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  • Nothing Can Compare: A Selection of Okinawan Folk Songs
  • Wesley Iwao Ueunten (bio)

The traditional music of the Ryūkyūs—both classical (for the court) and folk—can be traced back to ancient times, possibly to ritual chants (omoro). The chants were passed down orally, and though much must have been lost over time, 1,248 omoro were collected in the twenty-two–volume Omorosōshi, printed in three parts—in 1531, 1613, and 1623. Volume eight seems to establish the link between omoro and traditional court music and folk songs. Both omoro and classical music were composed with verses primarily in the ryūka form (three phrases of eight syllables followed by one of six syllables).

From at least the early fifteenth century, Okinawan music was strongly influenced by the kingdom’s contact with China. Beginning about 1404, Chinese investitute envoys to Okinawa were entertained with annual arts festivals (ukansen-odori) that included folk music (refined when performed at court) and dancing from all the provinces. Thus, royal court entertainment and folk music evolved together.

After the Satsuma invasion in 1609, classical and folk traditions and instrumentation were influenced by the Japanese. However, it was in the interest of the Satsuma clan that the Ryūkyūan kingdom maintained the appearance of independence, and thus indigenous music continued to be sung and composed. Following the Meiji annexation of Okinawa in 1879, the Japanese embarked on a campaign to create a uniform and united nation. With the strict imposition of mainland Japan’s culture and language in Okinawa, indigenous music and dance suffered a period of decline: performers were no longer employed at court, and young people were encouraged to regard Japanese cultural practices as superior to their own. Today, the resurgence of Okinawa’s distinct cultural identity is being reinforced through music, from traditional ryūka lyrics to pop and hip hop.

The following songs reflect changes in the social and political situations in Okinawa over several hundred years. Some were traditionally sung as part of kumi odori—court dance-and-music entertainments—at community festivals. I have also included a lullaby and work songs. The selection concludes with a song about twentieth-century Okinawan immigration to North America. Each song is followed by a brief explanation. [End Page 65]


To what can I compare The happiness I feel today It is like a budding flower Bejeweled by morning dew

“Kajadefū (Kageyadefū) Bushi” is said to have been composed by an official in the Ryūkyūan court: during a dispute over the succession to the throne, the official advocated for the mute royal son, who suddenly was able to speak. The song continues to be sung by Okinawans throughout the world at the beginning of celebrations and auspicious events.


A sign posted on the Unna pine Says, “Rendezvous are forbidden!” Do they think a sign Could prevent us from loving?

Along with “Kajadefū Bushi,” “Unna (Onna) Bushi” is one of the five important court songs sung before the Ryūkyūan king. It is now part of the repertoire of classical Ryūkyūan songs performed and preserved throughout the diaspora. Nabī, a woman of the commoner class in Unna, is said to have composed the words to this song, which expresses defiance of the vertically structured patriarchal government that developed across Okinawa during Satsuma rule.


Is this not a floating world with only one true meaning? Why is it then That our words do not meet?

The lyrics for this version of “Nakafū Bushi” were said to have been written by court musicians for the last Ryūkyūan king, Shō Tai. It was a period of much strife. Factions differed over what the kingdom should do in response to events such as the Opium Wars and the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to the Ryūkyūs and Japan. King Shō Tai was deposed by the Meiji government in Tokyo in 1879. [End Page 66]


[verse 3] We are separated by a vast ocean But the same moon shines upon us Are you gazing At the same sky tonight? [chorus] On the beach, the plover...


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