Hokuzan was one of three kingdoms which controlled Okinawa Island in the 14th century. Based at Nakijin, on the Motobu Peninsula, it controlled the northern part of the island, its neighbors Chûzan and Nanzan controlling the central and southern regions respectively. Okinawa, previously controlled by a number of local chieftains or lords, loosely bound by a paramount chieftain or king of the entire island, split into these three more solidly defined kingdoms within a few years after 1314; the Sanzan period thus began, and would end roughly one hundred years later, when Chûzan's King Shô Hashi conquered Hokuzan in 1416 and Nanzan in 1429.
Hokuzan first came into being in 1314 when Tamagusuku inherited the role of head chieftain of all of Okinawa from his father Eiji; He did not have the charisma or leadership qualities to command the loyalty of all the local lords, and so the Lord of Nakijin, one of many powerful local chieftains, fled north with a number of lesser chieftains loyal to him, and established himself in Nakijin gusuku. Another powerful chieftain fled south and established the kingdom of Nanzan, leaving Tamagusuku in control only of the central part of the island, which thus became the kingdom of Chûzan.
Though Hokuzan was the largest of the three kingdoms, it was also the poorest and the most sparsely populated. Much of its land was wild, and its few farming or fishing villages were more primitive than those of the other two kingdoms. Nakijin Castle (城 gusuku) stood on an outcropping of the Motobu Peninsula, with drops of varying steepness on every side; the ruins which remain today indicate the development of a community of fair size around it, including residences for the king's vassals, and three shrines (拝所 uganju) to the native religion within the castle walls.
In addition to its deficiencies in agriculture and fishing, Hokuzan suffered from the disadvantage, relative to Chûzan, of holding no port to equal Naha (Okinawan: Naafa). A small junk trade used the inlet below the castle's promontory as a dock. Nevertheless, the northern kingdom engaged in its share of trade with many of the other states in the region, including Java, Sumatra, and the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. Chûzan entered a tributary relationship with Ming Dynasty China in 1372, and Hokuzan and Nanzan were granted similar commercial status shortly afterwards. Initially, amidst a severe pirate problem, the Ming placed no restrictions on the number of ships the three Ryukyuan kingdoms could send, nor on the size of the ships, and further provided ships to the Ryukyuan kingdoms, designating them official "carriers of [Ming] goods," a series of privileges extended to no other polity. This lasted only briefly, however. Over roughly the next thirty years, only nine tribute missions were sent from Hokuzan to China; Nanzan sent nineteen and Chûzan sent fifty-two. Hokuzan also did not send any students to China, as Chûzan did.
Roughly twenty years later, in the 1390s, the kings of all three kingdoms died within a few years, and succession disputes erupted across the island; similar events occurred in Nanjing at the same time, with the death of the Hongwu Emperor in 1398. Previously, China had only ever recognized one head of state on Okinawa, but now all three kingdoms sent envoys and vied for the prestige, wealth, and power that would come with China's favor; no response came from China for eleven years. In 1406, Bunei, King of Chûzan, was formally invested by representatives of the Ming Court in his position; the kings of Hokuzan would never enjoy this privilege.
Despite its economic and political advantages, Hokuzan posed a not insignificant threat to Chûzan, militarily, since its establishment. In the 1410s, however, disputes among the vassals of Hokuzan's king weakened the kingdom, and in 1416, Chûzan found an opportunity to strike after three of those vassals (anji) defected. Following a fierce defense, Nakijin castle fell, and the king and his closest vassals committed suicide. Shô Hashi, king of Chûzan, appointed his brother Warden of Hokuzan in 1422, a post which would remain for many years, holding little overall power, but serving to maintain order in the north on behalf of Chûzan's court at Shuri.
|Name||Kanji||Reign||Line or Dynasty||Notes|
|Haniji/Haneji||怕尼芝||1322?-1395?||Haniji Line||Haniji Lord of Nakijin established Hokuzan Kingdom|
|Hananchi||攀安知||1397-1416||Haniji Line||Shô Hashi, King of Chûzan conquered Hokuzan in 1416.|
- George H. Kerr, Okinawa: the History of an Island People. (revised ed.) Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
- The kingdom was more typically referred to as Sanhoku until the time of Sai On (1682-1761), who termed it Hokuzan in his writings. Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 6.
- Technically, Hashi's father Shô Shishô was king of Chûzan in 1416, and neither was called "Shô" until that name was granted them by the Ming court in 1421.
- Chronology of Okinawan History. Okinawa rekishi jinmei jiten (沖縄歴史人名事典, "Encyclopedia of People of Okinawan History"). Naha: Okinawa Bunka-sha, 1996. p85.
- Akamine, 6.