foreign commerce. The islands enjoy a magnificent climate, and are highly cultivated and very productive. Among the productions are tea, rice, sugar, tobacco, camphor, fruits, and silk. The principal manufactures are cotton, paper, porcelain, and lacquered ware. The people, who are small, seem a connecting link between the Chinese and Japanese.[11]


The Ryukyuans are known for their longevity. The Okinawa Centenarian Study attributes this phenomenon to a combination of diet, exercise, and lifestyle practices.

Since the most recent Japanese invasion in 1879, Japanese has become the main language on the Ryukyus, especially on Uchinā (Okinawa), through discrimination in education. Middle-aged or younger people tend not to speak a Ryukyuan language as fluently as Japanese, if at all.


Nansei Islands subtropical evergreen forests

The Ryukyu Islands are recognized by ecologists as a distinct subtropical moist broadleaf forest ecoregion. The flora and fauna of the islands have much in common with Taiwan, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia, and are part of the Indomalaya ecozone.

Coral reefs

The coral reefs of the Ryukyus are one of the World Wildlife Fund's Global 200 ecoregions. The reefs are endangered by sedimentation and eutrophication, mostly a result of agriculture, as well as damage from fishing.

Major islands

Map of the major Ryūkyū Islands

This list is based on present day Japanese geographic names:

The last sunset in Japan is seen from Yonaguni Island.


See also


  1. Tsuneyoshi, Ukita (1993). Nihon-dai-chizuchō (Grand Atlas Japan). Heibonsha. ISBN 4-582-43402-9. 
  2. "Magnitude 7.0 - Ryukyu Islands, Japan". USGS. February 26, 2010. Archived from the original on February 27, 2010. Retrieved February 27, 2010. 
  4. "Ryūkyū Shotō (りゅうきゅう‐しょとう【琉球諸島】)". Daijisen dictionary / Yahoo Japan. Retrieved 2007-05-04. 
  5. "Ryukyu Islands". Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-05-04. 
  6. "Ryūkyū (りゅうきゅう〔リウキウ〕【琉球】)". Daijisen dictionary / Yahoo Japan. Retrieved 2007-05-06. 
  7. "Radar AMeDAS Live: Amami-Okinawa Region (レーダーアメダス実況 奄美・沖縄地方)". Weather Service Inc. (ウェザー・サービス株式会社). Retrieved 2007-05-06. 
  8. JR 時刻表 (JR Jikokuhyō). Kotsushinbunsha. 
  9. The Geographical Journal. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain). 1895. 
  10. Kerr, George H. (2000). Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Ross, J.M. (editor) (1878). "Globe Encyclopaedia of Universal Information", Vol. IV, Edinburgh-Scotland, Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, retrieved from Google Books 2009-03-18;

Additional sources

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