Ryukyuan Dance

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Kajadifu Bushi 

"Kiyu nu fukurasha ya 
Nawuni jana tatiru Tsibudi wuru hananu Tsiyu chata gutu"

Today's joyous occasion,
To what can we compare it? It's like a bud waiting to bloom,
Touched by the morning dew.


Kuti Bushi

"Tuchiwa naru matsi nu
Kawaru kutu nesami
Ichi n haru kuriba
Irudu Masaru"

The evergreen pine tree
Stays static forever.
The closer spring comes,
The deeper green it gets.



"Uchi narashi narashi
Yutsidaki wa narashi
Kiyu ya uza njiti
Ashibu urisha"

Clapping and clapping,
We clap a bamboo clapper.
Today, I play for a noble man.
How proud I am!


Chun Jun Bushi  


"Wakaritin tageni
Guyin atikara ya
Ituni nuku hana nu
Tsiriti nuchumi"

Even after we part
Should fate have it so,
We will be like flowers
Linked together, never to be torn apart.

Shirashi Haikawa Bushi


"Shirashi haikawa ni
Nagariyuru sakura
Shikuti umisatu ni
Nuchai hakira"

On the surface of the Shirashi river, cherry blossoms float.
Let's scoop them up to make a lei to put on his shoulder.

Hai Tsikuten Bushi

"Haru ya hana zakayi
Miyama uguyisi nu
Niwi shinudi fukiru
Kuyi nu shurasha"

Spring, flowers are in full bloom.
The nightingale living deep in the mountains seeks the flower's scent.
How beautiful is the voice of the nightingale.  

Binuchi Bushi

"Iju nu ki nu hana ya
Anchurasa sachui
Wanun iju yatuti
Mashira sakana"

The flower of the Iju tree,
Blooms so beautifully.
I wish I were beautiful
Like the Iju flower.



The sea surrounding the islands of Okinawa is renowned for its spectacular beauty.  Its lucent aquamarine presents a variety of aspects under the illumination of the sun's rays.  The sea has exerted a constant influence on the life and culture of Okinawa.  One might cite the concept of Nirai-Kanai, which plays an important part in native Okinawan religious belief and is conceived as an idealized realm over the seas, as the abode of the gods.  People have traditionally believed that happiness and prosperity assured by a plentiful harvest are brought from Nirai-Kanai.  The spirit of prayer is expressed in stylized gesture, while prayer itself becomes manifest in song, thereby opening the way to development of the performing arts.  To the backdrop of the islands' history, song and dance have continued down to the present day to serve as vehicles for expression of the thoughts and emotions of the Okinawan people.

Several centuries ago the kingdom of Ryukyu attained a measure of wealth and prosperity as the agent of entrepot trade between China, Southeast Asia and Japan.  In the course of the absorption of cultural influences from these nations, an aristocratic Ryukyuan court culture rooted in a distinctively Okinawan aesthetic and sensibility emerged to take its place alongside the great cultures of the world.  The traditional performing arts epitomize this culture.


Ryukyuan dance is conventionally classified into four major genres whose stylistic features are products of different socio-historical conditions.  First, there is the genre of 'classical dance', which is sometimes referred to as 'court dance.'  Second, there is the genre of zo odori or 'popular dance' which emerged after the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in the late nineteenth century.  In contrast to the aristocratic origins of classical dance, this genre is rooted in the daily lives of the common people, whose feelings and attitudes it expresses.  Third, we have the genre of 'modern dance', denoting dances created primarily in the postwar years.  Finally, there is the genre of 'folk dance', referring to styles which have been transmitted down the ages in the context of the rituals and festivities of local communities throughout Okinawa.


China and Ryukyu established formal diplomatic relations in 1404.  For almost five centuries thereafter, a party of investiture envoys would be sent to Ryukyu by the Chinese emperor to authorize the accession of each new king.  The Chinese ambassador would present a certificate of investiture formally recognizing the king's status as 'King of Ryukyu' together with a royal crown.  Since navigational conditions meant that the Chinese investiture parties had to stay in Ryukyu for several months, it was incumbent upon the royal government to provide them with hospitality which included banquets at which entertainments prompted the royal government in Shuri to devote much effort to patronage of the performing arts.  Such were the conditions under which the genre of 'classical dance' developed.  The shops which bore the Chinese envoys to Ryukyu were known as 'crown ships' ('ukwanshin'), and the entertainments presented at the banquets held in honor of the envoys came to be referred to as 'crown ship dances' ('ukwanshinudui').


Classical dance is divided into several subcategories, namely 'elderly people's dances' (rojin odori), intended to augur longevity and a plentiful progeny; 'boy's dances' (wakashu odori), items with a propitious content which were performed by boys of about fourteen or fifteen prior to the coming-of-age ceremony; 'women's dances' (onna odori), whose restrained gestures present a guise behind which lurk turbulent amorous passions; and 'young men's dances' (nisai odori), which have a vigorous masculine quality and incorporate gestures from Okinawan karate as well as influences from Japanese dance styles.  During the royal age, dances were performed exclusively by male members of the nobility.  Following the first florescence of aristocratic culture during the sixteenth century, the Ryukyuan arts developed a more introspective side in the wake of the Satsuma invasion of 1609 and the subsequent domination of Ryukyu by Satsuma. But the radiance and sophistication of the Ryukyuan aesthetic were, if anything, enhanced during these years.  The period of domination by Satsuma, which began in 1609 and lasted until 1879, saw Ryukyu obliged to dispatch frequent ambassadorial parties to the Satsuma capital of Kaogshima and the Japanese capital of Edo on official and ceremonial business.  These embassies gave members of the nobility the opportunity to come into firsthand contact with the Japanese performing arts.  This experience provided the stimulus for the creation of 'young men's dances' with their clear traces of Japanese influence.


With the forcible dissolution of the Ryukyuan kingdom and the establishment in its place of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, the traditional social hierarchy disintegrated and the members of the Shuri nobility who had until then been the creators and performers of those manifestations of music, dance and theatre associated with Ryukyuan court culture found themselves deprived of patronage and financial security.  Those with skills in the performing arts drifted towards the first Okinawan commercial theatres, which had begun to appear at the end of the nineteenth century in Naha.  There they had the opportunity to present performances of classical dance and of Kumiodori, the genre of Ryukyuan classical music drama which had also occupied an important position in the ukwanshinudui entertainments, to audiences consisting primarily of the former class of commoners, who thus gained the opportunity to see Ryukyuan court culture for the first time.  But such refined, aristocratic forms soon failed to assuage the thirst of ordinary Okinawans for stage entertainment.  In response to these new cultural needs, professional dancers and musicians created the new genre of zo odori ('popular dance'), based on the daily lives of ordinary people dwelling in farming and fishing communities.  In contrast to the restrained and rarefied atmosphere of classical dance, with its stylized and sophisticated aesthetic, zo odori dances convey an atmosphere of radiant emancipation; their dynamism gave inestimable delight to Okinawans during a drastically changing era.

The Ryukyuan performing arts have thus flourished in the ages of turbulent change, and a strongly distinctive traditional culture has emerged.  No matter how difficult the conditions presented by history, there has been no decline in the creative will to give form to a culture of vivid beauty.  One senses here the exceptional determination and farsightedness that enabled Ryukyuans of former times to come to terms with their historical situation.



Costumes present one of the most distinctive manifestations of the aesthetic underlying Ryukyuan dance.  In the 'women's dances' of the classical repertoire, the dancers appear on stage clad in kimono made from fabric dyed in the bingata style.  The designs are created  by means of the application to the fabric of stencils featuring such motifs as flowers, birds, waves, and clouds.  This traditional Ryukyuan style of textile-dyeing is noted for its use of highly vivid coloration.  The more intense the emotional atmosphere of a dance, the more the motion of the primary colors -- red, blue and yellow in particular -- seems to get superimposed on the emotional state of the woman who is the subject of the dance, thereby fuelling the imagination of the spectator.  There is even greater variety in the range of costumes worn by performers of dances in the zo odori repertoire.  Among the costumes are those made from fabric in the kasuri style featuring 'splashed' patterns created by weaving with yarns resist-dyed to a shade of dark blue verging on black with natural dye obtained from the Ryukyuan inidgo plant.  Others include costumes known as bashofu women with yarns from the Ryukyuan banana tree and characterized by the sense of coolness that they convey, and jofu costumes of high-quality ramie.  The methods employed in the production of Ryukyuan textiles were introduced from the distant lands with which Ryukyu maintained relations during the heyday of the nation's overseas trading activities during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  The great skill and ingenious selectivity employed in the introduction of these methods resulted in the creation of craft products of exceptionally fine quality.  A variety of accoutrements also came to be used in order, as in the case of the costumes, to emphasize the theme of a particular dance and to enhance its aesthetic effect.  One of these is the large floral-shaped hate (hanagasa) which has come in recent times to serve as a symbol for Okinawa.  This arrestingly beautiful hat is designed in the shape of an open vermilion flower set above a blue ground decorated with silver wave patterns.  In the festive women's dance Yosutake, the hanagasa epitomizes the radiant female emotions; together with the sound of the yosutake castanets which the performers click together as they dance, it conveys a mood of effusive joy.  The same hanagasa is used in the classical women's dance Nufa Bushi, although here it is the vessel into which wistful amorous feelings of great intensity are poured.  In the first part of the dance the performer holds the hat in her right hand; she focuses the profound, introspective feelings inherent in the role she is playing into her hand gestures.  In the latter half she wears the hat to present a further development of the romantic drama.  Thus although the same hanagasa is employed in both dances, its symbolism differs greatly in accordance with the respective content of the two dances.  The hanazumi tisaji, a length of woven figured fabric, also plays an important role as a symbol of a young woman's romantic feelings; it appears in several items in the zo odori repertoire.  It was formerly the custom for a young woman of marriageable age to weave such a scarf-like length of cloth using yarns she would herself have dyed as a token of her romantic interest in a man, to whom she would present the cloth.  As well as being a token of her love, the hanazumi tisaji was considered to be imbued with talismanic powers.


Supporting Ryukyuan dance from within and giving direction to each dance is the music performed by a group of musicians (jikata).  Owing to the paramount importance in this music of song (uta) and the sanshin lute, this music is often referred to as utasanshin.  The sanshin is a three-stringed plucked lute of southern Chinese origin.  Ability to perform this instrument was considered an important attribute of a man of culture among members of Shuri nobility.  Whereas in Japan, as a byproduct of the samurai tradition, it was often the custom to display a sword as an heirloom in the tokonoma alcove of a living room, in Okinawa the lack of a militaristic tradition and the importance placed on cultural pursuits meant that it was the sanshin which occupied a position similar to that of the Japanese sword as a family heirloom.  That a musical instrument rather than a murderous weapon should occupy this position is a reflection of the different orientations of Ryukyuan and Japanese society in the past.


As a small nation maintaining relations with many others during the heyday of its overseas commerce, Ryukyu came to realize that it could not solve disputes in which the nation might become involved through the exercise of military force and that peaceful  coexistence was the only path available.  The performing arts are the epitome of the peaceful cosmopolitan orientation of Ryukyuan civilization: the instruments of Okinawan music are of both Chinese and Japanese origin, the main musical scale is similar to one of the two scales of Japanese music and has parallels elsewhere in Southeast Asia, while certain of the dance techniques and gestures are of Japanese origin.  These elements of varied origins combine to constitute a style of music and dance which is quintessentially Okinawan.  The many manifestations of the Okinawan performing arts have served over the centuries down to the present to underpin the spiritual and cultural life of the people of these islands.


Excerpt from RYUKYUAN DANCE, First Edition 1995
Published by 

Okinawa Prefectural Culture Promotion Foundation