The Sōgen-ji Eastern Entrance stele

It seems that most stelai inscribed druing the Ryūkyū Kingdom are either in Classical Chinese, or in Middle (or literary Early Modern) Japanese. Very few are actually in the contemporary vernacular Old or Middle Okinawan. The stele erected at the eastern entrance to Sōgen-ji (崇元寺) is one of the few exceptions, with one face in Classical Chinese, and another in Middle Okinawan.

Background on Sōgen-ji
Sōgen-ji was located between Tomari (泊村 Tomari-mura) and Makishi Villages (牧志村 Makishi-mura) near where the Asato River (安里川 Asato-gawa) split into Tomari Harbor (泊港 Tomari-kō) and the Kumoji River (久茂地川  Kumoji-gawa), on the western edge of classical Naha. Originally built as a Rinzai (臨済宗 Rinzai-shū) Zen Buddhist temple, it later served as a Royal Mausoleum (until the construciton of Tamaudun in 1501 CE). It was built early on during the reign of Shō Shin (尚眞, r. 1477–1526 CE), and was one of several Rinzai temples Shō Shin constructed1. Much of the temple was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 CE. Thankfully, the stele itself survived, and, along with a large number of other important stelai, was included in both facsimile and transcribed form in Tsukada 1970.

Description of the Stele
The stele itself is made of stone, with inscriptions on the front (Classical Chinese) and the back (Middle Okinawan). Unfortunately, the version in Tsukada 1970 does not describe where on the stele the date is inscribed, and the facsimile does not show where it is either.

The facsimile (and, presumably, the inscription itself) is perfectly legible. The Classical Chinese text is inscribed in regular script (楷書 kaisho), while the Middle Okinawan text is inscribed in cursive script (草書 sōsho).

The Classical Chinese text and the Middle Okinawan texts are equivalent to one another. They serve as a prohibition, warning potential visitors to the temple of its significance (as a Royal Mausoleum), and ordering them to dismount.

The inscriptions

Front (Classical Chinese)


dàn <jù> guānyuán rén děng zhì cĭ xià mă
only <all> anji common.people arrive here go.down horse

‘All anji and commoners arriving here, dismount.’

The character 但 dàn ‘only’ is erroneously used as a variant of 俱 jù ‘all’. Both share the radical 人, and some graphical variants partially overlap (see the Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants entries on dàn ‘only’ and jù ‘all’, respectively, for examples).

官員 guānyuán ‘(an) official’ is used here in place of the Okinawan あんし or 按司2 anji, a class of landed nobility in Okinawa, which existed not only during the Ryūkyū Kingdom, but also previous to it.

Back (Middle Okinawan)


anji=to kesu=mo kuma n-ite muma=kara orer-ube-shi
anji=COM common.people=ASF here COP-COOR horse=ABL go.down-DEB-RLS

Anji and also commoners must dismount from [their] horses.’

Here, like in many other Middle Okinawan texts, we see etymological or pseudo-etymological spellings throughout the text. A three-way vowel height distinction is maintained in writing, while it would have likely merged into a two-way distinction in speech (with front and back mid vowels merging into the front and back high vowels, respectively).

Despite the text being very short, there is at least one diagnostic lexical item hinting that the text is intended to be Middle Okinawan as opposed to Middle Japanese. Namely, Middle Okinawan くま kuma ‘here’, rather than Middle Japanese ここ koko ‘here’. While not as decisive, the unetymological spelling of orir- as orer- is interesting, and shows that there was confusion between mid and high vowels, which merged quite early in the history of Okinawan.

However, the influence of Middle Japanese can clearly be seen in the loan of the debitive suffix -ube- (see discussion in Vovin 2009: 879-880).

It is unclear to me if むま muma ‘horse’ is a loan from Middle Japanese, or an attempt at rendering the regressive assimilation of nasality into the initial vowel. Modern Okinawan ʔNma ‘horse’ is likely from earlier *uma ‘horse’, as it has a glottal stop as its initial segment, rather than a nasal. Compare ‘horse’ with the historical outcome of ‘all’, Modern Okinawan nNna ‘all’, which is from earlier *mina ‘all’. This too has regressive nasalization of the vowel, but additionally had regressive palatalization of the initial segment *m > n.



’25th day of the 7th lunar month, 24th of the sexagenary cycle, 6th year of [the reign of the] Ming Emperor Jiājìng’

In the Gregorian calendar, this date is 22 August 1527 CE. Note that I have no reference to the inscription, as a facsimile or otherwise; I am relying solely on Tsukada (1970)’s transcription.

Edit (13 May 2016) — Added forgotten citation to Vovin 2009.


  1. I am not as well versed as I would like on the history of Buddhism in Ryūkyū Kingdom. However, it seems to me that the introduction of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism by Shō Shin is a calculated move imitating Rinzai’s intimate ties to government in Japan. The Rinzai school was closely associated with the Muromachi Shogunate—more or less the “official” sect—and more widely, nobility in general (Matsuo 2007: 195). It also retained a strong connection with Chinese practice, including that Chinese monks were present in some Rinzai temples, and Rinzai monks were used in addition to diplomats as intermediaries between Japan and China (Matsuo 2007: 195–6). This seems even more clear in light of the fact that the head temple of Rinzai in Kamakura and in Shuri are both named Engaku-ji (円覚寺).
  2. This is likely ateji—Chinese characters used soley (or at least primarily) for their phonetic value.

ABL – ablative case
ASF – additive-scalar focus paticle
COM – commitative case
COOR – coordinating converb
COP – copula
DEB – debitive mood
RLS – realis mood


Matsuo Kenji. 2007. A History of Japanese Buddhism. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Tsukada Seisaku. 1970. 「琉球国碑文記」 Inscriptions of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Tōkyō: Keigaku Shuppan.

Vovin, Alexander. 2009. A Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese. Part Two: Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Conjunctions, Particles, Postpositions. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

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