The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

A Study of Ryukyu Materials in the Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology

Joint Research Coordinator SASAKI Toshikazu

Reserch Theme List


The collection of materials concerning the Ryukyu Islands held by the National Museum of Ethnology (hereafter “Minpaku”), numbering well over 1,000 items, includes many valuable materials, together with materials entrusted by the University of Tokyo and the former Attic Museum. However, in all cases the scholarly value of these materials has not been thoroughly understood. For example, Minpaku has many objects in its collection related to the head tax (nintozei) assessed on adults, including signboards with messages written in Yonaguni (kaida) characters unique to Yonaguni Island at the southern tip of the Ryukyu chain, and the early calculating methods (warazan) used in Ryukyu straw cords knotted in certain ways to communicate information to illiterate inhabitants. Only a minority of researchers are aware of the value of this scholarly information. These items are rarely used when research is conducted on the nintozei.

This research will include detailed investigation of the materials in Minpaku’s collection, with a particular objective in examining and researching nintozei-related materials. By doing so, we hope to be able to reevaluate the scholarly and cultural value of these Minpaku materials.

Research Results

The main objective of this research was to understand the contents and import of the materials in this Minpaku collection related to the “head tax” nintozei system previously operating in the Ryukyu Islands. These artifacts include: (1) warazan memory aids made from straw cords from the collection accumulated by Tashiro Yasusada, (2) signboards with messages written in kaida characters, and (3) notebooks written in kaida characters. We confirmed that even the number of such objects kept in Okinawa Prefecture is extremely small. Elsewhere in Japan, the Tokyo National Museum also has some materials donated by the same Tashiro Yasusada in 1887.

 We were also able to verify that Minpaku has two of the kaida signboards. The Tokyo National Museum has one and Kihouin Shushukan (a collection museum) in Okinawa has a partial signboard.

We have a total of approximately one hundred warazan artifacts in our possession, roughly divided into two groups: A (Kou) Group, which are items from the Okinawa main island and B (Otsu) Group, which are items from the outlying islands. Since some items are duplicates, if they are excluded the number is somewhat smaller. Incontrovertibly this is the largest collection in existence. The storage conditions are not necessarily optimal for some of the items. Considering that the material is straw, taking measures for proper preservation as soon as possible is essential.

Ms. Kurita Fumiko is engaged in the restoration work, although the items are not in the Minpaku collection.