Okinawan Dance

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Izumi Higa

    Main guest

    Since winning top prize in an Okinawan performing arts competition in 1991, dancer Izumi Higa has brought the magic of Okinawan dance to international audiences with performances around the world. In 2009 she also began developing the next generation as a teacher of Okinawan performing arts and their history at Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts.

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October 27, 2016

Okinawan Dance

*You will leave the NHK website.

Stretching for over 1,000 km, from the southwestern tip of Kyushu almost as far as Taiwan, is an island chain sometimes known in English as the Ryukyu Archipelago. Formerly an independent kingdom with its own distinctive language and culture, these islands have been officially under Japanese rule since 1879.

Over a hundred islands (49 of them inhabited) in the lower two-thirds or so of the archipelago make up Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. But despite having been within the Japanese sphere of influence for several centuries, Okinawa’s distance from the mainland, proximity to China and Southeast Asia, and the abiding influence of the indigenous culture and language have combined to create rather a unique melting pot.

Even today, many older Okinawans converse among themselves in a dialect that is almost unintelligible to most Japanese, and heavily influenced by the more ancient Ryukyuan language.

The architecture is also highly distinctive, with its ruddy earthenware roofs and white limestone walls, as well as the traditional shisa (lion-dog) guardian statuettes. And the local cuisine boasts characteristic dishes such as goya chanpuru stir-fries, ramen-like soki soba and peanut-based jami-dofu.

But it is arguably the local music, and specifically the languid twang of the sanshin -- a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument and precursor to the shamisen -- that has the greatest power to generate mental images of relaxing on sandy Okinawan beaches lapped by crystal waves beneath expansive blue skies.

Just as integral to life on these islands as the music is the rich tradition of Okinawan dance. To locals, practically any occasion is an excuse to dance, whether it's a religious ritual, a stately classical performance, or a social gathering. 

It is said that this culture can be traced back to ancient rites where the gods, believed to live across the oceans, were beseeched to visit the islands when the weather was favorable for agriculture. Displays that pleased these deities, it was thought, would be rewarded with bountiful harvests.

Although many religious dances are still performed in conjunction with seasonal rituals all around the islands, such forms subsequently developed into folk performance, whose further evolution drew on the Ryukyu Kingdom’s unique position as a melting pot for several Asian cultures.

One performance tradition influenced by Buddhism is eisa, a parade joining dance and taiko drumming in a boisterous send-off for the spirits of deceased ancestors as the summer bon festival draws to a close.

A tributary state to Ming Dynasty China, the Ryukyu Kingdom often received emissaries. According to expert guest Izumi Higa, the lack of favorable winds would often leave such visitors unable to return home for months on end, during which time they had to be entertained. Dance became so central to courtly life that a minister was appointed especially to oversee such activities.

Among classical styles that can still be seen today are yotsudake, an elegant spectacle featuring lavish costumes and outsized hanagasa headdresses. Its stylized movements are intended to evoke the love of a woman.

Another is kumi-odori, whose measured pace and otherworldly, chanted dialog bear the influence of Noh theatre. Opening a valuable window on Ryukyuan courtly life, kumi-odori was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

In the 17th century, the Ryukyus came under the control of the Satsuma domain (modern-day Kagoshima), and though trade relations with China were also maintained, Japanese culture became another influence shaping life on the islands.

The need for formal performances diminished, and many professional dancers returned to the countryside, where they applied their poise and balance to zo-odori, a folk dance for country dwellers.

The stylized hand movements that feature in many Okinawan dances can also be seen in kachashi, a snake-armed shimmy that all locals seem able to perform at the drop of a hat. Kachashi often features in the finales of celebratory occasions such as weddings, or even just in spontaneous dance-offs at any number of local bars.

There even seems to be an intriguing link between dance and Okinawa’s martial arts tradition. Many of the aforementioned gestures are remarkably similar to those employed in local fighting styles, and especially the art of torite, or tuiti in Okinawan diarect, a series of joint locks and throws designed to subdue an opponent without inflicting physical harm.

Some experts believe that when Satsuma banned the practice of the martial arts that would later develop into karate, the techniques were forced underground, and maintained in secret through mastery of dance. Among the most practiced "dancers" were the guard of the royal court at Shuri.

 



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