Ryukyuan music

Ryukyuan music (琉球音楽 Ryūkyū ongaku), sometimes called Nanto music (南島歌謡 Nantō kayō), is an umbrella term that encompasses diverse musical traditions of the Ryukyu Islands The term "Southern Islands" (南島 Nantō) is preferred by Japanese scholars in this field. Unlike in the West, the Japanese notion of "Ryukyu" is associated with the former Ryukyu Kingdom based on Okinawa Island and its high culture practiced by the Yukatchu class in its capital of Shuri. By contrast, most scholars cover a much broader region and lay emphasis on folk culture.

Research history

Comprehensive studies on diverse musical traditions of the Ryukyu Islands was done by Hokama Shuzen and his colleagues. Prior to that, the scopes of research were limited to each island group (Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, or Yaeyama), or even narrower areas. These studies were done under the heavy influence of folklorists Yanagita Kunio and Orikuchi Shinobu, who searched for the origin of Japanese culture in the Ryukyu Islands.[1]

The research on Okinawa's musical traditions was started by Tajima Risaburō at the end of the 19th century. He was followed by Katō Sango and Majikina Ankō among others. Under Tajima's influence, Iha Fuyū, who is known as the father of Okinawaology, conducted extensive research on a wide range of music genres of Okinawa, primarily by analyzing texts. Although he paid attention to Miyako and Yaeyama, his studies on these subfields remained in a preliminary stage, partly due to the limited availability of documented sources.[2] In Miyako and Yaeyana, pioneering work in collecting and documenting folk songs was done by Inamura Kenpu and Kishaba Eijun, respectively.

Hokama Shuzen, a successor to Iha Fuyū, worked on integrating separate subjects by comparative methods while he himself conducted field studies that covered the whole island chain. He stressed the importance of Amami, which was usually ignored or marginalized in Okinawan narratives. His lifelong research resulted in the Nantō koyō (1971), the Nantō kayō taisei (1978–80) and the Nantō bungaku-ron (1995).[3]


Hokama (1993)'s classification of songs of the Southern Islands, with some representative examples.
category subcategory Amami Okinawa Miyako Yaeyama
child-related warabe-uta
lullaby, "humoring" songs
ritutal, festival, ceremony ritutal nagare-uta umui, kwēna tābi tsïdï
Hirase mankai amawēda fusa mishagu pāsï
omori tirukuguchi nīri
yungutu pyāshi
community-related events hachigatsu-odori uta usudaiko kuichā yungutu
mochi morai uta eisā, shichigwachi-mōi yotsudake-odori ayō
Kyōdara jiraba
performing arts Shodon shibai Chondarā Tarama hachigatsu-odori
Yui hōnensai
Yoron jūgoya-odori
home events shōgatsu-uta tabigwēna yometori-uta yātakabi
mankaidama iwai-uta tabipai no āgu yomeiri-uta
gozenfū iezukuri-uta iezukuri-uta nenbutsu
kuya nenbutsu shōgatsu āgu
work work songs itu sagyō-uta funakogi āgu jiraba
taue-uta awatsuki āgu yunta
mugitsuki āgu
performing arts Kunjan sabakui yonshī kiyari
entertainment recreational gatherings (asobi-uta) shima-uta myākunī (kuichā) fushiuta
kudoki kuduchi āgu tubarāma
rokuchō tsunahiki-uta tōgani sunkani
kachāshī shunkani kudoki
zōodori-uta mōya
new, popular music shin min'yō shin min'yō
classical music classical music

The table above shows Hokama's classification presented in a volume of the Nihon min'yō taikan (1993).[4] The table below is another classification by Hokama, which includes incantations and dramas.[5]

Another classification of songs of the Southern Islands by Hokama (1995)
category Amami Okinawa Miyako Yaeyama
magical kuchi miseseru kanfuchi kanfuchi
tahabë otakabe nigōfuchi nigaifuchi
ogami tirukuguchi nigari takabi
omori nigēguchi tābi nigai
yungutu ugwan majinaigutu yungutu
majinyoi yungutu jinnumu
epic nagare-uta kwēna nagaāgu ayō
hachigatsuodori-uta umui kuichā-āgu jiraba
omoro yunta
lyric shima-uta (uta) ryūka (uta) kuichā fushiuta
tōgani tubarāma
shunkani sunkani
drama Shodon shibai kumiodori kumiodori kumiodori
kyōgen kyōgen kyōgen kyōgen

The first category, "magic", refers to incantations that are chanted or sung with the belief of kotodama. Kume Island has a large repository of rainmaking spells. For epic songs, Okinawa's kweena narrates fishing, rice farming, rainmaking, sailing, shipbuilding, house-building, weaving, and other kinds of work in a local community. In addition to these themes, foundation myths, metalworking, war, trade, and funerals are covered by umui. Miyako's aagu is famous for heroic epics. Lyric songs include Amami's shima-uta, Okinawa's ryūka, and Miyako's tōgani, which all have short, fixed verse forms.[5]

Historical development

Nanto song evotree

Cross-island group classifications allowed scholars to investigate the historical development of musical traditions. It became a consensus that magical incantations were the oldest form, from which epic songs evolved. Lyric songs were the most innovative form and emerged from epic songs.[5]

Ono Jūrō presented an evolutionary tree of the songs from the Ryukyu Islands. He also made detailed analysis on song forms. The oldest form was a chain of 5-syllable couplets, which can be found in the Amami and Okinawa Islands but is absent from Miyako and Yaeyama. From the 5-syllable couplets, a 5-3 couplet, or the so-called kweena form, emerged. The kweena form spread from Okinawa to Miyako and Yaeyama. In the Ryukyu Kingdom, omoro was derived from the kweena form in the 14th century but rapidly fell into decline at the end of the 16th century. Omoro was replaced by ryūka in Okinawa, which became shima-uta in Amami. Ryūka has a unique 8-8-8-6 syllable pattern. Ono considered that it was formed under the influence of kinsei kouta of Japan, which has the 7-7-7-5 form. Hokama disagreed with Ono and hypothesized an internal development in Okinawa. Miyako and Yaeyama did not embrace the innovative form but created lyric songs using the older 5-3 couplets.[1]

After Ryukyu was invaded by Satsuma Domain of Japan in 1609, some of the Yukatchu class in Shuri, such as Shō Shōken and Heshikiya Chōbin, embraced the high culture of Japan. The name of ryūka itself was coined to distinguish their own uta from waka. With the obvious influence from waka, they transformed songs to be sung into poems to be read.[1][6]


  1. ^ a b c Ono Jūrō 小野重朗 (1977). Nantō kayō 南島歌謡 (in Japanese).
  2. ^ Hokama Shuzen 外間守善 (1995). "Nantō bungaku kenkyū zenshi 南島文学研究前史". Nantō bungaku-ron 南島文学論 (in Japanese).
  3. ^ Hokama Shuzen 外間守善 (1995). Nantō bungaku-ron 南島文学論 (in Japanese).
  4. ^ Nihon min'yō taikan (Okinawa–Amami): Amami shotō hen 日本民謡大観(沖縄・奄美)奄美諸島篇 (in Japanese). 1993.
  5. ^ a b c Hokama Shuzen 外間守善 (1995). "Nantō bungaku no zentaizō 南島文学の全体像". Nantō bungaku-ron 南島文学論 (in Japanese).
  6. ^ Hokama Shuzen 外間守善 (1995). "Ryūka-ron 琉歌論". Nantō bungaku-ron 南島文学論 (in Japanese).
Bushi (music)

Bushi (節) is a type of Japanese folk music genre.

The Japanese term fushi (節), originally used in Buddhist folk music in Japan, simply means "melody". Like the generic term ondo, bushi, the voiced form of fushi, is used as a suffix for Japanese folk songs.It is found in many Japanese traditional and folk songs, usually shamisen or sanshin songs. Some examples include: Ringo bushi, Tsugaru yosare bushi, Tsugaru aiya bushi, Tsugaru jongara bushi, Yasaburō bushi (弥三郎節), Hōnen bushi and Itokuri bushi. Yasaborō bushi is one of the most well known, and dates back over 300 years. These folk songs are most commonly heard at local festivals in Japan.

Kankara sanshin

The kankara (Japanese: かんから) or kankara sanshin (literally "sanshin from a can") is a Japanese three-stringed folk plucked instrument, initially an improvised derivative of the Okinawan sanshin that was developed in the Ryukyu Islands during the Shōwa period.

Like the wooden-bodied gottan, the kankara is an inexpensive alternative to other, professional Japanese lutes – namely the sanshin and the similar, albeit larger shamisen. Unlike the gottan, however, the kankara was invented much later and served a much different purpose historically.

Kaori Futenma

Kaori Futenma (普天間 かおり, Futenma Kaori, born 23 September 1973) is a Japanese singer-songwriter, radio personality, philanthropist and goodwill ambassador for Bandai Plateau in Kita-Shiobara Village, Yama District, Fukushima. She is originally from Nakagusuku village, in Nakagami county, Okinawa, Japan.

Okinawan music

Okinawan music (沖縄音楽, Okinawa ongaku), also known as Ryukyuan music (琉球音楽, Ryūkyū ongaku), is the music of the Okinawa Islands of southwestern Japan. In modern times, it may also refer to the musical traditions of Okinawa Prefecture, which also covers the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, and sometimes the Amami Islands.

Omoro Sōshi

The Omoro Sōshi (おもろさうし) is a compilation of ancient poems and songs from Okinawa and the Amami Islands, collected into 22 volumes and written primarily in hiragana with some simple kanji. There are 1,553 poems in the collection, but many are repeated; the number of unique pieces is 1,144.The hiragana used, however, is a traditional orthography which associates different sounds to the characters than their normal Japanese readings. The characters used to write omoro, for example (おもろ), would be written this same way, but pronounced as umuru in Okinawan.

The poetry contained in the volumes extends from the 12th century, or possibly earlier, to some composed by the Queen of Shō Nei (1589-1619). Though formally composed and recorded at these times, most if not all are believed to derive from far earlier traditions, as a result of their language, style, and content. The poems contained in the compilation vary, but follow a general pattern of celebrating famous heroes of the past, from poets and warriors to kings and voyagers. A few are love poems. They range from two verses to forty, some making extensive use of rhyme and couplet structures.

Ryukyuan missions to Edo

Over the course of Japan's Edo period, the Ryūkyū Kingdom sent eighteen missions to Edo (琉球江戸上り, ryūkyū edo nobori, "lit. 'the going up of Ryūkyū to Edo'), the capital of Tokugawa Japan. The unique pattern of these diplomatic exchanges evolved from models established by the Chinese, but without denoting any predetermined relationship to China or to the Chinese world order. The Kingdom became a vassal to the Japanese feudal domain (han) of Satsuma following Satsuma's 1609 invasion of Ryūkyū, and as such were expected to pay tribute to the shogunate; the missions also served as a great source of prestige for Satsuma, the only han to claim any foreign polity, let alone a kingdom, as its vassal.


The sanshin (三線, literally "three strings") is an Okinawan musical instrument and precursor of the mainland Japanese (and Amami Islands) shamisen ( 三味線). Often likened to a banjo, it consists of a snakeskin-covered body, neck and three strings.

Tansui Ueekata

Tansui Ueekata (湛水親方, 2 July 1623 – 26 January 1684) was an aristocrat-bureaucrat of Ryukyu Kingdom. He was also a famous musician credited with the creation of Tansui-ryū (湛水流), an important music genre of Ryukyu culture."Tansui Ueekata" is actually a nickname. "Tansui" was his pseudonym, "Ueekata" was his rank. It was standard at the time for members of Ryukyu's aristocratic class to have two names: karana (唐名, "Chinese-style name") and yamatona (大和名, "Japanese-style name"). His karana was Ka Tokuyō (夏 徳庸), and yamatona was Kōchi Ueekata Kenchū (幸地 親方 賢忠) respectively.

Tansui Ueekata was a counsin of Shō Shōken. He was good at sanshin and ryūka. He was dispatched to Satsuma for four times. There he studied theatre of Japan. Later, he incorporated Japanese elements into Ryukyuan music. He was appointed as odori bugyō (踊奉行, Magistrate of Dance) in 1672 and danced kumi odori for the entertainment of the Chinese envoys.

Shō Shōken totally denied the traditional culture of Ryukyuan people, and was strongly opposed by Tansui Ueekata. It made Shō Shōken very angry. Tansui was removed from his position and forced to retire.


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