|Regions with significant populations|
Okinawa Prefecture - 1.3 million|
Kagoshima Prefecture (Amami)
|Significant Ryukyuan diaspora in:|
|Ryukyuan languages, Japanese, English, Spanish, Chinese, Cantonese, and others|
|Ryukyuan religion, Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Yamato, Ainu, Yayoi, Jōmon|
^ 1. Ryukyuans living in Japan outside of the Ryukyu Islands are considered part of an internal diaspora.
^ 2. The exact number of Ryukyuans living in other countries is unknown. They are usually counted as Japanese or Asian in censuses.
The Ryukyuan people (琉球民族 Ryūkyū minzoku, Okinawan: Ruuchuu minzuku); also Lewchewan or Uchinaanchu (沖縄人, Japanese: Okinawa jin)) are the indigenous peoples of the Ryukyu Islands between the islands of Kyushu and Taiwan. Politically, they live in either Okinawa Prefecture or Kagoshima Prefecture. Their languages make up the Ryukyuan languages, considered to be one of the two branches of the Japonic language family, the other being Japanese and its dialects.
Ryukyuans are not a recognized minority group in Japan, as Japanese authorities consider them just a subgroup of the Japanese people, akin to the Yamato people and Ainu. Although unrecognized, Ryukyuans constitute the largest ethnolinguistic minority group in Japan, with 1.3 million living in Okinawa Prefecture alone. There is also a considerable Ryukyuan diaspora. As many as 600,000 more ethnic Ryukyuans and their descendants are dispersed elsewhere in Japan and worldwide; mostly in Hawaii and, to a lesser extent, in other territories where there is also a sizable Japanese diaspora. In the majority of countries, the Ryukyuan and Japanese diaspora are not differentiated so there are no reliable statistics for the former.
Recent genetic and anthropological studies indicate that the Ryukyuans are significantly related to the Ainu people and share the ancestry with the indigenous prehistoric Jōmon period (pre 10,000–1,000 BCE) people, who arrived from Southeast Asia, and with the Yamato people who are mostly an admixture of the Yayoi period (1,000 BCE–300 CE) migrants from East Asia (specifically China and the Korean peninsula). The Ryukyuans have a specific culture with some matriarchal elements, native religion, and cuisine which had fairly late 12th century introduction of rice. The population lived on the islands in isolation for many centuries, and in the 14th century from the three divided Okinawan political polities emerged the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429–1879) which continued the maritime trade and tributary relations started in 1372 with Ming dynasty China. In 1609 the kingdom was invaded by Satsuma Domain which allowed its independence being in vassal status because the Tokugawa Japan was prohibited to trade with China, being in dual subordinate status between both China and Japan.
During the Meiji period, the kingdom became Ryukyu Domain (1872–1879), after which it was politically annexed by the Empire of Japan. In 1879, after the annexation, the territory was reorganized as Okinawa Prefecture with the last king Shō Tai forcibly exiled to Tokyo. China renounced its claims to the islands in 1895. During this period, Okinawan ethnic identity, tradition, culture and language were suppressed by the Meiji government, which sought to assimilate the Ryukyuan people as Japanese (Yamato). After World War II, the Ryūkyū Islands were occupied by the United States between 1945–1950 and 1950–1972. During this time, there were many violations of human rights. Since the end of World War II, there exists strong resentment against the Japanese government and US military facilities stationed in Okinawa, as seen in the Ryukyu independence movement.
United Nations special rapporteur on discrimination and racism Doudou Diène in his 2006 report, noted perceptible level of discrimination and xenophobia against the Ryukyuans, with the most serious discrimination they endure linked to their dislike of American military installations in the archipelago. An investigation into fundamental human rights was suggested.
Their usual ethnic name derives from the Chinese name for the islands, "Liuqiu" (also spelled as Loo Choo, Lew Chew, Luchu, and more), which in the Japanese language is pronounced "Ryukyu". The indigenous term for the island of Okinawa is Uchinaa, the people Uchinaanchu, and their language Uchinaaguchi. These terms are rarely used, and are politicized markers of a distinct culture.[clarification needed]
According to the recent genetic studies, the Ryukyuan people share more alleles with the Jōmon period (16,000–3,000 years ago) hunter-gatherers and Ainu people than the Yamato Japanese, have smaller genetic contributions from Asian continental populations, which supports the dual-structure model of K. Hanihara (1991), a widely accepted theory which suggests that the Yamato Japanese are more admixed with Asian agricultural continental people (from the Korean Peninsula) than the Ainu and the Ryukyuans, with major admixture occurring in and after the Yayoi period (3,000-1,700 years ago). Within the Japanese population the Ryukyu make a separate and one of the two genome-wide clusters along the main-island Honshu. The Jomon ancestry is estimated at approximately 28% or 50-60%, depending to various studies. The admixture event which formed the admixed Ryukyuans was estimated at least 1100–1075 years ago, which corresponds to the Gusuku period, and is considered to be related to the arrival of migrants from Japan. Thus, the Ryukyuans appear to be genetically closest to the Ainu from the Ainu viewpoint, whereas it is exactly the opposite from the Ryukyuans' viewpoint who are closest to the Yamato Japanese.
The comparative studies on the dental diversity also showed long-term gene flow from outside source (main-island Honshu and from the southern part of East Asia), long-term isolation, and genetic drift which produced the morphological diversification of the modern Ryukyuans. However, the analysis contradicts the idea of direct genetic continuity and affinity between the Jomon (i.e., Ainu) and the Ryukyuans, although several genetic, cranial, dental analyses, and viral infection studies indicated their close relationship, while according to anthropological data are consistently between the Yamato Japanese and Ainu people.
According to archaeological evidence, there's prehistoric cultural differentiation between the Northern Ryukyu Islands (Amami Islands and Okinawa Islands) and the Southern Ryukyu Islands (Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands). The genome-wide differentiation was pronounced, especially between Okinawa and Miyako. It is considered to have arisen due to genetic drift rather than admixture with people from neighboring regions, with the divergence dated to the Holocene, and without major genetic contribution of the Pleistocene inhabitants to the present-day Southern Islanders. The Amami Islanders are also slightly more similar to the mainland population than the Okinawa Islanders.
mtDNA and Y-DNA
The female mtDNA and male Y chromosome markers are used to study human migrations. The research on the skeletal remains from the Neolithic Shell midden period (also known as Kaizuka period) in Okinawa, as well from the Gusuku Period, showed predominance of female haplogroups D4 and M7a and their genetic continuity in the contemporary female population of Okinawa. It is assumed that M7a represents "Jomon genotype" introduced by a Paleolithic ancestor from Southeast Asia or the southern region of the Asian continent, around the Last Glacial Maximum with the Ryukyu Islands as one of the probable origin spots, in contrast, the frequency of the D4 haplogroup is relatively high in East Asian populations, including in Japan, indicating immigrant Yayoi people, probably by the end of the late Kaizuka period, while haplogroup B4 presumably ancient aboriginal Taiwanese ancestry. However, as in the contemporary Japanese population M7 showed a decrease, whereas the frequency of the haplogroup N9b showed an increase from the south to north direction, it indicates that the mobility pattern of females and males was different as the distribution of Y haplogroups do not show a geographical gradient in contrast to mtDNA, meaning mainly different maternal origins of the contemporary Ryukyuan and Ainu people.
The research on the contemporary Okinawan male Y chromosome showed, in 2006; 55.6% of haplogroup D-P37.1, 22.2% O-P31, 15.6% O-M122, 4.4% C-M8, and 2.2% others. It is considered that the Y haplogroups expanded in a demic diffusion. The haplogroups D and C are considered of Paleolithic origin, with coalescence time of c. 19,400 YBP and expansion 12,600 YBP, i.e. 14,500 YBP and 10,820 YBP respectively, and were isolated for thousands of years once land bridges between Japan and continental Asia disappeared at the end of the last glacial maximum c. 12,000 YBP. The haplogroup O began its expansion circa 4,000-3,810 years ago, and thus the haplogroups D1b and C1 belong to the Jomon's male lineage, and haplogroup O belongs to the Yayoi's male lineage. Haplogroup M12 is considered as mitochondrial counterpart of Y chromosome D lineage. This rare haplogroup was detected only in Yamato Japanese, Koreans, and Tibetans, with the highest frequency and diversity in Tibet.
The Ryukyu Islands were inhabited from at least 32,000-18,000 years ago, but their fate and relation with contemporary Ryukyuan people is uncertain. During the Jōmon period (i.e., Kaizuka) or so-called shell midden period (6,700-1,000 YBP) of the Northern Ryukyus, the population lived in a hunter-gatherer society, with similar mainland Jōmon pottery. In the latter part of Jōmon period, archaeological sites moved near the seashore, suggesting the engagement of people in fishery. It is considered that from the latter half of Jōmon period, the Ryukyu Islands developed their own culture. Some scholars consider that the language and cultural influence was more far-reaching than blending of race and physical types. The Yayoi culture, traditionally dated from 3rd century BCE and recently from around 1000 BCE, is notable for the introduction of Yayoi-type pottery, metal tools and cultivation of rice, however although some Yayoi pottery and tools were excavated on the Okinawa Islands, the rice was not cultivated before the 12th century CE, nor the Yayoi and the following Kofun period (250–538 CE) culture expanded into the Ryukyus. The Southern Ryukyus culture was isolated from the Northern, and its Shimotabaru period (4,500–3,000 YBP) was characterized by a specific style of pottery, and the Aceramic period (2,500–800 YBP), during which no pottery was produced in this region. Their prehistoric Yaeyama culture showed some intermingled affinities with southern Indonesian and Melanesian cultures, broadly, that the Sakishima Islands have some traces similar to the Southeast Asian and South Pacific cultures. The Amami Islands seem to be the islands with the most mainland Japanese influence. However, both north and south Ryukyus were culturally unified in the 10th century.
The finding of ancient Chinese knife money near Naha in Okinawa indicate a probable contact with the ancient Chinese state Yan as early as the 3rd century BCE. According to the Shan Hai Jing, the Yan had relations with the Wa (dwarf, short) people living southeast of Korea, who could be related to both the mainland Japanese or Ryukyuan people. The futile search for the elixir of immortality by Qin Shi Huang, the founder of Qin dynasty (221 BC–206 BC), in which the emperor tried to cooperate with "happy immortals" who dwelt on the islands, could be related to both Japan and Ryukyu Islands. There's lack of evidence that the missions by Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) reached the islands, however as the Japanese did reach Han's capital, notes from 57 CE do mention a general practice of tattooing among the people of "hundred kingdoms" in the eastern islands, a practice which was widespread and survived only among the Okinawan's women, Ainu in Hokkaido, and Atayal people in Taiwan. Cao Wei (220–265) and Han dynasty record show that the inhabitants of western and southern Japan and Okinawa had a lot in common regarding political-social institutions until the 2nd century CE - they were of small stature, bred oxen and swine, as well were ruled by women, with special influence of women sorceresses, which is related to the Ryukyuan Noro priestesses which were closely associated with local political power until the 20th century, as well the Ryukyuan swine economy culture until World War II. It is suggested that the mention of a specific sorceress Pimeku, her death and successive conflict, is related to some socio-political challenges of the ancient matriarchal system.
The first certain mention of the islands and its people by the Chinese and Japanese is dated in the 7th century. Emperor Yang of Sui, due to previous tradition, between 607-608 held expeditions in search of the "Land of Happy Immortals". As the Chinese envoy and the islanders linguistically could not understand each other, and the islanders did not want to accept the Sui rule and suzerainty, the Chinese envoy took many captives back to the court. The islands, by the Chinese named Liuqiu, would be pronounced by the Japanese as Ryukyu. However, when the Japanese diplomat Ono no Imoko arrived at the Chinese capital he noted that the captives probably arrived from the island of Yaku south of Kyushu. In 616 the Japanese annals for the first time mention the "Southern Islands people", and for the half-century were noted some intruders from Yaku and Tanu. According to Shoku Nihongi, in 698 a small force dispatched by Japanese government successfully claimed the Tane-jima, Yakushima, Amami, Tokunoshima and other islands. Nihongi recorded that the Hayato people in southern Kyushu still had female chieftains in the early 8th century. In 699 are mentioned islands Amami and Tokara, in 714 Shingaki and Kume, in 720 some 232 persons who had submitted to the Japanese capital Nara, and at last Okinawa in 753. Nevertheless the mention or authority, over the centuries the Japanese influence spread slowly among the communities.
The lack of written record resulted with later, 17th century royal tales both under Chinese and Japanese influence, which were efforts by local chieftains to explain the "divine right" of their royal authority, as well the then-political interests of Tokugawa shōguns from Minamoto clan who wanted to legitimize Japanese domination over Okinawa. The tradition states that the founder of Tenson Dynasty was a descendant of goddess Amamikyu, and the dynasty ruled 17,000 years and had 25 kings i.e. chieftains. However, the 24th throne was usurped from one of Tenson's descendants by a man named Riyu, who was defeated in revolt led by Shunten (1187 – 1237), lord of Urasoe. Shunten's parental origin is a matter of debate, according to 17th century romantic tales he was a son of a local Okinawan chief's (anji) daughter and some Japanese adventurer, usually considered Minamoto no Tametomo, while historical and archeological-traditional evidence indicate men from the defeated Taira clan who fled Minamoto's clan vengeance. Shunten Dynasty made two additional chieftains, Shunbajunki (1237-1248) and Gihon (1248–1259). As Gihon abdicated, his sessei Eiso (1260–1299), who claimed Tenson's descent, founded the Eiso Dynasty.
During the Gusuku period (c. 1187–1314), with recent chronology dated from c. 900-950 CE, Okinawans made significant political, social and economical growth. As the center of power moved away from the seashore to inland, the period is named after many gusuku, castle-like fortifications which were built in higher places. This period is also notable, compared to mainland Japan, for fairly late introduction of agricultural production of rice, wheat, millet and the overseas trading of these goods, as well during Shubanjunki's rule the introduction of Japanese kana writing system in its older and simple phonetic form. After the years of famine and epidemic during the Gihon's rule, Eiso introduced regular taxation system (of weapons, grains and cloth) in 1264 and as the government gained strength, the control extended from Okinawa toward the islands of Kume, Kerama, Iheya, and Amami Oshima (1266). Between 1272 and 1274, as the Mongol invasions of Japan began, Okinawa on two occasions rejected the Mongols' authority demands. To Eiso's reign period is also ascribed the introduction of Buddhism into Okinawa.
During the rule of Eiso's great-grandson, Tamagusuku (1314–1336), Okinawa became divided into three polities and began the so-called Sanzan period (1314–1429). The north and largest Hokuzan polity was the poorest due to forest and mountainous terrain (in which isolation was an advantage), with primitive farming and fishing. The central Chūzan polity was the most advantaged due to its developed castle towns and harbor facilities. The south Nanzan polity was the smallest, but endured because of good castle positions and sea merchants.
In this period another rapid economical, social and cultural development of Ryukyu began as the polities had developed formal trade relations with Japan, Korea and China. During the Satto's reign, Chūzan made tributary relations with China's Ming dynasty in 1374 as the [Hongwu Emperor]] sent envoys in 1372 to Okinawa. In the next two decades Chūzan made nine official missions to the Chinese capital, and the formal relations between them endured until 1872 (see Imperial Chinese missions to Ryukyu Kingdom). Despite significant Chinese economical, cultural and political influence, the polities continued to maintain strong autonomy. In 1392, all three polities began to send extensive missions to the Korean Joseon kingdom. In 1403, Chūzan made formal relations with the Japanese Ashikaga shogunate, and an embassy was sent to Thailand in 1409. The contacts with Siam continued even in 1425, and were newly made with places like Palembang in 1428, Java in 1430, Malacca and Sumatra in 1463.
As in 1371, China initiated its maritime prohibition policy (Haijin) to Japan, Ryukyu gained a lot from its position as intermediary in the trade between Japan and China. They shipped horses, sulphur and seashells to China, from China brought ceramics, copper, and iron, from southeast Asian countries bought tin, ivory, spices (pepper), wood (sappanwood), which they sold to Japan, Korea or China, as well as transporting Chinese goods to Hakata Bay from where swords, silver and gold were brought.
In 1392, 36 Chinese families from Fujian were invited by the chieftain of Okinawa Island's central polity (Chūzan) to settle near the port of Naha and to serve as diplomats, interpreters, and government officials. Some consider that many Ryukyuan officials were descended from these Chinese immigrants, being born in China or having Chinese grandfathers. They assisted the Ryukyuans in advancing their technology and diplomatic relations. From the same year onward Ryukyu was allowed to send official students to China i.e. Guozijian. The tributary relationship with China later became a basis of the 19th century Sino-Japanese disputes about the claims of Okinawa.
Between 1416 and 1429, Chūzan chieftain Shō Hashi successfully unified the principalities into the Ryukyuan Kingdom (1429–1879) with the castle town Shuri as royal capital, founded the First Shō Dynasty, and the island continued to prosper through maritime trade, especially tributary relations with the Ming dynasty. The period of Shō Shin's (1477–1526) rule, descendant from the Second Shō Dynasty, is notable for peace and relative prosperity, peak in overseas trade, as well as expansion of the kingdom's firm control to Kikaijima, Miyako-jima and Yaeyama Islands (1465–1524), while during Shō Sei (1526-1555) to Amami Ōshima (1537).
After the Kyūshū Campaign (1586–1587) by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his assistant Kamei Korenori, who was interested in southern trade, wanted to be rewarded with the Ryukyu Islands. A paper fan found during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98) mentioning a title "Kamei, Lord of Ryukyu", reveals that Hideyoshi at least nominally offered the post although he had not any legitimate claim upon the islands. In 1591, Kamei ventured with a force to reclaim the islands, but the Shimazu clan stopped him as they guarded their special relationship with the Ryukyu kingdom. Hideyoshi was not very concerned about the quarrel because the invasion of Korea was more important in his mind. As the Ming's influence weakened due to disorder in China, Japanese established posts in Southeast Asia, and the Europeans (Spanish and Portuguese) arrived, the kingdom's overseas trade began to decline.
In the early 17th century during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), the first shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu intended to subject the kingdom to enable intermediary trade with China, and in 1603 ordered the Ryukyuan king to pay his respect to the shogunate. As the king did not react, with the instruction of the shōgun, the Satsuma feudal domain of the Shimazu clan in Kyūshū incorporated some of kingdom's territory during the 1609 Invasion of Ryukyu. They nominally let a certain level of autonomy and independence to the kingdom due to Ming's prohibition of trade with the shogunate, but forbade them trade with other countries except China. The Amami Islands became part of Shimazu's territory, taxes were imposed, making them subordinate in the relations between Japan and China. Until the invasion, the Shimazu clan lords for four centuries had a vague title of the "Lords of the Twelve Southern Islands" or "Southern Islands", although initially meaning the near Kyushu islands, then covering all the Ryukyu Islands. Later in the 1870s this was used as a "justification" of Japan's sovereignty. From 1609 the Ryukyuan missions to Edo started which lasted until 1850.
During the rule of kings Shō Shitsu (1648–1668) and Shō Tei (1669–1709) i.e. sessei Shō Shōken (1666–1673) were recovered the internal social and economical stability with many laws about government organisation, and affairs like sugarcane production, and tax system with emphasis on agricultural production. The production was encouraged because Satsuma's annual tax deprived Ryukyu's internal resources. Although the production of sweet potatoes and sugar industry grew, the peasants were not allowed to enlarge their fields. The agricultural reforms especially continued under king Shō Kei (1713–1752) and his sanshikan advisor Sai On (1728–1752) whose Nomucho (Directory of Agricultural Affairs) from 1743 became the basis of the agricultural administration until the 19th century. In the Sakishima Islands great part of the tax was paid in textiles made of ramie. The relations with Qing dynasty improved after their second mission when the first Ryukyuan official students were sent to China in 1688.
In the first half of the 19th century, French politicians like Jean-Baptiste Cécille unsuccessfully tried to conclude a French trade treaty with Ryukyu, with only a promise by Shuri government about the admission of Christian missionaries. However, due to extreme measures in teaching, Bernard Jean Bettelheim's propagation of Protestantism between 1846–1854 was obscured by the government.
During the Meiji period (1868–1912) the Ryukyu shobun process started, according to which the kingdom became under jurisdiction of Kagoshima Prefecture in 1871, and then became the Ryukyu Domain (1872–1879) of the Meiji Japan. However, this way of events were done to avoid Ryukyu and China revolt, and the Shuri government was not aware of their importance including when Japan decided to politically represent the Ryukyuan islanders involved in the Japanese invasion of Taiwan (1874). In 1875, the Ryukyus were forced to terminate their tribute relations with China against their wish for the status of dual subordination to China and Japan, something weakened China was unable to stop, with the proposition by U.S. 18th president Ulysses S. Grant about sovereign Okinawa and division of other islands between China and Japan rejected as the Chinese court at the last minute decided not to ratify the agreement. The king did not submit on three occasions between 1875–1879, and in 1879 the domain was formally abolished and established as Okinawa prefecture, forcing the last Ryukyu king Shō Tai to move to Tokyo, with the reduced status of viscount. The Ryukyu's aristocratic class resisted annexation for almost two decades (e.g. Kōchi Chōjō, Rin Seikō), but after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), China's and the Ryukyus' sovereignty interests faded as China renounced its claims. Many historians criticized the Meiji's consideration as a simple administration change rather than being Japan's first colony and inner colonialism.
During the Meiji period, like with the Ainu in Hokkaido, the Ryukyuans had their own culture, religion, traditions, and language suppressed by the Meiji government and faced forced assimilation. Since the 1880s, schools forbade display of their culture, dress, hairstyle and other considering them backward and inferior and introducing them to the Japanese culture and fashion. The militaristic indoctrination and emperor-centered ideology started from elementary school. The ultimate goal of education was the unification into Yamato people (embodied with the myth of ethnic purity, with on-going ideological Nihonjinron ignoring the minorities), and often faced prejudice, work humiliation and ethnic discrimination. The local elite was divided into factions who opposed or supported the assimilation. Around and especially after the Japanese annexation of Taiwan in 1895, the development was shifted away from Okinawa which resulted with famine period known as "Sotetsu-jigoku" ("Cycad hell"). In 1920–1921, the drop of sugar prices which continued until 1931 as well transfer of sugar production to Taiwan, being the poorest prefecture yet had heaviest tax burden, resulted with economical crisis and people were forced to find labor in Japan (often Osaka and Kobe) or abroad in Taiwan. By 1935, approximately 15% of population emigrated.
During World War II and battles like the Battle of Okinawa (1945) approximately 150,000 civilian people (1/3 of population) were killed in Okinawa alone. After the World War II, the Ryukyu Islands were occupied by the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands (1945–1950), but the U.S. maintained control even after the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which went into effect on April 28, 1952, as was replaced by the USCAR (1950–1972) government. During this period U.S. military requisitioned private land for the building of their facilities, with the private owners put into refugee camps, and its personnel statistically committed thousands of crimes against the civilians. Only twenty years later, on 15 May 1972, Okinawa and near islands were returned to Japan. As the Japanese had post-war political freedom and economic prosperity, the facilities had a negative economical impact and people felt to be cheated, used for the purpose of Japanese and regional security against communist threat, while others considered it a national disgrace. Since 1972 are held extensive plans to bring Okinawa's economy to national level, as well continued support of the local culture and revival of traditional arts started by the USCAR.
Okinawa comprises just 0.6% of Japan's total land mass, yet about 75 percent of all U.S. military installations stationed in Japan are assigned to bases in Okinawa. The presence of the military remains a sensitive issue in local politics. Feelings against the mainland Government, Emperor (especially Hirohito due to his involvement in the sacrifice of Okinawa and later military occupation), and U.S. military (USFJ, SACO) have often caused open criticism and protests, for example of 85,000 people in 1995 after the U.S. military rape incident, or 110,000 people in 2007 due to Ministry of Education's textbook revisions (see MEXT controversy) of the Japanese military forced mass suicide of the civilians during the Battle of Okinawa. For many years the Emperors avoided visiting Okinawa, with the first ever in history done by Akihito in 1993, since it was assumed that his visits would likely cause uproar rather than respect, like in July 1975 when Akihito as a crown prince visited Okinawa and a firebomb was thrown at him, although these tensions have eased in recent years. Discrimination against Okinawans both past and present on part of the mainland Japanese is the cause of their smoldering resentment against the government, seen in the post-war Ryukyu independence movement.
Ryukyuans tend to see themselves as bound together by their home island and, especially among older Ryukyuans, usually consider themselves from Okinawa first and Japan second. The average annual income per resident of Okinawa in 2006 was ¥2.09 million, placing the prefecture at the bottom of the list of 47.
The Okinawans have a very low age-adjusted mortality rate at older ages and among the lowest prevalence of cardiovascular disease and other age-associated diseases in the world. Furthermore, Okinawa has long had the highest life expectancy at older ages, as well has had among the highest prevalence of centenarians among the 47 Japanese prefectures, also the world, since records began to be kept by the Ministry of Health in the early 1960s despite the high birth rate and expanding population of Okinawa prefecture. This longevity phenotype has been in existence since records have been kept in Japan, and despite the well-known dietary and other nongenetic lifestyle advantages of the Okinawans (Blue Zone), there may be some additional unknown genetic influence favoring this extreme phenotype. The Okinawa Centenarian Study (OCS) research team began to work in 1976, making it the world's longest ongoing population-based study of centenarians
Similarities between the Ryukyuan and Japanese languages suggests a common origin, possibly of immigrants from continental Asia to the archipelago. Previously ideologically considered by the Japanese scholars as a dialect and descendant from the Old Japanese language, the Ryukyuan languages are a sister and mutually unintelligible branch of Japanese and sometime Hachijō language, and a branch of Japonic languages. As the Jōmon-Yayoi transition (c. 1000 BCE) represents the formative period of the contemporary Japanese people, it is argued that the Japonic languages are related to the Yayoi migrants. The estimated time of separation between Ryukyuan and mainland Japanese is a matter of debate due to methodological problems; older estimates (1959–2009) varied between 300 BCE–700 CE, while novel (2009-2011) around 2nd century BCE-100 CE, which has a lack of correlation with archeology and new chronology according to which Yayoi period started around 950 BCE, or the proposed spread of the Proto-Ryukyuan speakers to the islands in the 10-12th century from Kyushu. Based of linguistic differences, they separated at least before the 7th century, before or around Kofun period (c. 250–538), while mainland Proto-Ryukyuan was in contact with Early Middle Japanese until 13th century. The Northern Ryukyuan does not, while Southern Ryukyuan does show north-to-south expansion and thus exist several scenarios. It is generally considered that the likely homeland of Japonic and Proto-Ryukyuan expansion was in Kyushu, compared to another hypothesis of expansion from Ryukyu to mainland Japan.
As the Japanese (or Yamato people) learned to write and read a thousand years before the Ryukyuans and absorbed many Chinese language forms, the early literature which records the language of the Old Japanese imperial court show archaisms which are closer to Okinawan dialects. The Ryukyuan language is divided into two main groups, Northern Ryukyuan languages and Southern Ryukyuan languages, and generally are considered the existence of five Ryukyuan languages; Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni, while the sixth Kunigami is added due to diversity. Within them and on specific islands exist local dialects, of which many vanished. Despite the use of Shuri Okinawan in the Shuri Court and its reputation, there's no standard variety. Thus, the Ryukyuan languages constitute a cluster of local dialects termed as unroofed abstand languages, "unroofed" meaning without written standard.
During the Meiji and post-Meiji period the languages were identified as dialects of Japanese, and viewed negatively were suppressed by the Japanese government which forced assimilation and standard Japanese language. From 1907, the children were prohibited to speak Ryukyuan languages in school, and since the mid-1930s there existed dialect cards, a system of punishment for the students who spoke in a non-standard language. Speaking a Ryukyuan language was deemed an unpatriotic act, by 1939 a speaker was denied service and employment in government offices, while by the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 the military was commanded to consider Ryukyuan speakers as spies (death penalty) with many reports that such action was carried out. After WW II, during the United States occupation the Ryukyuan languages and identity were distinctively promoted, also because of ideo-political reasons to separate the Ryukyus from Japan, however as the resentment against the occupation intensified their rapport and unification with Japan, since 1972 followed re-incursion of the standard Japanese and further diminution of the Ryukyuan languages.
It is considered that contemporary people older than 85 exclusively use Ryukyuan, between 45 and 85 use Ryukyuan and standard Japanese depending on family or working environment, younger than 45 are able to understand Ryukyuan, while younger than 30 mainly are not able to understand and speak Ryukyuan languages. The Ryukyuan languages are on the UNESCO's list of endangered languages since 2009, as they could disappear by the mid-century. It is unclear whether this recognition was too late, despite some positive influence by the Society of Spreading Okinawan.
Native Ryukyuan religion places strong emphasis upon the role of the women in the community, with women holding positions as shamans and guardians of the home and hearth. The status of women in traditional society is higher than in China and Japan. Although the contemporary kinship system is patrilineal and patrilocal, until the 20th century it was often bilateral and matrilocal, with common village endogamy. Shisa statues can often be seen on or in front of houses—this relates to the ancient Ryukyuan belief that the male spirit is the spirit of the outside and the female spirit is the spirit of the inside. Godhood is mimicked with many attributes, and its in ease without any underlying symbolic order.
The village priestesses, Noro, until the 20th century used the white cloth and magatama beads. The noro's duty was to preserve the generational fire in the hearth, a communal treasure, resulting with tabu system about the fire custodian in which they had to be virgins to maintain close communication with the ancestors. The office became hereditary, usually of the noro's brother's female child. The center of worship was represented by three heartstones within or near the house. The belief in the spiritual predominance of the sister was more prominent in Southern Ryukyus.
The introduction of Buddhism is ascribed to a 13th century priest from Japan (mostly funeral rites), while the 14th century trade relations resulted with Korean Buddhism influences (including some in architecture), as well Shinto practices from Japan. Buddhism and native religion were ideological basis until 18th century, when Confucianism gradually and officially became government ideology during Shō On (1795–1802), much to the dismay of Kumemura. It was mostly important to the upper class families. Among the Catholic converts was not lost the former religious consciousness.
Until the 18th century, the Ryukyuan kings visited the Sefa-utaki (historical sacred place) caves for worship. Another traditional sacred places are springs Ukinju-Hain-ju, where was placed the first rice plantation, and small island Kudaka, where the "five fruits and grains" were introduced by divine people, perhaps strangers with agricultural techniques. The foremost account, which claimed common origin between the Japanese and Ryukyuan people, was made-up by Shō Shōken in the 17th century, to end up the pilgrimage of the Ryukyu king and chief priestess to the Kudaka island.
During the Meiji period the government replaced Buddhism with Shintoism as the islands' state religion, and ordered; rearrangement of statues and redesign of shrines and temples to incorporate native deities into national Shinto pantheon; Shinto worship preceded native, Buddhist, or Christian ritual; transformation of local divinities into guardian gods. In the 1920s was ordered building of Shinto shrines and remodelling of previous with Shinto architectural symbols, paid by local tax money, which was a financial burden due to the collapse of sugar prices in 1921 which devastated Okinawa's economy. In 1932 were ordered to house and support Shinto clergy from the mainland.
Most Ryukyuans of the younger generations are not serious adherents of the native religion anymore. Additionally, since being under Japanese control, Shinto and Buddhism are also practiced and typically mixed with local beliefs and practices.
Okinawan food is rich in vitamins and minerals and is a good balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Although rice is a staple food (taco rice mixes it with beef), pork (mimigaa and chiragaa, dishes Rafute and Soki), seaweed, rich miso (fermented soybean) pastes and soups (Jūshī), sweet potato and brown sugar all feature prominently in native cuisine. Most famous to tourists is the Momordica charantia, gōya (bitter melon), which is often mixed into representative Okinawan stir fry dish known as champurū (Goya champuru). Kōrēgusu is a common hot sauce condiment used in various dishes including noodle soup Okinawa soba. Some specifically consumed algae include Caulerpa lentillifera. Traditional sweets include chinsuko, hirayachi, sata andagi, and muchi. Local beverages include juice from Citrus depressa, turmeric tea (ukoncha), and the alcoholic beverage awamori.
The techniques of self-defense and using farm tools as weapons against armed opponents—called Karate by today's martial artists—was created by Ryukyuans who probably incorporated some gong fu and native techniques from China into a complete system of attack and defense known simply as Ti (literally meaning "hand"). These martial arts varied slightly from town to town, and were named for their towns of origin, examples being Naha-te (currently known as Goju-Ryū), Tomari-te and Shuri-te.
It is considered that the rhythms and patterns of dances, like Eisa and Angama, represent legends and prehistoric heritage. Ryūka genre of songs and poetry originate from the Okinawa Islands. From the Chinese traditional instrument sanxian in the 16th century developed the Okinawan instrument sanshin from which ultimately derives Kankara sanshin and the Japanese shamisen.
Women frequently wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands, a sign of adulthood and talisman to protect them from evil. These tattoos were banned in 1899 by the Meiji government. In remote districts their katakashira off-center topknot, similar to Yami and Filipinos of Malay descent in Mindanao and elsewhere, among men and women also disappeared in the early 20th century.
The bashôfu, literally meaning "banana-fibre cloth", is designated as a part of Ryukyu and Japan "important intangible cultural properties". The weaving using indigenous ramie was also widespread in the archipelago, both originated before the 14th century.
Originally living in thatching houses, townsmen developed architecture modeled after Japanese, Chinese and Korean structures. Other dwellings suggest a tropical origin, and some villages have high stone walls, with similar structural counterpart in Yami people at Orchid Island.
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The most notable people of Ryukyuan birth or descendance in Japan include:
In karate martial arts, Matsumura Sōkon, Ankō Itosu, Ankō Asato, Kenwa Mabuni (Shitō-ryū), Gichin Funakoshi (Shotokan), Chōjun Miyagi (Gōjū-ryū), Chōki Motobu (Motobu-ryu), Tatsuo Shimabuku (Isshin-ryū), Kanbun Uechi (Uechi-ryū), Kentsū Yabu (teacher of Shōrin-ryū).
In music, female solo singers Namie Amuro (quarter-Italian), Cocco, Beni (American father), Chitose Hajime, male solo singer-songwriter and actor Gackt, members of band Begin, Orange Range, Mongol800 and High and Mighty Color, members of group Speed, MAX and Da Pump (four original members).
In sport, baseball players Nagisa Arakaki and Hideki Irabu (mother), bicycle racer Yukiya Arashiro, footballer Kazuki Ganaha, boxers Yoko Gushiken, Akinobu Hiranaka Katsuo Tokashiki, and golf player Ai Miyazato.
The most notable people of Ryukyuan origin or mixed ancestry in diaspora include:
In Hawaii, U.S. World War II soldier and Medal of Honor receiver Yeiki Kobashigawa, Olympic gold medalist Yoshi Oyakawa, singer Ethel Azama, current Governor of Hawaii David Ige, ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, and Youtuber Ryan Higa.
In other parts of the United States, musicians James Iha and Kishi Bashi (mother), singer Yuki Chikudate, actors Tamlyn Tomita and Brian Tee (father), storyboard artist Natasha Allegri (mother), baseball player and coach Dave Roberts (mother). In Taiwan, actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (father).
The most notable fictional characters which have been described as Ryukyuan are:
Kesuke Miyagi (played by Pat Morita) from the Karate Kid trilogy, Mugen from the anime series Samurai Champloo, Mutsumi Otohime from the manga series Love Hina, Maxi from the Soulcalibur series of video games, many concepts in Ultraman, The heroines-leads protagonist, Yuri Miyazono from Witchblade: Ao no Shōjo novels.
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