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!

keep-calm-and-love-the-japanese-culture

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

Hidden Harvest Moon: Rain & the Shurijo Castle Autumn Celebration


Manga Moon

Manga Moon

“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

Far Eastern Spectators

Far Eastern Spectators

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.

More Modern Envoys...of a sort.

More Modern Envoys…of a sort.

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.

Far Eastern Myth:  Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

Far Eastern Myth: Rabbit in the Moon making Rice Cakes

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.

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Jody at the Shuremon Gate

Costumes & Pageantry

Costumes & Pageantry

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.

Castle Gate

Castle Gate

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.

A Chinese Shishi Lion

A Chinese Shishi Lion

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.

Far Eastern Décor

Far Eastern Décor

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.

View of Naha from Shurijo's Viewpoint

View of Naha from Shurijo’s Viewpoint

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, our view of the stage, mid-Autumn FestivalAs 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.

Our View from Stage Left

Our View from Stage Left

Costumed Guard

Costumed Guard

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.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, male performer of the Kajadihu dance, mid-Autumn Festival

Okinawa Aug 2013, Shuri Castle, the beautiful pair from the Shundo dance, mid-Autumn FestivalJody 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.

Traditional Okinawan Music

Traditional Okinawan Music

Castle Grandeur

Castle Grandeur

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.

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

Kajadihu Traditional Opening

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.

Amaka Dance

Amaka Dance

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.

Okinawa Sep 2013, Shuri Castle, performers from the Kajadihu open, mid-autumn festival

Shundo's "Ugly" Pairing

Shundo’s “Ugly” Pairing

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.

Shundo's More Appealing Pair

Shundo’s More Appealing Pair

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.

Staged Performances

Staged Performances

p07_photo01Left:  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.