Okinawa: The History of an Island People

Author: George H. Kerr
Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9780804820875
Released: October 2000

My interest in Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands primarily stems from my study of traditional Okinawan martial arts, specifically karate and more recently kobudō. Okinawa: The History of an Island People, written by George H. Kerr in 1958, is the first and one of the only in-depth examinations of Okinawan history available in English. The work was actually based on Kerr’s original study Ryukyu: Kingdom and Province before 1945 which was commissioned by the Pacific Science Board, authorized by the Department of the Army, with the intention of having it translated into Japanese and distributed in Okinawa (which it was, in 1956). One reason for this commission was that much of Okinawa’s historical record and many primary sources were destroyed during World War II. In 2000, Tuttle Publishing released a revised edition of Okinawa with an afterword and additional material written by Okinawan historian Mitsugu Sakihara.

Okinawa: The History of an Island People is divided into four major parts which cover more than six centuries of Okinawan and Ryukyuan history, beginning with Okinawa’s prehistory and legendary beginnings and ending with the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The first part, “Chuzan: Independent Kingdom in the Eastern Seas,” explores the early history of Okinawa through 1573. This time periods saw a concentration of internal conflict as three rival clans fought for control of the islands before the Sho Dynasty was established. The second part, “Isolation: Lonely Islands in a Distant Sea,” chronicles the beginning of Okinawa’s loss of independence between 1573 and 1797 as Satsuma invades the islands at the same time Okinawa owed tribute to China. Between 1797 and 1878, Okinawa was further overwhelmed as Western nations began to exert their political and military power and Japan established a claim to the islands as is described in part three, “Between Two Worlds.” Finally, in part four, “Okinawa-Ken: Frontier Province,” which covers the years between 1879 and 1945, the independent kingdom comes to an end and Okinawa is assimilated by Japan before the eventual American occupation after World War II.

In addition to Kerr’s main text and the supplemental materials and updates provided by Sakihara, Okinawa also includes an extensive bibliography, an index, maps, and illustrations. Okinawa really is one of the most comprehensive single-volume works on Okinawan and Ryukyuan history. The islands’ past and present is complex. Initially its own kingdom, both China and Japan would lay claim to the islands at various points in its history. Okinawa was extremely poor in natural resources and the people had to rely heavily on trade. This was greatly complicated by the islands political situation. Additionally, Okinawa was plagued by natural disasters. In many ways, Okinawa’ position was very unfortunate and yet its people were known for their peacefulness, friendliness, and hospitality, something that was often taken advantage of by other countries.

Okinawa: The History of and Island People was exactly what I was looking for. Martial arts are only barely mentioned in passing, but what I was really interested in was learning about their historical and cultural context which Okinawa provided. Admittedly, Okinawa is somewhat of a niche title. I found Kerr’s writing style to be very approachable and engaging, but someone who isn’t as interested in the subject as I was would probably find the book to be somewhat tedious even if it is accessible. I was a little frustrated that the revisions for this edition weren’t better incorporated into the work as a whole. Instead, Kerr’s original work was left completely intact and any corrections were simply appended to the end of the volume with minimal cross-referencing. Still, Okinawa is an excellent study of the fascinating and often curious history of the Ryukyu Islands. It is unquestionably one of the best places to start learning about Okinawa.