At the beginning of the 17th century, around the time of the invasion of Ryūkyū by the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma, Kumemura and its community of Chinese scholars had deteriorated drastically; the royal government, along with that of Satsuma, then took action to revive it, and with it the aristocratic and intellectual culture of Ryūkyū as a whole. The best and brightest of Ryūkyū were invited to settle in Kumemura, pursue Chinese studies, and establish noble houses.
Thus, the yukatchu class was formally created around 1650, and divided into a number of ranks and titles from high to low: ueekata (親方), peekumi (親雲上), satonushi (里之子) and shii (子), each rank being accompanied by a rice stipend. These stipends were quite small as compared to those of Japanese samurai, but were likely quite appreciated, particularly after 1712, when the number of yukatchu increased dramatically, along with competition for positions in the bureaucracy; at this time, stipends were no longer guaranteed to those without government posts.
A yukatchu's primary purpose was to study traditional Chinese subjects; in addition to purely theoretic or academic studies, yukatchu of Kumemura were specifically cultivated for service in the royal bureaucracy, and in diplomatic relations with China. Though tribute missions to China were formally made once every two years, journeys between Ryūkyū and Fujian were in fact much more frequent. An embassy was established in Fujian where yukatchu lived and studied; a small number would come and go every few years, so the individual residents at this trading post were constantly changing. In addition, a number of yukatchu would travel to Beijing for the formal tribute mission once every two years, and four Ryukyuan students were allowed to remain in Beijing's National Academy at any one time. In addition, many of the scholars sent to Fujian from Ryūkyū were assigned to study a single, specific subject intensively, so as to become an expert, educating those at home in Ryūkyū, and applying their new knowledge to administrative matters. Thus, the degree to which this entire class of people was supported by the government is far from insignificant, and serves as an important sign of the government's priorities and philosophy. In keeping good diplomatic and economic relations with China, the yukatchu acted not only to their own benefit and that of the Ryūkyū royal government, but to the advantage of Satsuma and the Japanese central government, the Tokugawa shogunate. Dominated by Satsuma, Ryūkyū served as an intermediary for Sino-Japanese commerce, though every effort was taken to ensure that Ryūkyū's connections to Japan be kept secret from China. Thus, the yukatchu and the general focus on Chinese studies throughout the small kingdom was crucial not only for the direct political and economic reasons, but to attaining those ends through maintaining culturally Chinese appearances.
Towards the end of the 17th century, major reforms were encouraged by sessei (chief minister) Shō Shōken. By this point, the forced revival of the community pushed through decades earlier had been too successful, and had led to the creation of an aristocracy which led a fairly overindulgent, extravagant lifestyle, which had a noticeably negative effect on the overall prosperity and well-being of the kingdom. Shō Shōken thus encouraged the yukatchu, and elements of the royal government itself, to cut down on the extravagance of their festivals and ceremonies. Largely successful in immediate economic terms, the evolving nature of the aristocratic class was something much more difficult to control. By 1700 or so, thirty years after the end of Shō Shōken's time, the yukatchu had developed truly into an aristocratic class, defining themselves by birth, by their rankings, wealth, and family name, more so than by their education or intellect.
Sai On, a top government official from 1712 to the early 1750s, sought to return Ryūkyū and the yukatchu to their proper cultural and intellectual path. He described in his autobiography incidents in which he, the son of a low-ranked yukatchu family, was ridiculed by higher-ranking aristocratic children, despite his superior education and talent. Among his many reforms, he created opportunities for yukatchu without government posts to earn a living as farmers or forestry managers. He also issued regulations for the yukatchu in 1730, banning prostitution, which blossomed at the time and disrupted the noble nature of the aristocratic class, and setting mandates regarding the status of illegitimate offspring.
There was opposition to Sai On's Confucian reforms, and political factions emerged among the yukatchu, those of Kumemura and those of Shuri (the capital) on opposite sides for the most part. One group of Shuri yukatchu, led by Heshikiya Chōbin, spoke out against the strict, repressive Confucian system of ethics, advocating a more natural, Buddhistic attitude, and exclaiming the importance of love and equality among all people.
The number of yukatchu increased dramatically again at the end of the 18th century, as families who contributed to the support of the impoverished government were accorded noble status in exchange. Perhaps one of the most damaging events for the stability and importance of the Kumemura yukatchu community was the establishment and gradual development of academies, and eventually a university, in Shuri. Though Kumemura had an institution of its own, the Meirindō, which trained diplomats for work in China, the unique purpose for which the yukatchu had been established nearly two centuries earlier was being challenged by the bureaucrats of Shuri; no longer was Kumemura the sole, or arguably even the primary, center of classical learning in Ryūkyū. Ultimately, the kingdom did not remain independent long enough for this decline to reach its full potential.
When Ryūkyū was formally annexed by Japan in 1879, Shigenori Uesugi, the second appointed governor of the new territory, accused the yukatchu class as a whole of oppressing the Ryukyuan peasantry, and efforts were made to remove the nobles from power. For this reason, and others, many yukatchu fled to Fujian in China. The third governor, Michitoshi Iwamura, largely reversed this policy, supporting the maintenance of stipends for high-ranking yukatchu, retaining experienced bureaucrats in the administration of the prefecture, and lending economic aid to those without stipends. As a result, many yukatchu returned from China; stipends continued to be paid until 1909. Though Japanese policy was originally largely one of continuation of old traditions, by the turn of the 20th century, nationwide efforts to provide uniform education and create a uniform culture and language were implemented in Okinawa as they were throughout the nation.
The 1896 formation of the Kōdōkai ("Society for Public Unity") by former prince Shō En and a number of yukatchu, arguing against assimilation, can be said to be the final "gasp" of the yukatchu, twenty years after the abolition of the samurai class in "mainland" Japan.
Samuree, a Ryukyuan pronunciation of the Japanese word "samurai", was often used interchangeably with yukatchu at the time, as both were aristocratic classes in their respective cultures. However, since the samurai were essentially warriors and the yukatchu scholars, the two terms do not truly share the same connotations. Similarly, Gregory Smits points out that while "noble" and "aristocrat" are commonly used to refer to yukatchu in English-language texts, these terms too have particular connotations based on their European origins which do not truly apply to the Ryukyuan case. The Aji constituted the true nobility.
- Note: all Japanese names after 1867 are presented in Western order, given name followed by family name.
- Smits, Gregory. (1999). "Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics." Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.