The kingdom of Chuzan (Chinese form Zhongshan) was founded in 1429, uniting the small island groups of the Ryukyus, when King Shohashi founded the Sho Dynasty. The later kings were Since 1327 the islands had been tributary to China, and the principal article of tribute their ships took there was sulfur. But Japan expanded, and in October 1872 Sho Tai's status was reduced to chief of the autonomous han of Ryuukyuu, and on 11 March 1879 the islands were annexed to Japan. This is known in English as the "Disposition of Ryukyu".

The first United States military governor was appointed on 3 April 1945. Military rule ended in 1950, and the title was changed to deputy governor, then to high commissioner in 1956. A local civilian government set up in 1946 was given executive power on 1 April 1951, with sovereignty nominally returned to Japan.

The 1946 regime divided the islands into four gun, those of Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama: the territory also included some small islands further out in the Pacific, such as the Bonin and Volcano Islands (including Iwo Jima). The Amami group were formally returned to Japan on 25 December 1953, the Ryukyus other than Okinawa on 21 November 1967, the Pacific islands on 26 June 1968, and Okinawa finally on 15 May 1972, ending the special status of the islands. However, most US troops in Japan are still concentrated in bases there, causing much resentment among the locals.

Another name for the Ryukyu group is Nansei-Shoto. The islands form an arc, with the Amami group (principal island Amami-O-Shima or Amami Big Island) nearest the Japanese mainland, then the Okinawa Islands in the middle. Okinawa and Amami-O-Shima are the largest islands. There is a large sea gap before the southern group, the Sakishima Islands, near Taiwan, with Miyako in the Miyako Islands, and furthest south the Yaeyama Islands, largest of which being Ishigaki and Iriomote. The whole archipelago separates the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. The capital is Naha on Okinawa.

A Ryukyuan opera by Eikichi Yamazato from about 1932 contains a poem or song,

The time for wars is ending,
and the time for peace is not far away.
Do not despair.
Life itself is a treasure.
The final line, Nuchi-do-takara in Okinawan, was possibly composed not by Yamazato but by the actor Inkichi Iraha, since Yamazato wrote in Japanese. Iraha was playing the part of King Sho Tai giving up his kingdom and sailing away to Tokyo in 1879. It is often supposed that the words were actually written by Sho Tai. President Clinton quoted these words in a conciliatory way, justifying the need to maintain US bases for the good of peace.

The name is a disyllable: Ryuu-kyuu. The Chinese form of the name is Liu Qiu.

There is a small independence movement, which has issued a constitution for a republic. The flag they proclaim is black, red, and white. (The constitution doesn't specify the arrangement, but another source shows it as a horizontal tricolor.) A different flag for the Ryukyus has three eddies (resembling big commas) of red, yellow, and blue curled together in a disk on a white field. This, I gather, is derived from a naval ensign of King Shohashi, and was used for the kingdom in the 1870s. The same device is used for the Okinawa Independence Party, but on a background per bend green and blue, with a white bendlet and central disk.

After the Second World War the Okinawa territory used the signal flag D, viz yellow over wide blue over yellow, with a triangle cut out. In 1967 the Japanese flag was restored, with a white pennant above it saying "Ryukyus" in Japanese and English. The present prefectural flag, instituted in 1972, is based on the Japanese red disk on white. But the red disk is punctured with a white disk, and another smaller red disk is inside it: these are offset slightly towards the top.

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