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  • Writer's pictureMarina Watabe

Tancha Mē - Fishing Culture of Okinawa

Tancha Mē Bushi is a bright, joyful, and lively folksong. It is used in a popular folkdance Tancha Mē. In the dance, a pair of a man and woman dance together to depict daily life of a fishing town by the beach of Tancha.

Pretty often, Okinawan dance pieces consist of two or more songs. The folkdance Tancha Mē is not an exception. It is made of two dance parts separated by two songs: Tancha Mē Bushi and Kachirin Bushi. In this article, we'll discuss Tancha Me Bushi, since it is more relevant to the dance piece itself.

Tancha is located in Onna-son (village) at west coast of Okinawajima. Onna-son is famous for its beautiful shorelines and has attracted many tourists. During the Ryukyu monarchy, deep pine forests were growing around Onna and were called Unna matsu (meaning pine trees of Onna). Also, Onna Nabi, the first-recognized female poet in Okinawa was from Onna-son. Tancha had thrived by raising livestock and fishing during the monarchy.

Unlike to most Okinawan folksongs and dances, we know how and when the song Tancha Me was composed. In 1726, King Sho Kei became the first Ryukyu king who visited northern Okinawa. The royal trip was accompanied by a few hundred noble officials and servants. They started traveling from the Shurijo castle, which was located in the south of Okinawajima, a thin island that spreads from north to south between East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. While traveling to the north, the king and his men visited villages along their way. One of those villages was Onna. The villagers in Onna composed Tancha Mē to please the king during his stay. The song illustrates the daily life in the fishing village with a cheerful melody. Although almost 300 years has passed by since it was composed, we can still tell how they enjoyed living in their village.

Tamagusuku Seiju, a legendary performer whose family was a noble family before the dissolution of the monarchy, choreographed Tancha Mē in the late 19th century. Two dancers, a male part and a female part, illustrate how everyday life was like in the fishing town of Onna in the early 18th century. The male in a white hair band and a short bashofu (Japanese banana fabric, traditional clothes of Okinawa) holds an oar to show that he is on a fishing boat, going out into the ocean. On the other hand, the female has a basket called baaki above her head because she is collecting the fish that the man catches and selling it to other villages. Baaki is made of bamboo and had been commonly used across Ryukyu islands. Its name and shape varied for the uses for farmers, fishermen, and vendors.

Okinawa has a unique fishing culture. Fishing has been an important part of people's lives, and fishermen (uminchu) have been respected from their communities. Sabani is a traditional style fishing boat. The name is said to be derived from "saba (a shark)" and "nni (a boat)". Itoman-shi located the south of Naha has a long history of fishing. Fishermen in Itoman had used dugout canoes called marukinni made of a single tree until the Ryukyu monarchy banned them to protect forests. Then, sabani with planks had been developed and become an essential tool for fishing industry in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Netting was a popular fishing method across Okinawa during that period. Fishermen would dive into the ocean and thrust rods connected to a net into a gap between coral reefs where fish were expected to gather after high tides. During low tides, fishermen would dive again to chase fish towards the net. The fishermen stayed underwater for several minutes while hunting the fish before dragging the net out of water. They managed to dive six to seven times a day. This method is physically demanding, and there is no doubt why uminchu were greatly respected. Today, the netting-diving is rare as only a few elders still perform this fishing method.

Folksongs like Tancha Mē gives us an opportunity to imagine what old days looked like. By revisiting and practicing old songs and dances, we are able to learn and connect to our antecedents' way of life.

Tancha Mē starts at 6:00 in the video below.

The lyrics of Tancha Mē Bushi:

taNchamee nu hama ni sururugwaa ga yutitiN doo

At Tancha Mē beach, silver-stripe round herrings are coming

sururugwaa ya 'araN yamatu mijuN du yaNtiN doo

They are not silver-stripe round herrings, they are blue stripe herrings!

'ahwiitaaya 'uri tuiga'angwaaya kamiti 'uri 'uiga

Young men go fishing, and young women go selling the fish

'uri 'uti mudui nu 'angwaa ga niwi nu shurasa

On the way home, the scents of the women are pleasant

'urituyuru shimaya jana tu 'uchidumai

Jana and Uchidumai villages took the fish

Usually, Okinawan folk songs are sung in the Ryukyuan languages which are consisted of 11 languages in the Okinawa/Amami region. The Ryukyuan languages are part of the Japonic language family, and many of the languages are labeled as endangered by UNESCO.

We are going to perform Tancha for Nikkei Mini Matsuri on Sunday, September 5th, 2021!! For this event, we have chosen songs that have been loved by Okinawan people and reflect the theme of community recovery. Please check out our event page for details and @southernwavevan on Instagram for the updates.


Special thanks to Mr Taroo for his Okinawan literature research.

Biography of Sai On by Maeta, Giken. 1976.

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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