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Celebrating a good harvest, the traditional way

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-09-25

This month will mark the end of the traditional harvest season, which is observed on the fifteenth day of August according to the lunar calendar with "Honensai." Historically this festival was held in each farming village of Okinawa to give thanks for a fruitful and abundant year of crops. Every area had its own unique dances and songs to celebrate the occasion, along with rituals that were performed to pray for a bountiful harvest once again the following year.

Although most of Okinawa's agricultural production has turned to growing sugar cane and pineapples in the island's rural areas, the Okinawan people used to grow more crops for their own consumption. Potatoes, barley, and sometimes rice were the main staples of the Okinawan diet, and a good harvest was essential for their survival.

Throughout Okinawa's history, the island has been treated harshly by mother nature. Powerful and destructive typhoons occurred regularly from July to October, while droughts would also plague the island. Thse forces of nature often left the Okinawan people with little food, and records show that famine was a constant threat to Okinawan villages. Because of the continuous battle with typhoons and droughts, the "Honensai" played an important part in the yearly customs that took place in traditional Okinawa.

Special attention was paid to the ceremonies surrounding the festival to ensure good fortune - many old folk-tales linked a bad harvest to a villager's wrongful actions or a show of disrespect to a god or a spiritual place.

In more recent times the "Honensai" has gradually disappeared from many villages or has been scaled down. The main reason for the lack of importance placed on farming-related customs is mostly due to the change in lifestyles for Okinawans to a consumer society.

There are some villages, however, that still carry out many of the island's old traditions, and "Honensai" can still be seen at any one of these places. Onna-son is one area that continues to carry out the practice of celebrating a bountiful harvest season, and for those who are interested in Okinawan culture some of the small communities of Onna-son provide a rare opportunity to witness the old tradition of "Honensai."

This year, the day of the full moon for August of the lunar calendar falls on September 24. The villages of Nakama and Afuso are scheduled to hold their "Honensai" in October, but Onna Village will be celebrating on Saturday, September 25.

Years ago part of the preparation for "Honensai" in Onna Village included a ritual of practicing the main dances inside a cave located near Cape Manza. The young people of Onna who were chosen to perform the dance would enter the cave and remain there for days, sleeping and eating inside, as they readied themselves both spiritually and physically for the important folk dance.

On Saturday, you can expect to find a very small local gathering of people at the Onna Community Center, located across from the Onna Town Government Building. Festivities begin at 7 p.m. and will include traditional songs and dances. The festival is free of charge and foreigners are welcome to attend. The "Honensai" is not a large event with food stalls selling beer and snacks. It is small in scale and the atmosphere is generally low key, but it does provide you with a good insight into local customs and gives you the chance to meet Okinawans on a community level.

To get to the Onna Community Center (Kominkan), head north on Highway 58 from Kadena Circle. After passing the main resort area of the Renaissance Hotel and Moon Beach, continue heading north past Tancha. Look for the Onna Town Government Building on your right, just before coming to the entrance to Cape Manza and Onna Port. Turn left and enter the area across from the Onna Government Building and you will find the Community Center.

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