Traditional Okinawan Music

Okinawa Things to Know

Okinawa, Japan Feb. 28 Wed 12:37PM

22.4 / 72.2

The Sounds of the Island

One thing that people often say bring people together is music. Often at least some form of music can be found across cultures, countries, and people. Music can be a way for people to bond and find something to connect by even in a foreign land whilst traveling, and it truly is fascinating to hear different instruments and sounds from all over the world. Even within the country of Japan, different musical instruments and sounds can be found across regions. 

Okinawa is one of those places, and because of its unique history and influence from being a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom and because of its geography as a separate island, there may be more differences found more so than between regions within mainland Japan.

The vibe of Okinawa is often referred to as laid back and friendly, with Okinawa exhibiting much of the island lifestyle that one may conjure up in their mind including friendly locals, and this sometimes translates into the music as well. While it's important not to lump all music found in Okinawa to the same vibe and theme and type, we can say that the music is unique and loved.

The Instruments

While there are many genres and sounds, a lot of the traditional Okinawan music has influences stemming from their history as being once a part of the Ryukyu Empire. The instrument used during that time that continues to  be a big part of traditional Okinawan music is the sanshin. The sanshin looks similar to a banjo or its successor, the traditional Japanese instrument, the shamisen. Long-necked with just three strings, the instrument is usually seen covered in snakeskin. Like a guitar, the sanshin is a string instrument, but unlike the guitar, you don't strum on the sanshin but pluck the strings. Perhaps what's truly interesting about the instrument is that the music is not written in musical notes but in Chinese characters notation known as kunkunshi. Along with the sanshin, the classic sounds of traditional Okinawan music can also have other varied elements including sounds from the Japanese harp, from flutes, taiko drums, and the Chinese fiddle. 


The Music

Music is still a big part of the culture in the Okinawan Islands. Okinawan music has continued to evolve with the times and many genres have mixed and diversified, from minyo or traditional Okinawan songs, to the arguably more well known and more modern Okinawa folk songs. Even within Okinawa itself, depending on the region and islands, the music heard has different sound and has its own uniqueness. The similarities and differences are special and all play a vital role in comprising Okinawan music as a whole; the traditional sounds using the sanshin still continues to be an important part of culture and history that many living on the island work to keep alive. The music of the Okinawan Islands can be found in cultural festivals as well as plays, and as the background to traditional dance performances. The sounds of the island will undoubtedly live on, kept alive by the people of Okinawa.


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