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Ryukyu Islands, Japan: Land, People, and Their Rich History

Ryukyu Islands, a Japanese archipelago extending in an arc of 650 miles (1,050 km) between Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, and the Chinese island of Taiwan.

The Ryukyus separate the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean. Their total area is 1,338 square miles (3,465 sq km). In Japanese they are called Ryukyu-retto or Nansei-shoto; in Chinese, the Liu-ch'iu Islands.

Land and People

The Ryukyus consist of three major island groups (gunto in Japanese), with a total population (2005 census) of 1,550,161. The northern group is the Amami Islands (population, 104,281), including the Tokara Islands.

The central group is the Okinawa Islands (1,466,870), including Okinawa, Iheya, the Kerama Islands, Ie, and Kume. The southern group is the Sakishima Islands (107,244), consisting of the Yaeyama and Miyako groups and scattered islands, one cluster of which, the Senkaku (Tiaoyutai) group, is claimed by China.

Okinawa is the largest and most populous island in the Ryukyus. Naha, the archipelago's major seaport and largest city, is located there. It is the administrative center of Okinawa prefecture, which consists of the Okinawa and Sakishima island groups. The Amami Islands are part of Kagoshima prefecture, the seat of which is in Kyushu.

The climate of the Ryukyus is subtropical, with high humidity, but monsoonal winds reduce the discomfort. The average annual temperature is 70° F (21° C) and the average annual rainfall measures 84 inches (2,100 mm). In summer destructive typhoons may sweep over the islands. Indigenous wildlife includes poisonous snakes, wild boar, and black rabbits.

Agriculture has long been the principal occupation of the islanders, the chief products being sugarcane, sweet potatoes, bananas, pineapples, rice, and soybeans. Fishing is a leading industry. Manufactured goods include foodstuffs, clothing, ceramics, and tobacco products. The maintenance of U. S. military bases and the servicing of their personnel are important to the economy of Okinawa.

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The inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands resemble other Japanese in physical appearance. The Ryukyuan language differs in many respects from Japanese. The educational system follows the Japanese pattern. The University of the Ryukyus, on Okinawa, was established in 1950 with U. S. help.


Ruled by independent kings in early times, the Ryukyu Islands came under Chinese domination in the 14th century. After a Japanese invasion in the 17th century the inhabitants were obliged to pay tribute to both masters.

Commodore Matthew Perry of the U. S. Navy visited Okinawa in 1853 but failed to persuade his government to build a naval base there. China relinquished its claims in the Ryukyus in 1874, and five years later Japan incorporated the islands into its empire.

Okinawa became an important objective of U. S. forces in World War II, and the campaign to take the island from the Japanese was the last major battle of the conflict. More than 100,000 Japanese and 12,000 U. S. personnel were killed during the bitter fighting. Civilian casualties were extremely heavy.

After the war the Ryukyus remained under U. S. administration, and Okinawa was developed as a strategic U. S. airbase. By the peace treaty with Japan, effective in 1952, Japan retained "residual sovereignty" over the Ryukyu Islands. The Tokara group was returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1951 and the rest of the Amami Islands in 1953.

Okinawa became a major base for U. S. operations in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. The American military effort increased the island's prosperity but provoked strong opposition in the Ryukyus and Japan.

On May 15, 1972, Okinawa and the other Ryukyu islands still under administration of the United States were restored to full Japanese control. The United States continued to maintain large military facilities on Okinawa under provisions of the U. S.-Japanese mutual security treaty, requiring the United States to consult with Japan before moving any U. S. forces on Japanese soil into combat.

China, however, did not accept Japanese suzerainty over the Senkakus, and tensions flared periodically between the two nations. In mid-1996 a group of Japanese students landed on the islands and built a lighthouse, which flew a Japanese flag. China, and later Taiwan, responded vociferously, claiming the islands for China.

Although the demonstrations appeared to be nationalistic posturing, it is generally believed that the oil resources recently found in the vicinity of the Senkakus are the real reason for the increasing tensions among the three nations.

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