Ryukyu Islands, chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of mainland Japan, between Kyushu Island and the northern tip of Taiwan.
The Ryukyus consist of three major groups: the Amami Islands in the north, the Okinawa Islands in the central area, and the Sakishima Group to the south. The larger islands are volcanic with mountainous terrain, and most of the smaller islands are flat coral formations. The principal agricultural products are sugarcane and sweet potatoes, and manufactures include Panama hats, textiles, and pottery. The leading exports are black sugar and canned pineapples. Naha, on Okinawa, is the principal city. Okinawa, Kokusai, and the Ryukyus universities are located on the island of Okinawa.
Before the conclusion of World War II, the islands formed the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan. During the postwar period the United States occupied and administered the islands, declaring the residual sovereignty of Japan over the islands in 1951. In 1953 the Amami Islands were returned to Japan and incorporated into Kagoshima Prefecture. Under an agreement reached in 1971, the remaining U.S.-occupied islands were returned to Japan in 1972; they now form Okinawa Prefecture.
The people of the Ryukyu Islands are related to the Japanese racially, culturally, and linguistically, and their history has been strongly influenced by both China and Japan. The Chinese first invaded the islands in the 7th century, and in the 14th century China established a supremacy that lasted for five centuries. Japan invaded the Ryukyus in 1609 and joined China in requiring tribute money. In 1879 Japan dethroned the ruler of the islands and annexed the Ryukyus as the Okinawa Prefecture; China protested, but the Japanese remained in control of the entire chain. In April 1945 the island of Okinawa was the site of a famous World War II victory of United States forces over the Japanese.
Human beings may have inhabited the Japanese island chain as early as 200,000 years ago. Very little is known about where these people came from or how they arrived on the islands. However, during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million to 10,000 years ago) sea levels were much lower than they are today, and a land bridge temporarily linked the Japanese islands to the Korea Peninsula and eastern Siberia on the Asian continent. Historians theorize that successive waves of Paleolithic hunters from the Asian mainland may have followed herds of animals across these land routes. The Paleolithic culture of Japan’s earliest inhabitants produced rough stone tools and articles of bone, bamboo, and wood.