Kathy Foley, Ph.D.
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The month of July marks the observance of Okinawan Obon, when ties to deceased loved ones are renewed through music and dance. Memories from a 1976 visit by several of Okinawa’s top artistic and cultural masters will be recalled with gratitude and fondness on Sunday, July 30, as the Okinawan dance studio Jimpu Kai USA Kin Ryosho Ryukyu Geino Kenkyusho Hawaii Shibu presents “Du usami: The Journey,” a voyage into the heart of Okinawa’s artistic traditions at the University of Hawai‘i’s Kennedy Theatre. The performance is part of the UH’s Asia Pacific Dance Festival.
Jimpu Kai USA, led by artistic director Cheryl Yoshie Nakasone-Sensei, will stage the kumi udui play, “Shushin Kani’iri,” (“Possessed by Love, Thwarted by the Bell”) a classical dance-drama from the days of the Ryükyü Kingdom. The group is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its establishment.
The classical dance-drama was created by Tamagusuku Chokun (1684-1734). Okinawa was the Kingdom of the Ryükyüs when it was performed for the first time in 1719 in the Shuri court to entertain Chinese ambassadors during investiture ceremonies for King Shö Kei.
While many attending the performance will savor the refined music and dance, some of us will be remembering when we danced or translated these gestures or played the music in the University of Hawai‘i’s Japan Studies Institute Program in 1976. We will be seeing Nakasone-Sensei’s dancers as new links in a chain stretching back to Tamagusuku Chokun, whose art was taught in Hawai‘i by Kin Ryosho-Sensei (1908-1993), a 20th century master artist during that 1976 UH project. Kin-Sensei spent two and a half months working with us in Hawai‘i.
Although, politically, Okinawa had been part of Japan since 1972 — as it was from annexation in 1879 until the end of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa — our study of its song, drumming, movement and music allowed us to understand the distinctive legacy of this independent kingdom. For centuries, the Ryükyü Kingdom had struck a delicate balance between Japan and China, taking selectively from each and making everything its own.
When we began the summer of 1976, some of us, myself included, had a limited understanding of Okinawa; we knew even less about the Okinawan diaspora in Hawai‘i. By the end of the summer, however, we had seen a hundred people, many from the local Okinawan community, participating in performance workshops. Thousands more turned out for concerts. From the drumming workshops, a revival of eisa-style drumming, spearheaded by Violet Ogawa and her sister, was soon underway.
Many of us who were introduced to Okinawan arts as UH graduate students are still involved in the genre, either as students or as researchers. Back in 1976, Professor Barbara Smith taught a morning seminar on the history of Okinawan culture and music. We spent our afternoons in workshops: on kumi udui and classical dance, taught by Kin Ryosho; uta sanshin (singing and playing sanshin simultaneously), taught by Shimabukuro Masao; eisa drumming taught by Matsumoto Josho and minyo folk music with Tamaki Antei.
Those of us in the kumi udui group were intrigued, challenged and enlightened by the movement, song, poetry and values that our teachers communicated of a world that had vanished with Japan’s accession of the Islands in 1879. And yet, somehow, it still reverberated in the songs and moved in the dances the master artists so generously taught us.
Some of us scheduled to speak prior to the July 30 program will be contemplating how the new generation has put into their bodies and souls roles that we attempted in 1976. Cheryl Nakasone-Sensei, who keeps alive the legacy of Kin Ryosho, will surely be remembering how, in 1976, she portrayed the refined young man Wakamatsi, who takes refuge at the temple to avoid the unwelcome advances of a seductive female. Nakasone, Earl Ikeda and other students of Kin-Sensei had returned to Hawai‘i that summer after studying in Naha. For those like myself who were new to Okinawan arts, they were generous translators, linguistically and culturally. Cheryl-Sensei, of course, went on to earn her teaching certificate from Kin Ryosho in 1977 and continues to perpetuate his style. In 2013, the Hawaii United Okinawa Association recognized her cultural contributions by presenting her with a Legacy Award. In 2015, she led her students in a performance of classical dance and kumi udui at the National Theatre in Okinawa. The July 30 concert at Kennedy Theatre celebrates Nakasone’s 40 years of teaching.
In the audience will be Kimiko Ohtani, chancellor of Soai University in Ösaka. She will surely be remembering that she played the seductress in the story, which is an Okinawan manifestation of the pan-Asian mythical “lady-turned-snake” narrative. The nöh play “Dojoji” and Chinese opera’s “Lady White Snake” are variants on the same theme. Inspired by her exposure in 1976, Ohtani went on to write her Ph.D. dissertation on kumi udui at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, and has since taught ethnomusicology and dance ethnology.
Etsuko Higa, who was a master’s student in music at UH in 1976, will be paying close attention to the music in this performance. After returning from her studies at UH, she became a lecturer at Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts. Nobuko Ochner, who translated the text we worked on that summer, was a graduate student in Japanese literature. Her translations and writings on kumi udui have been one of the ways this art form has become better known in the Western world. Ochner went on to become an associate professor at UH. She translated a 2005 publication of “Shushin Kani’iri” into Japanese. I wrote the introduction and stage directions for the publication, which was the result of our 1976 experiences and still serves as a useful introduction to the form for Western readers.
Some of us in the audience will be thinking of the teachers who somehow communicated the essence of their Okinawan traditions. Kumi udui was an aristocratic and intellectual tradition of a court that had little to do with our countercultural realities. In 1976, a few of us — Ohtani and Ochner (Japanese), Higa (Okinawan), Nakasone (Hawai‘i-born Okinawan) and Foley (Caucasian American) — through the generous support of grants, encountered the arts of an Okinawan past in classrooms, studios and concert halls . . . and we were changed.
As I watch on July 30, I will be remembering Kin Ryosho-Sensei, who wanted to preserve the tradition of Amuro Peichin, the last dance master of the Shuri court who was in charge of the Ukwanshin (crown ship/coronation festivities) in 1866. I will watch how the contained energy of the dancers and refined movements allowed me to travel back to 1976 and even further, to 1866 and 1719. Cheryl Yoshie Nakasone-Sensei’s students will be moving, but Kin Ryosho, Tamagusuku Chokun and other masters of Okinawan arts will be alive in the sounds, moves and texts. Their spirits will be dancing through — and with — those present.
Kathy Foley is a professor of theatre arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is editor of Asian Theatre Journal.
Foley, Etsuko Higa, Kimiko Ohtani and Nobuko Ochner will discuss kumi udui and the state of the art in Okinawa from 1:15 to 1:45 p.m. on the Kennedy Theatre stage on Sunday, July 30. The Jimpu Kai USA dance program will begin at 2 p.m. Tickets can be reserved at outreach.Hawai‘i.edu/apdf or by calling (808) 956-8246.