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Nerroth
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PostPosted: Tue Apr 17, 2012 7:55 pm    Post subject: Visions of Ryukyu Reply with quote
I seem to be on a roll in terms of books set in the early modern period lately; I just recently finished going over Gregory Smits' Visions of Ryukyu: Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics.

For those who haven't read it so far (which, given its use as a reference in some of the wiki articles, not least that for the Ryukyu Kingdom itself, may not include some of you on this board already), this work mainly looks at the various competing views within the kingdom that emerged in the wake of the Shimazu invasion of 1609, and which, in one way or another, influenced the ongoing development of the Ryukyus (both internally, and in how it approached its relations with both China and Japan) through the Meiji government's formal annexation in the 1870s.

On the one hand, the cultural pull of both Ming and Qing China remained strong; helped by the establishment of an exclusive Confucian community at Kumemura and the efforts of Ryukyuan sinophiles like Tei Junsoku, and driven with the critical need to secure continued Chinese investiture as a means of maintaining the quasi-independent status of the kingdom relative to its Satsuma conquerors.

On the other, advocates such as Sho Shoken saw Japan (or in his case, Satsuma Domain in particular) as the ideal template for the kingdom's future development; which, ironically, didn't always gel with the Shimazu's insistence on the Ryukyuans playing the "foreign" role convincingly enough to both avoid Chinese suspicions and to enhance their own prestige when escorting Ryukyuan envoys to the bakufu in Edo.

And, of course, while all of this was going on, and powerful individuals like Sai On worked to re-shape the kingdom along Confucian lines (while trying to find enough of a middle ground between Chinese and Japanese influences to allow Ryukyuans to develop a high culture in their own right) various rivals, critics and others had their own ideas about what path the realm should take; to say nothing of the views of the subjects out in the wider kingdom, who were often far more loyal to their own local folk cultures than they were to the latest directives laid out at Shuri Castle.


How highly would those of you who have taken a look at this work rate it relative to other English-language works covering the early-modern kingdom?



Actually, one thing I find of interest is what kind of unexpected challenges the Shimazu were faced in the wake of the conquest; how, on the one hand, they were able to leverage their power over the Ryukyus (and, crucially, the first-hand intelligence it provided via Ryuyuan envoys and expatriates on the ground in China itself) in their dealings with the bakufu, but on the other were often faced with serious financial difficulties of their own in trying to subsidize the kingdom's all-important link to China.
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lordameth
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 18, 2012 9:10 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
There are very few other English-language works describing the Ryukyu Kingdom. For that reason most of all, I'd rate it very highly.

George Kerr's "Okinawa: The History of an Island People" is the only comprehensive Okinawan history book out there, so far as I am aware, in English. And though there is a revised edition, with some errata and additional essays in the back, overall it's very much dated, and biased by Kerr's pro-"Okinawa as victim" and "Ryukyuan pacifism" stance. Overall, it's still quite good, and the best we have; I compare it to George Sansom's "History of Japan" trilogy - kind of outdated, but comprehensive.

My feelings on Smits' book are kind of mixed. On the one hand, it bugs me that one of the only books we have to rely on (in English) for information about the kingdom takes this very intellectual history approach. It's a great resource for learning about Sho Shoken, Tei Junsoku, Sai On, and certain other individual figures, and, actually, it does contain significant sections of more straightforward historical (narrative) information about the history of the kingdom, its bureaucratic organization, etc. All of the aspects you have drawn out and summarized here are of critical interest and importance, and overall Visions is a good resource, and I am glad to have read it.

However, while I think it would be an extremely valuable volume alongside a body of other works, five to ten other books which address other aspects of the history of the kingdom - economics, arts, military history, whatever - those other books don't yet exist. And so our understanding of the Kingdom, based on works in English, is skewed according to what's available - namely, Visions of Ryukyu, and its approach.

Prof. Smits is reportedly working on a new comprehensive survey history of Okinawa / the Ryukyus, to complement, update, or replace Kerr's book. I look forward to that coming out, and to seeing available in English a text that addresses the history of the Kingdom more broadly, introducing readers to the history of the Kingdom in a more holistic way, not focusing on particular conceptual intellectual history matters.
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Nerroth
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 18, 2012 8:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote
Yeah, I read George Kerr's work on Okinawa; I agree that it came across as somewhat outdated from a contemporary perspective, but it did provide something of a snapshot as to how the former kingdom was viewed during the time the book was originally published.

I would be very interested to see more about that upcoming survey history; is there any word yet on how far away the work may be from publication?
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PostPosted: Thu Apr 19, 2012 8:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Given that it's not listed on his faculty webpage, I'm really not sure... might be a little while still.
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