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  • Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa by Matt Gillan
  • Henry Johnson (bio)
Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa. By Matt Gillan. Ashgate, Burlington, Vermont, 2012. 220 pages. £54.00, cloth; £60.00, E-book.

The Yaeyama archipelago consists of 31 islands, of which 11 are populated. Located southwest of the rest of the island prefecture of Okinawa, itself southwest of “mainland” Japan (that is, the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku), Yaeyama not only sits on a geographic edge of the Japanese mainlands (Okinawa and the rest of Japan—the island of Taiwan is just over 100 kilometers away), but many distinct cultural traits also contribute to its unique place in “aquapelagic” Japan.1 The Yaeyama islands were not part of the Ryukyu Kingdom (in the Nansei islands in present-day southwest Japan) until the late fifteenth century, and since being absorbed into the modernizing and expanding Japanese nation in 1879, their geographical and cultural dislocation from the rest of the nation’s dominant political and urban centers has attracted much scholarly interest in terms of a peripheral identity vis-à-vis the Japanese and Okinawan (i.e., Okinawahontō [main island]) mainlands (Gillan refers to the Okinawan “mainland” in terms of Yaeyama’s administrative place within Okinawa Prefecture, as well as the islands’ historical and contemporary influences from its dominant Japanese neighbor).

The Yaeyama archipelago is divided into three main administrative units: Ishigaki-shi (Ishigaki City), which comprises Ishigaki Island (the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are an administrative part of Ishigaki); Taketomi-chō (Taketomi town), which consists of nine inhabited islands; and Yonaguni-chō (Yonaguni town), which consists of one island, Yonaguni, which is over 60 kilometers west of the other islands in the group. In this geographical context, Yaeyama may be small in terms of population (52,553 in 2012, with around 48,000 people on Ishigaki alone), but its various islands cover a large geographic area and have their own island identities within the archipelago, Okinawa Prefecture, and the rest of Japan.

Songs from the Edge of Japan is about the layered identities of traditional music performers in Yaeyama. The book contributes to the growing academic discourse on this part of southwestern Japan, as well as other micromusics in the nation, and is the first English-language book to cover comprehensively a contemporary ethnography of the islands’ traditional [End Page 474] music. (There are a number of research articles, chapters, and encyclopedic entries on the musics of the Nansei islands, but a major lack is book-length music ethnographies.) The book is based on the author’s Ph.D. dissertation2 and is divided into eight chapters. With the aim of documenting music making in Yaeyama, the book immediately addresses a massive task, especially when considering Yaeyama’s diverse island context. Indeed, diversity in the archipelago is noted early in the book and is a topic much discussed not only in the Yaeyaman context but also in contrast to Yaeyama’s place in Okinawa Prefecture and the Japanese nation more broadly. That is, part of Yaeyama’s distinct culture is its variety of dialects, which often differ between island and regional locations; these dialects help define and locate meaning in song texts.

Songs from the Edge of Japan focuses on traditional music practices, with emphasis on the contemporary performance of traditional songs in everyday, ritual, and popular music settings. Okinawan music more widely has an individual style based on the scales it uses. One of its main musical instruments, the sanshin (three-string lute), has in recent years gained popularity in many other parts of Japan, in both traditional and contemporary popular music forms, the latter of which has produced some nationally famous popular musicians and groups (such as BEGIN) as part of the latest Okinawan “boom.” With at least 10 years of field research in Yaeyama dating from 2001 behind him, which involved historical and ethnographic study (and learning to perform some styles of music), Gillan approaches the subject of his book with much cultural knowledge and authority, especially in terms of musical and linguistic ability. He is still based in...