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Sounding Okinawa

Guest post by Henry Johnson


The Okinawan soundscape is distinct from other parts of Japan in many ways. Blending the sounds of its cultural heritage and popular culture, and often foregrounded within a touristic gaze, urban centres such as Naha and Koza sound Okinawa through live and mediated performance, as well as through much imagery that helps show the importance of music for the prefecture.

Okinawa’s characteristic live houses mix food and music to offer an entertainment setting that produces emblematic Okinawan sounds to an audience eager to consume local cultural tastes. But there are also other settings where music is given prominence as part of a living tradition. Over the summer months, many festivals light up the streets with the sounds of Okinawa, particularly through eisā performance with its blend of choreography with dancers playing drums painted bright red, and dancing to background music. Largescale eisā groups are also found parading and performing the streets and other locations, and their instruments are often featured as icons of Okinawa’s living cultural heritage. In Koza, there is even the Eisa Museum, which celebrates this art form’s contribution to the cultural vitality of not only this city but also Okinawa more broadly.

Eisā performers rehearsing for the summer festivities. Photo by Henry Johnson (2016).
Eisā street monument, Koza. Photo by Henry Johnson (2020).

Koza brands itself as the “city of music”, which is realized not only through the location’s Eisa Museum, but also its numerous live houses, festivals and music stores, many of which offer a blend of traditional and contemporary Okinawan culture.

Signage in Koza. Photo by Henry Johnson (2020).

The streets of urban Okinawa are also lined not only with monuments that commemorate the sounds of Okinawa’s musical heritage, but also live performers who showcase their cultural traditions to entice potential customers.

There are also many music stores selling Okinawan music and musical instruments. Amongst a number of instrument makers, the emblematic sanshin (3-string lute) with its snakeskin covering not only visually stands out, but its sounds too stand for Okinawa through a characteristic musical scale that offers difference in the broader Japanese setting.

Sanshin player playing outside music store. Photo by Henry Johnson (2019).

To return to the context that has been the focus of my research in Okinawa over the past few years, Live House Shimauta embodies the sounds of Okinawa within its specific cultural setting. The venue’s location within Haisai Okinawa Building on Naha’s main street has a touristic souvenir shop on its ground floor, where shop assistants sometimes play sanba (castanets) to attract the attention of potential customers, along with music that is mediated to street level promoting Nenez. Once inside, the live house blends cuisine with music and entertainment and offers a representation of the sounds of Okinawa by way of Nenez as realized through their brand of Uchinā (Okinawan) pop.

Haisai Okinawa Building. Bar Shima Uta is on the 3rd floor. Photo by Henry Johnson (2020).
Haisai Okinawa Building. Live House Shimauta is on the 3rd floor. Photo by Henry Johnson (2020).
Nenez on stage at Live House Shimauta, Naha. Photo by Henry Johnson (2020).

Henry Johnson is Professor of Music at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He has published widely in the field of Japanese music, including three monographs (The Koto, 2004; The Shamisen, 2010; The Shakuhachi, 2014), edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles in international journals such as Asian MusicEthnomusicology ForumJournal of World Popular Music and Perfect Beat.

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