Structure of Okinawa Performing Arts Extinguishing Traditional Culture and Values

It was not too long ago in Okinawa, that the audience laughed, cried, danced and verbally participated in “shibai”, or theater plays and performances. The musicians played and sang the songs which expressed the poetry or song. The dancer or actor presented the visual aspect of the song or story, and the audience were the eyes, ears, and soul, which was caught up in the stage. Everyone became one, and this was Okinawan theater. Also, even more recently, obon was observed with the perpetuation of honoring one’s ancestors, participating in the 3 day event, and for many young adults, the eisaa was the pride of one’s village as the groups went around to do what had been done for decades, and even for over a century in some villages. It was a special time that everyone looked forward to, just like the performances of music and dance. It gave an Okinawan a chance to connect and be able to sometimes express what couldn’t be said in words.
Okinawa is in a time of finally being recognized and accepted. Through this recognition, there is a great demand for the arts and culture. Many aspects of Okinawan life have been popularized. On the other hand though, the values and Okinawan structure of these things have been torn apart. In the performing arts, the Japanese iemoto system has crept in to make the performing arts very expensive and territorial. The days of learning from different teachers who specialized in certain dances or styles are gone, due to restrictions by the head masters of each school. Titles of rank are being created each few years as higher levels are created to accommodate a higher tier that demands continued payment and allegiance for promotion and one’s recognition. This pyramid scheme only works to the benefit of the one at the top.
4fdb0272912More recently, restrictions have been placed on obon observance also. A new group of eisaa style drumming has stepped into the picture within the last 20-30 years. This group was created to teach values and give activity to wayward youth who had gone to the streets instead of school. It became quite popular with its choreography to modern music, and is now recognized with branches around the world. I applaud the original concept and idea for this group, but since its popularity rise, this group now endangers the tradition of eisaa, and obon. Recently, they have prohibited their members from participating in members’ own village obon observances with family and community. They have also restricted the members from using their own taiko in other obon observances. The plain explanation of this being against Okinawan culture is this. Obon is a personal and family observance to honor the family ancestors during the obon season only. This taiko group prohibits this action if you are a member of their taiko group. They claim that its just like being in a school of dance or hula and you can’t go to another and do both. Wrong!  Many have forgotten that even in dance, music, and the other arts, the Okinawan way was to learn from different teachers or styles.  This was to broaden the understanding and values of the student or individual.  The thinking and focus is surely changing.  Is it for the better?  In a few ways, yes, but mostly, it is changing the Okinawan identity and values which was so important in the community circle.  If this is let to continue, more will be lost, and the identity of Okinawa and its true values and culture will be engulfed into the influences of the outside.  We need to watch and question.  We need to continue our research and learning in what is our true culture and arts.  If these things are lost, and one day the future generations say…”thats how it used to be”..or “it’s gone”, it will be because of our own fault that we lose our culture and identity.