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Performing “Lūchū”: Identity Performance and Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan


This dissertation explores as sites of meaning-making the ritual activities of embassies dispatched by the Okinawan kingdom of Lūchū to the court of the Tokugawa shoguns in Edo (Tokyo) on seventeen occasions between 1644 to 1850. Through a combination of ritual elements from Ming/Qing, samurai, and Lūchūan court ceremonial traditions, these embassies served to ritually enact the kingdom’s situational political/cultural position within the region as a distinct Confucian kingdom both recognized as a sovereign kingdom and loyal tributary by the Ming and Qing imperial courts and claimed as belonging to or being under the banners of the Shimazu samurai house, lords of Kagoshima domain in southern Japan. This was accomplished chiefly in processions performed by the embassies in the streets and waterways of Japan, formal audiences with the Tokugawa shoguns, and receptions prepared for the embassies by local authorities, as well as through a number of other aspects of the embassies’ journeys and activities while in Japan.

Remarkable consistency is seen in the ritual forms practiced by both the Lūchūan embassies and by those receiving them. By parading in the same fashion as in previous embassies, wearing the same costumes, employing the same banners and ritual accoutrements, exchanging the same categories and volumes of gifts, and otherwise adhering to precedent and concepts of ritual propriety, Lūchūan embassies and their samurai counterparts ritually maintained relationships of a consistent character. Most of these ritual elements were not Tokugawa period innovations but were already standard elements of Lūchūan court ritual or Lūchūan-Japanese ceremonial interactions prior to the 1609 Shimazu invasion of kingdom. The continuity across this 1609 turning point shows that the form and style of these Lūchūan embassies was not designed and imposed by either the Shimazu or the Tokugawa for politically strategic reasons as part of a new 17th century form of foreign relations, but rather was in meaningful ways a continuation of established modes of ritual diplomatic interactions. Examination of these ritual forms also reveals that while the Tokugawa regime appropriated or adapted the logic and rhetoric of the so-called “Sinocentric world order” or “tribute system”, using embassies from Lūchū and Joseon Korea to form discourses or conceptions of a shogun-centric tributary world order, the ritual forms employed were based heavily on samurai customs, thus incorporating Lūchū and Joseon into a shogun-centered order which was also grounded in samurai networks and hierarchies of warrior houses linked to one another by individual or familial fealty.

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