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Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa by Matt Gillan (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 750-752 | 10.1353/not.2013.0077

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Songs from the Edge of Japan provides an ethnographic account of music making on the tiny islands of Yaeyama at the western-most edge of Okinawa. Okinawa has a unique place in Japan, given its previous history as an independent nation and its historical connections to Taiwan and China. As a result, Okinawa is positioned at the edge of Japan both physically and culturally. With a language (some would say “dialect”) that is related yet unintelligible to Japanese speakers, and with its distinct musical scales that sound closer to Balinese or Southeast Asian than Japanese scales, Okinawan music is a stage for a complex “discourse surrounding the nature of the Japanese nation” (p. 1).

Yaeyama is a collection of small high volcanic and low coral reef islands with its cultural and political center in Ishigaki. Within Yaeyama there are distinct dialects and cultural identities. Despite its remote location and tiny population of just over 50,000 people, it has a large cultural presence in Okinawa Prefecture and Japan. Its music is at the heart of the Okinawan popular music phenomenon, with a large number of musicians performing throughout Okinawa and Japan, and increasingly throughout the world. This, combined with its rich traditional music cultures, which are an integral part of daily life, make it an important region for a thorough study of traditional music. Matt Gillan has written a detailed study of Yaeyaman musical life, with a focus on traditional (pre-World War II) genres, but also addressing its role in Okinawan popular music today.

Gillan has lived on the island of Shikoku and in Osaka and Tokyo, where he currently teaches at International Christian University. He is an active performer on sanshin (Okinawan three-stringed plucked lute), and he is fluent in Japanese and several dialects of Okinawan. The book is based on fifteen months of fieldwork in Yaeyama, in addition to several shorter trips, and it draws on his longtime study of the musical culture.

The overarching theme of the book is the layered identities of Yaeyaman musicians. Musicians position themselves as Japanese, Okinawan, and Yaeyaman, as members of distinct islands and villages, and sometimes even as members of specific neighborhoods (called buraku in Okinawa). The relation of Yaeyama to Okinawa and Japan is important. I was initially concerned with Gillan’s placement of Yaeyama at the margins of the Japanese nation, and his relative lack of discussion in the early chapters of issues of Japanese political and American military occupation. However, as the book continues, Gillan paints a complex portrait of the links and disconnects between Yaeyama and mainland Japan. Since there is no American military presence in the islands of Yaeyama, the anti-American movement does not play a large part in the study. Gillan presented a nuanced picture of what it means to be Yaeyaman in the twenty-first century.

Chapter 1, “Island Treasures (Sïma nu Takara),” presents the geography of the islands, introducing discourses of tradition and modernity and concepts from island studies. As part of his ethnographic methodology, Gillan describes the challenges of studying traditional music in Yaeyama. As in other parts of Japan, the expectation of loyalty to one teacher makes it difficult for ethnomusicologists to gather a balanced picture of a musical community; despite this challenge, Gillan’s holistic knowledge of the musical culture is impressive.

Chapter 2, “Islands of Song and Dance: Yaeyama and Its Music,” is an overview of the history and music of Okinawa. While the organization of headings in this chapter is somewhat confusing, the prose clearly classifies the main genres in Yaeyama and provides useful information for understanding the music in the rest of the book. There are two main categories of music in Yaeyama: peasant music (koyM) and elite music (fushiuta or koten min ’yM). The genres of koyM, which are primarily unaccompanied vocal music, have links to traditional functions: work songs (yunta and jiraba), ritual songs (ayM), comedic songs (yungutu), and ritual recitatives (kanfutsï). Fushiuta classical songs are accompanied by instruments (with a discussion of sanshin here) and notated in kunkunshi. At the end of the chapter, Gillan examines Japanese theories of Okinawan scales, critiquing Japanese musicologists’ attempts to illuminate connections between mainland...

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