When someone makes mention of Okinawa, Japan, one of the first few things that would come to mind is Mr. Miyagi, the sage yet shrewd mentor of Daniel LaRusso, a.k.a “The Karate Kid.” In the second sequel of the famed film franchise, the duo traveled to this specific part of Japan to visit Mr. Miyagi’s father, who was dying. It was another iconic title that was a massive hit, and its influence was proven just by looking at the $115 million it made at the box office.
Straying away from Hollywood a little bit, Okinawan folk music is also another thing that this part of Japan is very well known for, and has been so throughout the majority of the 20th Century. And as you read more into this article, you will see how Okinawan folk music has shaped Japanese culture as we know it today, through beautiful melodies and distinct sound, which very much represents the land of the rising sun.
Okinawan Folk Music
Okinawan folk music is also popularly known as Ryukyuan music, since back in the day, Okinawa was still a part of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom. But during those times, folk music culture was commonly suppressed, especially in rural areas, which led to all songs that were produced in 1879 to be classified as “popular music.” But Okinawan folk music can be traced back to its roots in Yaeyama Islands where Yunta, a folk song genre that was usually sung by both men and women alternately, had originated.
However, like any other genre that goes through progress throughout the years, Okinawan folk music found its way to further recognition through a popular music base. Interestingly enough, this brand of music was apparently influenced by American rock music during the tail end of the Second World War in the 1940’s.
This is actually quite a fascinating piece of information, considering how music has been the bridge between two powerhouse nations involved in one of the most catastrophic events in world history. But Okinawan folk music does have its trademark sound, driven by a three-stringed lute, taiko drums, as well as wood-based percussion instruments that are predominantly made of bamboo, giving it its stereotypical yet unique Asian music feel.
As the late great Michael Jackson had once said, “Culture changes, fashions change, customs change, but great music is immortal”, and this is very evident in Okinawan folk music and the influence it holds. It has stood the test of time and has even served as that one thing that connected two great nations who were then sworn enemies.
And to this day, Okinawan folk music remains to be a respected art form among Westerners, as seen by a recent collaboration between Yaeyama singer Yasukatsu Oshima, who collaborated with New York City Jazz pianist Geoffrey Keezer. They may be thousands of miles apart, but that is exactly what music does: bridging cultures, no matter what the distance or disparity, which is honestly a magical thing that sometimes cannot be encapsulated into words.