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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 230-247

National Treasure/National Theatre: The Interesting Case of Okinawa's Kumi Odori Musical Dance-Drama

Barbara E. Thornbury

One of the least-known traditional forms of Japanese theatre is kumi odori, which is actually of extreme importance in Okinawa, where it was born and has evolved since the early eighteenth century. In this article Barbara E. Thornbury discusses kumi odori--especially the problems related to its paradigmatic situation as a major cultural artifact that recently has received governmental support in the form of an expensive national theatre devoted to its preservation. After offering a brief introduction to the form, her article examines the political and cultural issues involved.
Barbara E. Thornbury is a professor of Japanese at Temple University. She has published in ATJ and other journals, and her most recent book is The Folk Performing Arts: Traditional Culture in Contemporary Japan (1997).

A new and interesting--although somewhat curious--chapter is being written in the history of Japan's national theatres. As a front-page article in the Yomiuri newspaper announced on November 10, 1996, the Japanese government will establish a national theatre on Okinawa devoted to kumi odoria musical dance-drama and other local, traditional arts. For at least a decade prior to the announcement, the Okinawa prefectural government had repeatedly petitioned the Ministry of Education (Monbusho) for help in establishing a permanent center to ensure the survival of the prefecture's performing arts. It took until 1998 for the specifics of the project finally to be announced: the 650-seat National Kumi Odori Theatre (Kokuritsu Kumi Odori Gekijob) will be built in Urasoe-shi (near the city of Naha). Construction is expected to be completed in 2003; presentations will begin the following year. 1 [End Page 230]

Given that kumi odori is relatively unknown even among aficionados of Japan's traditional theatre--and that its provenance is Okinawa--the commitment in the 1990s by a cash-strapped government to build an expensive new national theatre immediately raises a question: to what degree is the government's decision cultural and to what degree is it political? To be sure, in any big state-sponsored arts project politics are inevitably part of the mix. But in the case of the kumi odori theatre, Okinawa's long history of strained relations with mainland Japan--currently inflamed by the controversial American military bases that are backed by Tokyo but opposed locally and exacerbated by economic woes that many residents attribute to the islands' marginalized status--makes the politics of the project particularly apparent. The national theatre is forthcoming from a central government keenly aware of the growing number of local politicians calling for an independent Okinawa. Once a proud kingdom that exchanged envoys with China and could boast of its own language and culture, including kumi odori, Okinawa will get a national theatre that is to be a tangible symbol of the importance Tokyo attaches to its most distant prefecture.

A Brief History

Performing arts scholar Misumi Haruo defines kumi odori ("ensemble dance") as a blend of dialogue, song, and dance (1997, 140)--a characterization like the one usually applied to kabuki. Having borrowed extensively from no and kabuki, kumi odori is at once familiar and refreshingly different to audiences who see it for the first time. Although many of the stories and acting techniques appear to have come straight off the stages of no and kabuki, the prominence of songs, the use of musical instruments not seen on the no or kabuki stages, such as the koto and kokyu,c2 and the striking blend of cultural influences reflected in the costuming and makeup give kumi odori its own place in the universe of the performing arts.

Created, developed, and performed for over a century and a half within the refined grandeur of Shuri Castle, home of the Ry ukyu court, kumi odori is now presented in ordinary theatres on a raised wooden dance platform adorned with only the most essential sets and...

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