By Jikishin Kobudo, Aug 19 2015 11:00AM
The relationship between France and Okinawa is long standing and is thanks to the Daimyo overlord Shimazu Nariakira (島津 斉彬).
Despite the Bakufu or “Shogunate” maintaining a closed door policy to the outside world, the Ryukyu Islands were never subject to the same level of isolation. Their remote geographical position meant that policing such a policy would be impractical and besides, the nations relied on international trade for their wealth.
The Shimazu clan were (as lords of the Sastuma region of Southern Kyushu, Japan) able to instigate relations with the Western world through their Ryukyu Island dependents. Nariakira was very western minded and was greatly interested in their technological advancements and how these may benefit his own clan.
This picture is the oldest photograph of a Japanese person and was taken of Nakiakira in 1857.
He advised the Tokugawa shogunate in 1851 to open relations with the west and in 1853 welcomed the arrival of American diplomats to Japan. In 1857 Shimazu Nakiakira, in an attempt to match the hegemony of the Bakufu, encouraged the French missionaries who were resident in Naha to act as intermediaries between his Okinawan representatives (Mabuni and Onga) and the French government. Nariakira agreed to purchase, under the cover of the King of Ryukyu Sho Tai, two screw-driven steamers, a warship and a commercial ship, and introduced a Western style navy including modern harbours to the islands. He purchased weapons and other various pieces of equipment and then constructed blast furnaces to develop western firearms.
He modelled his army drill and cavalry on that of the French, and he began to send his young academics to France and England to gain knowledge as part of cultural exchanges. Understandably King Sho Tai at the time was very welcoming of these advancements.
A remarkable man, Nakiakira permitted western residences to be built on Okinawa to house and provide work for foreigners both French and English. However, Nakiakira’s actions created huge division amongst those who wished to see integration with the West and those who did not. Following Nakiakira’s early death in 1858 there was a violent and revengeful response to his actions by those loyal to the Shogun who saw his actions as treasonable. Those loyal to the deceased daimyo suffered terribly and a brief period of resistance to the West was seen. Ultimately in 1863 Nakiakira’s open door policy was resumed, this time on Kyushu itself and the future of Japan was about to change forever.