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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
July 2000

The Complex Character of Ryukyuan Culture

Shuzen HOKAMA (President, Okinawan Studies Institute, Professor Emeritus, Hosei University)

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Originality of Okinawan Culture
In identifying the special and historic nature of arts and crafts in the culture of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, the best symbolic example is Ryukyuan architecture It is basically Japanese architecture that has been influenced by Ming- and Qing-China and developed into an original Okinawan architecture. This kind of originality also can be found in the language of Okinawa, which descended from an old stratum of the Japanese language and still retains its basic structure. Aspects have been partially borrowed from Chinese. The influences of southern languages on Okinawa's cultural vocabulary is especially strong, howeverit eventually developed into a specific Okinawan language.

Another important trait of Ryukyuan culture is its complexity. Although it might appear difficult to analyze, if one considers the geographical position of Okinawa it is easy to understand that its culture could not have come from only one direction. In addition, this imported culture could not have remained unchanged over time. Ryukyuan culture is in fact complex, subject to influences from the north, south and west. As a result, it displays many cultural traits developed and altered within the Ryukyuan culture. This can be seen in the fields of arts and crafts such as architecture, ceramics, lacquerware and fabric dyeing. Thus influences stemming from various civilizations around the Ryukyu region have been received and further developed into an original Okinawan quality.

Influences of the Island Setting
Of course, Okinawa's culture is not unique in its complexity. All dynastic cultures of Asia (as well as many European ones) exemplify this characteristic. The Majapahit dynasty in Java (13th century), the Ayuthya dynasty of Siam (14th century Thailand), the Koryo and the Yi dynasties in Korea (14th century), the Ming dynasty in China (14th century) and the Yamato dynasty in Japan (8th century) are a few examples. Also within the Ayuthya, the Majapahit and the dynastic civilizations of Cambodia and Vietnam one can see the intermingling of cultural streams from China and India, as well as the influence of the tradition of Islamic culture. It is important to recognize that these cultures did not lose their identities. Rather, their identities enabled them to embrace various foreign influences and develop a distinctiveness.

The dynastic culture of Ryukyu, at first glance, appears to be very complex and diverse. However, if we understand the role of its geographical setting as an island state and the historical importance of commerce, the complex patterns of these special cultural traits can be easily understood and the entire picture becomes clear. The culture of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, which lasted from the 15th to the 19th century, reveals complex influences from different foreign cultures that eventually developed into an original culture defined by its subtropical island country. The esthetics of these influences may be described in attributes like akarui ("bright and cheerful"), yasashii ("simple and gentle") and ohraka ("open and generous"). These expressions also summarize the characteristics of the dynastic Ryukyu culture.

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