Ryukyu Shobun

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  • Japanese: 琉球処分 (Ryûkyû shobun)

Over the course of the 1870s, through a great many individual steps, the Meiji government gradually abolished the Ryûkyû Kingdom and seized control of its territory. Spurred by the Taiwan Incident of 1871, this began with the 1872 reorganization of the Kingdom as "Ryûkyû han," and culminated with a series of actions in 1876-1879 known as the Ryûkyû shobun, a plan suggested by Minister of the Interior Ôkubo Toshimichi and executed under the supervision of Matsuda Michiyuki, who was named Shobun-kan ("Shobun Officer") by Emperor Meiji on 10 June 1876.



The term Ryûkyû shobun (琉球処分) is most commonly given in English as "the Disposition of Ryûkyû." However, this has nothing to do with "disposition" in the sense of one's mood or temperament, or inclinations or tendencies. Rather, the word shobun is much more closely related in meaning to the English word "disposal."


The 1870s were a very busy and complex time for Ryukyuan-Japanese relations.[1] The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the establishment of a new Imperial government organized with strong influence from Western models. The abolition of the han brought a need for a re-assessment or redefinition of Ryûkyû's relationship to Japan, and the Taiwan Incident of 1871, in which a number of Miyako Islanders were killed by Taiwanese aborigines, led to disputes with China over claims to Taiwan and Ryûkyû, and spurred the Japanese government's desire to settle the Ryûkyû situation decisively.

In 1872, the Ryûkyû Kingdom was declared to be "Ryûkyû han," and its king, Shô Tai, to now no longer be koku-ô (国王, king of a country), but han-ô (藩王, lord of a domain), despite the fact that all the Japanese han (domains) had already been abolished the previous year. Ryûkyû was placed under the purview of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then, in 1874, under the purview of the newly established Ministry of the Interior.

Japan launched a punitive military expedition to Taiwan in 1874, and by the end of that year settled a treaty with China in which the latter officially acknowledged the Ryukyuan people as Japanese subjects. Ryukyuan envoys regularly met with Japanese officials, and were assured that (for now) Ryûkyû continued to have authority over its own internal affairs, and over its relations with China. However, after Ryûkyû sent a tribute mission to Beijing in 1875, and in light of a myriad of other developments, Ôkubo Toshimichi began to push for the full annexation of Ryûkyû's territory, a plan and a process which today is known as the Ryûkyû shobun.

International Law & Diplomatic Relations

The entire series of meetings, negotiations, debates and plans regarding the Ryûkyû situation in the 1870s played out against a background of the clash between traditional East Asian conceptions of international relations, and "modern"/Western forms of international law and diplomatic relations. Japan's relationship with Ryûkyû[2] had for centuries been understood and articulated in terms of the conceptions, and terminology, of the traditional East Asian world order. Yet, now, in order for its actions in Ryûkyû and its overall disposition in international relations to play out in a manner which Western powers would acknowledge, respect, and consider appropriate in terms of international law, all of this had to be re-articulated.

Throughout the early 1870s, in negotiations with China regarding the disputes over both Taiwan and Ryûkyû, terminology was employed in which Japanese sovereignty in the modern/Western sense was asserted over territories and peoples which had been considered "subjects," "vassals," or "belonging"[3] to Japan under the traditional East Asian system.

As a result of having taken this stance, and in order to maintain that assertion, Ôkubo Toshimichi rejected suggestions from French diplomatic & legal advisor Gustave Emile Boissonade that Ryûkyû be administered more indirectly, like a colony.

Overthrow and Annexation

In March 1875, Ôkubo Toshimichi first articulated a plan to fully abolish the Ryûkyû Kingdom (then, already known as Ryûkyû han) and to fully absorb its territory into Japan's "home" territory. The government that same month rejected suggestions to implement some form of colonial administration, in favor of Ôkubo's plan.

Matsuda Michiyuki stepped down as governor of Shiga prefecture on March 25, taking a position with the Ministry of the Interior. On June 10, he was named Shobun-kan ("Disposition Officer") by Emperor Meiji and placed in charge of the abolition/overthrow and annexation, that is, the Shobun.


  • Uemura Hideaki. "The Colonial Annexation of Okinawa and the Logic of International Law: The Formation of an 'Indigenous People' in East Asia." Japanese Studies 23:2 (2003). pp107-124.

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