by Linda Gillis (except for additional info in italics and separately cited)

Family and tradition are the keystones of Japanese culture. One of the most important parts of the tradition is Obon, which means Eisa is equally as important.

The Eisa festival, held at the conclusion of Obon in late August, marks the end of summer and is the last big festival of the year. It is a time of great celebration and the time to bid farewell to the spirits of ancestors who have come back to earth for Obon.

In the early days of the festival, each town or village held their own festival. Now Eisa dancers from all over the island come together in Okinawa City each year to celebrate and compete.

It takes months of preparation with most teams beginning practice in January or February. Each village provides funding for costumes and instruments.

Teams consist of drummers, dancers, sanshin players, flag and banner bearers and clowns.

Each regional youth organization has its own unique performance style and parades the streets during Bon events of the lunar calendar. Many organizations perform Taiko Eisa (drum Eisa) which places emphasis on the Odaiko (large barrel drum) and the Shimedaiko (medium-sized drum). Those are typically performed in Central Okinawa. [7]

The kind of Eisa performed in and around former Yonashiro-cho and former Katsuren-cho features the Paranku (small hand drum) which produces an atmosphere different from that of the Shimedaiko. The Northern Okinawa groups have the "hand-dancing-only" Eisa using no drums. That is said to be the oldest form of Eisa. [7]

Spectators begin filling the stands a few hours before the competition gets underway. Suddenly, a hush falls over the crowd as the first team assembles at the entry gate. The flags and banners lead the way, some banners reaching 15 to 20 feet into the air! The sanshin players take their positions in a special grandstand. They sing folk songs and play their sanshins, which are snake-skin covered instruments similar to banjos. The dancers perform traditional folk dances in beautiful costumes. The clowns cavort about; whistling, jumping around, some beating tambourines all in an effort to frighten off any evil spirits that may be lurking about.

The highlight of it all are the magnificent drummers. Decked out in fabulous costumes, using a variety of different sized drums, they entertain the excited crowd. They march and drum, often leaping into the air, keeping the beat and staying in perfect step. It's an amazing sight and the crowd is mesmerized.

The teams are judged on talent, enthusiasm, creativity and their observance of tradition. A tough combination, but every team carries it off.

After the winners are announced, the crowd is treated to a spectacular fireworks display that rivals those put on in the larger cities of the United States for the Fourth of July. The earth shakes, the skies light up in a myriad of colors and the crowd goes wild! Another fantastic Eisa festival draws to a close and a fond farewell is bid to Obon and ancestors until next year.

The Okinawa City Eisa festival is held at the Okinawa City Koza Athletic Field located off highway 23 near the Okinawa Expressway exit #4. There is no admission fee and the festival is held concurrently with the Orion Beer Festival held on the same grounds. Be sure to stop by the beer festival to visit the food and drink booths for a delicious taste of Okinawan culture.

Americans are strongly urged to park on Kadena Air Base and walk to the field. It is located approximately halfway between Gates 2 and 5 and believe me - it is much faster to walk! Arrive early to get the best seats for photos and videos. This is definitely a festival you will want to share with the folks back home!

One more thing, for those of you who are on your way to Okinawa and have an adventurous streak: some of the Eisa dance teams will accept Americans. You can learn a lot about the culture, make some lifelong friends and have one of the most unique experiences of your life. [5]

"The model for Eisa dance is Nembutsu brought from mainland Japan. Wandering Ryukyu entertainers called Chondara (kyotaro) carried the Nembutsu in Ryukyu in the early modern period. During the Bon event of the lunar calendar ancestors' spirits return home. Since the modern period, Eisa has developed from the custom of community youths singing Nembutsu songs at individual homes to console those spirits. In the post-war years, Eisa came back as Okinawa recovered from the war and developed greatly through contests and other such events. Today, Eisa is the representative entertainment expressing the ethnic identity of Okinawa." [7]

These are a couple of videos that I made in 1988 of the Okinawa City Eisa Festival.

The Eisa originated from a group dance called esa omoro, to which Buddhist songs and dances were later added. The primary theory on the dance's name is that it is derived from the word Esa, from the line "Iro Iro no Esa Omoro" in volume 14 of Okinawa's Omorosoushi, or book of ancient poems. "Eisa" was a refrain in Buddhist prayers for the dead. Though regarded today as entertainment, the Eisa originally had an important religious function of giving repose to the dead. An Eisa performance on street corners and at homes of villagers was comparable to performing a memorial service for village ancestors. Thus, the Eisa dance always began with songs, particularly of the Joudo sect, which invoked the Buddha. These songs were called nembutsu songs, and sung by wandering priest-substitute minstrels (ninbuchaa) and, later, priests themselves; some examples of these songs include "Mamauya Nembutsu", "Chouja nu Nagari", and "Yamabushi". Just as Buddhist priests used these songs to popularize Buddhist teachings, so did Ryukyu musicians begin use Eisa dancing to popularize Ryukyu music by replacing the Buddhist prayers with folk songs, which remain popular for Eisa accompaniment. [6]

Eisa dancing at the Okinawa '90 Carnival in 1990. Tug-o-War too!

[5] Linda Gillis, www.okinawaninfo.com , 2008
[6] Wikipedia, a brief history of Eisa
[7] Koza Eisa Museum (located in Koza Music Town)

Obon Eisa Dance photos, Photoguide.jp

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