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In search of a lost cultural treasure (Part 1)

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-08-07

"Koten" and "Minyo," two forms of traditional Okinawan music, are known throughout Japan for their unique melodies and joyous songs. Both have played an important role in Okinawan culture - past and present. Throughout neighborhoods on the island the sound of the "sanshin" filling the warm air can be often heard, and "eisa" drums have become synonymous with summer on Okinawa. The true music of the Ryukyus, however, has even deeper roots, extending far across the turquoise waters to distant lands.

Okinawa's history as a great sea-trading kingdom from the 14th to the 16th century has been well documented by Japanese and foreign historians. Until 1879 Okinawa was an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, whose historical ties were much closer to China than that of mainland Japan. For centuries Ryukyu kings sent special envoys to pay tribute to the emperors of China during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and both nations enjoyed a prosperous exchange of culture and trade. Ryukyu ships also reached ports as far away as Malacca, where the men of Ryukyu traded alongside Europeans and other Asians. Portuguese traders, who referred to the island kingdom as "Lequos," described Okinawans as "truthful men," who traded gold, colored silks, porcelain, and lacquer ware among many other items.

Okinawa's long historical ties with China greatly influenced royal ceremonies that took place within the walls of Shuri Castle, including Ryukyuan music. "Uzagaku," the king's court music, was played with traditional instruments brought from China, and all musical scores were also from those learned in China by Ryukyu envoys. Because "Uzagaku" was played for the king only indoors, the music was never heard by anyone outside the king's circle.

After the annexation of the Ryukyu Islands by Japan in 1879, much of the island's exquisite culture began to diminish, including 500 years of tradition that surrounded the royal court. Ryukyu language, dress, and music became forgotten elements of Okinawa's glorious past, as Japan further suppressed the island's culture, trying to gain the Okinawan people's loyalty to the emperor of Japan. The beautiful music of "Uzagaku" was one of the victims of this cultural destruction.

Any hopes held by Okinawan scholars and musicians of ever hearing the music again faded when all of the few remaining written records of Ryukyu Court music were completely destroyed, along with countless other historical documents, during the Battle of Okinawa. Those artifacts that survived the carnage became on occasion souvenirs of American soldiers, who looted cultural and royal treasures after the fighting ceased.

Last year a group of scholars from around the world participated in a symposium here on Okinawa to discuss strategies to relocate Okinawa's lost artifacts. Through research and many interviews it was learned that after the war many of Okinawa's royal treasures became the property of museums in the U.S. - illegally. In the "Nakagusuku Udun" of Shuri, the former residence of the Sho royal family, numerous royal treasures were lost to flames that burned throughout the capital. An interview with a servant who had worked there disclosed that he had hid many royal treasures in a nearby sacred grove to try and save them - one of those items was a safe-box believed to hold many historical documents and treasures. He also managed to place several "Uzagaku" instruments inside of a well. Most of the treasures, however, including the safe and instruments have not been recovered. It is believed that they were either burned or stolen by looters.

Although "Uzagaku" seemed lost forever, the reconstruction of Shuri Castle in 1992 sparked debate over the issue. Many historians, who were trying to understand the social intricacies of the royal court, felt there were still too many missing elements to the restored castle. The desire to learn more about how the king and his royal court lived inside of the castle prompted the Prefectural Government to inject more funding into research. One project was initiated to revive the music of the royal court. A long search for the lost music of "Uzagaku" took members of the "Uzagaku Revival Association" down a meandering trail of clues, beginning in Okinawa and leading them to mainland Japan, China, and Taiwan. Their journey was about to answer the question of whether or not a lost form of music, unheard for more than a century, could be rediscovered.

Part 2 of "In search of lost cultural treasures" will appear in next week's Japan Update.

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