Continuing a Tradition To Preserve the Arts Even in COVID Times
Grant “Masandü” Sadami Murata
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Classical Ryukyuan music or Ryükyü Koten Ongaku was brought to Hawai‘i by Okinawan Issei over 100 years ago. From the early 1900s through to the 1950s, classical Okinawan music flourished. However, World War II brought a temporary halt to musical performances. Surely those Issei musicians dreamt of the day that their children or perhaps even their grandchildren would one day carry on this tradition for future generations.
A Brief History of Classical Ryukyuan Music
For hundreds of years, Okinawa was an independent peace-loving kingdom where traditional performing arts were held in high esteem. One could even elevate their social status through testing to attain political ranking, like that of a Magsistrate of Music or Dance. These magistrates were responsible for planning lavish performances to entertain envoys from China and Japan whenever a new king of Okinawa was to be coronated. This perpetuation of the culture went on for hundreds of years and served to cultivate a rich unique artform unparralled to anything else in the Far East.
The legacy of classical Ryukyuan music still thrives today worldwide. Although there have been some subtle changes through the evolution of Okinawan music and dance, the basic values and traditions of the art have been well preserved even through the hardships of war.
The Battle of Okinawa ravaged the island taking the lives of a third of its population. Resulting in a pause for the performing arts. Eventually Okinawa healed her wounds and the traditional performing arts began to thrive once again.
In order to support the revival of the performing arts post-war, the first performing arts competition was conceived by the Okinawa Times Newspaper Company, Okinawa’s second oldest newspaper, in the mid 1950’s. This competition was called “Top Ten” and was meant to encourage the young up and coming performing artists in Okinawa to continue their study of the traditional performing arts.
What is Konküru
In 1966, the Ryükyü Shinpö newspaper was the first newpaper in Okinawa (founded in 1893). Develops a concept of konküru, hoping to revitalize the traditional performing arts of Okinawa. Several of the top masters of music as well as dance gathered to plan a grand performing arts contest to test individuals’ levels of proficiency by creating a series concours of Ryukyuan traditional performing arts referred to today as Ryükyü Koten Geinö Konküru. (Concours (kōⁿˈku̇(ə)r) is defined as “a public competition.)
Since the start of Ryükyü Shinpö’s konküru program, this type of proficiency testing gained much popularity in Okinawa. The examinations are administered in three levels, Shinjin-shö (beginner’s award), Yüshü-shö (intermediate-level award) and Saikö-sho (advanced-level award). These exams are adjudicated by the top-level masters of the uta-sanshin (singing with a three-stringed lute), Ryukyuan dance, sokyoku, or okoto (zither), kücho, or kokyu (fiddle), hwansoo (flute) and taiko (drums).
Koküru Participants From Hawai‘i and Beyond
Beginning in 1966, popularity slowly grew with hundreds of individuals undertaking the challenge of proficiency certifications. By the 1970s, interest in konküru reached Hawai‘i and started a buzz. Nomura-ryu (Nomura-style) Master Harry Seisho Nakasone was the first sensei in Hawai‘i to send students to Okinawa to participate in Ryükyü Shinpö’s Konküru; among them the first Sansei and Yonsei received their certifications. At that time Nakasone-Sensei was a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and taught students from Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland and other parts of the world. Some of these studets also traveled to Okinawa and participated in konküru testing and received their certifications. Several dance certifications were awarded during this time to a few Hawai‘i students that also traveled to Okinawa to participate.
In the early 1980’s, renowned Afuso-ryu (Afuso-style) Master Choichi Terukina began visiting Hawai‘i several times a year and was introduced to me — Grant “Masanduu’’ Murata. At the time, I was studying Ryükyü minyö (Okinawan folk music) and Nomura-ryu Koten Ongaku (Nomura-style classical music) under Henry Masatada Higa as well as several noted Nomura-ryu masters in Hawai‘i at the time.
My Personal Experience
With the blessing of Master Higa, I was introduced to Terukina-Sensei by Eugene Arakaki-Sensei, who was a distant cousin of Terukina-Sensei. In 1983, after much contemplation, I made the decision to become a student of Terukina-Sensei and enrolled in his school to study classical Afuso-ryu uta-sanshin. During periodic trips to Hawai‘i, Terukina-Sensei urged me to fly to Okinawa to participate in Ryükyü Shinpo’s Geinö Konküru.
After much hemming and hawing, I decided to make the trip to Okinawa in 1989 to take the first exam — Shinjin-shö. I arrived in Okinawa two and a half weeks before the test date for intense training with Terukina-Sensei. Sensei was still working at the time so he would wake up early and train me before going to work. Throughout the day, he assigned his students to come to the dojö to train me so I was never alone.
For those two and a half weeks leading up to the test I ate, slept and lived “Nuhwa Bushi” which was the exam song about losing a loved one to illness. At this time, the number of Afuso-ryu Shinjin-shö participants was only 27 people; Yüshü-shö, 11; and saikösho, four.
The testing was held at the Ryükyü Shinpö Hall in Izumizaki, Naha. Today, it is done at the newly reconstructed Ryükyü Shinpö Building and expanded to other locations in Naha as the number of participants has grown immensely. Uta-sanshin testing was done in front of a panel of judges (approximately five) shihan (masters) of the prospective school (Afuso-ryu in this case). Nomura-ryu testing took place in the same way.
The participants report to a holding room to change. Women wore a montsuki tomisode kimono, and men were required to wear montuski hakama. Once you change into the appropriate attire you wait for your testing number to be called. When your number is called, you enter the stage, do a slight bow and proceed to the middle of the stage, placing your sanshin and chimi (pick) on a large, red cloth floor covering and sit in the middle of the cushion and adjust yourself in a comfortable seiza (Japanese way of sitting on the floor) position. Then, take a deep bow with both hands on your lap and proceed to let the judges hear your tuning.
When you are ready, you can start your performance and the judging starts from this point. After finishing your song, you bow again to thank the judges, collect your sanshin and chimi, stand and exit the stage. After returning to the dressing room and getting changed, you return to the dojö to await the results. In Terukina sensei’s dojö, a sempai (senior student) is dispatched to go to the Ryükyü Shinpö to view the results that are displayed on a bulletin board in the main lobby of the building.
After the results are announced, those recipients that pass are congratulated by sensei and fellow students. Food and drinks are usually prepared and everyone offers their congratulations to the students that have passed. When I obtained my Shinjin-shö, most of the sempai sensei visited the dojö for an after party to congratulate those who passed the exam. I understand that it has changed over the years.
I became the first Afuso-ryu Shinjin-shö recipient from outside of Okinawa, catalyzing interest in konküru among Okinawan music practitioners in Hawai‘i. I came home to the 808 with a passion to share Afuso-ryu with my students and asked Sensei to allow me to teach whatever I learned in Okinawa to them. With Terukina-Sensei’s blessing, I started to teach “Nuhwa Bushi” to my minyo students here.
Just about this time the Okinawa Prefectural Government started to offer a scholarship program to the newly established Performing Arts College in Okinawa (Okinawa Kenritsu Geijutsu Daigaku, or Gei Dai for short). From 1992, students of Afuso-ryu in Hawai‘i were able to apply and receive benefits of the program for many years. Each year, Afuso-ryu students were able to study under my mentor, Terukina-Sensei, in Okinawa and also participate in the Ryükyü Shinpö Konku-ru.
Afuso-ryu students would train in Hawai‘i and then go to Okinawa continuing their training with Terukina-Sensei. Students that participated in this konküru testing realized that the tests are not just a contest but an experience for personal growth. Within a few years, the number of certificate recipients steadily grew. Interest in Okinawan uta-sanshin grew at an unbelievable rate and many from mainland Japan travelled to Okinawa to participate in konküru testing as well. The same was happening in other genres of the Okinawan traditional performing arts too.
The numbers of Afuso-ryu members who travelled to take the konküru as well as those who attended Geidai and the University of the Ryükyüs on the Okinawa Prefectural Governement scholarships steadily grew. Most of the scholarship students were encouraged to participate in konküru and returned to Hawai‘i with their Shinjin-shö certificates.
In 1994, the Ryükyü Koten Ongaku Afuso-ryu Gensei Kai decided to establish a chapter in Hawai‘i with me as its chapter president. Several of our Hawai‘i members continued to advance themselves and received their teaching certificates. This led to another surge in konküru recipients as other senseis began sending their students to Okinawa to participate in the konküru program.
Classes spread to Kaua‘i and Maui, and in 2011, the Ryükyü Koten Afuso-ryu Ongaku Kenkyü Choichi Kai U.S.A. was established in Los Angeles under the direction of newly certified Kyoshi (licensed teacher) Ryan Nakamatsu. He has trained several konküru recipients as well. The U.S.A. chapter including California and Hawai‘i boasts a total membership of over 200 students and approximately 70 members holding certifications, some in more than one genre of traditional performing arts.
In 2015, I was appointed as the first judge from outside of Japan by the Ryükyü Shinpö. Given a renewed passion for sending members to participate in konküru, members traveled almost annually to Okinawa. Along with my wife Chikako-Sensei, Kenton Odo-Sensei, June Uyeunten-Sensei and Ryan Nakamatsu-Sensei, we diligently trained students in preparation throughout 2018. Several students traveled to Okinawa in 2018 and passed their tests.
The First Virtual Konküru in History
In the process of training those for the 2019 konküru, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I quickly contacted the Ryükyü Shinpö to find out if a decision was made about their konküru, since it was already announced that the Okinawa Times’ Konku-ru was already cancelled. Ryükyü Shinpö still had not made a decision at the time.
A few days passed and I decided to urge the Ryükyü Shinpö to consider holding the judging remotely by ZOOM. Initially the idea did not go over well, and still they did not give an answer. So I contacted Mr. Junichi Tomita, the chairman of the board at Ryükyü Shinpö and asked him to see if this idea could be further discussed with his staff. He promised me that he would try his best to make it happen. Now it was in his hands and all we could do was to be patient and await a response.
Two weeks later, we were told that Ryükyü Shinpö decided to make plans for remote testing to accommodate students outside of Okinawa and Japan who were unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. In Hawai‘i, the Afuso-ryu members were excited about the opportunity and even members who had never considered doing konküru in the past showed an interest and starting to be filling out applications.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic was catastrophic worldwide, this might be one of the positive things that resulted from it. With that in mind, training began with a good number of members up for the challenge.
Ryükyü Shinpö announced plans in Okinawa to various performing arts masters and it evidently did not go over well. Some potential participants in Okinawa felt slighted that they were not afforded the same option for doing remote testing. One after another, issues were brought up and the 2019-2020 konküru eventually got put on hold. Well, back to the drawing board.
In the meanwhile, students in Hawai‘i who had already started training had another year to prepare which was not a bad thing. Our Los Amgeles studio started to inform their students about the tests and a list was put together. Now we just need to wait for Ryükyü Shinpö’s decision on the 2021 Konku-ru season, this would be their 55th Geinou Konküru.
As we welcomed in 2021, hopes for a favorable decision by Ryükyü Shinpö was anxiously awaited. And in the beginning of February confirmation that remote testing will move forward for the 55th Ryükyü Shinpö Geino Konküru. Upon this information being released, a whole flood of interested individuals contacted Ryükyü Shinpö from all over the world. Requests came from Thailand, Australia and the U.S. Midwest. These applicants were not only Afuso-ryu but Nomura-ryu, okoto, dance, kucho, hwanso and Taiko.
Getting prepared for this remote testing was not a simple thing, we had to secure a place with the correct internet upload speeds and bandwidth. Luckily, Jon Itomura, executive director of the Hawaii Okinawa Center graciously agreed to assist us in making this remote testing happen. On the Hawai‘i side, Kenton Odo-Sensei and Naomi Oshiro worked closely with Jon and HOC in planning and executing the remote-testing requirements. In July, a dry run with Ryükyü Shinpö was done to confirm that there would be no glitches and or issues with the ZOOM connection and after getting the O.K. from Ryükyü Shinpö it was on to the remote-testing phase. Our members in L.A. Ryan Nakamatsu-Sensei with the assistance of the Okinawa Association of America and Yuko Yamauchi also did a dry-run and got approval from Ryükyü Shinpö to move forward with testing.
Remote testing began on July 31st Okinawa time which is July 30 at 5 p.m HST. Testing took place in the HOC Higa building in the museum and has been going smoothly due to the great support of the HUOA and Jon and his HOC staff.
Testing is still ongoing at this time and will continue through Oct. 6th. The results for those who have passed have been published in the Ryükyü Shinpö newspaper the day after each test was adjudicated. As of the publication of this Herald issue, these are the most up-to-date results:
- Shinjin-shö – 1 person (Hawai‘i)
- Shinjin-shö – 14 people (Hawai‘i, includes 1 person from Kaua‘i and 1 person from Seattle); 4 people (Los Angeles)
- Yüshü-shö – 6 people (Hawai‘i); 1 person (Los Angeles)
- Saikö-shö – 1 person (Hawai‘i)
Since testing is not yet over, we cannot share with you the rest of the results but we wish the best for all participants in this year’s konküru. And of course, we would like to acknowledge Ryükyü Shinpö for making this historical remote Konku-ru opportunity happen. We all hope that the Ryükyü Shinpö will continue to offer this program remotely and we extend a heartfelt gratitude to the HUOA and the HOC and it’s executive director Jon Itomura and his staff. Without you this year’s remote konku-ru woud not be happening. CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE PARTICIPANTS AND LONG LIVE KONKU-RU!!