Culture Club in Japan: Bunka no Hi


“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity.  By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death.  The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us.  Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life”

~Octavio Paz

There’s more to Japanese Culture than an SNL skit would lead you to believe

“Thanks for sharing,” Jody coyly says to me as the autumn winds blows and cold drizzle sets in just after sunset. Sure, I checked the weather and told her the high temperature for the day, along with the chance of rain we could suffer.  But she’s a smart, well-educated woman, and clearly should would understand the nighttime lows, especially given we’ve been sleeping with the windows open the last couple of days.

“Cold is a state of mind,” I flatly respond with my oft-repeated joke of how they taught us to embrace cold in Navy SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training. She does nothing but glance disapprovingly in my general direction.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, somber processional approaches

Earlier, things were different as the processional came into view as it passed over a rise in the roadway on the horizon. Even at this distance, the colors and pageantry of the parade already shine true in the bright afternoon Okinawan sun.  The crowd gathers has the spectacle closes, and slowly the somber sounds of Chinese horns, drums, and hand cymbals grow ever louder, setting the tone and cadence for all involved.  The pace is dignified and slow, and the King and Queen held high in their large, ornate litters.  And so went the Royal Ryukyu procession of guards, warriors, musicians, and dancers for the Chinese Investiture Envoys for the next two hours….

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, golden fans

The Ryukyu King

The Ryukyu King

And his Queen.

And his Queen.

The Shuri Castle Festival is certainly one of the biggest annual events on Okinawa. And there’s no mistake that it’s held in conjunction with the Japanese National Holiday, “Culture Day.”  For a day, the capital city of Naha is transformed into the Ryukyu Kingdom’s old hub.  The Ryukyu Dynasty Parade is truly a splendid sight to see.  A grand parade in brilliant period dress recreates the Ryukyu Kingdom’s most formal and picturesque procession.  In three groups — the dignified King and elegantly beautiful Queen’s procession, the dark and mysterious envoys’ procession, and the colorful and lively traditional arts procession — a throng of almost one thousand costumed period players parade along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha, the same route that has been traveled over the past six centuries.  The costumes are authentic, down to the same stitching used in robes and gowns worn in antiquity.  At the same time, traditional song and dance is performed free of charge and on-site at the castle’s park.  Clearly, to the Okinawans, this is more than just a chance to dress-up; rather, it’s a city-wide embrace and revival of the Ryukyu Dynasty in all its former glory.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, costumed happy dancers

Culture Day (文化の日, Bunka no Hi) is celebrated annually on November 3.  It is expressly set aside by the government to promote culture and the arts.  Events typically include art exhibitions, parades, and in Tokyo, even an Imperial award ceremony for distinguished artists and scholars.

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

Please not this kind of Culture Club in Japan!

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Still more to Okinawa than this....

Still more to Okinawa than this….

First held in 1948 to help promulgate the ideals of love of peace and freedom organic to the post WWII Japanese Constitution, its roots go much deeper. November 3 was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1868 when it was called Tenchō-setsu (天長節), a holiday held in honor of the birthday of the reigning emperor.  An interesting aside, the Emperor’s Birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō Tanjōbi) remains a national holiday here, but with a differing date based on the specific reigning Emperor.  For contemporary Emperor Akihito (born in 1933), it is celebrated on 23 December.  During the reign of Hirohito (Showa period, 1926–1989, the sitting Emperor during WWII), the Emperor’s birthday was observed on 29 April.  Due in part to the nation’s reverence for Hirohito, regardless of how western history taints his role in the incitement and sustainment of World War II throughout Asia and the Pacific, that date remains a public holiday, but was renamed Greenery Day in 1989, and then finally Showa Day in 2007.  Coincidentally, and oddly enough, Showa Day also happens to be the same day in which the Allies’ International Military Tribunal for the Far East condemned key officials of the Imperial Hirohito government during World War II to death, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, back in 1946.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Chinese inspired castle decor.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Chinese-inspired Seiden of the CastleShurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Shurijo Castle FestivalShurijo Castle prospered as the Ryukyu Kingdom’s center of politics, diplomacy and culture for 450 years, well into the late 19th century.  The castle was the residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s King and royal family, as well as the headquarters of the Shuri government, which traded with China, Japan and far-reaching Asian countries, shaping forever the distinctly Okinawa society.  Shuri also served as the heart of the kingdom, a center of culture and the arts, where classical court dance was born in order to welcome Chinese envoys and ambassadors.  After the Ryukyu Kingdom was unilaterally annexed by Japan in 1879, the King was removed from power and position, and the castle was relegated for use as a simple barracks for the Japanese army, falling into some significant measure of disrepair.

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Shuri in complete ruins 1945

Confederates in Japan??

Confederates in Japan??

The more appropriate standard.

The more appropriate standard.

A “National Treasure” before World War II, it was fiercely attacked for three days during the Battle of Okinawa since the Japanese military had located its headquarters in the castle’s underground maze of natural caves and tunnels. On May 27, 1945, Shuri burned for the fourth and last time, and was effectively razed to the ground by intensive shelling and bombardment.  Oddly enough, upon capture a Confederate battle flag was hoisted over the castle by the “Rebel Company,” Alpha Company of the 5th Marine Regiment, and there remained visible for three days until it was ordered removed by Marine General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., himself the son of Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., who felt that all Americans helped to win the battle, and was replaced by a more appropriate standard.  For an interesting take on the role and continuing consternation over this odd intersection of flags, see Should the Rising Sun Finally Set.

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Sacred Suimui Utaki

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female straw hat dancerAfter the war, plans were set in motion to rebuild and recapture the past. Castle reconstruction began in 1958, and was largely completed in 1992 with the restoration of the complex’s main buildings.  In 2000, along with other gusuku, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  See more on the Castle and other festivals held there in my blog Hidden Harvest Moon.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, dragon-topped Seiden rooftop roofline structure

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female dancer and minature puppet shishimaiShurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, footstepsJody and I went down early and parked near the castle, then took the city’s monorail over to the parade grounds. We thoroughly enjoyed the parade for close to two hours, trying to take in as much of the show as our overwhelmed senses would allow.  Jody let me jockey for a better photog position, which is thankfully much easier here in Asian surrounded by rather polite Japanese.  While I’m still sorting and sifting through over a thousand photos taken on no less than three cameras, a few selected ones are included here to help demonstrate the pomp of the ritual.

Shurijo Castle Festival 2014, Ryukyu Dynasty Parade, Eisa ghost dancer

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, female Yosudake dancer traditional Okinawan costumeShurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, colorful female dancerAfter the parade we decided to try another one of the “Sam’s” eateries, a popular chain here on Okinawa, and enjoyed an overpriced but delicious teppanyaki lunch at Sam’s Anchor Inn while we recharged our bodies and reset our senses. Taking the monorail back to the castle, Jody finally was able to tour the inside of the primary buildings of the castle, and we both attended a few displays of traditional Okinawan arts on the stage nearby.  We were, on the one hand happy that there were very few Americans in attendance, but saddened at the same time by this lack of interest and participation.

King's Throne in the Seiden

King’s Throne in the Seiden

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male and femaleAlthough Culture Day is statistically one of the best days of the year weather-wise – in Tokyo there have only been three years with rain in something like 40 years – the forecast is often much different in the sub-tropics, including Okinawa. While the rain Sunday night didn’t keep the crowds away, it did cut short our enjoyment of the candle-lit grounds during the Shurijo Castle Illumination.  Jody’s sleeveless blouse, which threatened to lead to sunburn just hours before, was ultimately no match for the strong fall winds and cold rain of early November.

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

The Shureimon Gate Illuminated

But she sure does have nice shoulders. And besides, it gave me a chance to hold her close as we strolled through the romantically candlelit castle grounds on the way back to our car to zoom away to a steaming bowl of Ramen and freshly fried gyoza.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, Shurijo, Kankaimon gate and castle approach at night

And as we warmed our hearts together on the ride home and over a late dinner, reminiscing, mostly in silence, about the rich fabrics in the colorful cloth of Okinawan culture, I found myself thinking, “Thanks for sharing.”

Thank you, Jody, for sharing this day of culture with me.

See my Flickr Set Shurijo Castle Festival 2014 for more photos as I process and post them.

Shurijo Festival Oct 2014, court dance, male golden fan dance

Love, Intrigue & Death at Katsuren Castle


“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.” Literally:  A bad (or wrong) wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.  ~Japanese Proverb

Okay, it's not always the woman's fault....

Okay, it’s not always the woman’s fault…. This modern Asian wedding is just an all-around bad idea.

Every day on the way to White Beach back in 1999 I would pass what appeared to be ruins on a hilltop among the urban sprawl of Okinawa’s Katsuren peninsula.  Then for a few weeks, there was intense activity at the site, something which of course peaked my interest.  Finally deciding to play hooky from work one day, I turn my Honda Accord hatchback up the steep, crudely constructed concrete hillside road and barely made the climb to a grass and gravel parking lot.  And then my adventure really began!

Dramatic at Night

Dramatic at Night

It turned out that these ruins, once the site of one of the most significant castles of Okinawa which played a key role in Ryukyu history, were being hastily (and only partially) rebuilt, repaired, restored and cleaned in anticipation of a millennial celebration in early 2000.  And thus began my love affair with this castle that I admired during my daily commute to and from work, and to which I visited often with my family back in the early 2000’s when we lived on Okinawa for almost four years.

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One inescapable aspect of living on Okinawa is that the very ground is dotted with a plethora of intriguing castle ruins, reflecting in the present the rich Ryukyu past when regional kings fought a series of wars over their fiefdoms, eventually leading to the unification of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.  By some accounts, there are upwards of 500 documented sites that once held a castle, large or small.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

8583934564_5464537517_oOkinawan castles are often called gusuku, and are indicated by a “- ” suffix in writing. But “castle” is a bit of misnomer; a gusuku is more akin to fortresses of regional chieftains, dating to a time when Okinawa was independent from Japan, and more aligned with Korea and China.  Except for Shuri Castle, completely destroyed in World War II but impeccably restored to its rightful grandeur, most castles exist as ruins, many just mere crumbling stone walls.  Although little may be visible to the eye, the remains of the day reflect the strong history of Okinawa and remain culturally important.  In fact, all the places where gusuku once stood are regarded as sacred sites, still used as active places of worship and for religious and cultural ceremonies by local residents.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

14519091370_9947c54c7c_bUnfortunately, much of the specific history of most of the sites remains unknown, with little specifics being well-recorded.   Primarily, we know those that had developed into strong fortresses, having been led by powerful chieftains that grew in size and stature by subsuming lesser gusuku.  Three of the most famous chieftains in Okinawan history are Lord Amawari of Katsuren, Lord Gosamaru of Zakimi and Nakagusuku, and Lord Hananchi of Nakijin, all on the main island of Okinawa.  Archaeological excavations at their respective castle sites prove the power and wealth of these Sovereigns, and show their entrenched engagement with China and other Southeast Asian countries.

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14519173368_f6bc538061_bOne of the most popular sites among visitors is Katsuren Castle on Okinawa’s central eastern shore, dating to well before the 15th century. Katsuren Castle (勝連城 Katsuren-gusuku), also Katsuren-jō, is known in the Okinawan language as Kacchin Gusuku. Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, 322 feet above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula of Okinawa. Not surprisingly, the castle offers magnificent panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With water on two sides, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean Gusuku.” As a sacred site the castle contains a shrine of the Ryukyuan religion dedicated to Kobazukasa.

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14705473812_28e79f13bf_bIts walls, although massive and timeless, couldn’t contain the intense royal intrigue brewing there. According to rich legend and some historical accounting, King Sho Hashi considered the regional chieftain named Lord Aji Amawari of Katsuren, the 10th Lord in succession of Katsuren castle, a powerful rival.  Famous for fostering prosperous international trade, Amawari was also known as a cunning and politicized leader.   Legend has it that he pushed his predecessor, the 9th Katsuren Castle Lord, Lord Mochizuki Aji, off the top of the castle walls.  As Aji was considered a tyrant and was detested by the people, not only did Amawari assume Lordship, he also became a popular savior to the people of Katsuren.

Momoto Fumiagari

Momoto Fumiagari

momotofumiagariKing Hashi sent his daughter, matchless beauty Momoto Fumiagari, to marry the young Lord Amawari, as one means to keep Amawari in check.  Ah, I hear you sigh, a tale as old as time as lovers’ intrigue generally leads to ruin.  But as Awamari’s strength and popularity continued to grow, Hashi then moved his faithful disciple Lord Gosamaru, from Zakimi Castle in the north, to Nakagusuku, just south of Katsuren, to keep a watchful eye on his ambitious son-in-law. Amawari, whose dream was to unify the island under his control, eventually attacked and killed Gosamaru (with Shuri’s support), and then attempted to overthrow King Sho (of Shuri), but was defeated and killed in 1458.

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14702652921_f835efe616_bHowever, like in the genesis of all legends where truth is lost to time, the people of Katsuren today sees things quite differently. Amawari, popular among and compassionate to his people at the time, was a great threat to the King, and thus it was the King who held the hidden agenda.  In another example of revisionist history, the characterization of Amawari is being slowly transformed from one of traitor to hero.  Funny what a few centuries can do to rehabilitate just about anyone’s character.

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007In any case, the 10th Lord of Katsuren Castle, Lord Amawari, was abruptly killed in some sort of politically charged spat, no doubt involving the rivals of Nakagusuku and Shuri castles.  Oh, and surely over the girl (wink).  He was the last powerful personality to infect Katsuren, and the castle slowly fell out of favor and into slow decay.

www.pbase.com/dbh/okinawa; katsuren jo

14702565151_6f594ac651_bThe castle has 4 enclosures, each at a differing elevation. The first is relatively open, with the castle’s walls there being actively rebuilt during our visit.  The 3rd Enclosure, going from bottom to top, is most likely where ceremonies and rituals took place.  Moving up the large wooden staircase to the 2nd Enclosure, visitors find the foundation of a massive pillared building as grand and on par with Shurijo stood here, based on fragments of expensive Chinese and Korean pottery and colorful architectural decorations.  This level served as the core of the castle where the Lord and his Lady resided, and, in effect, served as the public “government” offices for the region.  Moving up some stone stairs to the uppermost 1st Enclosure, one finds the best views and smallest space, used for the safe repository of valuables according to most speculation.

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137516676_UcxJqCRkThe journey to the ruin’s highest level can be completed (mostly) via the modern, handsome and sturdy wooden staircase, but you may also elect the more authentic and exciting journey up the crumbly rock ramp that is immediately adjacent. Be forewarned though, this is not the day to be wearing your laid-pack island-time flip-flops; sturdy shoes for this adventure are a must.  The limestone is jagged and especially slippery when wet.

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

IMG_6741_jpgAs a religious site, Katsuren is still very active.  Numerous gods were worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life, and many of those are still worshiped today.  Not surprisingly, there are a few altars at Katsuren, which continue to protect the castle and region.  Interestingly, the castle’s kitchen also is the site of the Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire.  The grounds also hold an entrance to a cave called Ushinujigama (”gama” means cave), which was most likely used as a refuge during war and natural disasters.  Finally, the Tamanomiuji-utaki stone at Katsuren Castle serves as a sacred shrine.  This stone remains an active place of worship, and is believed to connect underground to Ushinujigama, connecting two sacred sites together.

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.  It was also declared a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.

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Although the wrong wife can lead to the ruin of her husband, hopefully you can visit Katsuren with a mate more well-suited.  And maybe, just maybe she won’t have a power-hungry father with an army at his disposal.  More likely the long journey involving a couple of U-turns, poorly functioning air conditioning and perhaps and a man who won’t ask (or take) directions will be the origin of any relationship rift(s).  Don’t be in a rush to physically get there, even though you have must visit this fascinating site.  The drive there can be frustratingly slow.  Nevertheless, it can be made a scenic and relaxing ride.  So adjust your clocks to Island Time, and take in some of the more rural areas of Okinawan on your way.

I have a good one.  Spouse, I mean.

I have a good one. Spouse, I mean.

But just keep one eye on that spouse of yours…. You never know what schemes may be hatched with the rich Ryukyu Kingdom history and colorful intrigue as their guide!

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting "Nightmare Castle!"

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting “Nightmare Castle!”

 

 

Katsuren Castle

Open: Closed Mondays and December 29th – January 3rd.

Address: 3908, Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma-City, Okinawa Prefecture, 904-2311

Entrance Fee: Free

Phone: 098-978-2201

Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Okinawa Minami and make a left onto Highway 23.  At the Ikento intersection turn right onto Route 16.  Follow the road straight for several kilometers (be patient – it takes longer than you think or want!) until the roads starts uphill as it gently curves left ninety degrees.  Just after the road curves, you’ll find a sign pointing to the Katsuren Castle ruins on the right, with the museum and parking area on the left.

Map: www.jcastle.info/castle/zoom/110

See my complete set of photos in my Flickr stream here:  Katsuren Castle