Ryukyu Islands
Ryukyuan languages:
Ruuchuu (琉球/ルーチュー)
Japanese language:
Nansei-shotō (南西諸島, Southwest Islands)
Ryūkyū-shotō (琉球諸島, Ryukyu Islands)[1]
Location of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan
Location of Ryukyu Islands
LocationOn the boundary between the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea
Coordinates26°30′N 128°00′E / 26.5°N 128°E / 26.5; 128Coordinates: 26°30′N 128°00′E / 26.5°N 128°E / 26.5; 128
Total islands100+
Major islands
Area4,642.11 km2 (1,792.33 sq mi)
Highest elevation1,936 m (6,352 ft)
Highest pointMt. Miyanoura-dake
Population1,550,161 (2005)
Pop. density333.93 /km2 (864.87 /sq mi)
Ethnic groups

The Ryukyu Islands[note 1] (琉球諸島, Ryūkyū-shotō), also known as the Nansei Islands (南西諸島, Nansei-shotō, lit. "Southwest Islands") or the Ryukyu Arc (琉球弧, Ryūkyū-ko), are a chain of Japanese islands that stretch southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan: the Ōsumi, Tokara, Amami, Okinawa, and Sakishima Islands (further divided into the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands), with Yonaguni the westernmost. The larger are mostly high islands and the smaller mostly coral. The largest is Okinawa Island.

The climate of the islands ranges from humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classification Cfa) in the north to tropical rainforest climate (Köppen climate classification Af) in the south. Precipitation is very high and is affected by the rainy season and typhoons. Except the outlying Daitō Islands, the island chain has two major geologic boundaries, the Tokara Strait (between the Tokara and Amami Islands) and the Kerama Gap (between the Okinawa and Miyako Islands). The islands beyond the Tokara Strait are characterized by their coral reefs.

The Ōsumi and Tokara Islands, the northernmost of the islands, fall under the cultural sphere of the Kyushu region of Japan; the people are ethnically Japanese and speak a variation of the Kagoshima dialect of Japanese. The Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama Islands have a native population collectively called the Ryukyuan people, named for the former Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled them. The varied Ryukyuan languages are traditionally spoken on these islands, and the major islands have their own distinct languages. In modern times, the Japanese language is the primary language of the islands, with the Okinawan Japanese dialect prevalently spoken. The outlying Daitō Islands were uninhabited until the Meiji period, when their development was started mainly by people from the Izu Islands south of Tokyo, with the people there speaking the Hachijō language.

Administratively, the islands are divided into Kagoshima Prefecture (specifically the islands administered by Kagoshima District, Kumage Subprefecture/District, and Ōshima Subprefecture/District) in the north and Okinawa Prefecture in the south, with the divide between the Amami and Okinawa Islands, with the Daitō Islands part of Okinawa Prefecture. The northern (Kagoshima) islands are collectively called the Satsunan Islands, while the southern part of the chain (Okinawa Prefecture) are called the Ryukyu Islands in Chinese.

Island subgrouping

The last sunset in Japan is seen from Yonaguni.

The Ryukyu islands are commonly divided into two or three primary groups:

  • either administratively, with the Northern Ryukyus being the islands in Kagoshima Prefecture (known in Japanese as the "Satsunan Islands") and the Southern Ryukyus being the islands in Okinawa Prefecture (known in Japanese as the "Ryukyu Islands"),
  • or geologically, with the islands north of the Tokara Strait (Ōsumi and Tokara) being the Northern Ryukyus, those between the Tokara Strait and Kerama Gap (Amami and Okinawa) being the Central Ryukyus, and those south of the Kerama Gap (Miyako and Yaeyama) being the Southern Ryukyus.

The following are the grouping and names used by the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Department of the Japan Coast Guard.[3] The islands are listed from north to south where possible.

The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, another government organization that is responsible for standardization of place names, disagrees with the Japan Coast Guard over some names and their extent, but the two are working on standardization.[3] They agreed on February 15, 2010, to use Amami-guntō (奄美群島) for the Amami Islands; prior to that, Amami-shotō (奄美諸島) had also been used.[5]

Names and extents

The English and Japanese uses of the term "Ryukyu" differ. In English, the term Ryukyu may apply to the entire chain of islands, while in Japanese Ryukyu usually refers only to the islands that were previously part of the Ryūkyū Kingdom after 1624.

Nansei Islands

Nansei-shotō (南西諸島) is the official name for the whole island chain in Japanese. Japan has used the name on nautical charts since 1907. Based on the Japanese charts, the international chart series uses Nansei Shoto.[3]

Nansei literally means "southwest", the direction of the island chain from mainland Japan. Some humanities scholars prefer the uncommon term Ryūkyū-ko (琉球弧, "Ryukyu Arc") for the entire island chain.[6] In geology, however, the Ryukyu Arc includes subsurface structures such as the Okinawa Trough and extends to Kyushu.

During the American occupation of Amami, the Japanese government objected to the islands being included under the name "Ryukyu" in English because they worried that this might mean that the return of the Amami Islands to Japanese control would be delayed until the return of Okinawa. However, the American occupational government on Amami continued to be called the "Provisional Government for the Northern Ryukyu Islands" in English, though it was translated as Rinji Hokubu Nansei-shotō Seichō (臨時北部南西諸島政庁, Provisional Government for the Northern Nansei Islands) in Japanese.[7]


The name of Ryūkyū (琉球) is strongly associated with the Ryūkyū Kingdom,[8] a kingdom that originated from the Okinawa Islands and subjugated the Sakishima and Amami Islands. The name is generally considered outdated[by whom?] in Japanese although some entities of Okinawa still bear the name, such as the local national university.

In Japanese, the "Ryukyu Islands" (琉球諸島, Ryūkyū-shotō) cover only the Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama Islands,[9] while in English it includes the Amami and Daitō Islands. The northern half of the island chain is referred to as the Satsunan ("South of Satsuma") Islands in Japanese, as opposed to Northern Ryukyu Islands in English.

Humanities scholars generally agree that the Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama Islands share much cultural heritage, though they are characterized by a great degree of internal diversity as well. There is, however, no good name for the group.[6][10] The native population do not have their own name, since they do not recognize themselves as a group this size. Ryukyu is the principal candidate because it roughly corresponds to the maximum extent of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. However, it is not necessarily considered neutral by the people of Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama, who were marginalized under the Okinawa-centered kingdom.[10] The Ōsumi Islands are not included because they are culturally part of Kyushu. There is a high degree of confusion in use of Ryukyu in English literature. For example, Encyclopædia Britannica equates the Ryukyu Islands with Japanese Ryūkyū-shotō or Nansei-shotō in the definition but limits its scope to the Amami, Okinawa and Sakishima (Miyako and Yaeyama) in the content.[11]

Historical usage

"Ryūkyū" is an exonym and is not a self-designation. The word first appeared in the Book of Sui (636). Its obscure description of Liuqiu (流求) is the source of a never-ending scholarly debate over what was referred to by the name Taiwan, Okinawa or both. Nevertheless, the Book of Sui shaped perceptions of Ryūkyū for a long time. Ryūkyū was considered a land of cannibals and aroused a feeling of dread among surrounding people, from Buddhist monk Enchin who traveled to Tang China in 858 to an informant of the Hyōtō Ryūkyū-koku ki who traveled to Song China in 1243.[12] Later, some Chinese sources used "Great Ryukyu" (Chinese: 大琉球; pinyin: Dà Liúqiú) for Okinawa and "Lesser Ryukyu" (Chinese: 小琉球; pinyin: Xiǎo Liúqiú) for Taiwan. Okinawan forms of "Ryūkyū" are Ruuchuu (ルーチュー) or Duuchuu (ドゥーチュー) in Okinawan and Ruuchuu (ルーチュー) in the Kunigami language.[13][14] An Okinawan man was recorded as having referred to himself as a "Doo Choo man" during Commodore Matthew C. Perry's visit to the Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1852.[15]

From about 1829 until the mid-20th century, the islands' English name was spelled Luchu, Loochoo, or Lewchew. These spellings were based on the Chinese pronunciation of the characters "琉球", which in Mandarin is Liúqiú,[16] as well as the Okinawan language's form Ruuchuu (ルーチュー).[17]


Uchinaa (沖縄), Okinawa in Japanese, is originally a native name for the largest island in the island chain. The Japanese map series known as the Ryukyu Kuniezu lists the island as Wokinaha Shima (悪鬼納嶋) in 1644 and Okinawa Shima (沖縄嶋) after 1702. The name was chosen by the Meiji government for the new prefecture when they annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879. "Okinawa" never extends to Kagoshima Prefecture. Outside the prefecture, Okinawa Prefecture is simply referred to as Okinawa. In Okinawa Prefecture, however, Okinawa is strongly associated with Okinawa Island, and in this sense, Okinawa excludes the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. People in the Yaeyama Islands would use the expression "go to Okinawa" when they visit Okinawa Island. People from the Amami Islands, Kagoshima Prefecture would also oppose being included in Okinawa.[10]

Some scholars feel the need to group the Amami and Okinawa Islands because Amami is closer to Okinawa in some respects, for example from a linguistic point of view, than Miyako and Yaeyama. Japanese scholars use "Amami–Okinawa"[18] while American and European scholars use "Northern Ryukyuan".[19] They have no established single-word term for the group since the native population had not felt the need for such a concept.[10]

Southern Islands

The folklorist Kunio Yanagita and his followers used Nantō (南島, "Southern Islands"). This term was originally used by the imperial court of Ancient Japan. Yanagita hypothesized that the southern islands were the origin of the Japanese people and preserved many elements that were subsequently lost in Japan. The term is outdated today.[10]