The Okinawan archipelago lies 1,500 km southwest of Tokyo. Time passes slowly here: Time in Okinawa passes slowly – it’s called “island time”. With a warm, subtropical climate, deep blue sea and unspoiled natural scenery, the locals live life at a leisurely pace.
Part of the culture developed by the people of these islands is the traditional performance art of Kumiodori. With its characteristically melancholy Okinawan melodies, and actors in beautiful costumes, it has been beloved of Okinawans for 300 years.
Kumiodori is still performed in theatres in Okinawa today, but what makes it so appealing? Digging into the past, we began to understand the history of Okinawa’s people, and the pride they take in it.
Okinawa, where time passes slowly, has developed its own unique culture
Okinawa is warm, with an annual average temperature of 23℃. The pace of life here is slow and comfortable, and as you arrive at Naha Airport and step into ‘island time’, you can feel all your tensions melt away.
From 1429 to 1879, Okinawa was a separate kingdom known as Ryukyu. Its location, halfway between Japan and China, made it a center of trade where huge volumes of goods and great numbers of people came and went.
Over the centuries, Okinawa evolved a unique culture that includes pottery known as Yachimun, developed using skills brought over from China and the Korean peninsula, textiles such as Ryukyu-kasuri, said to have originated in India, cuisine featuring pork and seafood, and nostalgia-evoking Ryukyu music.
But in 2019, Okinawa suffered a tragic loss. Shuri Castle, built in the late 14th century as the focal point of the Ryukyu Kingdom and designated a UNESCO world heritage site, was destroyed by fire.
The magnificent buildings were not only famous as a tourist attraction, but were a source of pride and spiritual strength to the people of Okinawa. Thanks to support and generous donations from around the world, preparations for reconstruction have now begun.
Kumiodori continues to move the people of Okinawa
Alongside Shuri Castle in importance stands a cultural creation that the people of Okinawa have loved for 300 years: the narrative dance form of Kumiodori.
Kumiodori was created in 1719 to entertain Chinese envoys, and was inspired by Japanese Nogaku and Chinese Kunqu (an ancient form of Chinese opera from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province). In 2010 it was listed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
We asked Mr. Michihiko Kakazu, Artistic Director of the National Theatre Okinawa, about Kumiodori’s appeal.
Mr. Kakazu: Kumiodori is made up of slow chanting in the Ryukyu language, songs, melodies played mainly on the sanshin, a plucked three-stringed instrument, elegant movements with set forms used to express emotions, and colorful costumes. It’s a mixture of many cultures, but has a refined beauty that comes from being part of the performing art culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Let’s take a look at Mekarushi, a representative example of Kumiodori.
It’s the story of the deep love between a celestial nymph and her children, and is based on the Hagoromo legend, found not only in Japan, but in China, Korea, and throughout Southeast Asia. The nymph comes down from Heaven and loses the feather robe she needs to return there. The story is set off by costumes in characteristic colors that include red, yellow and purple, graceful, dreamlike dancing, and music that embodies the easy-going atmosphere of a subtropical country.
Eventually the nymph, who has become a mother, finds the feather robe she thought she had lost. The climax of the story, as she returns to heaven while looking down at her sobbing children, has moved Okinawan audiences for 300 years.
Arrangements of Cinderella and other world-famous stories
The National Theatre Okinawa, built in 2004, is a dedicated venue for traditional Okinawan performing arts, including Kumiodori, and is around 20 minutes by car from Okinawa’s capital, Naha.
Productions of traditional Okinawan performing arts are staged all year round. In the adjoining exhibition room, exhibitions of props and costumes, and films, allow visitors to enjoy traditional Okinawan performing arts even on days when no performances are being staged.
The National Theatre Okinawa’s program for 2019/2020 is titled ‘The Aesthetic of the Ryukyu Kingdom — the Inheritance and Transmission of Kumiodori and Ryukyu Dance’ .
Mr. Kakazu explained the significance of the program, which includes performances on an outdoor reconstruction of the type of stage used in 1719, when Kumiodiri was first performed, performances with audio guides for first-timers, and a Kumiodori version of the world-famous fairy tale Cinderella, as well as new Kumiodori works.
Mr. Kakazu: New Kumiodori works, and experiments such as adapting a world-famous fairy tale, will revitalize the Kumiodori tradition and open up new possibilities. While treasuring works and forms passed down from the Ryukyu era, we believe new works based on the values of today’s audiences and performers will help us bring the magic of Kumiodori to a wider audience.
The National Theatre Okinawa’s 2020 calendar includes performances of Kenbo Sansen no Maki, the story of a mother and child based on an episode in the life of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (April 25), Kushi no Wakaaji, a tale of revenge for the killing of a lord by a tyrannical ruler (July 18), and Nido Tekiuchi, a historical drama created 300 years ago by the founder of Kumiodori, Tamagusuku Chokun (November 18-21).
Okinawa’s culture, developed over centuries, is a great source of pride to its people, and has a special place in their hearts. A Kumiodori performance is sure to give you an insight into wealth of that culture.
OKINAWA | Japan Travel | JNTO
Celebrating 300 Years of Kumiodori
National Theatre Okinawa
Address: 4-14-1 Jitchaku, Urasoe-shi, Okinawa Prefecture
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Special Exhibition ‘Experience it! Traditional Japanese Performing Arts: The World of Kabuki, Bunraku, Noh, Kyogen, Gagaku and Kumiodori dance’
Exhibition period: March 10, 2020 (Tuesday) through May 24 (Sunday)
Venue: Tokyo National Museum Hyokeikan
Hours: 9:30 am to 5:00 pm Notes: • The museum is open until 9 pm on Fridays and Saturdays • Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time
• The museum is closed on Mondays, except for March 30 and May 4 (public holiday)