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  • Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-Making in Yaeyama and Okinawa by Matt Gillan
  • Bruno Deschênes (bio)
Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-Making in Yaeyama and Okinawa. Matt Gillan. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2012. SOAS Musicology Series. xix + 220 pp., figures, maps, music examples, glossaries, bibliography, discography, index. ISBN 978-14094-2404-8 (Hardcover), $99.95.

In recent years we have seen the publication of numerous ethnomusicological books on Japanese traditional music, among them Kelly Foreman (2008), Henry Johnson (2010), Terence Lancashire (2011), and Alison McQueen Tokita and David Hughes (2008). This publication by Matt Gillan on the music of the Yaeyama and Okinawa Islands is, however, especially welcome.1 [End Page 128] Heretofore there have been few texts on the music of Okinawa and none that we know of on the music of Yaeyama.2 Despite its title, Gillan’s book places much more emphasis on the music of Yaeyama and discusses Okinawan music, specifically of Okinawa Island, mainly as an influence on the former (only one chapter is given over completely to Okinawan music). Although Yaeyama is part of the Okinawa prefecture, Gillan demonstrates that its musicians want to be seen as different.

In chapter 1, Gillan places the search for identity among Yaeyaman musicians attempting to authenticate their traditions within the context of Japanese music in general and Okinawan music in particular. Chapter 2 examines the music in detail: the different styles of songs and their classification; the main instrument used (the Okinawan sanshin); kunkunshi, or tablature notation; and scales. In chapter 3, Gillan shows that the Yaeyaman repertory derives to a large extent from the music of the Ryūkyū kingdom, then presents their differences in musical structure, local dialects, words, pronunciations, and viewpoints. Chapter 4 examines the deep roots Yaeyaman music has in Buddhist religious rites dedicated to the gods, ancestors, and the people themselves. Rituals and festivals have always been (and still are) the main occasions for performance of traditional music in Yaeyama. Gillan shows how music and ritual have combined to maintain and strengthen the traditional life of these islands.

Chapter 5 discusses musical lineages and the preservation of various musical styles. As in mainland Japan, the music is not carried forward by repertoires, which differ between islands and even villages, but by musicians who pass it on to younger generations, although unlike mainland Japan, there is no iemoto (household head) in Yaeyama. Chapter 6 gives an overview of styles as they differ between islands, villages, and individuals, using an example from a well-known Yaeyaman song, “Tubarāma.” In chapter 7, Gillan discusses the success of Yaeyaman music, distinct though it may be, as a function of the Okinawa “boom” of the 1990s, when several Yaeyaman singers moved to Okinawa Island and Yaeyaman music clubs and schools were established in Osaka and several other places in Japan. Chapter 8 serves as a summary wherein Gillan ponders the question of Yaeyaman musical authenticity and the influence of outsiders from mainland Japan and the West.

On the positive side, Gillan’s work is thorough, well documented, and intelligently organized. Each chapter has a clearly defined topic that helps the reader understand the music within its historical and social context. I do, however, have some criticisms. For instance, Gillan laments that the US military occupation of Okinawa between 1945 and 1972 “has unfortunately been largely absent from the discourse presented in this book” (180), but he does not tell us why. Because this period is a major one in the history of Okinawa, [End Page 129] one cannot avoid wondering if there were influences as well on the people of the Yaeyama archipelago. Gillan should at least tell us why this subject matter is absent. More concerning to me than specific oversights, however, is Gillan’s scholarly distancing style. Although at times he discusses his studies of this music and his fieldwork, he does not use them to clarify points he himself raises. He does not comment, for instance, on how his informants viewed his research (other than a short section toward the end of the book that mentions some local musicians who told him that he influenced them...