“But even when the moon looks like it’s waning…it’s actually never changing shape. Don’t ever forget that.” ~Ai Yazawa, Japanese manga author
“I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
Held annually on or about August 15 of the lunar calendar under the Harvest Moon (roughly coinciding with the fall equinox), the Mid-Autumn Celebration reproduces the Mid-Autumn Banquet Celebration, one of seven Sappou Shichien Celebrations once held during the historical Ryukyu Kingdom era which served to entertain and celebrate Sappoushi envoys from China.
Jody and I decided to attend this year’s festivities. Up to this point, we have been rather overwhelmed with moving and settling on the island, trying to get by with what little we have (still no household goods!!), and with Jody trying to acclimate to her job at the Navy hospital. However, we had been watching the moon’s slow and steady progression each night towards full glory, and concluded that the spectacle of the historical Shuri Castle, dressed and immersed in traditional Okinawan pageantry, under the harvest full moon during our 2nd wedding anniversary weekend was something we probably shouldn’t miss. We were even surprised to find out that the admission was free, even though the event takes place in the castle’s central Una forecourt, normally requiring payment to enter.
Ukanshin odori (“classic dances”) and Kumi Odori (組踊, Okinawan: Kumi wudui, “ensemble dance”) are performed under the harvest moon, and are a form of narrative traditional Ryukyuan dance. Originating in the Okinawan capital of Shuri in 1719, the dances are founded on amusement and diversion for Chinese diplomats and envoys that traveled frequently between China and Okinawa at the time. Tamagusuku Chokun, a Ryūkyū courtier (1684–1734), is credited with the establishment of kumi odori as a frequently presented court demonstration. An amalgamation of several different types of East Asian dance, the kumi odori has continued to hold important cultural significant in Okinawan society, and remains today a prime example of native art sustained by and through the people of Okinawa.
The weekend festivities promised to bring the historical Ryukyu court to life. Four show sets were programmed to take place Saturday evening between 6:30 and 9:00, each lasting about 45 minutes. We arrived in plenty of time, and since this was Jody’s first visit to Shuri, we took our time wandering through and up the meandering path to the castle, passing through various ornamented gates and past massive coral blocked walls. Unfortunately for us, the weather was not cooperating; rain was in the forecast, and overcast conditions prevailed. The luminous moon was nowhere in sight, especially when our travel-sized umbrellas had to be deployed.
The Kingdom of the Ryukyus reigned over Japan’s southwestern islands for approximately 450 years from 1429 to 1879, although political collusion in these islands began to appear earlier in the 12th century, a period corresponding to Japan’s Kamakura era. Through repeated fighting and reconciliation, local warlords known as aji were gradually reduced in number as power was consolidated by a few. Finally in 1429, Sho Hashi defeated the major ajis to establish a unified nation, marking the birth of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus and the Sho Dynasty.
In the following years, the Ryukyus gradually evolved. Through robust trade and growing diplomatic ties with China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia, the Ryukyus developed as an ocean-faring nation, with Shurijo Castle as its political, economic and cultural center.
During this festival, when twilight has passed, the visual effects of Shurijo Castle Park are spectacular, with visitors able to appreciate the grandeur of the illuminated Seiden State Hall from the adjacent festival location in the hall’s Una Forecourt. The view from the Western Observatory provides a spectacular and breathtaking evening view of Naha City’s lights from far in the south up the coast to even Cape Zanpa, who’s lighthouse beacon was clearly visible.
As we formally entered the Castle’s inner grounds, we noticed three lines of people just outside the forecourt, one for each of the gated entrances found there. Noticing that the lines to the right (far side) were shorter, I elected the middle line, not really knowing what to expect. For those planning to go, get there early and get into the line to the far left; this line provides easiest access to seating on the left side of the stage, where the dancers and musical performers can best be viewed. The musicians are seated on the right of the stage (as viewed from the audience), facing left, which can obscure the theatrics for some of those seated on the right.
In 1469, some 40 years after the Sho Dynasty assumed power, a coup occurred, resulting in the 2nd Sho Dynasty. In 1609, the Satsuma Clan of Japan invaded the Ryukyus with a force of 3,000 men and seized Shurijo Castle. For the following 270 years, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus maintained a nominally tributary relationship with China, historically their main ally and trading partner, while in reality it was controlled by Japan via the Tokugawa Shogunate. Finally, in 1879, the return to Japanese imperial rule with the Meiji Restoration resulted in the dispatch of troops to oust the Ryukyu King from Shurijo Castle and place Okinawa formally under the Japanese Emperor, officially establishing Okinawa Prefecture and ending forever the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.
Jody and I were able to attend the first three portions of the program, and unfortunately missed the most impressive dances that occurred later in the evening. Not wanting to drive (and most likely get lost), pay the tolls (about $6 each way), and mess with parking downtown (quite expensive at the castle), we elected to take a military tour. And although the provided bus was very nice and the driver excellent, the cost was probably higher than providing our own transportation, and oddly enough, the time of the tour did not coincide with the timing of the programmed events…thanks to the 10pm curfew imposed by the military on its junior personnel. That combined with rain delays that caused the celebration to being twenty minutes late, resulted in our rather early departure.
Not really knowing what to expect, but having seen other forms of traditional Asian and Asian Pacific Islander dance across the Pacific Rim and within Asia proper, I was somewhat surprised at these particular performances. The level of pageantry was not as I would have expected or desired (stage decoration, better sound, larger ensembles, period costumed staff), and the dances, while fascinating to watch and experience first-hand in such a powerful and historical location, are almost devoid of emotion and energy…at least by western standards. Luckily, we had a guide, provided free at the venue, which helped explain what we were seeing and hearing.
First was Kajadihu, an “auspicious dance customarily performed as the first in programs presented on festive occasions.” It is said to be the most preferred and popular of all the classical Ryukyuan dances. It seems to portray a very old Okinawan couple, who moved very slowly, methodically, and nearly in unison, each with a decorated Japanese fan as a hand prop.
Another dance performed was Amaka, a dance presented along with a song about a married couple vowing their eternal love, although oddly enough, the dance calls for only a solo woman to perform. This is a type of teodori, a dance emphasizing hand movements without props. In this song and dance, the loving couple is compared to Mandarin ducks, regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, playing together on a river called Amakawa.
Our favorite performance piece of the evening by far was Shundo, which involves two pairs of women artists, a beautiful pairing alongside an “ugly” one! This is considered a “pair dance” and is the only piece in the Ryukyu classical dances that use masks – to make the ugly pair appear “ugly” – as props. Although expressed in a humorous way, the melancholy and clunkiness of the ill-favored women runs throughout the work, contrasting with the gracefulness of the admired beauties.
Next year we will be much better prepared, logistically and with our own expectations. And we will hope for clear skies and a bright moon, whose beaming light would clearly make this a more spectacular evening for all to harvest.
Left: Enormous moon sets the scene for “Jade Rabbit—Sun Wukong” from the series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. The giant disk, which became an expressive device in much Japanese painting, is a prominent element here. This image is from the allegorical Chinese novel, Journey to the West (Xi You Ji), in which the immortal monkey, Sun Wukong, transforms into a rabbit to fulfill his quest; the monkey taunts the rabbit in the moon.
- Shūbun no Hi (秋分の日): Happy Anniversary to my One Wild and Crazy Wife!! (fareastfling.me)
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- Banzai!!! (fareastfling.me)
- Leving Home for Home (fareastfling.me)