Online ISSN : 2424-2616
Print ISSN : 0018-2478
ISSN-L : 0018-2478
Ryukyuan or Japanese? : The "Ryukyuan" image on the southeastern seacoast of Ming China at the turn of the 16^<th> century
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2007 Volume 116 Issue 10 Pages 1593-1628


Around the turn of the 16th century, there were recurring cases of suspicious non-Chinese strangers who were apprehended along the southeastern seacoast of Ming China being judged at first by their Chinese captors as "Japanese, " but upon further interrogation, determined to be "Ryukyuan." The author has taken notice of such cases because there have been so few cases of such mistaken identity throughout the history of either country. Therefore, the question of why "Ryukyuans" were all of sudden misjudged as "Japanese" in Ming China becomes problematic. This article focuses on five cases of such mistaken identity, examines the interrogation and identification processes on the Chinese seacoast at the time, then discusses their historical significance. At that time, Japan's invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597 created a quite negative image of the Japanese people in China. Moreover, this image was fused with lingering memories of the earlier Wokou/Wakou, "Japanese pirates, " who traded outside the Chinese tribute system. For these two reasons, the Ming government was especially on the watch for Japanese enemies in its waters. However, in the five cases of the apprehension of suspicious characters examined here, these strangers turned out to be people living on the periphery between the Ryukyu Islands and Japan, and since the border between two states at that time was relatively ambiguous both geographically and ethnically, some of these strangers had similarly ambiguous identities that would have made it very difficult for anyone to discern if they were Japanese or Ryukyuan. Moreover, the residents of this periphery were no doubt unaware of the risk being identified as Japanese in China, since some of the them told to their Ming captors from the beginning that they were from Japan. However, afterwards, most of changed their stories, insisting that they were not Japanese, but. yukyuan, after finding out that the Ming Dynasty recognized Ryukyu as a trusted member its tribute system and held a positive image of Ryukyuans. Furthermore, from the standpoint of a Ming official, it was a very sensitive issue to not mistake a Ryukyuan for a Japanese and vice versa, since their jobs depended on making correct distinctions. The documentation shows their dilemmas in deciding the "nationalities" of strangers and their attempts to persuade their superiors that they had made the right decision. Given the situation, the strangers themselves soon became aware that it was dangerous to be regarded as Japanese in China, thus claiming that they were Ryukyuan. Moreover some brought their image close to the more acceptable Ryukyuan to the Ming court. Such behavior might be learned through the interrogations in order to spare their lives actively. During the period of the five cases, Ming officials recognized Japanese and Ryukyuans as the people belonging to different states and made much of the fact, although there was, objectively, no clear line to distinguish them at that time. Therefore, these five cases could show us concretely one set of criteria forming frameworks about early modern states and their peoples in the East Asia.

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© 2007 The Historical Society of Japan
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