When people in the West hear “Okinawa,” their thoughts probably start and stop with America’s military. During the Asia-Pacific War including the Battle of Okinawa, nearly 150,000 non-military Okinawan civilians died. After the post-World War II occupation of Japan, the U.S. continued to stake claim over Okinawa until 1972. Once they relinquished control to Japan, they’ve continued to operate a total of 32 military bases on the 70-mile-long island. Okinawans continue to protest, and many want the complete removal of the American military. Many also want complete independence from Japan, as well.
Okinawa isn’t just a victim of international geopolitics…nor is it just one island. It’s one puzzle piece in the fascinating history of the Ryukyu or Nansei archipelago – a unique part of the world, with its own thriving indigenous culture. Situated between Taiwan and Japan are the 55 islands that were once the Ryukyu Kingdom, which played an important role in maritime trade for centuries, between Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Once a tributary kingdom of China during the Ming dynasty, then a tributary kingdom of Japan, the Ryukyu Kingdom continued all the way to the late 19th century, when the 1,100+ square mile area it encompassed was usurped into Japan.
The islands have been occupied for perhaps as far back as 32,000 years, and the native Ryukyuans, or Uchinaanchu, have their own languages which are more than just dialects, and are in fact unintelligible to Japanese speakers. Their folk music, at least to my underexposed ears, feels situated just as its geography – somewhere between Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. It’s got a separate feel entirely from the geisha songs with samisen from Japan, often has a driving rhythm, and is deeply rooted in local folk traditions. The main instruments that you’ll hear on this piece are the snake skin covered, three-stringed Okinawan lute, the sanshin, which is similar and perhaps a precursor to the samisen in Japan; at least one taiko drum is heard, as well as the clacking sound of the yotsutake, which are handheld pieces of bamboo that are clapped together to the beat of the rhythm.
When I found this disc, it had the word “Fisherman” carved into the label by a previous owner. I knew it had to be good. This is a seamless medley of two folk songs performed by the “Princesses of Okinawa Music,” Itokazu Kame (1915-1991), and Hunakoshi Kiyo (1914-1998). Itokazu Kame provides the main vocal throughout, and Hunakoshi Kiyo plays the sanshin and sings backup. Teruya Rinsuke plays the taiko drum(s), and Maekawa Choushou plays the mandolin. The first piece, “Tancha-me-Bushi,” is a song about the Tancha-me Beach, near the town of Onna, on the main island of Okinawa. This is a well-known melody from the region – a song about the annual harvest of sururu fish on the beach, and how local fisherman are proud of their daughters selling sururu on the streets. The second piece, “Katsuren-Bushi,” is about the beauty of the women on the Katsuren Peninsula, and how fishermen from other islands pine for them – but the unpredictable currents and tides around the peninsula make the journey too risky, so they can only yearn.
This is another example of how commercial 78s were everywhere, even in what might be considered to be rural, hard to reach communities. This was the case of a smaller, local record company providing Okinawan music for both Okinawans, and the Okinawan diaspora. Okinawan or Ryukyuan folk music performed by actual Okinawan musicians seems to have been only occasionally recorded during the 78rpm era, until after the Second World War. The first label that was active was named Marufuku, and was established in 1927 in Osaka, a city which at the time held a large amount of Okinawan immigrants. The Tahei label, active as a Japanese imprint since 1930 or so, issued some Okinawan material after 1950, and two local independent labels cropped up, including Marutaka. This piece is on Marutaka from ca. mid-1957. Marutaka was established in 1955 by an Okinawan businessman named Koura Jiro, and Jira Takara, who owned the Takara Watch Store on Helwa Street in Naha City in Okinawa. It was, at least at first, a subsidiary of Victor in Japan, who pressed the records.
Many thanks to JiHoon Suk for detailed information and translation, Kato David Hopkins, and to Izumi Kinoshita for introducing me to this music.
Issue Number: T-823
Matrix Number: PEN-2317