Japan from the inside out

Uukui in Okinawa

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

WHATEVER else can be said about the folks in Okinawa, they sure roll their own. At some point in the summer, usually mid-August, everyone in Japan celebrates O-bon, a holiday originally for welcoming the spirits of the dead back to their homes for a brief annual visit. At the end of the holiday, the living sometimes cast small boats on the river to represent the return of those spirits to the netherworld.

The Okinawans, however, have a more elaborate ritual known as the uukui. It starts with the eisa, a performance of drumming and chanting for the repose of the dead. (Eisa performances have also become more secular over time.) Then, entire families head in a group to the graveyard, with those in the lead carrying lanterns and others bringing incense. In some villages, entire streets are filled with lanterns.

The photo here shows an eisa performance by a youth group on 14 August in Itoman. The group gave seven different performances, one at a national memorial park for those who died during the fighting on Okinawa during the Pacific War. They had suspended those performances for a while, but resumed them three years ago.

In some places, people use the family O-bon gathering to combine traditional celebrations. The folks in Miyakojima, for example, had a tog-of-war contest during uukui for the first time in 12 years. The procedures are the same as those events conducted as part of a Shinto festival. Residents of the Gusukubetomori district were divided into two teams, representing the east side and the west side. The Strong Boys get to claim that the divinities will favor them with a good harvest or fishing catch, and protection against illness and disaster.

The tug-of-war was not originally an o-bon event, but the Miyakojimanians made it a moveable feast because it was easier to rustle up the rope pullers when everyone was visiting the old folks at home. Here, however, they traditionally use a vine known in English as the common derris instead of a rope. Unfortunately, the derris hasn’t been common enough lately, so they retwined half the rope used at the Miyakojima summer festival in July.

Said one of the organizers:

“We want to do it every year. It’s an important event for conveying the spirit of group unity from the older people to the younger people.”

The combination of the difficulties in Japan presented by the recent natural disasters, what seems to be the approaching economic calamities in G7Land — accelerated by Phase II of the collapse of the experiment in socialism (this time socialism lite instead of the SAE50 viscosity variety) — and other trends suggest we could be seeing a return to whatever the local definition happens to be of that Old Time Religion (OTR).

For a look at sacred hoedowns elsewhere in Japan during the season, here’s a look at three wild and wooly O-Bon dancing festivals. Don’t pass up the excellent video of the Awa Odori.

And it doesn’t get any more downhome than this video of the Uukui Eisa in one Okinawan neighborhood.

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