Japan's forgotten royal family; Kingdom: The Sho kings who ruled what is now Okinawa for more than four centuries, until 1879, are gone, but the family lives on, and the kings' descendants, now among the common folk, keep traditions alive.

TOKYO -- Prince Tsuguru Sho is too busy keeping tabs on his Tokyo bar and restaurant to let his mind fill with idle thoughts. There are tables to set, customers to seat and food to serve. There is little time to pause and wonder what life would be like if his royal domain stretched beyond the four walls of his basement business.

Most customers at Sho's Zen restaurant, down the street from Japan's Imperial Palace, do not know that he is of royal blood. Few have heard of the great Sho kings, who reigned for more than 400 years without a standing army. Tsuguru Sho is a prince in Japan's other royal family, the one from the far end of the map, rulers of Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands.


From early in the 15th century through 1879, the Sho family ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom, an archipelago between Taiwan and Kyushu, the southernmost main Japanese island.

With trade and diplomacy, the Ryukyu Kingdom survived in the turbulent region and established trade routes that stretched from Siberia to Siam. The kingdom was erased from the map in 1879 when it was swallowed by Japan and renamed Okinawa Prefecture.


The Ryukyu court is gone, and the remaining treasures of the Sho dynasty have been sent to museums in and out of Japan. But the Sho family lives on. Like Japan's imperial family, it has its own court dialect, which is spoken by older Sho members at yearly family gatherings.

Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have a government agency scripting every action and every word they say at public and private functions. The Sho family has quietly entered the ranks of the common folk.

"As for myself and my relatives, we take great pride in the name Sho," says Tsuguru Sho. "But the Ryukyu Kingdom has become Okinawa Prefecture, and we go about our business as normal citizens."

The family has spread out across Japan. In its ancestral home, Okinawa, Shos run businesses such as a prep school for college entrance examinations, a nursery and a parking garage at the foot of Shuri Castle, the former home of the Sho kings.

When their reign ended, the family was given numerous privileges and signs of respect by the Japanese government. Shos held seats in the now-defunct House of Peers, and some of them married into Japan's imperial family.

The privileges ended with the bloody battle of Okinawa in World War II. More than 90 percent of Okinawa's people were homeless after the heavy fighting near the end of the war in 1945, the Sho family among them. Shuri Castle, which had been used as a Japanese army headquarters, was reduced to rubble. And Okinawa no longer belonged to Japan. It was under U.S. control.

The loss of the kingdom and the destruction of its treasure have not been so bad for the Sho family. As ordinary citizens, they are free to win and lose local elections, pursue academic work, and become newspaper reporters or flight attendants.

Atsushi Sho, born before the war, graduated from Keio University in Tokyo when the islands were under U.S. control. He worked for Fuji Bank in Tokyo, then returned to Okinawa and became president of a nursery at the foot of the rebuilt Shuri Castle and next to the royal garden kept by the Ryukyu king.


The most prominent member of the Sho family in Okinawa is Hiroko Sho, a university professor who studied at the University of Michigan. She married one of the grandsons of the last reigning Sho king and was vice governor of Okinawa.

In the tradition of Sho rulers who were diplomatic channels between China and Japan, she mediated between her conservative political allies and the governor's more liberal camp.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was once known to the Chinese emperor as the "country of courtesy" because of its rulers' mediation skills, she says. "This spirit and way of thinking is still lasting."

Hiroko Sho is among the handful of people who speak the Ryukyu court dialect, and she fears that younger members of the family might not keep the traditions. With her husband's sisters, granddaughters of the last reigning Sho king, she uses the court dialect. "When we meet someone, we don't say hello but say in the imperial dialect, 'Unchi-uganabira,' which means, 'It is a pleasure to see your face,' " she says.

The Sho dynasty began with Sho Hashi, who expanded trade and united the Ryukyus in 1429. It nearly ended with Sho Toku in 1469. Trying to conquer more territory, he emptied the state coffers.

He was succeeded by his main accountant and administrator, Sho En, who took the Sho name even though he was not related to the previous Sho king.


His son, Sho Shin, reigned during the golden days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. With states in Southeast Asia warring and with internal strife in Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom was an oasis of peace and trade, with a lively local craft culture.

While other nations plotted invasions of their neighbors, the Ryukyu Kingdom, without an army, earned a reputation as an honest broker in the region. Its importance in trade and support from the Chinese emperor kept out invading forces for more than a century.

That ended in 1609, when the feudal lord of Satsuma, in southern Japan, invaded the islands and put an end to the golden age. King Sho Nei was kidnapped, and the Ryukyu Kingdom was forced to swear allegiance to the Satsuma clan, which took over Okinawa's foreign trade.

Sho Nei was so distraught about the humiliation that he asked not to be buried in the family's ancestral tomb.

The kingdom's prosperity and independence were gone, but the Sho family reigned for 270 years more as its kings walked a delicate line between the Japanese and Chinese emperors. It still paid tribute to China, and during Japan's 250 years of isolation from the outside world, the Ryukyu Kingdom was Japan's main avenue of international trade.

American Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Okinawa in May 1853, before sailing into Tokyo Bay that year. He demanded an audience with King Sho Taikyu and was received warmly, though reluctantly, by a bewildered Ryukyu court.


Perry called the Ryukyu Islands "as pleasant as any in the world." He took home a number of gifts, including a bell cast in the 15th century that found its way to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The bell was returned to Okinawa in 1987 and replaced with a replica that is rung only when Navy beats Army in their annual football game.

In the years that followed the Perry visit, the Japanese government began to press China for control of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was ordered to cut its tribute relationship with China in 1875 and abolished in 1879.

The last direct descendant of the accountant who founded the second Sho dynasty, Sho Hiroshi, died a little more than a year ago, leaving the restaurateur, the professor and a few others to carry on the Sho heritage.

Pub Date: 1/15/99