The rise and fall of the Ryukyu Kingdom – present-day Okinawa – is a cautionary tale for Hong Kong and other “hubs”: a city’s prosperity, and regional or global importance, is not a given and may not last forever.

From the 15th century to the 16th, tiny Ryukyu enjoyed more than 100 years of prosperity because of its role as a transshipment port between China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. All kinds of goods went through the strategically located island kingdom: medicines, porcelain, silk and copper coins from China; silver, lacquerware, swords, screens and fans from Japan; and tin, spices, sugar, rhinoceros horns, ivory, frankincense and ambergris from Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East. Products from Holland, Spain and Portugal, which were already gaining footholds in Southeast Asia, were also transshipped through Ryukyu.

Despite almost a century as a trading hub, Ryukyu’s heyday ended when China began to open up and nations started trading directly with their giant neighbour. The invasion by the southern Japanese domain of Satsuma in 1609 made Ryukyu a vassal of Japan, bringing an end to the independence of the Ryukyu people. In 1879, Japan formally abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and the islands became Okinawa prefecture.

Today, Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan, with a poverty rate that is roughly twice the national average.

Wee Kek Koon