Okinawa and the drums

I’m a sucker for marketing, of a sort.  When I learned of a festival where 10,000 people came out into the streets to play drums together, I was sold.  I lived in Tokyo at the time that I first learned of the 10,000 Person Eisa Festival.  Like many islands of the Japanese Archipelago, Okinawa had developed its own drum style.  And similar to the other island cultures, the drum culture wasn’t focused just on dance.

Imagine you’re boating up to an island and the locals greet you.  Considering that first impressions matter so much, are they going to welcome you with a soothing hula?  Probably not.  You’re going to see a display of power.  The Haka of the Maori for instance.  Or the spirit dance of the taiko further north where masked demons taunt the drummers and audience. Your first impression of Eisa is likely to be a reaction to its appearance of exceptional physical exertion which appears threatening and boastful at first.

First of all there is the physical exertion of this drumming style that appears martial in nature.  Drums three feet in length are hefted over the head and struck mid-air.  The stance of the drummers is akin to karate or Taekwondo stance.  The angles of dance appear like attacks.  This has to be one of the most strenuous drum traditions in the world!

Peeling back the history of this tradition you see the origin of the festival.  During the 10,000 Person festival you see swaths of drum troupes who only perform the traditional Eisa of centuries past.  This one is delicate.  Instead of using large taiko drums, small frame drums called paranku are struck in a dance of gentle ballet-like reverence.  The Eisa festival surrounds the Obon season, which is somewhat akin to All Hallows Eve from western tradition or Day of the Dead tradition from Mexico. But Japanese Obon has more in common with Mexican Day of the Dead.  During Obon the spirits of our predecessors are welcomed back to the world of the living.  Historical Eisa dance was a welcoming ceremony for spirits of the world beyond.

Watching the procession of 10,000 people through the streets of Naha, Okinawa’s largest city, each performing a different style of Eisa, it’s easy to see the lineage of this tradition.  From delicate enticement of the spirit world, to martial pride and ferocity of spirit.

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During my years as a journalist I learned how much the presence of the Futenma military base in Okinawa was seen as a necessary eyesore to the local community.  Ever since the Korean War, the military of the US has been encamped in Guam, Seoul, Okinawa and Honshu as an insurance that the American military will stand beside the people of Japan and South Korea and Taiwan against invasion of the nature those cultures had seen in the past.

Okinawa played a pivotal role in the conclusion of World War II.  As such, it was the location of a fierce battle between the Imperial Japanese army and the US military which sought an air base in the region.  There are very impressive memorials to the war’s impact on the local people.  I recommend this one in particular is the Himeyuri Peace Museum.

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Okinawa is a culture of exceptional self-determined pride.  It may be an odd comparison, but the sense I got from the people of Okinawa is incredibly similar to the sense I got from those I met in Vietnam.  These are cultures that many would consider “war-torn” that show little evidence of change in the national psyche.

Okinawa is an amazing destination for its natural beauty as well. But for me, the cultural lineage and history was most captivating. There is a massive castle at the heart of Naha for which many people of Okinawa are named. Anyone who grew up near Shuri-jo are named with the Kanji equivalent of “round-castle” to reflect their origin.

Shuri-jo is smaller in scale than Himeji on mainland Honshu Japan. But larger than most other Japanese medieval castles. It has been the site of UN conferences and is featured on Japanese currency as a symbol of national pride and heritage.

Take me home!

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