The Year's First Sunrise

Happy New Year!

It’s a tradition among the young and the hardy in Japan to celebrate New Year’s Day by watching the first sunrise of the year. Okinawa is as far south and west as you can get and still be in Japan. This means that their sun rises a little later than in the rest of Japan.

Lucky! Not only can people in Okinawa take their time getting to a beach-side vantage point, but they can also feel a little warmer as they watch the sun rise.

Japan’s earliest sunrise is in Hokkaido, the most northeasterly territory in Japan. The weather forecast says northeast Hokkaido can expect some sunshine on New Year’s Day and a high of 0 degrees centigrade, but Okinawa will be getting their sunshine warmed to 19 degrees C.

Warm or cold, the first sunrise of the year is a special time of new beginnings. Here’s wishing you all a happy day!


Not always a paradise

When I did my research for Japan's Road to Popular Empowerment, I was surprised by the number of civilians in Okinawa who have to die because of accidents caused by the US military.

The Pacific War, in which one third (I put that it words so no one would think I mistyped the number 1/3) of the population of Okinawa was killed, ended in 1945. The official US occupation of this Japanese prefecture ended in 1972. One Okinawa city (Ginowan) still has to host five US military installations. There are more throughout the prefecture, including a deep water harbor off Katsuren----the site of my novel.

I have been to Katsuren many times, and never noticed the US base because it is farther out along the peninsula, some distance from Katsuren Castle. I probably never would have been aware of its presence, until it made the papers.

A US military vehicle--without so much as an "excuse me can we use your property for a sec"-- drove through the playground of a school for the handicapped in Katsuren. Luckily, no one was hurt. No one was hurt, either, when a US helicopter fell out of the sky and crashed and burned against the wall of an Okinawa university building, either.

Luck! Sometimes it works.

It didn't work for the nine year old girl who died in the garden of her family's home when a jeep that was being airlifted went astray and fell on her.

There's more, so much more.

More than five US bases in a single, peaceful foreign city sounds like a very expensive proposition. I certainly wouldn't spend any of my own money on such a project, would you?

Meanwhile, in researching the Koza riots of 1970--triggered when US military police fired guns on the crowd that gathered when an Okinawa civilian was run down and killed by a military vehicle--I found the following position paper by a US reporter who once upon a time was stationed in Okinawa. Interesting point of view.



Okinawa Sanshin Photo

This is it, my beautiful sanshin. It has three nylon strings stretched over a tiny bamboo bridge. Snakeskin is stretched over the body, and the rough edges are concealed with a decorative brocade band. It is played with a finger pick made from water buffalo horn, just visible in the lower left corner.
It is propped up in the place of honor (tokonoma, in Japanese) and is ready to be played any time.
The flowers are hibiscus. They bloom all year round in Okinawa. Tokyo is a little too cold for them to bloom outdoors in December, so they have been brought inside where they can keep the sanshin company.


Sanshin, One Last Word

One more word about Okinawan music

Like the guitar, the sanshin is an acoustic instrument. As with the guitar, some performers use electrically amplified sanshin. The sound of a single sanshin cannot by itself fill a hall with music. That’s another, practical reason why performers need to learn the songs perfectly: the music should sound like one voice and one instrument, a very powerful one.

There is also a spiritual interpretation to the unity of voices and instruments.

The music produced by a group is cooperation made visible, or should I say audible. One of the beauties of Okinawan society that is also a factor in the people’s longevity is strong social ties. People work together and live together, leaning on each other’s strengths.

At first I thought the idea behind becoming a group with one voice was to hide your own individuality, to hold yourself back and not draw attention to yourself. But when people hold back, the result is no sound. Silence. It turned out that sanshin is about playing and singing as powerfully as possible. The stronger and more assertive the sound, the better the music. In a word, it’s about life: what the world needs is people who have honed their abilities and who are willing and able to contribute.


The Sanshin Concours

I won! I got my medal!!

Well, that takes the suspense out of hearing about the contest, doesn't it? Here are the details, though, just for the record.

There are several schools of various styles of sanshin playing. For instance, the Nomura school is the oldest and the one that concentrates on traditional songs played in a formal manner--especially for ceremonies such as weddings. At the other end of the scale is the Noborikawa school, which specializes in entertaining with the sanshin.

I'm in the Noborikawa school.

To keep your listeners entertained, first you have to be able to look at them and smile while you play, so you can't use sheet music. That means every song in your repertoire has to be memorized. Second, it throws off the entertainment if you flub the rhythm or mess up the words, so you have to learn the songs perfectly, without looking as if you are trying too hard.

Those are the basic rules, and there are lots more tiny details which I will not go into.

At the first level of the licensing process, you have to perform two songs of the judges' choice. Because it's entertainment, you have to perform them in full costume. Kimono! And for the ladies, kimono-appropriate hair style and make up. For a contest starting at 1PM, we ladies began the dressing process at 7 AM. Yes, it does take that long.

I ended up having to shorten my kimono by 9 centimeters at the last minute. When my grandmother sewed in a hurry, she said she did it with a burning needle and flaming thread. I now know exactly how she felt.

Once you're dressed and ready, you wait for your call. At my level, we play in groups of four. Judging is based on appearance, stage presence, courtesies such as bowing at the proper time, memorization, voice, and instrumental playing. To earn every possible point, I went so far as to spray-dye my hair black, to match the beanie-like hair piece that is part of the official wardrobe.

Somehow, I passed. I have become an official "newcomer" [shin-jin-sho] to the world of sanshin playing.

It was time consuming, expensive--paid for in sweat and tears, and labor-intensive. It was worth every minute to stand on the stage after the judging and join the winners in an official concert in front of a packed auditorium.