(Excerpt from Keys to Okinawan Culture, published by the Okinawan Prefectural Government, 1992)
The eisa, a folk performing art, is a dynamic, spirited dance intrinsic to a midsummer festival called Bon, or Festival of the Dead, which takes place for three days from July 13-15 of the lunar calendar. A dance of Okinawa Island and the surrounding smaller islands, it is basically a circular dance composed of both men and women. (However, a few villages in the north of Okinawa Island have eisa danced only by women, and the town of Kadena has eisa danced only by men.) The musical instruments used in the eisa include the samisen, large barrel drums, and small hand drums, or paranku. The men play the samisen and beat vigorously on the drums as the women dance to the rhythms. On the night of July 15, after the ancestral spirits have returned to the world of the dead, the dancers of each village gather in the courtyard of the kami ashagi (major site of community worship) and begin the eisa. After offering the first dance to the village gods, the dancers make the rounds of the homes in the village, perfoming the eisa dance.
The eisa originated from a group dance called esa omoro, to which Buddhist songs and dances were later added. Its present name, eisa, for the Bon Dance is derived from the word "eisa" which is a refrain in the Buddhist songs. Though regarded today as entertainment, the eisa originally had an important religious function of giving repose to the dead. An eisa performance on street corners and at homes of villagers was comparable to performing a memorial service for village ancestors. Thus, the eisa always began with songs which invoked the Buddha, such as Mamaoya Nenbutsu. It was only later that Okinawan folk songs so popular in eisa today came to be included in the eisa song repertoire.
Traditionally, sedate colors were used for eisa costumes. The men wore robes of banana fiber cloth with straw sashes and kerchiefs, while the women wore robes of banana fiber cloth, or dark blue kimonos, with white kerchiefs. The costumes now are multi-colored, especially for the men, who wear white cotton shirts and trousers with bright sashes and kerchiefs.Popular througout the prefecture today, the eisa is an enduring Okinawan folk performing art. This art form is preserved with the greatest enthusiasm in the central part of Okinawa Island, followed by the north and the south. An island-wide eisa festival and a youth eisa festival are held annually on the first Sunday after the Bon celebrations have come to an