Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sanshin Testing In Okinawa

I recently accompanied my wife and four other sanshin players from Hawaii, along with their sensei, to Okinawa to take part in the annual testing event for sanshin certification.  The sanshin has developed into a high level musical art, and there are five skill levels to pass on the way to becoming a master.  Each level normally takes years of practice to learn well enough to pass the exam. The beginning level is called Shinjin Sho.   My wife Yukiko and the other Hawaii students were all testing for the first level.  It was quite an exciting experience.  I’ll tell you the outcome in a bit, but first here is some background on the sanshin.

My wife Yukiko during her Shinjin Sho test performance

The Sanshin is Truly Okinawan

If any single musical instrument can truly be called Okinawan, it is the sanshin.  It is a three-stringed banjo-type instrument brought in originally from China some 600 years ago, during the height of Okinawan-Chinese cultural exchange.  The Chinese instrument was called the sanxian.

The word “sanshin” literally translates in Japanese as “three strings”.    The old Ryukyu kingdom adopted the sanshin as part of its musical repertoire and developed it into a high level of artistry.  It is found in both classical music (koten) and folk music (minyo).   Modern Okinawan performers use the sanshin with or without modern western musical accompaniment to sing new generation songs.  Similar to how the ukulele has become attached to Hawaii and Hawaiian music, the sanshin is a key cornerstone of the Okinawan music scene.

Sanshin construction

The sanshin is made as follows: the neck is made of a single piece of hard wood, the sound box is covered in snakeskin or a synthetic skin, and it has three strings, usually made of nylon.  There are no frets.  The large protruding tuning pegs for the strings are called karakui.  It has a removable bridge or uma. 

The strings are plucked in traditional style with a bachi, which in the old days was made from a water buffalo horn, but today can be made from ceramic or some other substance.  Of course modern players also use a guitar pick or their fingers to play the notes.

Sanshin vs. Shamisen

The sanshin is often confused with the Japanese shamisen. Many people refer to the sanshin as a shamisen, but actually the shamisen is a derivative of the Okinawan sanshin, which made its way to Japan in the 16th century, many years after gaining widespread popularity in Okinawa.  Compared to the Okinawan sanshin, the Japanese shamisen is longer and has a larger body.  Both have three strings. The shamisen typically uses cat skin to cover the body rather than snakeskin.

Sanshin Music is Everywhere

The koten or classical music style was played to royalty and visitors to the royal court as part of formal ceremonies.  The minyo or folk style is livelier and is played throughout the country by just about everyone. 

To give you an idea of what I mean, first of all, there are minyo bars everywhere, it seems.  At least in Koza (Okinawa City) and Naha, they were plentiful.  They typically serve drinks and some bar food (Okinawan of course).  Each bar has a stage area with a sanshin, taiko drum, and a microphone.  Usually the proprietor will give a 30 minute performance, and perhaps an encore with some encouragement.  Then it becomes “open mic” night, and everyone in the crowd so inclined can come up and play and sing their favorite minyo song.  Others in the crowd may sing along, or if it’s lively enough, get up and start dancing.  Great fun.  The action doesn’t usually get started until after 10pm and can go well past midnight.

In Ishigaki, which we also visited, Our tour guide at one point pulled out a sanshin and started playing and singing for us.  Later in Taketomi, the ox cart driver also grabbed a sanshin from a shelf above him and entertained us as well.  I never investigated, but would not be surprised to find out that our taxi drivers had sanshins in their cars ready for a chance to play.

Many stores in Okinawa sell sanshins whether they are music stores or not. 

As for my Wife’s Shinjin Sho Test

The venue for the exam was an auditorium with a stage where the testers perform one at a time.  They face a line of 10 to 12 judges from different schools.  A large crowd sits behind the judges.  Pressure! 

Each student is called out by the number they drew at random prior to the testing.  They bow, and have a choice of sitting in a chair, sitting seiza style on the floor, or standing.  The test song for every level involves both singing as well as sanshin playing.  Although it is a test for sanshin, your ability to sing is just as important.

Any gross mistake or uncalled for repetition gets the performer the sound of a loud buzzer (really!) and they fail.  For the higher level students, the crowd also gets involved.  If a student makes a mistake or stumbles during his performance, the audience grows unruly and makes lots of loud grumbling noises. This of course often unnerves the person who is testing as he or she keeps playing, trying to recover and finish.  Often however, the crowd noise affects them and causes them to make a mistake so bad that they get the deadly buzzer from the judge.  Talk about tough love!

Happy ending

For this year’s test, there were about 40 students who tested for first level Shinjin Sho.  The Hawaii contingent brought five people to test.  The happy ending is that all five of the Hawaii students passed!  Needless to say we celebrated this event in various ways, including some minyo bar festivities, of course.

The Hawaii sanshin students (in Kimonos) and their sensei, Derek Ichiro Shiroma, of the Okinawa Minyo Kyokai Hawaii

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Ryukyu Kingdom is Reunited by Sho Hashi

The Ryukyu kingdom split apart in 1314 when its ruler, Tamagusuku, lost the support of many aji (local lords) who separated and formed their own independent territories or kingdoms.  These were Hokuzan in the north, Chuzan in the central area, and Nanzan in the south.

A Crisis of Leadership in the Three Kingdoms and China

In 1395 Satto, the Ruler of the middle kingdom Chuzan, died at age 75 and his son Bunei took over.  Also, that same year, the lord of Hokuzan died.  The Lord of Nanzan died just three years later in 1398.

As part of the Chinese tribute system, the new rulers of each kingdom sent requests to Ming China asking for recognition as the new monarch.  However,  nothing happened for several years because the emperor of China also died in 1398.  As a result, China itself was in a power struggle internally for control of the Chinese empire.

The Rise of Sho Hashi in Chuzan

Bunei continued to rule as King of Chuzan.  But without having the formal endorsement of China, he was in a weakened political position.  The aji he ruled over had time to reconsider their alliances and loyalties.  This occurred despite Bunei’s continuation of trade with China and economic development of Okinawa.

 One of those aji, a young able man named Sho Hashi, persuaded several of Bunei’s  followers to switch allegiances.  Together with them, he led a rebellion against Bunei.  In 1402 Sho Hashi succeeded in taking the Lord of Azato’s  territory, which was next to Bunei’s headquarters in Urasoe.

In 1405 Bunei finally heard from China.  A new Chinese emperor had gained power and immediately sent a response to Bunei asserting that Bunei was king.  But it was too late for Bunei. The opposition had gained too much energy.  Sho Hashi and his forces were preparing to seize all of Chuzan.

Sho Hashi Conquers Chuzan

Sho Hashi continued to gain strength and aji loyalties after his defeat of Azato.  In 1407, he launched an assault against Bunei and drove him out of Urasoe, thereby overthrowing him.  Following his victory, Sho Hashi immediately sent his own tribute ship to China requesting that his father be made king, a calculated political move to win favor with the Chinese.  Sho Hashi held the real power. His father served merely as a figurehead to appeal to the Confucian sense of patriarchy.  The Chinese responded favorably to his request in 1408, and made his father king.  Sho Hashi, for all practical purposes, was the true ruler.

Seven years later the China government also approved Nanzan’s tribute request for recognition, but Nanzan  was torn apart by internal power struggles of its own.

Chuzan and the Balance of Power

Sho Hashi viewed Hokuzan as a military threat to him due to their stronghold at Nakijin castle. They were not particularly competitive against Chuzan in commercial trade or foreign relations.

He viewed  Nanzan as much more of a political and commercial threat to Chuzan.  Nanzan had favorable harbors for trading as did Chuzan, and was second in power to Chuzan economically. 

Sho Hashi made plans to consolidate his power.  He would once again use the defection of opposition aji to his side to implement his plan.

Sho Hashi Conquers and Reunites the Kingdom

Sho Hashi’s first target was Nakijin castle in Hokuzan in order to secure his military superiority first and foremost.  He succeeded in winning the allegiance of some key aji supporters of the Hokuzan king in the Northern provinces.  They defected to his camp.  Nanzan at the time was weakened due to their own internal problems.  Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Sho Hashi attacked the Hokuzan capital of Nakijin castle in 1416 and overthrew the King of Hokuzan, who committed suicide.

In 1422, Sho Hashi’s father died and Sho Hashi officially became king.  He appointed his brother as warden of Hokuzan.

In 1429 the Lord of Nanzan died, and a power struggle ensued in Nanzan.  Sensing Nanzan's weakness, Sho Hoshi seized the moment and launched a campaign against that territory.  He successfully conquered the southern area and overthrew the Nanzan rulers.  In so doing, he unified Okinawa into a true single Ryukyu Kingdom.

Thus began the First Sho Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Okinawa and the China Connection

The Ming Dynasty Sends Envoys to Okinawa

In 1368 the Mongol dynasty in China was finally overthrown and the Ming Dynasty took its place.  Suffering from several years of civil war and interrupted international trade activity, the new Emperor sought to repair the damage to his country quickly.

In 1372 the Ming Emperor sent envoys to Okinawa to make an offer of favored trade status and protection in return for submitting to China’s superiority.  This was to be an historic event for Okinawa.

King Satto of Chuzan realized the significant power this would bring to him and immediately sent a tribute ship to China to accept the offer. He sent his brother Taiki, who brought with him gifts of horses, sulfur and shells.  The Ming dynasty was pleased, and in 1374 they sent a tribute ship to Chuzan declaring Satto the official King of Ryukyu.

Trade Flourishes in Okinawa

Trade with China began and was very profitable for Chuzan.  Seeing the benefits of the Ming Dynasty trade arrangement, both Nanzan and Hokuzan also sent tribute ships to China asking that they be recognized as well, and given the same favored trading status.  China gave them what they asked for.  In 1380 Nanzan was recognized.  Hokuzan was likewise recognized in 1383. 

So Okinawa was in the situation where China recognized three different kings of Okinawa at the same time, all of them sending tribute ships.  From China’s point of view, Okinawa was a small country of not much concern.  But to Okinawa, trading with the world’s greatest power was extremely important.

In reality Chuzan was still the number one influence in Okinawa.  In the 1300’s Chuzan sent  52 tribute ships to China.  In the same period, only 19 came from Nanzan, and 9 from Hokuzan. Chuzan had well over two-thirds of the trade business with China.

Satto used his wealth to expand his power.  Trade relations grew.  Cultural exchange expanded greatly.  Satto moved the capital from Urasoe to Shuri castle and used his increase in power to exert further pressure on the rest of Okinawa.

By 1390, the lords of Miyako and Yaeyama were sending tributes to Chuzan and trading with them.

The “36 families” Arrive from China

A very significant event happened in 1393, when the Ming Dynasty sent over a large group of people called the “36 families” to make a permanent Chinese settlement in Naha, in what is now called Kume village.  The term “36 families” is not literal.  It simply means a great number and variety of people.  King Satto was very happy to receive these people into his kingdom and to absorb the advanced knowledge they brought with them.  He gave them tax free land, a stipend, and social privileges at Shuri castle.

The group included skilled craftsmen in a variety of areas, and the purpose was to pass along Chinese technology and skills to Okinawa. A multitude of experts arrived in such areas such as shipbuilding, written language, navigation, arts and crafts, and paper making and ink making.  They also brought with them the custom of the Dragon Boat races, which is still celebrated in Okinawa today. 

The Okinawans saw this as a tremendous opportunity to learn modern technology from the greatest superpower in the region, China.  They were eager to learn from the Chinese and adapted many Chinese ways to fit Okinawan life.  The Chinese lunar calendar was adopted,  as were clothing styles, systems of government, and Confucian style schooling.  Chinese unarmed fighting styles, the forerunners of Okinawan Karate, were probably also introduced during this time.

China meanwhile did not interfere with Okinawa’s internal governing policies.  They were content to leave things alone so long as the Okinawans did not go against Chinese supremacy.

It is interesting to note that even though there were three kings of Okinawa, as recognized by the Chinese themselves, the Chinese government sent the 36 families to Chuzan.  This was no doubt an acknowledgement from the Ming Dynasty that Chuzan was the most dominant of the three Okinawan kingdoms.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Three Kingdoms of Ryukyu - the Sanzan Period

The Ryukyu Kingdom Splinters into Three Territories

The Ryukyu kingdom started to fracture in 1314 when Tamagusuku took over the throne of the Eiso dynasty.  He was not a good leader as his predecessors had been.  He took actions that were not popular with the aji (local lords) and dissension mounted.

Finally, things fell apart and rebellion among the aji tore the country into three regions. The Lord of Osato went back to his castle in the south of Okinawa Island, and formed the kingdom of Nanzan (Southern Mountain).  The Lord of Nakijin castle in the north part of Okinawa Island declared himself king of Hokuzan (Northern Mountain). 

Tamagusuku was left with only Urasoe, Shuri and Naha as his territory, which was called Chuzan (Central Mountain).  Although his power was reduced, Chuzan was still the most populous and wealthiest region of the three. It also was blessed with the best harbors for trading.

This period in history is referred to as the Sanzan era (three kingdoms).
Source: Wikipedia

Satto Takes the Chuzan Throne

When Tamagusuku died in 1336 his 10-year old son, a boy named Seii, became king.  Because Seii was so young, his mother essentially ruled the throne and she was not liked by many of the aji .  She interfered with government affairs and used her position to her advantage, unfairly.   Seii’s popularity suffered as a result.

Seii died when he was only 23 years old – we don’t know how or why. The year was 1349.   Satto, the governor of Urasoe,   took control over Chuzan.  He was a strong and strategic leader.  He had the loyalty of the aji and brought stability back to Chuzan.

Japan’s Troubles

Meanwhile, both Japan and China had been having major internal strife in their countries during this time.  Preoccupation with civil wars and rebellions distracted them from interfering in Okinawa  and allowed the Ryukyu Islands to develop rather independently from outside foreign influences.

In Japan Ashikaga Takauji led a revolt against the Kamakura shogunate, called the Genko War, and became Shogun himself in 1336.  Ashikaga only had control over the eastern provinces, and not the entire country.  He moved the capital from Kamakura to Kyoto.  He expended much energy to unite Mainland Japan. There was much civil unrest.  It was a period of decentralized feudalism.  Mainland Japan would not see an end to civil wars until the year 1600.

Japanese pirates had much power along the coasts of China, Japan and Korea.  These pirates were often Japanese merchants who engaged in illegal activities when it suited them.  They conducted numerous raids along the coast of Korea and Japan, and along the Ryukyu island chain and into southern Asia.

Kublai Khan’s Mongol Dynasty in China Crumbles

 In China, the Mongol empire was in decline after a series of disasters, including Kublai Khan’s costly and unsuccessful attempts to invade Japan.  Inflation was out of control.  Rebellion and civil wars tore the country apart. 

The Mongol glue that had kept the empire unified was coming undone.  The collapse of the Mongols caused the inland “Silk Road” trade with Europe to shrink considerably.  The Japanese pirates harassed sea trade all along China’s coastline. 

The Ming Dynasty Brings Unity to China

Finally in 1368, a rebel fighter named Zhu Yuanzhang unified China.  He became Emperor Hong Wu and began the famous Ming dynasty.  Ming means “Brilliant”.  He sought to restore Confucian values that had been displaced by the foreign Mongol rulers.  He built up an army of one million soldiers to secure the Chinese borders, especially along Mongolia.

He also sought to restore international trade and immediately sent envoys to all the surrounding “barbarian” states.  He demanded they recognize China as the supreme power, and in return they would receive favored trade relations and protection from China.

The first Chinese envoy to Japan arrived in Kyushu in 1368, and the Japanese were defiant.  They refused to bow to China as a superior power, having strong memories of China’s earlier efforts to conquer Japan.

Okinawan Development

Okinawa saw each of its three kingdoms develop independently. 

King Satto ruled Chuzan, and he continued to build wealth via international trade and improve the conditions of his already prosperous territory.  

Hokuzan in the north was under the rule of the Haneji dynasty.  They had a strong military force at Nakijin castle, but were not very competitive in trade and commerce.

Nanzan in the south under the Osato Dynasty had good trading ports and was an economic competitor. But internal power struggles within Nanzan were an ongoing problem.

In 1372, the Ming envoys arrived in Okinawa to make the same offer of favored trade in return for bowing to Chinese superiority. 

This historic visit would be the beginning of a lucrative 500-year relationship between Okinawa and China.