Sappōshi, sappūshi, sakuhōshi—which is correct? Any of them will do. The scholarly answer would be to read the term 冊封使 as sakuhōshi. The individual components are 使 a servant or servants who 封 ennoble 冊 officially—in other words, “one who grants a title.” The term originates from Chinese emperors who gave out titles of dominion over a given territory.
In 1372, the ruler of Ryukyu acknowledged the authority of the Emperor of Ming China and proceeded with the dramatic diplomatic policy of acting as a vassal to the Emperor. Thereafter, whenever there was a change of kings in the Ryukyu, the Chinese emperor dispatched a sappōshi delegation to acknowledge the new ruler and sappōshi their title. The head and the deputy head of the delegation were assigned to Beijing and then sent three thousand kilometers overland to Fuzhou in Fujian Province. There, they arranged ships and crews, swelling the delegation size to about five hundred, and crossed over the East China Sea to reach the Ryukyu Kingdom.
The envoy stayed in Naha and participated in three events. The first was the mourning ceremony (called the yusai) at Sōgenji Temple, where the deceased king’s spirit was enshrined. The second ceremony was the coronation of the new king at Shuri Castle—in other words, the ceremony of sappō. During this ceremony, the emperor’s words—“I recognize you as King of Ryukyu”—were recited in Chinese, and the new king received a crown and robe gifted from the emperor. These gifts were also the origin of the Ryukyu term for the ship that carried the delegation—the ukanshin or “crown ship.”
The third ceremony was a banquet, called shichien or “seven feasts.” In addition to the celebratory foods, Ryukyuans performed both Ryukyu and Chinese arts, music, and dances. The performances were for the most part held at Shuri Castle, where a temporary stage was set up in the unā (courtyard) for kumiodori dances and the like. Because these Ryukyu dances were created as entertainment for the sappōshi delegation, they’re also sometimes called ukanshin dances.
There’s no denying that organizing the sappōshi in China was a laborious business, but the efforts on the Ryukyuan side were equally so. Performers had to undergo rigorous training, new kings had to learn Chinese. Perhaps the greatest problem, however, was the exorbitant expense. Years in advance of the ceremony, Ryukyu project teams were already organizing and raising funds in anticipation of the delegation.
Why were these efforts so necessary? The answer is quite simple. Maintaining a strong and trusting relationship with China was vital for the continuation of trade. The economy of the era was built on a system of tributary trade with China, and it could only occur once Ryukyu had received an imperial sappō and become vassals.