The 1870s witnessed mounting tension among East Asian countries. In 1874,. Japan sent an expeditionary force to Taiwan to punish the aborigines there who had, in 1871, killed fifty-four shipwrecked Ryūkyūans (Liu-ch'iuans). By doing so, according to many scholars today, Japan was able to claim retroactively that the Ryūkyūan castaways were legally Japanese subjects, thereby ending the Sino-Japanese dispute over the ambiguous political status of the Ryūkyū Islands (the Chūzan Kingdom of Ryūkyū paid tribute to both China and the Satsuma-han of Japan before the 18705).
This paper is a reappraisal of this episode of the ‘Quasi-war’ in East Asia. By going into the Chinese, Japanese, Ryūkyūan, and Western sources, it unfolds some unknown events which directly and indirectly led to the Japanese decision to send forces to Taiwan, as well as the Chinese reactions. The conclusion of this paper refutes the customary view which holds that China had in 1874 ‘renounced her claim over Ryūkyū and yielded to the Japanese claim she had earlier disputed.’ As this paper will show, neither Soejima Taneomi nor Ōkubo Toshimichi had succeeded in securing any Chinese endorsement of Japan's sovereign right over Ryūky¯. Nor did the Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1874, concerning the settlement of the Taiwan crisis, legally settle the Ryūkyū problem, since Ryūky¯ was never mentioned in the Treaty. As a result, the issue continued to trouble Peking and Tokyo in the years that immediately followed.