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I’ve just finished reading Stephen Turnbull’s newest book, “The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609,” an account of the 1609 invasion & conquest of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū by the samurai forces of the feudal domain (han) of Satsuma. Turnbull is easily one of the most prolific writers active today of samurai history, and while his books are for the most part of much higher quality than those associated with what I can only call “sammyrai” history*, he is definitely known for his sloppy scholarship and for the popular/general audience (read: non-academic/scholarly) level of his publications.

All in all, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t read a Turnbull/Osprey book in quite some time, and I guess I had built up some pretty harsh preconceptions (read: extremely low expectations) based on vague memories. To whatever extent that this account can be said to be reliable, Turnbull does provide a very involving, engaging, account of the invasion, in incredible detail. Contrary to my initial expectations and impressions, he does actually use Okinawan sources (not just Japanese ones), and does actually discuss at length the inconsistencies and exaggerations seen in troop numbers in the primary sources. He’s made me aware of primary sources I never knew existed – not only Shimazu family records and things like the Shimazu Ryûkyû Gunseiki and Ryûkyû Gunki, which I might have presumed to exist, but things like the ehon (picture book) version of the gunki monogatari (“Tales of the Records of War”) -something more commoner-level, and more widely available at the time of its publication.

Though I was at first frustrated or annoyed by his Shimazu-centric approach – given that I’m so used to reading things from the Okinawan point of view, and seeing the Shimazu as the attackers, the colonizers, the oppressive overlords – that feeling quickly passed, and in fact, I find his approach most intriguing.

I’m still a little taken aback at his representation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom as aggressive and expansive, when everything else I’ve read has to one extent or another emphasized the martial weakness and relatively pacifist attitude of Ryūkyū. This is perhaps the first (only) text I’ve read that explicitly refers to the Ryūkyū Kingdom as expansive and aggressive, and the first that in any way assumes validity to Satsuma’s claims over any of the islands; i.e. argues that the Ryūkyū Kingdom was aggressive against Satsuma, and that Satsuma felt the need to defend or reclaim their territory. I guess we (aspiring & professional Okinawa scholars) have all fallen into that trap of reading backwards into history a sort of Manifest Destiny on the side of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. However their expansion is described in books by Kerr, Smits, Matsuda, Sakihara, or even Sakai (the top Satsuma specialist), it very rarely has that tinge of aggressive, expansive, conquest.

On a quite related note, I am intrigued by Turnbull’s apparent position on the side of Satsuma in supporting or recognizing their claims to a number of islands which they claimed for centuries but never governed, administered, settled or colonized. At least he admits that the Shimazu never exercised any authority over these islands prior to 1609, but merely claimed them. Perhaps that’s him reading back into history as if those islands which are today part of Kagoshima Prefecture rather than Okinawa Prefecture – seized by Satsuma in this 1609 operation – are therefore, in the imagination, inherently part of Satsuma and always have been.

Perhaps, this is a good thing. Turnbull’s Shimazu-centric approach cuts like a Foucaultian-cleaver (no connection to Foucault’s pendulum; it’s a different Foucault) through the questions and perspectives hidden from us by the webs of prior discourse. We’d become so used to seeing the Satsuma-Ryūkyū relationship a certain way that no one even thought to, let alone dared to, consider the whole thing from Satsuma’s point of view, in a relatively positive light.

I do not wish to paint the book in a wholly negative light. In fact, on balance, I’d say it was quite good. It does an excellent job of describing the invasion in great detail, going far far beyond anything previously published in English, and thus provides a most interesting bit of reading, and a most useful resource.

I do, however, have some issues I would like to raise:

(1) Going beyond simply focusing on events from Satsuma’s point of view, he truly valorizes and lionizes the Shimazu effort, samurai weapons, fighting skills, and strategies. This is perhaps the chief fundamental flaw running throughout all his writing.

He spends time praising and in fact worshipping through his words the amazing technology and craftsmanship of the samurai katana. He then goes on to describe the other weapons, ships, flags, banners and other signalling methods, and strategies and tactics as though they are all glowing, superb elements of what made the samurai the greatest warriors in all of history. Unprofessional, subjective, inaccurate, and extremely one-sided, I should think that if I had written something like this, I would be embarrassed of myself.

He describes the Shimazu forces as having excellent intelligence, liaison, and communication in such a manner that it seems not an objective, factual description, but a celebration of their amazing martial prowess; by contrast, he portrays the Ryukyuans as totally lacking in strategy, tactics, or planning, reacting far too late at every step of the way, their defenses incompetent to the point of being laughable. These are what we, at Wikipedia, call “peacock words.” Calling anything excellent, amazing, or brave just to lionize that side colors the description in a way that’s not only subjective and potentially inaccurate, but is indeed unprofessional for any self-respecting scholar.

Again, while these may be accurate descriptions, and he does in fact quote directly from primary sources to describe the utter chaos that erupted as peasants and commoners gathered their possessions on carts and horseback and fled for the hills, somehow it is in the way that he describes it which paints a picture not of sympathy for the outgunned Ryukyuans, whose tiny kingdom was destroyed in one fell swoop, but of glorious, valorous victory for the Shimazu over foolish, primitive, incompetent islanders.

On another crucial point, Turnbull again fails to represent the nuances of the history. He gives a fairly thorough overview of the ways in which Satsuma hid its presence in the islands, and the complex reasons for doing so (Chinese trade through Ryūkyū as a tributary was contingent on the Chinese belief that Ryūkyū was still independent, since China was not trading with Japan at the time). But then he neglects a key point: namely, that most scholars today believe that Beijing was well aware of what was going on, and chose to continue playing the game as it benefited them in whatever way. In misrepresenting this, Turnbull continues his pattern of exaggerating and celebrating Shimazu ability, failing to present a more accurate and objective account.

(2) No footnotes or endnotes. No idea which statements are coming from which source, or which page. Imagine how much side information is left out by not having footnotes.

(3) While it would be difficult to say that Turnbull made any true mistakes in representing the ranks and titles of the Ryukyuan aristocracy, discussion of it is absent, and that still frustrates me a bit. This is what happens when you don’t have footnotes.

He represents the individual known as Kyan ueekata, which might be translated as “Magistrate of Kyan” or “Lord of Kyan”, as if Kyan were his name, rather than his domain. He mentions princes, describing them as the king’s son and brother, completely failing to acknowledge that “prince” was a rank within the aristocracy that was often held by those not directly related to the royal line. Were these individuals actually the king’s son and brother? I’m not sure. Maybe he was misguided by their title of “Prince”. Or maybe he’s right.

He represents Rizan, ueekata of Jana, who was also known by the Chinese-style name of Tei Dô (Zheng Jiong), as “Jana Teido”, mixing names & titles incorrectly, with no care for macrons, and with no explanation whatsoever of the different names and titles of Okinawan aristocrats. This would have been the perfect opportunity to make use of footnotes…

(4) A horribly unprofessional lack of consistency in the use of macrons. I know this sounds quite nitpicky, but in truth it’s no different than correct spelling. Typos I can excuse – such as the flubbing of a date on one of the otherwise very keen date flags that run along the margins heightening the sense of action and drama by providing a timeline of events. But when you consistently, throughout the book, spell Ryūkyū correctly (indicating the long vowels that would distinguish it from the short-voweled Ryukyu) and Ōtomo incorrectly, as Otomo, that’s a problem. Non-scholarly, public consumption book or no, I should think that Dr Turnbull of all people – an obvious enthusiast for the dramatic and exciting narratives and biographies of clans and of individual samurai – would care to get this right.

This happens throughout the book. The name of the kings, that of the Shō dynasty (not Sho) is rendered correctly, but things like Ōwan, which he explicitly translates or describes as “the great bay” and Ōshima (“Great Island”), are rendered as Owan and Oshima, which in Japanese can only mean “small bay” or “honorable bay” and “small island” or “honorable island”, respectively, the Ō for “great” never being represented by a short “O” vowel sound.

Further typoes include the description of Naminoue (“Above the Waves”) Shrine as Nama no ue (“Above Freshness”) on one of the maps, and Name no ue (“Above Licking”) on a caption. This is possibly the fault of copyeditors, but Turnbull knows Japanese – if this was his own mistake, then shame on him for not taking the time or the bother to notice the vast difference in meaning he’s created, to the point that I, quite honestly, saw “Nama no ue” and had no idea what or where he was talking about.

On a similar note, and I am sure this is the fault of the Osprey editors or book designers, and not of Dr Turnbull, the date flags which run alongside the margins, keeping the energy of the narrative going by marking off events and providing a timeline, do not correspond at all to what’s described on their respective pages. I love these flags – I think they’re a great feature. But when the siege on Nakijin is described in the text on pp32-37, and the timeline flag in the margins for these events is found on p43, that’s a problem. Throughout the book, the narrative runs way ahead of the flags, such that the flags for the mid-point events of the conflict are found on pages describing the surrender and aftermath.

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All in all, if you’re interested in the subject, I cannot but recommend this book. It is by far the most detailed account available in English, is filled with wonderful illustrations and maps, and is a relatively easy read (not too dense at all). But if you are truly serious about researching the topic, I would suggest that you double-check any and all facts gotten out of this book. Turnbull frustratingly does not include any footnotes or endnotes, but at least there’s a bibliography.

As for the price, I’ve gotten things only slightly shorter, and of great scholarly importance (read: things that form the foundation of my own research; things I cite all the time) for free, through my universities’ subscriptions to JSTOR. Had this been published in a journal rather than as a separate book, you too could have downloaded it totally for free, provided you were associated with a university. I’ve also bought books far longer, thicker for $20. In fact, half the books on my shelf are 4x the length of this one, and less than 2x (or even less than 1x) the cost. But, it’s hardly a totally absurd price to pay; I’ve seen academic books and museum catalogs that go for hundreds of dollars.

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*Books which exaggerate and falsify the martial skills of samurai and ninja, maintaining and reinforcing the absurd stereotypes of ninja magic and unreal, superhuman samurai ability seen in video games, anime, and other forms of fiction. The kind of stuff aimed at or primarily consumed by teenage martial arts enthusiasts obsessed with exotic weapons, bushido, and the like, who aren’t even on the level of ‘armchair historian’, let alone proper scholar.

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The island of Okinawa, as it was divided in the Sanzan era, before unification as the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Almost exactly 400 years and two months ago, in the spring of the 14th year of the Keichō era on the Japanese calendar, an army of roughly 3000 samurai warriors overran the Ryukyu Islands, marking a major turning point in the history of those islands and the end to full independence* for the Ryukyu Kingdom. The fleet of roughly one hundred ships was commanded by Kabayama Hisataka, a retainer to the Shimazu samurai clan of the Japanese feudal domain (han) of Satsuma. Moving south from Kyushu, they seized islands one by one until, on the fifth day of the fourth lunar month – May 8, 1609 on the Western calendar – Shuri fell and King Shō Nei surrendered and was taken captive by the samurai.

I should have liked to have posted this post two months ago, on May 8, 2009. Today will have to do. I might express my surprise at having not seen anything – anything at all – in the media mentioning this occasion, this anniversary. But then, I barely follow Japanese news to begin with, let alone Okinawan news, much as I might wish for more time in the day, more energy, with which to do so more regularly. Still, whether it has attracted attention or not, I am sure it is quite safe to say that when it comes to famous dates and anniversaries in Okinawa’s history, all are overshadowed by the memory of the death and destruction visited upon the island in 1945.

The port of Naha.

As a historian, it is the Ryukyu Kingdom of 400 years ago, however, which really draws my attention. The kingdom faced incredible political and economic hardships in the medieval and early modern periods, compounded by, among other factors, the tribute/tax burden and other strictures placed upon it by Satsuma. Still, despite the not infrequent famines and overall difficulties faced by the kingdom in this period, it is far easier to distance ourselves from it, and to think of it as being a brighter, more colorful period. Granted, Okinawa in the early postwar can be more compelling precisely because we cannot distance ourselves as much, because it is more real, and hits closer to home as they say, not to mention the fact that we have so much more photographs, film, and other documentary evidence from this much more recent period.

Returning to the narrative, however, it was in the aftermath of this 1609 invasion that the Kingdom of Ryukyu was entered into a political circumstance which makes it particularly intriguing for historians. Long a tributary state under Ming China, sending tribute on a regular basis, sending a very limited number of students to the Imperial Academy, and enjoying a certain degree of economic benefit and cultural exchange, if not true political protection, aid, or alliance, Ryukyu now found itself subject simultaneously to a second master – Satsuma.

The Okinawa Prefectural Archives has a good page describing the invasion, complete with pictures and a map with a timeline.

The port of Naha.

Semi- or quasi-independent, Ryukyu was regarded by the Japanese at the time as a foreign country (異国, ikoku, rather than 他国, takoku, the term used within Japan to refer to other provinces or domains). The kingdom was subject to Satsuma’s political and economic whims, and was shouldered with a heavy tax burden, while all the while Japanese language, dress and customs were all but banned from the islands, and Chinese (or Chinese-influenced) culture flourished. While there is disagreement among scholars as to the extent to which Beijing was aware of the relationship between Ryukyu and Satsuma, nominally the relationship was supposed to be kept secret from China. There was an official Chinese ban (海禁, hai jin) on trade with Japan, and if Beijing saw Ryukyu as part of Japan, it was feared, Ryukyu’s trade with China would end, bringing economic ruin to the islands and making the kingdom no longer of any use to Satsuma.

Though Ryukyu was a very small, and very poor kingdom, though it was not the exclusive source of intelligence and culture from China, and though the trade it represented was minuscule compared to that at Nagasaki, Satsuma was the only han to lord over a foreign country, and made sure to use this as leverage as much as possible in its political dealings with the shogunate.

Immediately following the 1609 invasion, King Shō Nei was taken prisoner along with a number of his closest aides and advisors, and brought to Kagoshima (the castle/capital of Satsuma), and then to Sunpu (Shizuoka) to meet with retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. It is said that he was the first foreign head of state to set foot in Japan. The king and his advisors were made to sign a series of oaths, vowing their loyalty to Satsuma, and that Ryukyu had long been subservient to Satsuma for centuries prior. One advisor, known as Jana Ueekata, or as Tei Dō, refused to agree to these conditions and is said to have lost his head on the spot.

The King and his advisors spent roughly two years in Japan before returning to Shuri, where they were permitted to resume governance and administration of the kingdom under the watchful eye of Satsuma, which allowed considerable leeway in domestic Ryukyuan affairs, but put strong restrictions and a close eye on the kingdom’s foreign affairs, and taxed the kingdom heavily. All communications with the shogunate passed through the hands of Satsuma officials, and communications with China may have as well.

Satsuma seized and annexed a number of islands which to this day remain part of Kagoshima Prefecture, and are often overlooked or ignored by Japanese in their conception of “Okinawa”. The rest of the islands were annexed by Japan in the 1870s, the monarchy and any pretense of semi-independence coming to an end in 1879.

Is this 400th anniversary something to be celebrated or mourned? I guess not. So much has happened since – annexation by Japan, the Battle of Okinawa, nearly 30 years of US Occupation – not to mention the historical revisionism perpetrated by Satsuma regarding earlier tributary/subsidiary status of the islands, that perhaps people have forgotten about 1609 as a significant date, as a significant change. Perhaps they see 1879 as the more significant date, the more considerable loss of independence. I wonder.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

*Gavan McCormack provides a similar account, in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.

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*The kingdom had already been a tributary state subject to the suzerainty of Ming China for over 250 years at that point, but I think it quite valid to argue that the word “independent” applies much more to the Kingdom before 1609 than afterwards.

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