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The Chance to See the Same Dance Comes Only Once Every Eight Years!? Ie Island’s Mura Odori (Village Dance) Has Been Passed Down the Generations from Before the War
post : 2020.10.11 23:00
In the islands of Okinawa, there still remains unique, local cultures that many of us are still unfamiliar with. These include the language of Shima Kutuba (dialects of the Ryukyuan language), Kumiodori classical song and dance performances, Ryukyu Budo dances, and many others.
Located just 30 minutes away by ferry from Motobu Town in the northern region of Okinawa Island, is Ie Island. Here, the locals hold a very unique event every year to pass on the culture of Mura Odori, or village dance. Called Ie-son Minzoku Geino Happyokai, or Ie Village Folk Performance Recital, the event is hosted by the village and held annually in November.
The event is locally known as Aza Maru (pronounced mah-ru), where eight of the Ie Village’s administrative districts (called Aza in Okinawa) take turns every year to present their performances.
Since only one district takes charge of the year’s Aza Maru, after their performance for the year is finished, their next performance comes around eight years later. The order of the district are: Higashimae → Kawahira → Higashiue → Nishieue → Ara → Nishiemae → Maja → Nishizaki.
This annual event began in 1980, and the performance by the Nishizaki District in November 2019, marked a full five rounds of the eight districts.
When people talk about Odori or dance in Okinawa, there are those who take classes to learn Ryukyu Buyo, or classical Ryukyuan dance. This tends to clearly separate those who can and can’t dance. However, this isn’t important in Ie Village. Performers of the recitals include all the locals, and they could be cattle herders, farmers who grow chrysanthemums or shallots, employees at the village office, construction workers, and any and all young residents who live in the districts can participate. All of the participants gather at their local community center after work, and for about half of the year, they practice hard until late in the evening.
On the day of the recital, residents young and old from across the village gather to enjoy the performances. Since the elder folks with more experience in dancing, warmly poke at the performers, saying, “That movement there, is more like this”, or “The hand movement is slightly off”. And so, the young performers are slightly nervous when they make their appearance on stage.
To learn more about the Aza Maru, I talked with Kamekichi Uchima, who was involved in starting the Ie Village folk performance preservation society, and who is currently its director. The preservation society was established 1973 with the aim of passing the culture of Ie Village’s Mura Odori to the next generations, and the organization led the way to launch the annual Aza Maru event.
“During World War II, one out of every two Ie Island’s residents perished. After the war, the survivors were detained as prisoners of war, held in places like Tokashiki Island, Zamami Island, and the former Kushi Village (now Kushi, Nago City). They couldn’t return to their home island of Ie for two years, and times were so tough that it was difficult for them to even find food. Even in such times, the people of Ie Village danced the Mura Odori to give them strength and hope.”
“I grew up hearing these experiences and, even as a young child, I understood how much the people cherished the Mura Odori that was passed down the generations on Ie Island. I was determined to continue this legacy and so I got involved in starting the Aza Maru.”
In the Aza Maru recitals, the dances performed are unique to each of the districts. Even if the songs may be the same, the dance movements differ by district.
This is influenced by the divide or faction among the residents on the east and west sides of the island during that time. It wasn’t simply an issue of not getting along, but more complex than that, perhaps based on pride and sense of rivalry stemming from the deep love of of their own communities. This created an unspoken agreement that the eastern residents were not to dance the dances of the western communities, and vice versa.
Today, we can still see the differences in the dances by each of the districts, in the movement of the feet, the position of the hands, and how they carry their bodies. Even the Montsuki or the crested kimonos that the performers wear, and how the performers tie their Obi sashes are different.
With such an interesting backdrop of history, the Mura Odori of Ie Village was nationally designated as an Important Intangible Folk Culture Asset in 1998.
“We still face issues in the declining number of dancers and Jikata (musical performers like singer/sanshin players, taiko drummers, and others). We will likely be able to keep the number of dancers since we have a deeply rooted custom of dance performances in celebratory events, but Jikata, on the other hand, are more difficult to keep up. Just because a person can play sanshin doesn’t necessarily mean they can sing, because folk and classical music are very different things. I worry that we will have fewer people who will be able to perform classical music. I think it’s important for everyone in the village to come together as one, to pass on our heritage.”
Aza Maru for 2020 will be taking a break because every ten years, the people hold their performance in Yokohama. The sixth round of the Aza Maru will begin next year, in 2021.
In Okinawa, you’ll find music that you’ll only hear on that one specific island, and there are dances that have been passed down the generations of residents on that island. Aza Maru on Ie Island is open for all non-residents, so if you get a chance, treat yourself to a rare show that’s performed only once every eight years.
Ie Village Folk Performing Arts Recital
Address: 75 Higashieue, Ie Village, Kunigami, Okinawa
Ie Village Rural Environment Improvement Center (Ie-son Noson Kankyo Kaizen Center)
Telephone: 0980-49-2334 (Ie Village Board of Education)
Photos & Article by Ai Matsuda, Edited by Aya Asakura