Message from Chimu: Ryukyu-Okinawa Traditional Performing Arts Tour of the South Pacific

Message from the group

We come from Okinawa, a small island that lies at the southern-west end of the Japanese archipelago.

Long ago Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom called Ryukyu Kingdom. During the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom, from the 14th to 19th centuries, Ryukyu’s performing arts became a major cultural asset and played an important role in “Cultural diplomacy” by the Ryukyu Kingdom. The spirit of the arts cultivated during this period is kept alive today in Okinawa’s traditional performing arts.

The characteristic spirit of Okinawan culture is frequently expressed by the word, chimu. It is sometimes written using the kanji character which essentially means heart or soul.  
We chose chimu as the subtitle of our performance to symbolize our desire to strengthen emotional bonds that bring people together.

Chimugurisan
is another commonly used word in Okinawa to express something that is heartbreaking.

In February 2011, a large earthquake hit Christchurch and surrounding communities in New Zealand, and in March, another major earthquake struck north-eastern Japan. By performing in the spirit of chimu, we wish to not only pray for recovery and reconstruction, but to also share our will to overcome our hardship (chimugurisan)- to move forward.

As people from a similar environment surrounded by a beautiful ocean, we hope to present to you the performing arts that have been passed down from generation to generation as a unique tradition in the Okinawan islands.

  • Part 1: Traditional Ryukyuan Dances
    In Part 1, we recreate the graceful, dynamic dances of beauty that were performed for the king and his guests during the time the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled Okinawa.
  • Part 2: Shimauta Songs
    In Part 2, we bring you a variety of shimauta, or traditional island folk songs composed of words and melodies unique to Okinawa, that have been passed down through the generations and continue to be sung today in the fifty or so populated islands of Okinawa.
  • Part 3: Creative Dances
    In Part 3, we express the future potentials of Okinawan performing arts through lively, and sometimes mellow, songs and dances.

Ryukyu-Okinawa traditional performing arts are filled with emotions and dreams. We hope our performance inspires courage to move forward, one step at a time, toward a bright future.

Ryukyu History

Ryukyu, a name that can be traced to a 7th century Chinese history text, refers to present-day Okinawa and islands in the vicinity of Taiwan. Early history here spans from the gusuku period in the 12th century through the 15th century founding of Ryukyu Kingdom to Japanese invasion in 1609 by the Shimazu clan.

During this time, a long period of hunter-gatherer settlements in the countryside came to a close in the 12th century as farming became prevalent. Regional feudal lords called aji emerged, building the fortresses (gusuku) after which this period of internal power-struggles is named.

Sho Hashi was one of such leader who in 1429 united the three dominant kingdoms on Okinawa to form the Ryukyu Kingdom. Prosperity ensued, was trade with China and Southeast Asia from the favorable ports of the three kingdoms flourished. Thanks to this longstanding tributary trade with China, the island of Okinawa was held in great esteem.

Okinawa

According to one theory about the origin of witten forms of Okinawa, the phonetic rendering first appears in The Tale of the Heike (Nagato edition), and corresponding Chinese characters were decided at a later date.

When the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, it was renamed Okinawa Prefecture, indicating that it had officially become a part of Japan.
Although most Japanese now refer to the island as Okinawa, some residents still call it Uchina, as it has been called in the local dialect for many years.

Okinawa has seen many changes over time, as the island has shifted from being the Ryukyu Kingdom to Okinwa Prefecture to part of postwar occupied Japan. Perhaps a reflection of islanders" consciousness of is pronounced differently in the local dialect than in standard Japanese.

Okinawan Island Folk Songs

A famous Okinawan island folk song, "The Passage of Time"(Jidai no nagare),includes a verse with the following meaning.

The times change, from Chinese to Japanese to American influence Okinawa, so rocked by changes

This kind of island folk song, sung and listened to by many, must be intimately linked to how residents view themselves and their times.
Surely Okinawans have adapted flexibly to the times because song and dance have always been a part of their life.

Listening to an island song is like listening to the times in which it was written, no matter how times may change.

Performance Overview

[Part 1 :Traditional Ryukyuan Dances]

(1) Yotsudake

Yotsudake is a celebratory dance performed to an accompaniment of slow sanshin music. Dancers wear a flower hat symbolic of Okinawan dances and a kimono colorfully dyed according to the traditional "bingata" technique reminiscent of the Ryukyu Kingdom period. In each hand they hold an instrument made of four pieces of bamboo, called yotsudake, which literally means "four bamboo pieces." They use these yotsudake to make clicking sounds to the music as they dance.
The lyrics to the song express the joy of dancing on a special occasion.

(2) Kashikake

Kashikake depicts an eloquent tale of a young wife who spends her nights alone weaving a cloth while dreaming of her loving husband who is off on a journey.
Using tools for weaving called "kase(reel)" and "waku(frame)" as props, the dance features simple movements performed to a rhythmic tempo, and is widely known and loved by many people. The kimono costume is worn off the shoulder to one side as an expression of upper-class housewives working.

(3) Wakashuzei

Zei is a pennon-like tool that warlords used when taking command of their troops. In this Okinawan dance, it is used to express gallantry and vivaciousness, while also praying for good harvests and celebrating peace.
Dancers wear a half-hat, decorated with a flower and auspicious strings of gold and silver, and a hiki-haori coat over a long-sleeved kimono costume.

(4) Hatomabushi

Hatoma is a small island in Okinawa, and hatomabushi is a dance performed on the island during a village festival called Kitsugansai as a prayer for agricultural fertility. It is originally performed to a slow song, but depending on the performers, the song and dance are sometimes performed at a faster tempo.
The dance itself features a well-balanced combination of Ryukyuan dances, which incorporate karate movements, and the kappore dance of mainland Japan.

(5) Shundo

Shundo is a pair dance performed by two dancers who portray beautiful women and two dancers who portray unattractive women. It is a comical dance that incorporates drama elements to make comparisons between beautiful but cold-hearted women and unattractive but friendly and warm-hearted women.
The "beautiful" women wear the traditional festive dress of women belonging to samurai-class families, while the "unattractive" women don an unattractive mask and wear a humble costume in the guise of peasant women.

[Part 2: Okinawan Folk Songs]

Songs that were born from everyday life in Okinawa, such as work songs and lullabies, were mainly passed down by word of mouth and eventually became traditional classics.

With the addition of sanshin music to match the lyrics, the songs have continued to occupy a warm and special place in people's hearts until today. Each village usually has its own folk songs or its own lyrical variations on songs that have spread widely to many local communities.

The most conspicuous difference between Okinawan (Ryukyuan) folk songs and Western music lies in their scale. Okinawan folk songs are based on a scale composed of the notes "do," "mi," "fa," "so," "ti," and "do." It is a scale common to Southeast Asian music.

The folk songs we deliver today include songs that are indispensable to village events, songs that set the mood for romance, and songs that contain references to local customs, lifestyles, and sceneries and that are accompanied by a different sanshin music or are sung differently according to the singer.

[Contact Us]

Mariko Konno (Ms) Tel: +81 3 5369 6063 E-mail
Performing Arts Section, Department of Arts and Culture

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