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Treaties Concluded by the Kingdom of Ryukyu

By: Masaharu Yanagihara (Kyushu University)

A Compact between the Kingdom of Ryukyu (‘the Lew Chew Islands’) and the United States was concluded in Chinese and English on 11 July 1854 (112 CTS 77), almost three months after the Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and the United States was signed in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Dutch on 31 March 1854 (111 CTS 377). The latter treaty was the first international treaty under modern international law to which Japan was a party. Both the treaties were initiated and concluded by US Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Commander-in-Chief of the US Naval Forces in the East India, China, and Japan Seas. Both Ryukyu and Japan were eventually obliged under the military pressure of his warships with hulls painted black to accept these treaties, reflecting Ryukyu’s and Japan’s lack of international law knowledge and particularly their vast military inferiority.

The main points of the Convention between Ryukyu and the United States were the extension of friendship and courtesy to United States citizens visiting Ryukyu (Article 1) and assistance to wrecked US ships ‘on Great Lew Chew or on islands under the jurisdiction of the Royal Government of Lew Chew’ (Article 3). Article 1 provided that:

Hereafter, whenever Citizens of the United States come to Lew Chew, they shall be treated with great courtesy and friendship. Whatever Articles these persons ask for, whether from the officers or people, which the Country can furnish, shall be sold to them; nor shall the authorities interpose any prohibitory regulations to the people selling, and whatever either party may wish to buy shall be exchanged at reasonable prices.

Similar conventions with France on 24 November 1855 (‘Convention entre la France et les Iles Liou-Tchou’), and with the Netherlands on 6 July 1859 (‘Traktaat tusschen Nederlanden en Lioe-Kioe’) were concluded by Ryukyu (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères [Japon] (ed.), Recueil des traités et conventions entre le Japon et les puissances étrangères 1854–1925, Vol. 3, Tokyo, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 1934, pp. 654–61).

The status of the Kingdom of Ryukyu after 1609, when the islands were conquered by the Satsuma Clan from Japan, is profoundly puzzling and ambiguous, seen from a contemporary viewpoint. The Kingdom of Ryukyu delivered tribute to China every two years, had a Ryukyu house at Fuzhou in China, and received Chinese envoys of investiture at the coronation of new kings at Naha, the capital of Ryukyu. The Kingdom was at the same time under the supervision and control of the Satsuma Clan from Japan. Ryukyu’s stipend of 120,000 koku of rice, assessed in terms of rice production, was paid as an annual land tax [“nengu”] to the Satsuma Clan from 1609. The Kingdom of Ryukyu sent envoys to Yedo (Tokyo) at the coronation of new Ryukyu kings and Japanese Shogun.

It was a basic policy of the Kingdom of Ryukyu that ‘foreign’ relations were officially limited to relations with China and Japan. There were almost no practical relations between Korea and Ryukyu after 1609, although in the first years of Jocheon Korea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Government of Korea had been really eager to accept the people of Ryukyu in order to carry out trade with them. A repatriation of castaways from Korea and Ryukyu was continuously made even after 1609, although in almost all cases they were sent back to each country not directly between Korea and Ryukyu, but by way of Peking or Fujian in China.

It should be especially emphasized that there appear to have been almost no serious issues concerning the status of Ryukyu among the countries concerned at that time. A serious problem arose later, in the final days of the Tokugawa Government, as the result of encounters with Western countries such as Great Britain, France, and the United States. Western people started to come to Ryukyu around the 1840s to request friendship, trade, and missionary work, but Perry was the first Westerner to successfully conclude a friendship convention with Ryukyu, as well as with Japan.

These conventions of Ryukyu with the United States, France, and the Netherlands gave rise to two legal questions. The first is whether the Kingdom of Ryukyu was an ‘independent State’ which had the ability to conclude treaties with Western countries. This is closely related to the general question of whether a ‘country’ in the World Order of East Asia, or in non-European areas, could be recognized as a sovereign State under modern Western international law. This reminds us of the category entitled ‘Colonial and Like Treaties’ in Michael A. Meyer’s two-volume ‘Special Chronological List’, published among the index volumes to Clive Parry’s Consolidated Treaty Series. Examples of the treaties indexed in the ‘Colonial and Like Treaties’ section include various treaties between the United States and the Cherokee nation signed between 1785 and 1819 (for example, the Treaty between the US and the Cherokee, signed on 8 July 1817 (67 CTS 295)), the Treaty of Cession between Great Britain and New Zealand (Waitangi Treaty), signed on 5/6 February 1840 (89 CTS 473), and the Treaty between the German East African Company and the Sultan Fungo (Quafungo), signed on 16 May 1885 (165 CTS 2)). The US Supreme Court under John Marshall recognized the Cherokee tribes not as ‘sovereign and independent States’ but as ‘domestic dependent nations’ (The Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia, 30 U.S. 1 (1831)), which is an extremely strange concept from the perspective of modern international law. (Editor's Note: In addition to the ‘Colonial and Like Treaties’ section, the 'Special Chronological List' also contains a section listing the 'Postal and Telegraph Agreements' included in the Consolidated Treaty Series. Both sections of the 'Specail Chronological List' can be viewed in PDF format, via the provided links.)

The concept of ‘State’ is to be distinguished from concepts such as polis, civitas, res publica, or imperium from ancient Rome and medieval Europe. This concept of ‘State’, or ‘stato’, ‘Staat’, or ‘Etat’, was invented in the 16th century particularly by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). At the origin of the word ‘State’ is the Latin ‘status’, which meant usually ‘a condition’ or, in context, ‘a form of government’. Machiavelli used the word ‘stato’ mainly to signify ‘the body politic as organized for supreme civil rule and government’. Another important factor of the modern State is the concept of ‘persona moralis’, according to which a political unity is regarded as artificial or fictitious person, not as a physical person like real and living monarchs. Thomas Hobbes’s idea of ‘Artificial Man (homo artificialis)’ and Samuel Pufendorf’s idea of ‘entia moralia’ are truly representative of this factor.

The concept of ‘sovereignty’ was also introduced in modern European thought by Jean Bodin (1530–1596). That concept is sharply distinguished from imperium or dominium in ancient Rome and medieval Europe. It is perfectly clear that the concept of sovereignty in its modern European form had never existed during any previous periods.

It should be emphasized that it would be seriously misleading to apply directly, without any reservations, modern European ideas of sovereignty or territory to the East Asian World, including Ryukyu at that time, although certainly there did exist an idea of possession or border that was peculiar to the area.

The second legal issue with those treaties is the question of ‘treaty succession’. Did the treaties remain binding on the Japanese Meiji Government, which started in 1868, after the Kingdom of Ryukyu was virtually abolished by recognition in its place of the Ryukyu Clan on 16 October 1872?

In this connection some correspondence between Japan and the United States in 1872 is extremely intriguing. Charles De Long, Resident Minister of the United States at Tokyo, sent a letter to Soejima Taneomi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, dated 20 October 1872, asking whether the prior agreement between Ryukyu and the United States would be observed in all its provisions by Japan within the territorial limits of the former Kingdom.

The reply of Soejima, dated 5 November 1872, was as follows:

The Lew Chew Islands [Ryukyu] have been dependencies [“fuyo”] of this empire [Japan] for hundreds of years, and to them the title of Han was recently given.
As you say, the Lew Chew being an integral portion of the Japanese Empire it is natural that the provisions of a compact entered into between the Lew Chew and the United States on the 11th of July, 1854, will be observed by this government.

Soejima said extremely clearly in this letter that the Meiji Government would abide by all provisions of that treaty.

A theoretically important issue here is whether the Meiji Government was able to ‘succeed’ to treaties concluded by the Kingdom of Ryukyu. According to the official position of the Meiji Government after September of 1872, Ryukyu had been an integral part of the Tokugawa Government after 1609 and the Kingdom of Ryukyu was regarded not as an ‘independent State’ having official power to conclude treaties with foreign countries. This position would lead to the conclusion that those treaties concluded by the Kingdom of Ryukyu without any official permission of the then-Tokugawa Government had to be by nature considered as null and void and were not succeeded to by the Meiji Government.

These treaties cannot be theoretically put in the same category with those concluded by the Tokugawa Government, to the obligation from which the Meiji Government succeeded. How then can we explain satisfactorily the fact that the Meiji Government promised to ‘implement’ those treaties?

The Meiji Government wrote in the Memorandum of 1879 addressed to China that foreign countries which concluded treaties with Ryukyu did not know that Ryukyu did not have any power to conclude treaties. It furthermore said that the then-Tokugawa Government had governed in a purely feudal system, permitting local daimyos, including definitely the King of Ryukyu, to carry out services which could not have been allowed to them in the contemporary centralized system.

Certainly this is a pathetically weak argument. It is, however, closely connected with a radical view of the Meiji Government to regard the Kingdom of Ryukyu not as an ‘independent State’, having the power to conclude treaties with foreign countries.


Charles H. Alexandrowicz, An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies (16th, 17th and 18th Centuries), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967.

Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Edward Hertslet, The Map of Africa by Treaty, 3rd ed., London, Harrison and Sons, 1909.

Kiko Nishizato, Shimmatsu chu ryu nichi kankei shi no kenkyu (A Study of Relations between China, Ryukyu and Japan in late Qing Period), Kyoto, Kyoto Daigaku Gakujutsu Shuppankai, 2005.

Robert K. Sakai, ‘The Ryukyu (Liu-ch’iu) Islands as a Fief of Satsuma’, John King Fairbank (ed.), The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1968.

Eitetsu Yamaguchi & Yuko Arakawa (eds.), The Demise of the Ryukyu Kingdom: Western Accounts and Controversy, Ginowan, Yojushorin, 2002.

Masaharu Yanagihara, ‘Significance of the History of the Law of Nations in Europe and East Asia’, Recueil des cours, tome 371 (March, 2015).