A History of the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu

Since both of the main musicians in the Ukwanshin Kabudan are members of the Nomura RyÅ« Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu, I figured we’d post this history of the organization in Hawaii….


Of all of their cultural treasures, Okinawans have always held a special place for music in their lives. Through political upheaval, economic depression, and World War II, uta-sanshin (“song and sanshin”) music has continued to be the lifeline to the hearts of the Okinawan people. In their songs, they have carried their history, their thoughts, their emotions, and most importantly, their identity.

This musical heritage has even survived the long journey over turbulent seas to far away lands, and finally, through time to the present day. The resilience of Okinawan music is evidenced in the survival of one of Hawai‘i’s oldest Okinawan music organizations, the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu. Now in existence for forty years, the association has become a pillar in Hawai‘i’s Okinawan cultural community and an exquisite flower in the islands’ lei of musical traditions.

The Roots of Nomura Ryū Music in Hawai‘i

The seeds of the Nomura style of classical Okinawan music (Nomura Ryū) in Hawai‘i were planted by Ryōei Nakama. Nakama began learning uta-sanshin from the age of twelve, and by sixteen, he was employed by the Okinawan royal family and placed under the tutelage of the great Nomura Ryū master Ryōshin Kuwae. In 1906, Nakama immigrated to Hawai‘i and brought his musical knowledge with him to a growing Okinawan immigrant population that had started to arrive six years earlier.

In 1921, Nakama summoned his son, Ryōtarukin, from Okinawa to join him in Hawai‘i. Ryōtarukin had been playing music since he was a child and had won awards for his musical proficiency by the time he was in his teens. In Hawai‘i, Ryōtarukin (later renamed Ryōkin) furthered his study of music under his father alongside, among others, Eikichi Miyagi. Together, Ryōtarukin Nakama and Miyagi would be instrumental in establishing the foundations for the current Nomura Ryū organization.

By 1933, both Eikichi Miyagi and Ryōtarukin Nakama were actively teaching. Miyagi had formed the Miyagi Gensei Kai and his leading students were Shinsuke Yamashiro, Seikō Ikehara, and Kanyei Izumigawa. Nakama formed the Nakama Ongaku Kai (later changed to Nakama Kinpū Kai) and his leading disciples were Kōsuke Nakaganeku and Seishō Nakasone. All of these students would eventually go on to form their own schools which would later become the basis for the Hawaii Shibu.

The Establishment of the Hawaii Shibu

Okinawan music was becoming increasingly popular in Hawai‘i and by the 1950s, several schools and clubs had emerged. In 1954, six classical music schools organized themselves into the Hawaii Ryūkyū Ongaku Kyō Kai. This early organization’s main purpose was to perpetuate classical Okinawan music by sponsoring recitals and forming partnerships with other performing arts groups in the islands. Four years later, in 1958, three of the schools reorganized with six other music groups to form the Ryūkyū Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Honbu.

In 1967, the Hawaii Ryūkyū Ongaku Kyō Kai and the Ryūkyū Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Honbu merged to form the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu. To commemorate the formation of the new organization, a two-day recital was held at Farrington High School auditorium from September 22, 1967. The program featured both local musicians and dancers, as well as artists from Okinawa including the renowned Nomura Ryū master Kamechiyo Kōchi.

It would be ten years before the Hawaii Shibu would sponsor another major event. In October 1977, the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu gathered its membership along with more than thirty guest performers from Okinawa in a special concert commemorating its ten-year anniversary. This would be the last self-sponsored event for the Hawaii Shibu for the next three decades.

The Hawaii Shibu in Changing Times

In the interim, the Hawaii Shibu has participated in numerous local events such as the annual HUOA Okinawa Festival, as well as dance and music concerts by both local and visiting artists. Along with the Ryūkyū Sōkyoku Kōyō Kai Hawaii Shibu, the organization has sponsored annual combined recitals. While these recitals were once done twice a year in spring and fall, it was made into an annual event from 2002.

In 2002, the Hawaii Shibu filed a petition with the U.S. federal government for official recognition as a non-profit entity. The 501c license was granted on June 3, 2002, and the current Board of Directors and officers were instated. The organization is now eligible for grants and other funding free of taxation.

While the Hawaii Shibu has been become well established in its four decades of existence, it faces several challenges. The first and main challenge has been the recruitment of new membership, especially among the younger generations. With the passing of almost all of the first-generation immigrants from Okinawa and the aging of the second-generation, Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community is now largely comprised of third-, fourth-, and even fifth-generation descendants of the original immigrants. Generation gaps and language barriers continually present challenges to the preservation and propagation of traditional culture. With the passing of each generation, these schisms only seem to deepen.

A second major challenge the Hawaii Shibu is facing is the general dwindling interest or lack of awareness of Okinawan classical music. Even among Hawai‘i-born Okinawans, few people know of the existence of a classical music tradition or the difference between classical and folk repertoires. People who are marginally familiar with classical Okinawan music generally veer away from its study, deeming the music as boring or too difficult. For younger generations, there are many other more popular forms of music to study such as Hawaiian or western music. In general, there are only very few outlets for Okinawan classical music to be exposed. Often, these outlets are for small groups of people and do not often extend outside of the Okinawan community.

Now under third- and fourth-generation leadership, the Hawaii Shibu is seriously studying these problems to create viable solutions. To increase membership and awareness of the music, the organization has been very active in participating in community events. While most of these events have been through the local Okinawan clubs, the Hawaii Shibu has also become involved with other cultural organizations such as the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and Arts and TRADEX. Through partnerships with other organizations, the Hawaii Shibu has been able to participate in community lectures and concerts that reach out to people of various generations and ethnicities.

The Hawaii Shibu has recently started to actively reach out to neighboring islands as well. The Honolulu-based organization now has members in Maui and also participates in events on Hawai‘i-island and Kauai. In the near future, the Hawaii Shibu hopes to be able to send instructors regularly to all neighbor islands and be able to offer aid in flying members to Honolulu to participate in group events.

Despite the challenges that bear down on the Nomura Ryū Ongaku Kyō Kai Hawaii Shibu, the organization clings to its legacy of preserving one of Okinawa’s most treasured cultural assets. Nourished by the roots of its forefathers, the Hawaii Shibu will continue to grow and extend its reach out to the larger community in Hawai‘i, the US, and the world.