Shima Uta - Remembering the Battle of Okinawa

Updated: Jul 26


The song Shima Uta has been loved by Okinawan and Japanese communities inside and outside Japan ever since it was released in 1993 by a Japanese rock band, The Boom. The song has made the band popular nationwide and been covered by many artists.


Shima means "an island/islands" in modern Japanese, but it also means ''villages'' in Ryukyuan languages. Uta refers to "songs", so shimauta simply means "songs of an island/village". In old times in Okinawa where used to be called Ryukyu, each village, shima, was protected by leaders who were descendants of the founder of shima. Within agrarian shima communities, a number of hymn and work songs that were unique to each shima had been developed. Umui and quana are examples of these songs that contributed to maintaining socio-economic relationships throughout Okinawan and Amami islands for centuries. Umui and quana had eventually been integrated to a series of omoro which was regularly sung by female shamans to praise the King and royal individuals during the Ryukyuan monarch. The royals in omoro are usually illustrated as spiritual leaders who are connected to Sun God to protect the country. Omoro almost always praises the king and other important individuals who can bring their people wealth and fortunate. So, we can conclude that umui, quana and other older songs held similar roles among shima communities.


What used to be uta in Okinawa is now called Ryuka. It is a form of literature which was established around the 16th century. In comparison to tanka(a type of waka, classical Japanese literature) whose form is composed of 5-7-5-7-7 on, or syllabic units, Ryuka is usually composed of 8-8-8-6 on. What makes Ryuka distinct from other forms of Japanese poems is that, traditionally, it has been performed as song lyrics. With greater influence by the Japanese shogunate system and waka popularity among Ryukyu nobles, people begun to call their form of poem Ryuka instead of uta to distinguish from waka, which was called uta by the Japanese. Today, the term shimauta is used to indicate Okinawan songs in general.


Now let's take a close look at the song Shima Uta.

The song starts with dēigo, Japanese name for tiger's claw (Erythrina variegata), blooming its flower and bringing a storm. In Okinawa, dēigo usually blooms between March to May, and it is said that when dēigo trees are in an exquisite bloom in spring, strong typhoons would hit islands that year.


On March 26th, 1945, Americans captured Kerama islands and proceeded their invasion on the west coast of Okinawajima to attack military bases of Imperial Japan. The battle was later called "Iron Storm" among Okinawan people, killing over 200,000 people within just three months and making itself as the deadliest battle in the Pacific during the second World War. The battle officially ended on June 23 after General Mitsuru Ushijima who was the commander of the Imperial Japanese Army in Okinawa, committed suicide. The battle left hundreds of thousands deaths and missing, homelessness, injured and hungry children and seniors, and complete destruction of major Okinawan cities and towns. Okinawa's fate was in the hands of Americans for almost 30 years until 1972 when Okinawa was finally returned to Japan as the 47th prefecture.


June 23rd is Okinawan Memorial Day (Irei no Hi in Japanese) to commemorate the victims of the Battle of Okinawa.


The composer Kazufumi Miyazawa is from Kofu, Yamanashi prefecture. When he visited Okinawa in early 1990s, he was shocked to hear about mass suicide during the battle of Okinawa. He wrote Shima Uta to commemorate the victims of the battle. Miyazawa studied traditional Okinawan musical scale, Ryukyu Onkai (pentatonic scale of 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7), and incorporated it to his piece.


At first, the song wasn't accepted by some of Okinawan people because Miyazawa was not an Okinawan descendant, and he played Shima Uta with sanshin, Okinawan traditional banjo. Sanshin was allowed to play only by noble families before Ryukyu monarch was annexed to then-Imperial Japan, and the instrument has been inherited from generation to generation as family treasure. Ever since the Japanese took advantage of Okinawa in the 17th century, Okinawa has faced tough challenges. For some Okinawan people, a song written by a Japanese musician with sanshin singing about their home wasn't something fun to listen to. The band did not give up and travelled around the world to perform Shima Uta. Today, Shima Uta is considered as one of the greatest Okinawan pop songs.


The Japanese and Americans had brought "Iron Storm" to Okinawan islands when dēigo started to bloom. The storm lasted until early summer when the season of dēigo flowers usually ends. The song uses a metaphor of dēigo flowers as victims and the storm as the deadly battle.


Although 76 years has passed by since the Battle of Okinawa, for many Okinawan people, the war has not ended yet. About three quarters of US military bases in Japan still occupies Okinawa where makes up only 0.6% of the nation's land area. US is building a new Marine Corps air base in Henoko, despite strong opposition against the construction. Chemical leaks from US military bases are usually not reported to local residents, and "returned" properties are often contaminated by hazardous materials. Homicides, rapes, assaults, and accidents committed by US personnel continue to impact Okinawan communities negatively. Complex nature of social, economic, political relationships between Okinawa and Japan divides the communities and brings challenges every day.


It is significant to note that the role of Shima Uta is not only to remember the past event but also to question the current situation of Okinawa. After the war, people wanted to build a society where everyone lives without being suffered. Has such society been realized? Within the post-imperial, post-war society in Okinawa, people are still struggling. The message of Shima Uta is relevant to anyone who faces challenges to seek justice and peace, and the song encourages us to achieve better future.


We are going to perform Shima Uta for Powell Street Festival this summer. We want to remember people deceased because of Covid19, victims of ongoing conflicts and hate crimes. We have chosen Museum of Anthropology to perform Shima Uta to show our respect for Indigenous Peoples and commemorate 215 children who had died and been buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Please visit our event page for more information. It will be a free online event, so please take advantage of this opportunity to experience the essence of Okinawan culture.


Full lyrics below:

Shima Uta

by Kazufumi Miyazawa


(Translated)

Dēigo flower blooms, calls a wind, the storm comes

Dēigo in full bloom, calls a wind, the storm comes

Grief comes and goes just as waves travel the islands

Beside bushes of sugarcane, I met you

Under bushes of sugarcane, I lost you forever


The Island song travels with the wind beyond the ocean

The island song travels with the wind, brings my tears for you


Dēigo flower is gone, leaves only calm waves

Small pieces of happiness bloom momentarily by the shore


By bushes of sugarcane, I sang with a friend

Under bushes of sugarcane, I lost him forever


The Island song travels with the wind beyond the ocean

The island song travels with the wind, brings my love to you


Ocean, universe, god, life

May you be in the evening calm eternally


The Island song travels with the wind beyond the ocean

The island song travels with the wind, brings my tears for you

The Island song travels with the wind beyond the ocean

The island song travels with the wind, brings my love for you


Special thanks to Timothy Shay upon translation.


(Original)

Deigo no hana ga saki kaze wo yobi arashi ga kita

Deigo ga sakimidare kaze wo yobi arashi ga kita

Kurikaesu kanashimi wa shima wataru nami no you

Uuji no mori de anata to deai

Uuji no shita de chiyo ni sayonara


Shimauta yo kazeni nori tori to tomo ni umi wo watare

Shimauta yo kaze ni nori todoketeokure watashi no namida


Deigo no hana mo chiri sazanami ga yureru dake

Sasayaka na shiawase wa utakata no nami no hana

Uuji no mori de utatta tomo yo

Uuji no shita de yachiyo no wakare

Shimauta yo kazeni nori tori to tomo ni umi wo watare

Shimauta yo kaze ni nori todoketeokure watashi no ai wo


Umi yo uchuu yo kami yo inochi yo

Konomama towa ni yuunagi wo


Shimauta yo kazeni nori tori to tomo ni umi wo watare

Shimauta yo kaze ni nori todoketeokure watashi no namida


Shimauta yo kazeni nori tori to tomo ni umi wo watare

Shimauta yo kaze ni nori todoketeokure watashi no ai wo


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.


Reference: Omorosoushi, Hymn of Southern Islands by Hokama Shuzen 「南島の神歌ーおもろさうしー」外間守善著



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