by Hernán Arias Tamashiro
Everytime we have a chance to enjoy other groups playing their drums to beautiful, catchy tunes on such a colorful atmosphere, we, as part of the audience, cannot help but to let ourselves go and give in to tears or to jump on our chairs while dancing or screaming IA SASAA (even if many of those times we don’t really know the lyrics to the song, or we are not part of the Japanese community)
The phenomenon might probably be caused by the fact that Eisa is not simply a dance number with percussion, but a rich art with history, a history that we will try to go through together to better understand the feeling that it evokes in us both as a performer and as an audience member.
Obon (in Okinawa)
Every culture has its own celebrations and festivities, and Obon is one of Okinawa’s (South prefecture in Japan) favourite, it is the festivity that gave birth to Eisa.
During Obon, festivity that has a Buddhist background to it, families welcomed their ancestors who have already passed away in their homes. Families honor and workship their visit to our world as they supposedly bring prosperity and welfare to their homes.
This festivity takes place during the 13th to the 15th day of the seventh month according to the lunar calendar (this date tents to change depending on whether the region where it will be celebrated uses a lunar or solar calendar).
Days before it starts, the family altar (butsudan or totome) is cleaned and delicious meals are prepared to be ready for the spirits welcoming on the 13th day (“Unkee”). On the altar, sake (Awamori), tea, flowers and food are served.
People visit their families’ homes that have an altar and Senko is lighted (incenses) to pray for the ancestors that are visiting them. This is the 2nd day of the celebration (“Nakanuhi”) and is a perfect excuse for a family reunion.
On the last day, the 15th (“Uukui” which means farewell day), a sumptuous dinner is served and the whole family say goodbye to their ancestors.
On this day the town’s youngsters gather and go around different neighborhoods dancing Eisa, door by to door asking in exchange of sake and food. This performance is meant to help the ancestors find their ways back and to celebrate their souls to rest. What is more, this is also a way to pray for their well-being and prosperity of each member of the house. This parade is called “Michijune”.
Eisa is similar to the Bon Odori celebration we can see in Japan’s main island, they are both Obon traditions and serve same purpose.
During 17th century, while trying to spread Buddhism, a priest named Taichu Jojin, from Jodo’s Buddhist school, taught “Nenbutsu Odori” (singing and dancing in addition to the prayers to make things easier to remember) at Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa prefecture nowadays). It is believed that this is where Eisa comes from.
This connection is clearly showed in the tradition of collecting donations and drinks while performing through the different neighborhoods.
Regarding the word “Eisa” itself, it is said that it comes from the chorus in a Nenbutsu chant. Formerly, it was also believed that it came from “Esaomoro”, a phrase found in the Omorososhi (an anthology about the different celebrations regarding religion, history, lands and heroes in the Ryuku Kingdom)
But Eisa origins, even nowadays, are still being studied due to the lack of documentation about it. Like so, it is normal to hear different stories, none of which has solid evidence to back up their truth.
However there is no doubt on the fact that Ryukyu Kingdom’s culture was heavily influenced by China, Japan, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries. As Okinawans have it, it is a Champuru (mixture) culture, that as time went by, it began to build itself. Uchinanchu culture and Eisa are part of the most important traditions in the country’s history.
Traditional Eisa: characteristics and characters
Every year, close to Obon, the Seinenkai (youth groups) of each neighborhood gather after school or after their jobs and practice through the night to get ready for the festival. Each Seinenkai has their own distinctive feature, a style of their own that is passed on from generation to generation, a style that set them all apart.
In some regions, where Eisa tradition was not as strong, youngsters would mimic other region’s style, and consequently, there would be groups that did not reflect a style of their own but a style that was an adaptation of other groups rhythms and choreographies.
In a typical Eisa formation (Dentou Eisa), we can see different characters, each with particular characteristics and well-defined roles in the performance.
Largest of drums, representing vitality and Eisa’s strength. Its sound is strong and deep, and even though its movements are quite simple, they play a major role as they set the tempo for the entire formation.
“Shime” means thight and “Daiko” (“Taiko”) means drum, the name refers to the type of drum. Its features are evident with their spectacular, dynamic movements.
In most groups this will be the main instrument in the formation.
The smallest of drums, carried by hand, pretty similar to a tambourine. Represents clean movements and delicacy. As it is a light weight instrument, its movements need to be much more detailed and coordinated, becoming the main attraction in a performance.
It literally means hand dance. It is mainly performed by women (“Inagumoi”) expressing feminine beauty through their hands movements, this is similar to Ryukyu Buyo (typical Okinawan dance). These performers use summer yukatas and can use a handkerchief Samba and Yotsutake, or flowers, as an accessory. Certain groups also have male performing Te Odori (they are called “Ikigamoi”).
Also called Chogina or Sanaja, is a funny character that has to bring joy to the audience through his movements and eccentric outfits and make up. They were palm wigs and their faces are painted in white.
Regardless of their looks, Chondaraa have a really important role, they lead the formation while keeping them together and in line, as much as they encourage and inspire the players.
This role is generally played by the younger and most experienced members in the Seinenkai group.
Formerly, among the Chondara, there would be 2 people that carried the great barrel with sake for the Seinenkai that was performing home to home.
These are the flags that lead the formation identifying each group. The flags have their groups’ names, their design and ornaments that represent each Seinenkai. Although it seems like an easy role, flags are 4 meters high and extremely heavy so the Hatagashira have to fight the wind to move them from side to side while following the music’s rhythm.
It is really exciting when 2 groups meet and have their Hatagashira challenge each other.
(Or Jiutei) are the singers and Sanshin players. They are a vital part of the group and they should not be missed in any groups of traditional Eisa.
They usually are ex Seinenkai members, or the neighborhood elder.
Post WW2 period: Modern Eisa
As time went by traditional Eisa started to transform and it was not only happening during Obon, it was used during other celebrations throughout the year. It eventually turned into a popular dance, a lot more artistic than religious. This happened after WWII during the American occupation of Okinawa which is why it might come to mind that such transformation happened to keep that tradition strong and alive.
In 1956, as a symbol of strength and postwar recovery, the first Eisa competition was held, the “Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri” at Koza (nowadays Okinawa-shi).
On this competition every group was judged on their technique, formation, suit and other characteristics that made each team work and express their creativity and resourcefulness to the max. This competition and the ones that came after, lead to Eisa’s transformation.
In this new Eisa style (“Sousaku Eisa” or “Shin Eisa”), not only did rhythm and clothing change but also other aspects.
Sousaku Eisa has far more complex movements and a wider variety of then than Dentou Eisa ever did (besides the colourful costumes). Formations were changed as on stage performances started to be more frequent; even its repertoire changed adding rock,pop and also moderns versions of traditional songs started to be used.
As Eisa turned into an art more focused on performing arts, a lot of the characters mentioned before were dropped (Sake-Katamiya, Chondara or Te-odori ). But the different groups’ creativity and wit introduced other characters and elements to the art like the Shishi (o Shisa, dog-lion, mythological creature of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and guardian against bad spirits), martial artes like Karate or Kobudo, Okinawan dance Ryukyu Buyo, Yosakoi, among others.
Eisa spread through Japan and all over the world, allowing us to enjoy it not only during the Obon but also all year long.
Ryukyukoku Matsuridaiko was and still is the most Sousaku Eisa group. It was founded in 1982 by Takeo Medoruma when trying to help young people that seem lost, so they could channel their energy in a positive way. Presently, there are over 50 branches all over the world and approximately 2500 people. They still inspire the creation of new groups with their passion.
Sousaku Eisa has not limits or restrictions when it comes to innovations and it is really amazing to see how groups from other countries combine it with other cultures allowing the Seinenkai’s unique identity still be found in modern Eisa groups.
Luckily for us, there are several groups (generally from Okinawa) that have reincorporated the Chondara and even Te Odori characters in their formations, though they may not have the same roles they used to. A beautifully nostalgic feeling is generated when seeing these combinations.
Eisa’s main events happen during the months of June and October.
There are thousands of festivals and events that gather both traditional and modern Eisa, even around the world Eisa is the main attraction to many of them. Each neighborhood have their own festival keeping their identity and style.
These are some of the most important events that you definitely cannot miss or at least check them out on Youtube.
Okinawa Zento Eisa Matsuri
This is the most important event, as stated before the very first one was held right after the war in 1956 and it was called “Koza-shi Eisa Conkuuru”. As it was really difficult to judge the Seinenkai for their techniques, formations, clothing, music and choreographies, as they represented a strong identity, by 1977, on its 22th edition, the festival was no longer a competition.
Currently, the event lasts 3 days, starting with a parade (Michijune) through downtown Okinawa, while on the 2nd day the “Okinawa-shi Seinen Matsuri” is held by Okinawa’s youth. And on the last day, some of the groups perform in a unique and colorful event. At the end of the day, like in any Okinawan event, everybody dances to Kachashi, it is a real fun moment for all of the participants and the audience itself.
More Info: www.zentoeisa.com
Seinen Furusato Eisa Matsuri
This is an event organized by the Youth Furusato Eisa Festival Executive Committee (OPSC), a committee in charge of developing industry, culture and sports, with the sole purpose of deepening solidarity among young and adults.
Its first edition was in 1964, the same year of Tokyo’s Summer Games. Times were hard on Okinawa then, and the arrival of the games caused youth to feel eager to participate in an event that would move the whole of the Okinawan population.
At that moment, much like in the Zento Eisa Matsuri first editions, groups were similarly judged. Nowadays the event is set in the Okinawa Cellular Stadium Naha, and gets support both from Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Broadcasting Corp.
More Info: www.furusatoeisa.com
10.000 Nin Eisa Paredo
As hinted in its named, approximately 10.000 people take part in this parade that goes along the Kokusai Dori Street, Naha’s main street. Unlike the 2 previously mentioned events, here we can see traditional and modern Eisa at the same time.
Fun fact, the audience can participate in this event if they sign up for it.
Sekai Eisa Taikai
Sekai Eisa Taikai has different segments. Its main attraction is the Sousaku Eisa competition where the groups made up by both teenagers and kids are judged and awarded based on a theme established the year before.
Other of the segments allows any group to perform, without competing, just to show their style and identity which is as important as the competition itself.
There’s also a traditional Eisa festival and even workshops to learn how to make your own instruments.
“Sekai” means world, so there are groups from all over the globe participating in this event. A must see event.
More Info: www.eisa-okinawa.com/
It is quite common to hear about Icharibachode (“though we meet but once, even by chance, we are friends for life.”) in Okinawa and this is exactly how Eisa groups everywhere feel when they meet all over the world, even without speaking the same language. Each member knows that he/she will find some Shinkanucha (a friend/partner) anywhere in the world.
Now, both traditional and modern Eisa are practiced, and even though it has suffered some changes through time, both in a Seinenkai in some neighborhood in Okinawa and in any Sousaku group in the country, that identity that represents each of them will be transmitted from generation to generation.
This is why everytime we see an Eisa show we get this joy and pleasure that make our hearts go fast (Chimudon) electrifying our whole body. We might think it is because of the drums tremble, but the truth is this is only happening because each and every one of those people playing is doing it from the bottom of their hearts and souls.
Each group preserves and transmits the values instilled by their ancestors, they cherish life’s treasure (Nuchi Du Takara) keeping their pride and respect for the past with their focus in the future, allowing this traditions and customs not to be missed. As a result, we can certainly say that each group existing anywhere in the world, holds a bit of Okinawa in them.
Author: Hernán Arias Tamashiro (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
This article was written on: October 19th, 2013
Original language of this article: Spanish
Original article: Eisa エイサー
Translator to English: Romina Roldán (Rosario, Argentina)
Native English Editor: Ai Matsuda (Tokyo, Japan)
Author: Hernán Arias Tamashiro
Hernán is a nikkei sansei (third generation Japanese-Argentinean), director of Kiseiko-Mineidanchi and member of Medetaiko. He first approached Eisa and wadaiko back in 2004 in the Gakko worshops held by the Asociación Japonesa Seibu that is run by Emiliano Sanchez Higa. In 2006 he became one of the founder members to Kiseiko, a wadaiko workshop in that association. By the end of 2007 he got a scholarship by the city of Nanjo, Okinawa, to instruct himself on Eisa together with Mineidanchi Seinenkai; there he also started to learn about Sanshin. Finally by mid-2009 he co-founded the cultural ensemble Kiseiko-Mineidanchi.
Hernán has also worked as organizer, stage player and artistic director in events of wadaiko in Argentina which, in conjunction with other local groups, have brought artists such as Kaoru Watanabe, Yoshikazu Fujimoto, Yoko Fujimoto and Ryutaro Kaneko.