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Finely Dressed Yujo Ladies in the Juri Uma Gyoretsu Procession for Hachika Sogwachi New Year’s Festivities
post : 2020.02.04 04:00
There is a tradition in Okinawa called the Hachika Sogwachi, where the local people celebrate New Year’s according to the lunar calendar. On this day, the Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession takes place in the neighborhood of Tsuji in Naha City.
In the Okinawan language, Juri refers to “women of pleasure” and during the period of the Ryukyu Kingdom, there were three major entertainment districts in Naha; Tsuji (or Chiji), Nakajima, and Watanji. The Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession refers to the festival where chosen Juri women from each of the licensed quarters in Tsuji dressed in brilliant garb, wore a decorative Uma or horse head on their kimono, and paraded along the streets as they called out, “Yui Yui”. In the past, this procession was considered to be one of the three great festivals of Naha, alongside the Naha Great Tug-of-War and Naha Hari dragon boat festival. It was discontinued in 1988 with protests from various women’s groups that the event acknowledged licensed prostitution. After 12 years, in 1999, many local people began to voice their opinions, saying that they “have an obligation to pass down this Gyoretsu tradition, and in doing so, the area will see revitalization”. With that, in the year 2000, the event was revived as people recognized that in promoting Tsuji and its culture, it will attract people to the area. Presently, the Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession is organized and held by the preservation society.
The festival commences with the Kaminchu (priestesses) going around to sites with ties to the Yujo women and offering prayers.
Nmameisa dance is dedicated to Yujo women of the past at their gravesite.
During the Ryukyu period, people in the rural areas struggled with poverty, and it is said that among the Juri were women and girls who were sold by their parents and families due to various difficulties. Unless they repaid what they owed through work, they were not free to go back home, and even if they did pay off their debt, some were rejected from their families and could not go back to their parents homes.
The Juri women of that time were not free to go wherever they wanted, except on Hachika Sogwachi, January 20 according to the lunar calendar, the day of the Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession, and it was on this day that they were given the chance to show their families in the world outside of the entertainment district that they were well and healthy. During the lively procession where the Juri danced the Nmameisa in the splendid atmosphere, parents and siblings of some of the Juri women were said to be seen looking on with tears flowing from their eyes.
The Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession takes place in the Tsuji area in Naha City on January 20 of the lunar calendar (it was on February 27 in 2016 when the original Japanese article was written). The dances accompanied by the Sanshin and Dora as the Juri stop at places of worship within the neighborhood is truly something to behold.
Tsuji was a Hana-Machi (an entertainment district with numerous geisha houses or teahouses) in the past, where leading politicians, important government officials, those from academic backgrounds, and various businessmen from Naha frequented to hold banquets and to entertain guests and associates.
The Juri women honed their skills in cooking, singing, Sanshin, Koto, dance and others to entertain their clients and established their own unique culture in their language, mannerisms, costumes, hairstyles, cuisine, and performance arts.
Today, many people perceive entertainment districts to be impure, but in my opinion, the Juri women of the past played an important role in bridging and handing down the arts and culture to the next generations. Many of these women were separated from their families, sacrificing themselves so that their families could survive, and they worked hard to acquire knowledge and skills in the arts. They established a foundation of today’s Ryukyuan performance arts and nurtured them, and this is something that we can all be proud of. If you get a chance to view the Juri Uma Gyoretsu procession and festival that takes place just once a year, I highly recommend it.
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Ryuukyu.com