Heartbreaking! Our Ancestors Would Not Recognize The Dance That Brought Them Out of Despair

By Eric Wada

I stumbled across this recent video of a young group of talented Okinawan dance artists, many of whom I personally know.  Although I had much respect for them and recognize their traditional talents, this video broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes as I watched in disbelief.  What would our ancesotrs think?  What would the late grand masters who passed down the art and left us with the responsibility to preserve our dance art say?  One of the dancers in this abomination of Okinawan identity and art is the great grandson and heir to the Tamagusuku line.

I am a traditionalist.  I am a cultural practitioner of an art that has been passed down through the ages, and which has endured harsh times in history, and even suppression. An art that brought our ancesotrs out of the ruins of WWII and brought back pride to a people who were in desperate despair and depression.  Okinawa now enjoys recognition and popularity for its culture, but with that has come the commercialization and departure from the foundation of the soul of LooChoo/Okinawa.

How will the arts survive in the future?  Should this kind of new dance ( as I don’t consider this Okinawan dance), just be accepted and nothing said?  Maybe because I am so orthodox that it matters more to me than others, but I would like you to watch this video and decide for yourself, but also remember our ancestors, and how much they suffered to save our culture and identity.  Will tradition survive as just a remnant? To me, by doing things like this, it shows that those participating don’t have pride enough in our culture, that they have to use music and influences from the outside to make it entertaining.  How sad!  Many will say “Shikata ga nai”, or “Cannot help”, but with those words, its like taking the poison and grenades that were given to our ancestors by the Japanese military during the war, and committing cultural suicide.  We are the most dangerous plague to our identity and culture.

16 thoughts on “Heartbreaking! Our Ancestors Would Not Recognize The Dance That Brought Them Out of Despair

  1. Toranosuke

    Wow. That is certainly nothing at all like traditional classical Okinawan dance. But did anyone actually think it was? Sure, if people were teaching this as “Okinawan dance,” and performing it and watching it as “Okinawan dance,” then there would be something very wrong there.

    I think there are multiple ways to view this performance. On the one hand, yes, there is the voice that says they could have done a much more traditional dance and that would have been better. But, then, there is also the possibility that they could have done this whole dance performance in Western clothes. The fact that they are interested enough in Okinawan culture to not just ignore it or avoid it, but to bring it in and incorporate it into what they’re doing must surely count for something.

    So long as traditional dance survives, I don’t see any problem with doing other things on the side, be they innovative modern arts, or just foolish playing around with the forms. This particular series of dances was not really my thing – I didn’t find it interesting, fun, or moving – but if you’re such a traditionalist, I really have to wonder what you think of new Okinawan pop/rock, such as the song “時をこえ” by HY, which incorporates sanshin, eisa teeku, and indeed is all about respecting and honoring the sacrifices of the ancestors, in its lyrics.

    There are a lot of exciting things going on out there today related to or incorporating Japanese traditional arts too, including a kabuki play about zombies, put together and performed by some of the core of the professional kabuki actors; and this wonderful tap dancing scene from the end of a recent Zatoichi film.

    Things like this dance performance are hardly the only things which would surprise and shock the ancestors. Everything from TV and cellphones to McDonalds and the fact that Okinawans today wear Western clothing, would be a great shock to the people of the past.

    Plus, we must remember that as time passes and art forms become “traditional”, “classical”, and “canonized,” they become far more respected and crystallized than they once were. Four hundred years ago, I don’t think that people sitting around playing sanshin, drinking aamui and singing would have thought of what they were doing as “traditional, classical” arts that must be preserved exactly as is in order to honor them.

    I think that your efforts to revive and maintain the traditional arts, and your efforts to get kids here in Hawaii interested in their Okinawan heritage, are most admirable. Really. You are doing a most important service to your community, and to your ancestors. And I fully support that you should work to teach people in the most traditional manner, dances as true as possible to the ‘true’ forms.

    But, so long as people can recognize and appreciate what is true Okinawan dance and what is not, and so long as the traditional arts do continue to survive, I see no problem with elements or the flavor of Okinawan dance being incorporated into other, more experimental performances.

    Seeing HY, the Boom, Begin, and so many other Okinawan bands who produce music that employs sanshin and other Okinawan instruments, and which is very much Okinawan in flavor, even when they very well could have done what so many mainland Japanese artists do, producing music that has no relation whatsoever to the traditional arts, really warms my heart, for lack of a better word. Not everyone has to be China Sadao.

  2. Toranosuke

    Also, if you don’t mind me saying so, I find it quite strange that you seem to focus so much on struggle and despair, when Okinawan culture is so bright and vibrant and lively.

    Sure, your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents might have been through some really terrible times 60 years ago, 100 years ago, but I for one don’t really associate the Ryukyu of 150, 200, 300, or 500 years ago with despair and horrible suffering. Surely there is more to Okinawan identity than despair and suffering….

  3. admin

    Thank you for your comment and taking the time to explain your view. I agree with innovation and with expression. This program was presented as “Ryukyu Buyo”. This dance was not Ryukyu Buyo. Yes..I agree that they could have dressed in modern street clothes for this, then it could be more acceptible, and maybe even enjoyable. I showed this to many other people, and one person who does not even know of Okinawan dance thought it was strange and unentertaining.
    The point I was trying to make is that Okinawans, especially the young ones, have been brought up in a world that lacks its history, and traditions due to the suppression and prejudice of its history. Its like the Hawaiian struggle that began the renaissance in the 70’s and which brought back so much culture and almost lost traditions to what we have now. In hula halau, you don’t see deviations to the extent shown in this Okinawa performance. Thats because the Hawaiians have the pride and understanding of their art and culture. If there is any kind of deviation, the halau is reminded of what is real hula and to be cautious of passing the deviation off as hula. There needs to be a definite line drawn between what is really Okinawan dance and modern or fusion. Call it what it is, not mish mash.
    This cannot be compared to modern bands doing modern music that expresses the flavor of Okinawa, as the music Bom, HY and others play, are Okinawan pop, not fwa uta(folk), or Ufu Bushi (classical). If the performers of this dance piece had the solid foundation of Okinawan language, history, and dance research, along with present day participation in revitalization, then It would be fine to go and experiment all they want. But most of these young performers dont speak the language, know their history, and don’t do research into what is really Okinawan dance art.
    By the way….those who were sitting and singing playing sanshin and drinking….that is not traditional…that is folk music, and that was created within mostly the Meiji era after the abolishment of the LooChoo Kingdom in 1879. So even China Sadao is not a traditional sanshin player…he is a folk or “fwa uta” performer. Traditional and classical are the ufu bushi, which were mainly created and performed in the court.
    Upon research, field study , and our recent seminars in Okinawa, we have personally spoken to a wide range of Okinawans, from all walks of life and age groups. All have expressed their lack of knowledge into their history, culture,language and identity. There is a hunger for these things but many resources were destroyed in the war, or have died with the generations that lived it.
    If you follow our programs, discussions, workshops etc, you will see that what I am trying to convey is that we need to know what is our identity. It’s not enough to think that we are all kachashi and andagi. Being Okinawan is more than that. Yes, our culture, music and arts will evolve, but in order to create you must have a foundation. Its like building a house. If you build without a foundation, it will fall. If you don’t feed your child the right foods to grow, the child will get sick or die. I just wanted to bring attention to this kind of performance that is being presented so that people will know that this is not Okinawan dance. you might not think so, but there are many who will take it as that, especially with the costuming. This article was meant to bring awareness. There is so much of our culture that is dying.

  4. admin

    Thank you again for your comment. Its ok that you find my focus on struggle and despair strange. For you to understand why I focus on these things and connect it to our identity, you must associate LooChoo’s past to the present and see how it connects to our identity and culture. It is because of our continued struggles and suffering in history that Okinawans are the kind hearted people they are. It is through the struggles and suffering that our arts refined themselves to be some of the best in Asia and the world, even today. Yes, there is much that is lively ad vibrant about our culture, and it is all due to the fact that our ancestors suffered to preserve it. Some even had to go underground, like the Hawaiians who were not permitted to practice hula and chant.
    In realizing the struggles and suffering that helped to preserve what we have today, we can have a deeper appreciation for our arts and identity. We learn from the past and to put it aside and not remember it is wrong. You for one may not think of LooChoo as suffering in those days..but if you are a historian and scholar as you say you are, you must admit to the suffering of the people due to high taxes forced upon by the Satsuma. I have heard and interviewed Okinawans whose ancestors were weavers and were punished severely for small mistakes in their weaving. They wove day and night..in candlelight at times so they could meet the heavy demand of taxes. There are songs and chants that were sung by the women weavers that still survive today. Our ancestors from 1879 -1940’s suffered great cultural genocide. They were severely punished and ridiculed for speaking Okinawan language, and brainwashed to the point that many of those in the 50’s, 60’s 70’s today, cannot speak the language, but understand it. They say their heart aches that the words cannot come out of their mouths because of the brainwashing. This was a native right that was deliberately taken from them. They were denied government jobs or higher education if they spoke Okinawan, wore Okinawan clothing or hairstyles. You cannot also deny the suffering Okinawa endured ” for the sake of Japan” as a sacrifice during the war, where more Okinawan civilians died than Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. In the Osaka expo of early 1900, 3 Okinawan women were tricked to go to Osaka as they were promised well paying jobs, and instead were put on display in a tent with aborigines, Africans, and others, and forced to wear Okinawan clothing and hairstyle. A plaque labeled them as “Rykyujin”. Women in Okinawa were also treated a sex slaves for Japanese army, but cannot go public like the Koreans, Filipinos and others, because they are Japanese citizens. They are still suffering. There are many more. Yes, you can say that you don’t associate yourself with LooChoo’s despair and suffering because maybe you have no direct connection to it. For me and all other Okinawans, it is real and important because we are always connected to our ancestors who we forever have appreciation for. It’s easy to look at the glitz and glamor of anything, but always hard to accept something unhappy. If we can understand suffering and hard work etc, then we can have deeper appreciation, values and respect for each other. Recognizing things of the past also helps to make sure those horrible things don’t happen again.
    Yes Toranosuke…you have the right to disassociate yourself with Okinawa’s despair and suffering, but for me it is an obligation to remember it and pass it on. Untill the Japanese government recognizes and admits to the wrong it caused Okinawans, and still does, then, this will always be my focus and connection to our history and identity. Toshiko Taira, Okinawa’s National Living Treasure on the art of banana fiber weaving also said…”the Battle of Okinawa is not over….it continues today as Okinawans still suffer.”

  5. Knaka

    When I first saw this video, I wanted to puke. There’s a difference between art, entertainment and poor taste. In my opinion, this performance would not be classified as art or entertainment.

    I am a musician who is classically trained in Okinawan music. I also play Hawaiian music and I have a band that plays modern, jazzed-up versions of Okinawan folk songs. So, I get the idea of the culture and the art progressing. However, I wouldn’t play my jazzed-up arrangements at a classical concert. I feel that would be inappropriate. Also, I realize that not everyone likes my music. So, when I say this performance sucked, I’ve been on the other end of that comment too. It’s just part of being a performer.

    I think one of the points Eric was making was that there is a distinction between traditional or classical and modern or pop. The problem that arises in this case is that Okinawan traditional art has not been at the forefront of Okinawan society for so long, that when classical artists blur the line between classical and pop, people may mistake one for the other. It could be sort of a cultural hiccup that can move away from the traditional arts. In this day and age of the viral video, anyone can make a video and call themselves a master of classical arts. Whether or not they are a master seems to up to the popular opinion of the viewers. That’s pop and not tradition. I’ve have seen countless videos of people playing Okinawan sanshin who completely trashed the song they performed. Yet, many of the comments by viewers said, “that was so beautiful”, or “wonderful” or “can you teach me to play that”. Is that perpetuating the art? I don’t think so. As a cultural practitioner, one has to be careful about how one presents the art. Okinawan arts are very fragile at this time. There are so many outside forces that are trying to extract the tradition out of the traditional arts to make them more marketable or popular or profitable. Soon the art may only be a symbol of what part of the lost culture it represented.

    Again, I’m not against modern or pop. I just think that having this kind of performance at a Ryukyu buyo event is in poor taste.

    By the way, I am a Zatoichi fan and I have the Beat Takeshi Zatoichi movie. I thought the tap dance scene at the end was neat, but really out of place.

  6. udui

    Here are some other responses from our facebook post…

    Akisamiyoo! Is this modern Okinawan dance with mixture of what looks like hula, flamenco, rock & stomp? Kuree Uchinaa nu udui aranshiga. OMG! :(( RA

    I don’t get it…very sad…how can they think of themselves as leaders and yet do this…I’m yamatunchu, and maybe I don’t have a right to say anything…but I’m sure…there are many ancestors who are crying with you Eric sensei. S.Akagi

    okay….don’t know where to start. I believe any art can evolve and artists can be creative as much as they want….but what is this? i don’t get what they are trying to express through it? I agree with Keith san that it’s not even entertaining. Saya

    Wow. That was painful to watch. Shameful and embarrassing. CK

    at least they had the good sense to use music by Queen…LOL! reminds me of obon coreography in hawaii. So somebody in okinawa thought it was cool and aceptable… we so champuru in our thinking our foundations has eroded to this. This coming 2011 will reveal even more craziness. Stay tuned as we watch our culture sink even lower gotta savor and honor the true artists. Wake up to our culture before its too late! JOshi

  7. Yamatunchu

    I’m a full blooded yamatunchu…and I have to say Toranosuke you’re pretty darned ignorant. You’re essentailly spitting on everyone of Ryukuan descent by saying “oh why focus on the dispair”…you’re supposed to be a Japanese Scholar…I guess in whatever class you learned your stuff in, we “liberated” the Ryukyuan’s from their oppressive kings. Let me tell you what we did…We, stole their identity, we robbed them blind for over 300 years…we fought a war on their homeland and killed thousands of their people!
    Ancestors are important to the Ryukuan people…what did “our” ancestors do? We made their tombs into bunkers and destroyed their ancestors…

    Have you ever been to Okinawa? Even today…”our” people still treat Okinawan’s as second class citizens today!!! Hell look at the name of the province…it’s not Ryukyu or Loochoo…its Okinawa-ken…We’ve done such a good job at almost destroying their culture that Okinawan youth can’t speak their language and have forgotten the meaning of eisaa.

    Eric and many others have every right to feel the way they do. Imagine, if in 1945, it wasn’t McArthur who was in charge of the occupation of Japan, and instead it was someone like sayyyy…Nimitz…who really hated the Japanese people, and during the occupation, they forbid anything to do with Japanese culture…made Japan into a little America in the East…it’s not out of the reach of imagination…just look at what they did in Hawaii in WWII…How would you feel, if all the cultural things you talk about was almost wiped out…no bunraku, no kabuki, no sumo, no gagaku, no Noh!

    I’m going to finish by saying that I’m proud of my Japanese herritage and of our culture (I took kendo, studied our language, and our history). Japan did some horrible things to Okinawa, it’s people, and it’s culture. If there are practitioners who are struggling to maintain and rebuild the language, the arts, the culture…who are WE to judge?

  8. shutb45

    This definitely artistic expression or experimentation gone wrong. To me experimentation with the traditional arts is fine as long as its a complete transformation to the point whether is a hard line between what is traditional and what is not. By using traditional dress in your experimentation, as is done in this case, you give a false reflection of what is traditional. If someone who is not educated about Okinawan arts was to see something like this, they would be confused as to what it traditional because they see the performers in traditional kimonos. In this case there is no hard line between modern and traditional. Doing something like this makes people question what is traditional. It doesn’t educated them to what is traditional.

    Besides if you are in Okinawa experimenting why do you have to go all they way back to 70’s in the US for inspiration. I think there are lot of great modern Okinawan musicians that you could have performed to if you wanted to experiment.

    As to the comment about Okinawan pop/rock, this a great example of a complete transformation of traditional music into something else. Most of the performers of Okinawan pop/rock go on stage in modern day clothes. At times they are coming up with their own lyrics. For the most prat you do not see these Okinawan pop/rock people performing in traditional kimonos or court dress. So we know this is something new. I don’t know for sure, but I am pretty sure this artists do not label their music as traditional

    An earlier comment by Toranosuke said “The fact that they are interested enough in Okinawan culture to not just ignore it or avoid it, but to bring it in and incorporate it into what they’re doing must surely count for something.” Is what we see in this video actually okinawan culture? Is this something that we want to incorporate into our culture. The song doesn’t’ even use modern or traditional Okinawan music. The song comes from a British band in the 70’s. Is this something that we should be fostering as Okinawan culture. I think this is the problem with preservation of Okinawan culture. We seem to have come to the point where we say do anything and everything we can to get people interested in the culture no matter what.

    I keeping asking myself, why do people think they sugar coat our traditional ways to get young people interested. Instead of putting our energy into ways to sugar coat things we should be putting our energy into finding ways to get the young people interested in the traditional arts as is without the sugar coating. What will we do when all those that know the traditional arts are gone and we left with the sugar coated stuff. Will we pass that stuff on as traditional?

    The Hawaiians and many Europe, especially those in Ireland, have found ways to get the young people interested in the traditional arts as is. There is great interest from the young people in traditional arts and language. You don’t kumu hulas bring in rock music or modern music into their halaus yet their is still is a great interest in traditional hula by the young people.

    As for the comment about why we talk about the pain and suffering , its because it makes us who we are. This world is not all happiness and peace. We never go through life without adversity. Adversity is what makes us stronger and gives us a better appreciation of what we have and who are. Why is it wrong to talk about the adversity of the past? With the knowledge of the pain and suffering, we have a better appreciation of our ancestors accomplishments and perseverance to make life better for future generations. Not talking about the pain and suffering gives us an incomplete and false sense of who we are. Not talking about what happened is the past does not honor the memory of our ancestors and and does a disservice to future generations.

    The vibrancy of our culture was a result of the pain and suffering in the past. Would we have had such a vibrant culture if it was not for the pain and suffering of our ancestors? Our culture and the adversities of the past work together. One is the product of the other.

  9. admin

    I think comments from people like Toranosuke gives us a look into the kind of “observers” who are not practitioners and who look to seek out ways to be recognized as “experts” , scholars, or “professionals in things that do not inherently belong to them. If you look at his website, you can see a vague impression of himself in the reflection of the window. Academia allows anyone to have the opportunity to reach levels of ones desires, and especially in the graduate levels of academia, there seems to be more interests in seeking out areas that are not really out there, or part of the regular curriculum. This is great for the fields of this study, like Okinawan history, or Ryukyu arts etc, but then there are so called “scholars” who have the “masters” or PhD titles of totally dislocated fields of study, go to Okinawa for a month or so to scratch the surface of something, or read articles and research by others, and call themselves “experts in the field. We as native Okinawans, whether we are of the native population living in Okinawa, or as the diaspora society outside, must be always vigilant to suspect “experts” who claim false ideas and information about our history and culture. Thats is why we must research, talk to our elders, go back to our roots, and protect what is rightfully ours.
    I give Toranosuke respect for what he does and has the interests in, …a Japanese society is plunging into self destruction of its cultural arts, and it looks like the “gaijin” are the ones who are making the efforts to study it. Japanese language is evolving into almost English/Japanese, and Enka music is becoming less and less heard on the songfests and other shows. The Japanese are great copiers and imitators. They look outside and latch on to what is popular, and move as a herd of cattle, not to stick out, or with the “popular” group. An example is how much they have taken the hula, and Okinawan identity to popularize it and adapt it to the “iemoto” styles to basically make money and commercialize it as a popular business. Thousands spend thousands of dollars to do these and go the point of changing their looks or names. Most don’t even have an idea of their own rich culture, and have never even worn kimono. Unfortunately though, this is partially the fault of the “sellout” kumu hula”, who participate in this selling out of the culture, as well as the Okinawan sensei who fall for the elaborate titles and money of the Iemoto system which were never part of LooChoo’s culture and identity.
    It is interesting to see the comments of many on this article, and it is also again a reminder that we must continue our research as native cultural practitioners in our arts, as native practitioners have the responsibility to carry on the truth and identity of a people through this field. We are also the ones who put forth the action in what is seen and heard, and can be the force against any so called “scholar” or “expert” from the outside. Don’t get me wrong….there are legitimate non native scholars who I respect highly. They are the ones who work with the practitioners as equal, and give deserved reference to them in their books or other media. They are the ones who are humble and not look for the limelight or boast of being “experts” or “professionals”. They do not look for recognition. Sounds familiar? We have met many, and thank them for their ongoing efforts to provide in depth information and study that will benefit native Okinawans, as well as academia outside.

  10. Keith Shimabukuro

    I would like to respond on this video that I have just viewed. The costumes and some of the hand gestures are Okinawan but the beginning of the dance did not match the song “We will rock you” was this a sosaku buyo? Was this meant to shock us or is this the trend that will change Okinawan dance for the future generations? Personally I hope not it would be very sad that Ryukyuan dance should lose it’s essence which our “Uyafwafuji” have cultivated and loved for all this time. I must agree with Eric Sensei and their comments. It made me sad to see this and I would think that they would redo their performance to a better song befitting their Loo Choo kimono & styling. Okinawans have struggled too long and too much in silence all these years.

    Is Toranosuke a Japanese dance artist? I have not seen any of his dance movements. I have seen Japanese dance and they have their own style and genre and history just like Okinawans. It is easy for Toranosuke to say those comments because he is not Okinawan and perhaps his ancestors were apart of the annexation of the Ryukyus as well as having Our King of the Sho Family in his Royal garments parade along to Kyoto to give an illusion to the Japanese people that they are superior and conquered a foreign nation. Talk about arrogance. This trait has carried the same type of thinking around the World. I noticed that Japan has lost many of their own treasures. They do not have many artisans creating all the beautiful arts like they did prior to WWII. It’s alright to have the modern things but to not have the spiritual aspect to keep you grounded sometimes you have lost more then you thought.

    I for one at this time must commend Eric Sensei, Norman & Keith Sensei and all the other people who support Ukwanshin’s goals to preserve our identity and to keep telling the story of our ancestors. By Toranosuke’s comments it made me realize that other people outside of our island community are reading and looking at our blogs. We have surely hit a nerve and vein.

  11. Toranosuke

    You make excellent points, about hula, and about the need for a foundation.

    This dance should never have been labeled “Ryukyu Buyo.” As you say, for innovation and experimentation to be most successful, it has to be built upon a foundational knowledge, and skill, in the “true” traditional forms. I guess I mistook you for someone who had no interest in going beyond those traditional forms.

    Thank you for taking the time to write me such a lengthy and level-headed reply. I apologize if I was myself a little reactionary in my original response.

  12. Toranosuke

    Just to be clear, I am not Yamatunchu, so I am not coming from that point of view. I am also not a dancer, but a graduate student and aspiring scholar of Okinawan history and art history. So, please don’t think that I’m coming here from some kind of pro-Japanese anti-Okinawan point of view, or that you’ve “struck a nerve” with certain groups, b/c frankly I’m not a member of that group.

    And I recognize and acknowledge the wrongs committed against the Okinawan people by the Japanese, and by the US military. I am not Okinawan by descent, and so I cannot understand it, feel it in my very identity, the way you do, but I am not looking to be on opposing sides about any of this. I sympathize with the Okinawan people, and find their culture beautiful and very much something worth reviving, protecting, maintaining.

    The Okinawan people suffered terribly in the period from the 1870s until 1945, and continue to suffer today, culturally, as the continued presence of US military bases continues to erode what might have been a fuller, stronger, Okinawan identity and culture had we gotten out of there in 1952 (and had we not destroyed so much of Okinawa’s historical artifacts, documents, artworks, etc. not to mention lives and homes). Even as that was happening, as Americans were shelling Okinawa Island and Japanese were using Okinawans as, essentially, human shields, my own ancestors were suffering in Auschwitz. So, please don’t place me on the side of the aggressors or the oppressors in this.

    I recognize and acknowledge the terrible suffering experienced by the Okinawan people in that period. But I simply cannot help but feel that Okinawan culture should be something to be celebrated, not mourned. So many wonderful beautiful things – such as kumi udui – came about during the time of Satsuma’s domination of the kingdom. It was not all darkness. Scholarship continues to see debate as to just how harsh the taxes were under Satsuma, and I don’t mean to excuse Satsuma’s behavior, but it pretty much sucked to be a peasant anywhere in the world at that time, so it wasn’t just the Ryukyuans who were having a tough time of it.

    I once suggested to my father that I was thinking of learning Yiddish, in order to reconnect to my heritage, and to do my part to help revive the language and the culture. He discouraged me, calling it a terrible waste of time. So, now I’m taking Okinawan.

    It is very interesting to see the attitudes among Uchinanchu here in Hawaii, when so many people in Okinawa do consider themselves Japanese, and engage in Japanese lifestyle, culture, and identity every day.

    I am glad that my comments should have sparked such a lively discussion, and I hope that you all do not hold it against me too much. I may have worded my comments poorly, may not have really expressed what I meant to, and may have come across as harsher and more antagonistic than I intended to, but I hope that as someone with a great interest in Okinawan history and culture, that I might be seen as being on your side, so to speak, and not as an antagonist.

    I am not here to stir up trouble, or to spew any kind of hateful comments. I came here to Hawaii to learn more about Ryukyu, specifically about the Ryukyu that existed before 1879 – before so much of the darkness and suffering of the late 19th through 20th centuries – and I hope you all do not think too poorly of me.


  13. PoliteResponder

    I just wanted to say I was happy to see that so many people responded to a blog related to Ryukyuan Cultural Arts. It is a beautiful art which is still on its way to perfection.
    I just wanted to address the primary reason for posting this article online along with the video. I would hope that it was for awareness- but, I cannot help but feel that it is attacking an art which we are seemingly trying to preserve. I would hope that whatever we are saying on our blog is productive criticism- and not a outlet for complaint. I myself believe in Traditionalism- however I also believe in realism and innovation. Every art has evolved- and it will continue to evolve- that is what keeps an art alive. I don’t believe that the intention of this performance was try to ‘evolve’ or ‘change’ anything (it was clearly not what Japanese may call koten- I would hope anyone would understand this). It was merely something different. It may be my preference- it may not; the point is that I don’t know if we are in a position to judge another person’s art and vision of what is beautiful. If this was published as the ‘ultimate representation of Traditional Okinawan Arts’ I may be perturbed- not disgusted or brought to tears or vomit.
    I believe that anyone involved in any art has an obligation to proliferate it. Whether you choose to put on a performance, write an article online, write a book, design a costume, offer a different view, or teach- you have an obligation to make sure that the art is known.
    It is inappropriate to believe that OUR generation of arts is the ‘know-all, say-all’ of our individual art. Does the art stop where we have stopped learning? Are we to believe that WE know what’s best for an art? I won’t answer that question and bombard you all with my opinion- but I challenge you to think about our position related the an art. I’m sure the same dances that are considered ‘traditional’ today would be viewed as drastically different to those who ‘created’ them. Grand Masters of Karate and Kabuki also believe that their art is constantly on their way to perfection. I feel, with an art such as dance where it has to be ‘shown’ rather than learned from a book- it is subject to having people ‘do’ the art and have interest in it. I doubt that this was the only dance in this performance- I’m sure there were more traditional ones- this was supposed to show how a traditional art can cross bridges. All great arts do in some way or another. Haven’t we all seen shamisen performances mixed with european flautists? Haven’t we seen piano pieces mixed with koto music? Haven’t we seen Japanese dances mix with Peking Opera? IF our approach is judgemental and spiteful- I don’t see how any art we love will survive.
    I love tradition- and I respect it as so. However, I am not going to be the one to point a finger at another artist’s innovation (again, whether I prefer it or not) and deem it heartbreaking and ‘an abomination.’ I have seen people of all generations be brought to tears from seeing their ‘homeland’ art being performed- not because it was performed perfectly as they ‘deemed traditional according to their own values,’ but because it was alive. Let us be positive in our proliferation of arts (as many of us are) and not put down others who may have a different view of their art. I believe, that this person or persons putting on this performance ultimately is doing it because they love their art- and they, too, would like to see their art carry on to a different generation.
    I have respect for all artists and those who are sacrificing their time to preserve it- it is noble and inspiring.

  14. admin

    Thank you for your comment. I would like you to read my responses to Toranosuke, and also KNAKA’s response to understand that there is a definite line between what is traditional and what is modern. Also, this post was to bring awareness, as so much is being confused these days between traditional and modern. I never said that innovation or evolution was wrong. I never said that that I or anyone else is “know all say all”. Yes you can have your opinion on appreciating this dance, but if you are going to criticize my tears and the others who have written in dislike, then you are essentially being hypocritical to your comments.

    As I said, I did not claim to be “all knowing” but I think I have the right to express my emotions that I felt, and my tears and saddened heart at seeing this performance. I am in my 35th year of practicing Okinawan dance and have been teaching this art for almost 20 years. I have spent extensive amounts of time in Okinawa and received my credentials from a prominent leader of the art in Okinawa. I also had the privilege to talk and learn from great masters who brought the art through the ravages of the war, and passed down our traditions with deep sentiments of hope. I have researched and been to places connected to the music and dances. i continue my learning even after receiving my title of “sensei”, as I feel the real learning begins as a teacher.

    Yes, there is always room for evolution and innovation in art. The explanation for tradition explains itself, and the common comment of “it wasnt thought of traditional when it was created” is what I consider a lame excuse to go ahead and just do whatever you want, without respect to what has been handed down.

    As a traditional cultural practitioner, I must be ever vigilant of the changes that are going on and question things that I think are out of place. I know these performers and I know their background personally. As I said before, It would be ok if they had a definite foundation and understanding in the art and its music, but they do not. I have looked at the other “traditional” performances they did in which they made new forms of “traditional” dance, and it looked great….until I listened to the words and watched their gestures. It all didnt make sense, and I could clearly see that they did not understand what they were dancing about. They were just entertaining and making the whole thing look good. That is definitely not what Okinawan dance is about. Okinawan dance or theater has very definite parts that are meshed together to tell a story. You stated in your second paragraph that “we are seemingly trying to preserve”. Does this mean that you are a practitioner of this art? If so, then you should understand what the various elements are which make up Okinawan dance or theater.

    If you look at KNAKA’s comments, he explains the situation well. He also has the right to feel like he wanted to “puke” as he is a very accomplished and respected musician and sensei.

    The great passion to preserve tradition is what drives criticism and comments when seeing some kind of deviation. Just as you say that “anyone involved in any art has the obligation to proliferate it” then those who are fighting an uphill battle to preserve the traditional forms of art have the right to be so passionate and emotional. Okinawan arts is still not well known outside Okinawa, and even in Okinawa itself. It is very possible (and one person watching this video did think so), that outsiders may think that the motions and dance in this video was truly Okinawan. Artists who have spent the majority of their lives to pass on tradition should speak up, especially if they are our elders and have such wisdom. This is just to keep us on our toes and to remind. I can give you some examples of just the kind of people here in Hawai`i. Kumu Hula John Topolinski, Mapuana DeSilva, Kihei DeSilva, Vicky Takamine Holt, Pua Kanahele. They are the minority of hula masters who have learned from the great masters of the art and are very intense in keeping the art to the most traditional form possible. They are also vocal and critical to others who are not, but it is because of this that others may be educated and we can see and hear what is real…otherwise traditional may be construed as anything in Waikiki or so called hula on youtube or tourist videos on “learning how to hula”.

    Its nice that you want to be positive on the arts, but without criticism the road could go farther from the foundation and be unrecognizable. Its like society today and our educational system. ( I also teach elementary school for over 15 years). Criticism and structure has become so misconstrued that children’s discipline is lacking and children don’t know the definite lines of right and wrong. They also lack the pride to strive for better academics because we must use “positive” strategies in the classrooms. Grades cannot reflect the letters that show “unsatisfactory” or “failed”. Children know that they will be rewarded with games and treats when sent to the office as “positive” discipline. the lines between what is black and white have become very blurred.

    I would just like to end in saying that I do not consider myself an “expert” in the Okinawan arts as I will be a perpetual student in learning and researching till the day I die. I have dedicated my life to this and will not go into detail the time, money etc to accomplish what I have so far. I do realize however that as an artist, I am subject to criticism, as any artist, including the ones in the video, should be. I thank you for yours and for adding to such a live discussion and debate on this post.


  15. admin

    No offense taken Toranosuke. I am glad that your comment sparked such a lively and interesting discussion. Not many nowadays come to an appreciation of the traditional arts, as so many things are just taken for granted or they say “shikataganai” (cannot help). We need to look at our identity and traditions so that we can see the changes, whether it be for the good or bad. Being able to voice our dislike and reactions also helps to think about our traditions, and maybe for some, will bring them to want to look more into the foundations and beginnings of the arts. Not only artists, but everyone grows with learning, and as we grow older, we continue to learn. Thank you again. Ippe Nifwedebiru!

  16. Keith Shimabukuro

    Hello Toranosuke:
    Your comment about wanting to learn Yiddish and your culture. Your Father’s comment discouraging you about that would be a waste of time is very sad in my opinion. When I started to learn Ryukyuan buyo in Hawaii from Majikina Sensei I did it because I wanted to learn about my Father’s relatives and part of my background. I was learning the dance for almost a year when my Father found out what I was doing. He then asked Why did I want to do this? He said that it was Old and only Old people did this? I told him that’s why I wanted to do it. After he saw me in a performance he never said anything after that. Twenty five years have passed and I’m still doing it. Just think if you didn’t listen to your Father you would have been speaking Yiddish by now? or revitalizing the language for the Israel people. Personally I believe if you don’t know who you are or your roots in detail how can you learn about another culture? Yeah! I’ve met other Haoles who can speak Japanese fluently but they don’t know the true essence of it and the thinking behind it. I think it’s good to learn about other people and their own history but to get the true story of that Culture & people is the people themselves and their own historians who are writing it, practicing it and treasuring everything about it. Not just from a book studying it and getting a degree for it but living it. By the way Toranosuke you should use your real name or name close to your ethnic roots I find it dishonest since your not Japanese.

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