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  • Writer's pictureMarina Watabe

Okinawan Music & Dance - Art for Resilience

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Okinawan songs make me feel like singing along and dancing.

For Okinawan people and many of those who have been attracted by Okinawan culture, music and dance have played a huge role in life. Wherever you go in Okinawa - grandparents' place, restaurants, bars, and festivals - there are full of Okinawan music. Local radio stations almost always play Okinawan songs, and people enjoy playing the Sanshin (Okinawan three-strings banjo, we'll talk about it in a future post) and dancing to celebrate; at the wedding, or when kids enter elementary school. In Okinawa, you are surrounded by music and dance everyday.

Okinawa, a prefecture located Southwestern Japan, used to be called Ryukyu and had flourished through maritime trade with Southeast and East Asian countries. Approximately 170 islands between East China Sea and Pacific Ocean had been ruled by Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th to 19th century, cultivating unique culture under both China's tributary system and Japan's shogunate system before being annexed by Japan in the late 19th century. After the World War II, Americans had occupied Okinawa for almost 30 years, significantly influencing the pop culture of the base towns.

Okinawan performing arts have attracted visitors by diversity in the themes and forms. Religious songs and dances have been performed primarily by women, traditionally praising their protectors and wishing safety of men travelling across the ocean (how they conduct ceremonies are varied among communities). Noble men organized Theatre of Ryukyu, or Ukanshin Geino, for the royals and Chinese envoys during the monarchy period, and the performers attracted the audience by elegant melodies and beautiful Bingata dresses (After the World War II, women joined this field of art, and there are now many female artists leading the field). On the other hand, more cheerful songs and dances were popular among peasants and people in lower classes, often illustrating their daily lives.

Last time I went to back to Okinawa was 2019 - it was the first time in a long time. There was a folksong that was being played at an Okinawan noodle place made me realized what I had missed while I was away. I felt mixture of emotions at the same time - joy, relief, frustration, and wistfulness - the music easily brought my memories back. While many Okinawan songs are comical and merry, others are more sorrowful. Music and dance have been essential for Okinawan people to grow a sense of intimacy and relieve pain and trauma. From the late 19th to the early 20th century, tens of thousands of Okinawans left their home to settle overseas due to economic and political reasons (in many cases forcefully). Emigrants from Okinawa brought the music with them to another country, and sharing laughs and tears while playing songs from home gave them the resilience to overcome challenges and barriers in foreign cultures.

When I first came to Canada in 2012, I was surprised that many Canadians knew about Okinawa. It made me very happy. In Canada, Okinawa is known for its beautiful oceanic landscape and people's longevity. Nevertheless, many social and political challenges reside within the same community. Art and culture in Okinawa were severely impacted when both the monarchy had been dissolved by then-Imperial government and Japanese and Americans had fought one of the deadliest battles in the Pacific. But people never gave up. Former Ryukyuan noble families became singers and actors. War survivors made musical instruments from debris and scraps and gave a relief to others in the devastated neighbourhood. Okinawan performing arts today are built upon the enormous efforts made by our antecedents who believed in better future and recovery of the community.

During the pandemic, art and culture face challenges for survival once again. What we can learn from our antecedents, however, is that art and culture are the key to bouncing back; art and culture can connect people when going through difficult situations; art and culture strengthen the community. You might have lost some connections during the pandemic, but you can also discover a new one. Amid the crisis, we can still be hopeful.

For this summer, our group will invite you to an online performance at Powell Street Festival. We have chosen songs that have been loved by Okinawan people and reflect the theme of community recovery. Please check out our event details page and @southernwavevan on Instagram for the updates. We will talk more about the event on upcoming blog posts.

Thank you so much for reading! I'd happy to hear any feedback you might have. Please leave a comment or use the contact form on the website.

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