Traditional Eisaa vs. Entertainment

022_04011022_04041 As we approach summer, the drums of eisaa practice, or bon dance, is beginning to fill the air around recreation centers, and practice halls. The drum beats herald the coming of the obon season, where it is believed the ancestors of our families return home for their once a year visit and mingling with families for three days. Traditionally, 13th-15th of July in the lunar calendar, which will fall on September 1-3 this year.

The eisaa tradition began with nembutchaa, or buddhist chanters going around to the villages and chanting sutras accompanied by hand held drums. This developed into the eisaa we see today. Traditionally, the eisaa groups are made up of single young men and women. The men hit the drums, while women dance. During the tridium of obon, they perform in the village streets, visiting the houses, to entertain the visiting ancestors. The group is accompanied by sanshin players. This tradition has been passed down by the eldersa and advisors of the village, and can be seen mostly in the “nakagami” or central region of Okinawa.

Popularity of Okinawan culture however, has lead to the formation of many groups in Japan and around the world. Some groups, especially within Japan and Okinawa, have become groups for hire, for parties, and celebrations, or stage. Music has also been added which is recorded, or not even Okinawan. Acrobatics and even hula have also crept in, making it a departure from what eisaa really is about.

Eisaa is not for the benefit of the living. In Okinawa, our dedication and love for our ancestors is strong. So strong that we set aside this very important three day memorial during the summer to remember and bring back traditions recognizable to the ancestors. It is a festival and performance to honor the deceased. To take away from this, and have it become an everyday commodity takes away the special place eisaa holds for our culture and ancestors, especially when its done as a business to make money. It kills the excitement that leads up to obon. Hearing the drumming at the beginning of summer adds to one’s own heartbeat in anticipation of the obon season. It brings us back to the good memories of our ancestors, and realization of our connection with them during this time, when we share the same traditions and songs passed down. In Hawaii, practice has begun on Friday evenings in Ka`imuki, at the Kilauea Recreation Center near Kapi`olani Community College. Practice begins at 630pm. The eisaa is lead by the Young Okinawans of Hawai`i. They have looked towards bringing back tradition and learning what their ancestors’ eisaa is all about by bringing in tradtitional eisaa moves and trying to go with all Okinawan music. The hope of tradition continues with groups like this.

3 thoughts on “Traditional Eisaa vs. Entertainment

  1. Amy Oyadomari Hall

    Why can’t we do both: traditional & entertainment? Is it because you see the entertainment as a mockery (or ______) of the traditional?

    Perhaps it’s not meant for the living, but at the same time, let’s also realize that Eisaa seems to attract life itself. I hear the drums, see the color, and every inch of me (even the haole part of me; LOL) wants to join in. I don’t know the steps, but people welcome me anyway. What’s wrong with that?

    Thank you for the article though. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

  2. Eric Post author

    Doing both traditional and entertainment is good, however, we must first start with education and not just fly on the bandwagon. It’s great that the sounds and color of eisaa excites. The traditional side of this excitement is to enjoy the time with the ancestors returning home. Many people have lost that, or don’t even know. Eisaa is part of a tradition, and the culture. Tradition is something that is passed on. I’m glad to hear your excitement to participate in eisaa, but I’m ot quite sure what you refre to when you say “join in”. Are you talking about bon dance? To participate in eisaa at bon dance is great!. It’s during the season of obon, and participates in honoring and remembering the ancesotrs who have given us this tradition.

    I dont know if you meant that you joined an eisaa group, but that’s great as well. The thing that I am worried about, is that without the foundation of anything, any aspect of a culture will be passed on without the understanding of where it came from, what it means, and for what purpose. Also, when it becomes something like a business, it loses its core. As an example, in Okinawa, eisaa can be seen everyday somewhere, being performed for tourists. This was never seen 10 years ago. It was specifically done during obon season, and attracted tourists for that special time to witness Okinawa style obon. This situation is comparable to 4th of July, Christmas, Makahiki, Kwanza, mardi Gras. If these special times were going to be done everyday, its would lose its meaning. To respect a culture’s religious and spiritual event, we must also think about how we handle that too. It’s also like how oecumenism has brought the word Allah into use in the Christian world, but offends the Muslims, It seems to be a western way of thinking to adapt whatever makes one feel good fun, to be used freely, without thought to the real aspects and honor. Because of groups going out and just performing for entertainment and business, many can’t distinguish between eisaa and a taiko group. An example of this would be Ryukyu Matsuri Taiko. They are great and exciting, but not considered eisaa in Okinawa, and they themselves have distiguished themselves separate from eisaa. However, many people mistake this style to be eisaa. Again, what it really comes down to is education, adn not just doing something because its “fun”. It’s wonerful to see eisaa becoming popular, but at the same time its sad to see it losing its real meaning and tradition at the sake of popularity and commercialism. Debates will go on about this, but like you said, it does spark thought, and thats good!

  3. Amy Oyadomari Hall

    Eric, you make very valid points. As you said, two things are happening at the same time: “It’s wonderful to see eisaa becoming popular, but at the same time its sad to see it losing its real meaning and tradition at the sake of popularity and commercialism.”

    I can see how many would feel this way about eisaa, as well as many other traditions. I just never thought of it that way, but you’re right. Thank you, Eric!

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