Grant “Masanduu” Sadami Murata
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

I began learning Okinawa uta-sanshin (singing and playing the sanshin) in 1976. Who knew it would lead to a life-long devotion that would span decades? I have become so immersed in the tradition of uta-sanshin it has become like an addiction. The drug of choice: wanting to gain more knowledge and understanding of what we now take for granted as always having been there for us.

Ryökin Nakama. (Photo from “History of Ryukyuan Accomplishment in Hawaii” by Takenobu Higa, printed by Hawaii Hochi, Ltd.)
Ryökin Nakama. (Photo from “History of Ryukyuan Accomplishment in Hawaii” by Takenobu Higa, printed by Hawaii Hochi, Ltd.)

Our forefathers in the Okinawan uta-sanshin and performing arts community left us with a legacy that I want to continue. Not only to share the art, but also the history and names of those who had kept it alive for us to enjoy, even through to today. I hope that I can properly share the knowledge I have recollected from teachings of my sensei and elders. Here I have additionally translated a substantial amount of information from a book that was written by Takenobu Higa-Sensei in 1978, published by the Hawaii Hochi, Ltd.
As I started my uta-sanshin journey, an often-mentioned name was “Ryökin Nakama.” Some writings show his name spelled and read in slightly varying ways. When romanized, possible readings for the kanji include Ryötarukin, Ryökintaru, Ryökintaro, Ryösonkin, Ryökin, Riyökin, and so on. The intended name given to him at birth was “Ryötarugani” [良樽金]. This name was usually bestowed upon those born in the Okinawan aristocracy or Ryūkyūan nobility. Upon immigrating to Hawai‘i, Nakama-Sensei was documented officially as “Ryötarukane.” In later years, he decided to use the name Ryökin Nakama; this became the name he used formally.

Before going into detail about Ryötarugani Nakama-Sensei’s life, we need to share a little about how he found himself immigrating to Hawai‘i. The Nakama music dynasty could not have been realized without Ryötarugani-Sensei’s father, Ryöei Nakama, relocating to Hawai‘i.

Ryöei Nakama

Ryötarugani’s father, Ryöei, was born in 1875 (the eighth year of the Meiji Era) in Awase of Misato-son (presently called Awase, Okinawa City). At around the age of 12, Ryöei was scouted by Nzatu (Misato) Wëkata who encouraged him to study Nomura-ryü uta-sanshin. Under Nzatu Wëkata, Ryöei was mentored by several famed Nomura-Ryü sensei of that era. Onaga, Jitchaku and Kuwae were some of the mentors whom he credits during his time.

At the young age of 16, Ryöei was entered into a song competition held to find someone to study Nomura-Ryü in order to serve in the royal palace in Shuri — an honor similar to qualifying for an apprentice program. After winning this competition, he received a scholarship to serve the royal family (the Sho family) in Shuri. There, he was assigned to be an apprentice under Ryöshin Kuwae, the famed Nomura-Ryü sensei. Under Kuwae-Sensei’s tutelage, Ryöei gained enough proficiency to participate as a jiutë (performer of music for dance accompaniment) in the prestigious Samukä (Samukawa) Shibai in Shuri.

In 1904, Ryöei was next chosen to be a member of an Okinawan performing arts troupe to represent Okinawa and travel to Ōsaka as a jiutë for this important performance. After returning to Okinawa, he made up his mind to move to Hawai‘i and arrived in the islands in 1906. Upon arriving in Hawai‘i, he immediately started teaching Nomura-Ryü uta-sanshin to those close to him and several acquaintances.

This was the formal beginning of Okinawan music in Hawai‘i.

Ryötarugani Nakama

In 1902, like his father, Ryötarugani (Ryökin) Nakama was also born in Awase. At a young age, he started learning and performing Ryükyü minyö (Okinawan folk music); in 1919, he participated in a fundraising show to purchase books for the Awase Seinen Kaikan (young men’s association center) library. This performance, for which he sang “Kubama Bushi,” became his public debut, or hatsubutai, when he was 17 years old. Even after moving to Hawai‘i, his students would all agree that Nakama-Sensei’s “Kubama Bushi” was by far the best in the islands.

Soon after, Ryöei summoned his son, Ryötarugani, to join him in Hawai‘i, so in 1921, Ryötarugani arrived in the islands.

In 1922, alongside his father and Saburo Uchima (another uta-sanshin player of the time), Ryötarugani participated as jiutë at Asahi Theater in Honolulu. Yoshiko Kawakami-Sensei — credited as the first Okinawan Koto instructor in Hawai‘i — accompanied his performance on koto. This event — organized to raise funds for creating the first Okinawa Kenjinkai in Honolulu (presently known as the Hawaii United Okinawa Association) — was the debut performance of Ryökin Nakama in Hawai‘i.

Fortunately, at this time, Ryötarugani was able to get formal training from his father in Nomura-Ryü Koten. Uncles Ryöshou and Ryöken soon joined them, immigrating to Hawai‘i. In the same period, a well-regarded Nomura-Ryü sensei named Seisei Okuma visited Hawai‘i as a jiutë for performance. Thus Ryötarugani was able to learn the intricacies of “Nkashi Bushi’” or older and longer koten (classical or traditional Okinawan) numbers. In 1929, Ryötarugani’s father Ryöei returned home to Awase in Misato, Okinawa, and passed away in 1934 at age 59.
In 1933, the Nakama Music Association was organized with Ryötarugani Nakama-Sensei as the director and master instructor. In 1936, the association celebrated its third-year anniversary, and in 1937, he obtained the famed Sanshin “Nishinda Këjö-In” and became the talk of all Okinawan musicians and music enthusiasts in Hawai‘i. In 1939, Nakama received a certificate of appreciation from the Honolulu Academy of Arts for his work with various Okinawan dance and music groups. In 1940, he traveled to Okinawa for a nine-month stay and studied under famed Nomura-Ryü Master Söjiro Nishijima.

From December of 1941 to the end of the war in 1945, however, all Japanese and Okinawan cultural activities ceased after the Pearl Harbor attack. But after World War II, in January of 1947, a performance was staged to raise funds, and the Nakama Music Association held its own performance and contributed $500 to the relief fund. Additionally, $4,000 worth of school supplies were sent to Okinawa on a U.S. Navy ship.

In 1952, Nomura-Ryü Master Söjiro Nishijima visited Hawai‘i to review the koten songs and Ufu Nkashi Bushi (older, more complicated, classical songs) with Nakama-Sensei and to bestow upon him a Shihan Menkyo (master-instructor’s license) from the Nomura-Ryü headquarters in Okinawa dated Sept. 27, 1952.

In 1956, after years of sharing his knowledge with, and creating, the next generation of teachers, Nakama was presented with a certificate of appreciation from those same headquarters in Okinawa. In 1959, in celebration of 25 years of teaching, Nakama invited famed Okinawan playwright and dance-master Yuko Mazikina and two of his daughters, Yoshinae and Yoshino, to Hawai‘i for a commemorative performance. Nakama Music Association (Nakama Ongaku Kai) then formally changed its name to Nakama Kinpü Kai.

In 1961, Nakama made a decision to change his name to Ryökin Nakama, and, on April 10th, relocated to Los Angeles. Once there, Nakama joined Katsujiro Nakasone-Sensei and together they contributed to the teaching of jiutë. During the next few years, many awards were bestowed upon Nakama for his achievements in Hawai‘i and Los Angeles — too many awards to list here.
In 1971, due to an unforeseen accident, Nakama lost three fingers on his left hand and could no longer play the sanshin. At the same time, he was diagnosed with heart problems and decided to close the Nakama Kinpü Kai. His dedicated students elected to keep the organization going.

However, in 1976, Ryökin Nakama-Sensei passed away at the age of 74. The Nakama music dynasty came to an end, while Nakama’s teaching was passed on through his top students, Kosuke Nakaganeku and Harry “Seisho” Nakasone, who took on the responsibility of continuing Nakama’s teaching while training students of their own.

Ryötarugani Nakama’s Influence on Hawai‘i

During the 41 years that Nakama resided in Hawai‘i (1921 – 1962), his contributions to the Okinawan performing arts were truly enormous. I’m sure that at the time, no-one realized how far-reaching his contributions to Okinawan uta-sanshin in Hawai‘i would be. These are somewhat documented in the 1978 publication by Takenobu Higa-Sensei, who in 1954 referred to this time in Hawai‘i as the “Ōgon Jidai” or “Golden Years” of Okinawan performing arts in Hawai‘i and who lists various Okinawan performing arts organizations that had been active during this time. I have used his book to propagate this list:

  • Nakama Kinpü Kai – Sensei Ryötarugani Nakama, Shihan
  • Waialae Ryukyu Ongaku Kenkyu Kai –Ryötarugani Nakama, Shihan
  • Miyagi Gensei Kai – Eikichi Miyagi, Shihan
  • Nakaganeku Shoufuu Kai – Kosuke
  • Nakaganeku, Kyöshi
  • Nakasone Seifuu Kai – Harry Seisho Nakasone, Kyöshi
  • Kyuuyou Ongaku Kai – Seikou Ikehara, Kyöshi
  • Koko Head Nisei Ryukyu Ongaku Kai – Kengy Kaneshiro
  • North Shore Oahu (No name assigned) – Kanyei Izumigawa
  • Miyashiro (Miyagi) Kotobuki Kai – Kimiyo Miyashiro (Miyagi), Koto Shihan
  • Kiyabu Sousei Kai – Shizuko Kiyabe, Koto Shihan
  • Kawakami Koudou Kai – Yoshiko Kawakami, Koto Shihan
  • Toyo Souzan Kai – Otoyo Maeshiro, Koto Shihan
  • Nakasone Soutoku Kai – Nae Nakasone, Koto Kyöshi
  • Kishimoto Seizui Kai – Kimiko Kishimoto, Koto Shihan
  • Shiroma Shougetsu Kai – Tamayo Shiroma, Koto Shihan
  • Shinsei Gekidan (Okinawan Theatrical troupe) – Shuuichi Agena, Manager
  • Hawaii Island Ryukyu Ongaku Aikou Kai – Seikyuu Inamine, Kyöshi and Masei Shimabukuro, Kyöshi

All uta-sanshin shihan (certified master), kyöshi (certified instructor) and players of the time were Nomura-Ryü. There was only one other person who had learned some Afuso-Ryü in Hawai‘i whose name was Zenkichi Katekaru. Perhaps we will cover him at a later time.

In reviewing the above list of uta-sanshin organizations listed at the time (circa January 1954), you can clearly see that most of the clubs list Nakama-Sensei as their head instructor or indicate that their sensei were trained by either Ryöei or Ryötarugani Nakama. This demonstrates the extent of the influence the Nakamas had over Okinawan uta-sanshin in Hawai‘i.

Koko Head Nisei Club’s sensei, Kengyu Kaneshiro, started his musical journey learning from Ryöei Nakama-Sensei, Ryötarugani’s father, before Ryötarugani arrived to Hawai‘i from Okinawa.

Then, when Ryötarugani-Sensei came to Hawai‘i, Kaneshiro-Sensei relinquished his leadership position at the Koko Head Nisei Club; Ryötarugani Nakama took over the reins.

From the Wai‘alae and Koko Head sanshin clubs, many great nisei musicians emerged who had been born and raised in Hawai‘i. One such musician was Eugene Isamu Arakaki-Sensei, a great mentor to me at the beginning of my Okinawan music journey. He studied at length under Ryötarugani-Sensei and after Ryötarugani-Sensei’s move to LA, continued to study under Kosuke Nakaganeku-Sensei. Eugene-Sensei could understand both Japanese and a fair amount of Uchinäguchi. One of the only nisei sensei born and raised in Hawai‘i who could play both koten and minyo songs for dance accompaniment, he became well-respected by everybody in the uta-sanshin community. Serving as my mentor and supporter, he was the appropriate musician to introduce me to his cousin and my present Master Choichi Terukina of the Afuso school of uta-sanshin.

My very first uta-sanshin instructor was a man named Henry Masatada Higa-Sensei, a “Kibei Nisei” (born in Hawai‘i, raised in Okinawa but returned to Hawai‘i). He also studied under Ryötarugani-Sensei — but their relationship was a little bit different, as he admitted to me while I studied under him. He shared with me that they had started off as “drinking buddies,” and later the relationship evolved into that of a master and student. Like Eugene-Sensei, Higa-Sensei was encouraged by Nakama-Sensei to study with Kosuke Nakaganeku-Sensei and later went on to join the Aina Haina Sakihara Club, headed by Seiga Sakihara, also a longtime student of Ryötarugani Nakama. Seiga Sakihara would later be instrumental in starting the Hawai‘i chapter of the Ryükyü Koten Nomura-Ryü Hozonkai.

The music organizations and their members that had joined the Nomura-Ryü Hozonkai were all either direct students of Ryötarugani Nakama-Sensei or connected to him through their musical lineage. I want to submit this draft of the lineage chart that Takenobu Higa-Sensei used in his book, “Ryukyuan Accomplishments in Hawaii:”

  • First generation – Ryöei Nakama
  • Second generation –​ Ryökin Nakama and Eikichi Miyagi
  • Third Generation –​ Kosuke Nakaganeku, “Harry” Seishou Nakasone and Hideyasu
  • Fourth Generation –​ George Seiichi MIyahira (resident of Maui) and Sadao Arakaki (both
    students of Kosuke Nakganeku)
  • Kamado Oshiro (student of “Harry” Seishö Nakasone)

This lineage is only for students mapping out their Nakama musical heritage as of June 1978.

This list is of those who had certified other students, or those who had been actively instructing others, at this point in time — it only represents those under the Nakama family music lineage back then. In the years following this date, many others were certified and went on to teach others, among which additional members trace their musical beginnings to Nakama-Sensei.

Uta-Sanshin on the Neighbor Islands

Matsu Yamashiro of Kaua‘i and his daughter Nancy Toyama were both students of Kosuke Nakaganeku and held small group sessions on their neighbor island. Later, both went on to become shihan certified and continued to play until Matsu-Sensei passed away. Nancy Toyama still resides on Kaua‘i and sometimes plays the sanshin for her own enjoyment.

On the island of Maui, there were many uta-sanhin practitioners. George Seiichi Miyahira-Sensei taught a small group of students at his home in Kahului. George Seiichi Kamimura, who was George Miyahira’s first instructor, taught at the Okinawa Kenjinkai club house in Happy Valley, Wailuku, where he instructed quite a few students. Kosuke Nakaganeku-Sensei also would make periodic trips to Maui to give workshops on uta-sanshin. Eventually, George Miyahira and Seiichi Kamimura both were certified by Nakaganeku-Sensei.

It is not clear whether Nakama-Sensei had any disciples on Hawai‘i Island. However, it is believed that the Big Island had by far the most sanshin players before World War II. Many of them relocated from the plantations on Hawai‘i Island to Honolulu and moved on to get instruction from the Nakamas. Among the listed certificate holders in the Hawai‘i Island Ryukyu Ongaku Aikou Kai are Seikyü Inamine and Masei Shimabukuro. It is not clear whether they fall into the Nakama Musical lineage. However, it was noted that both Nakamas traveled to Hawai‘i Island to teach as did Kosuke Nakaganeku-Sensei.

In 1961, after relocating to LA, Ryötarugani-Sensei went on to teach countless others the art of Okinawa uta-sanshin and participate in numerous performances as jiutë, sharing his knowledge with uta-sanshin practitioners in LA.

It is also interesting to note that there was another individual, Eikichi Miyagi (born in 1922) in Yonagusuku of Nakagami-gun, Okinawa, who made his mark on uta-sanshin in Hawai‘i too. Miyagi-Sensei and Nakama-Sensei both learned from Nakama’s father Ryöei at the same time.

Miyagi-Sensei also trained a substantial number of students who have also have contributed to the uta-sanshin culture in Hawai‘i. Miyagi Eikichi-Sensei relocated to LA in 1956, and started his music empire shortly thereafter. Miyagi-Sensei’s contribution to the performing arts in LA was substantially bigger than that of Nakama-Sensei. However, one must not forget that both Ryötarugani Nakama-Sensei and Eikichi Miyagi-Sensei both learned from Nakama Ryöei-Sensei, making them uta-sanshin dishi chödë (siblings in music) who learned from the same sensei (chichi or father). Miyagi-Sensei has passed away, but I was very fortunate to meet him on one of my visits to LA.

Heartfelt Kansha

One of my deepest regrets is that I was not able to meet Ryötarugani Nakama-Sensei. He passed away the same year that I started my uta-sanshin journey. All I have to get to know him are these stories, some of his recordings and pictures.

I ask myself, if I had gotten the opportunity to meet him, how would my present musical journey be? I have been blessed with many great sensei and mentors who have had direct instruction and interaction with Ryötarugani-Sensei as well as with his father Ryöei. Members of the Nakama family seem to be all around, sharing many stories with me. Hearing the stories of his famed “Nishinda Këjö-In” sanshin, I even travelled to Okinawa to see that instrument and hold it in my hands. I have a sanshin given to me by Higa-Sensei that was made by Nakama-Sensei’s uncle (Nakama Naga-Tanmë). The uncle used the “Nishinda Kējö-In” as a model, placing it in front of him while making my sanshin, to copy the shape — almost like how a sculptor would use a live model to create a statue. I was even shown a sanshin that Ryötarugani-Sensei made himself. My recollection was that it was beautiful … or was it? It may have been because I was awed by the fact that it was produced by this great sensei.

Though I encountered or owned all these elements, the one thing I would have absolutely treasured was the opportunity to have met him. Well, I guess I will hold to the memories through these stories about this great Sensei. I will try to document those stories somehow; however, for now, it is my wish that the story of the Nakama music dynasty will be passed on to the future generations of Ryükyü Koten uta-sanshin practitioners.

I would like everyone to know how the music that we all enjoy in Hawai‘i had started so it can continue while we honor the pioneers who brought Okinawan music to Hawai‘i.

And I hope Ryöei and Ryötarugani-Sensei are looking down from the heavens and giving all of us who are uta-sanshin practitioners and enthusiasts the thumbs up and shaka signs from where they are.

Kukuru kumiti “Ippei nifwë dëbiru!’

Grant “Masanduu” Sadami Murata is a Hawai‘i born yonsei. He grew up in Honolulu and was introduced to his first uta-sanshin instructor Henry “Masatada” Higa in 1976. His musical journey has been an interesting one, leading him to find his uta-sanshin Master Choichi Terukina, a Living National Treasure of Japan. He was also able to find his birth mother, discovering that he really is Okinawan. “Something that I had always wondered about,” he reflected. Today he leads the Ryukyu Koten Afuso-ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi U.S.A. which has a little over 200 members, one of many Afuso schools in Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Los Angeles.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here