1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Luchu Archipelago

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LUCHU ARCHIPELAGO (called also Riukiu, Loo-choo and Liukiu), a long chain of islands belonging to Japan, stretching from a point 80 m. S. of Kiushiu to a point 73 m. from the N.E. coast of Formosa, and lying between 24° and 30° N. and 123° and 130° E. Japanese cartographers reckon the Luchu islands as 55, having a total coast-line of 768 m., an area of 935 sq. m., and a population of about 455,000. They divide them into three main groups, of which the northern is called Oshima-shoto; the central, Okinawa-gunto; and the southern, Sakishima-retto. The terms shoto, gunto and retto signify “archipelago,” “cluster of islands” and “string of islands” respectively. The last-named group is subdivided into Miyako-gunto and Yayeyama-gunto. The principal islands of these various groups are:—

Amami-Oshima 34 m. long and 17  m. broad
Tokuno-shima 16 81/2
Okinawa-shima (Great Luchu)  631/2 m. long and 141/2 m. broad
Kume-shima  93/4 71/2
Okinoerabu-shima  91/2 5 
Ihiya-shima 5 21/2
Miyako-shima 121/4 m. long and 12   m. broad
Erabu-shima  43/4 31/2
Ishigaki-shima 241/2 m. long and 141/2 m. broad
Iriomoto-shima 141/2 14 
Yonakuni-shima  71/3 31/2

The remaining islands of the archipelago are of very small size, although often thickly populated. Almost at the extreme north of the chain are two islands with active volcanoes: Nakano-shima (3485 ft.) and Suwanose-shima (2697 ft.), but the remaining members of the group give no volcanic indications, and the only other mountain of any size is Yuwan-dake (2299 ft.) in Amami-Oshima. The islands “are composed chiefly of Palaeozoic rocks—limestones and quartzites found in the west, and clay, slate, sandstone and pyroxenite or amphibolite on the east.... Pre-Tertiary rocks have been erupted through these. The outer sedimentary zone is of Tertiary rocks.”[1] The capital is Shuri in Okinawa, an old-fashioned place with a picturesque castle. The more modern town of Nafa, on the same island, possesses the principal harbour and has considerable trade.

The scenery of Luchu is unlike that of Japan. Though so close to the tropics, the islands cannot be said to present tropical features: the bamboo is rare; there is no high grass or tangled undergrowth; open plains are numerous; the trees are not crowded together; lakes are wanting; the rivers are insignificant; and an unusual aspect is imparted to the scenery by numerous coral crags. The temperature in Nafa ranges from a mean of 82° F. in July to 60° in January. The climate is generally (though not in all the islands) pleasant and healthy, in spite of much moisture, the rainfall being very heavy.

The fauna includes wild boars and deer, rats and bats. Excellent small ponies are kept, together with cattle, pigs and goats. The majority of the islands are infested with venomous snakes called habu (Trimeresurus), which attain a length of 6 to 7 ft. and a diameter of from 21/2 to 3 in. Their bite generally causes speedy death, and in the island of Amami-Oshima they claim many victims every year. The most important cultivated plant is the sugar-cane, which provides the principal staple of trade.

Luchu is noted for the production of particularly durable vermilion-coloured lacquer, which is much esteemed for table utensils in Japan. The islands also manufacture certain fabrics which are considered a speciality. These are Riukiu-tsumugi, a kind of fine pongee; the so-called Satsuma-gasuri, a cotton fabric greatly used for summer wear; basho-fu, or banana-cloth (called also aka-basho), which is woven from the fibre of a species of banana; and hoso-jofu, a particularly fine hempen stuff, made in Miyako-shima, and demanding such difficult processes that six months are required to weave and dye a piece 91/2 yds. long.

People.—Although the upper classes in Luchu and Japan closely resemble each other, there are palpable differences between the lower classes, the Luchuans being shorter and better proportioned than the Japanese; having higher foreheads, eyes not so deeply set, faces less flattened, arched and thick eyebrows, better noses, less marked cheek-bones and much greater hairiness. The last characteristic has been attributed to the presence of Ainu blood, and has suggested a theory that when the Japanese race entered south-western Japan from Korea, they drove the Ainu northwards and southwards, one portion of the latter finding their way to Luchu, the other to Yezo. Women of the upper class never appear in public in Luchu, and are not even alluded to in conversation, but women of the lower orders go about freely with uncovered faces. The Luchu costume resembles that of Japan, the only marked difference being that the men use two hairpins, made of gold, silver, pewter or wood, according to the rank of the wearer. Men shave their faces until the age of twenty-five, after which moustache and beard are allowed to grow, though the cheeks are kept free from hair. Their burial customs are peculiar and elaborate, and their large sepulchres, generally mitre-shaped, and scattered all over the country, according to Chinese fashion, form a striking feature of the landscape. The marriage customs are also remarkable. Preliminaries are negotiated by a middleman, as in China and Japan, and the subsequent procedure extends over several days. The chief staple of the people’s diet is the sweet potato, and pork is the principal luxury. An ancient law, still in force, requires each family to keep four pigs. In times of scarcity a species of sago (obtained from the Cycas revoluta) is eaten. There is a remarkable absence of religious influence in Luchu. Places of worship are few, and the only function discharged by Buddhist priests seems to be to officiate at funerals. The people are distinguished by gentleness, courtesy and docility, as well as by marked avoidance of crime. With the exception of petty thefts, their Japanese administrators find nothing to punish, and for nearly three centuries no such thing as a lethal weapon has been known in Luchu. Professor Chamberlain states that the Luchuan language resembles the Japanese in about the same degree as Italian resembles French, and says that they are sister tongues, many words being identical, others differing only by letter changes which follow certain fixed analogies, and sentences in the one being capable of translation into the other word for word, almost syllable for syllable.

History.—Tinsunshi, “Grandson of Heaven,” is the mythical founder of the Luchu monarchy. Towards the close of the 12th century his descendants were driven from the throne by rebellion, but the old national party soon found a victorious leader in Shunten, son of Tametomo, a member of the famous Minamoto family, who, having been expelled from Japan, had come to Luchu and married there. The introduction of the arts of reading and writing are assigned to Shunten’s reign. Chinese invasions of Luchu may be traced back to A.D. 605, but they did not result in annexation; and it was in 1372 that China first obtained from the Luchuans recognition of supremacy. Luchuan relations with Japan had long been friendly, but at the end of the 16th century the king refused Japan assistance against Korea, and in 1609 the prince of Satsuma invaded the islands with 3000 men, took the capital by storm, captured the king and carried him off to Kagoshima. A few years later he was restored to his throne on condition of acknowledging Japanese suzerainty and paying tribute. The Luchuans nevertheless continued to pay tribute to China also.

The Chinese government, however, though taking a benevolent interest in the welfare of the islanders, never attempted to bring them under military sway. The incongruity of this state of affairs did not force itself upon Japan’s attention so long as her own empire was divided into a number of semi-independent principalities. But in 1879 the Japanese government, treating Luchu as an integral part of the mikado’s dominions, dethroned its prince, pensioned him as the other feudal chiefs had been pensioned, and converted Luchu into a prefecture under the name of Okinawa. This name signifies “extended rope,” and alludes to the attenuated nature of the archipelago. China remonstrating, a conference was held in Peking, when plenipotentiaries of the two empires signed an agreement to the effect that the archipelago should be divided equally between the claimants. The Chinese government, however, refused to ratify this compromise, and the Japanese continued their measures for the effective administration of all the islands. Ultimately (1895) Formosa also came into Japan’s possession, and her title to the whole chain of islands ceased to be disputed.

Though Captain Broughton, of H.M.S. “Providence,” was wrecked on Miyako-shima and subsequently visited Nafa in 1797, it was not till the “Alceste” and “Lyra” expedition in 1816–1817, under Captains Basil Hall and Murray Maxwell, that detailed information was obtained about Luchu. The people at that time showed a curious mixture of courtesy and shyness. From 1844 efforts were made by both Catholic (French) and Protestant missionaries to Christianize them, but though hospitable they made it clear that these efforts were unwelcome. Further visits were made by British vessels under Captain Beechey (1826) and Sir Edward Belcher (1845). The American expedition under Commodore M. C. Perry (1853) added largely to knowledge of the islands, and concluded a treaty with the Luchuan government.

See Basil Hall, Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-choo Island (London, 1818); Comm. M. C. Perry, Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, 1852–1854 (Washington, 1856); B. H. Chamberlain, “The Luchu Islands and their Inhabitants,” in the Geographical Journal, vol. v. (1895); “Contributions to a Bibliography of Luchu,” in Trans. Asiatic Soc. Japan, xxiv. (1896); C. S. Leavenworth, “History of the Loo-choo Islands,” Journ. China Br. Royal Asiatic Soc. xxxvi. (1905).

  1. Note in Geographical Journal, xx., on S. Yoshiwara, “Raised Coral Reefs in the Islands of the Riukiu Curve,” in Journ. Coll. of Science, Imp. Univ., Tokyo (1901).