Japan Times review

This review of The Power of Okinawa is by Kris Kosaka of The Japan Times newspaper and is reproduced here with permission. An edited version of the review will appear in The Japan Times next Sunday, 3rd October.

THE POWER OF OKINAWA: Roots Music from the Ryukyus (2nd edition), by John Potter, Ryuei Kikaku, 2010, 255 pp. 2,000 yen (plus tax).

Reviewed by Kris Kosaka

A breeze wafts by near the sea shores on the mainland of Japan, and in the gently fading summer heat, you can almost hear the strains of the sanshin, the far island’s traditional instrument. With the recent controversy over Futenma, most of Japan once again turns its gaze towards Okinawa and the rest of the former Ryukyu Kingdom of islands.

It is a complicated issue, and many in Japan harbor various misconceptions about Okinawa, including the origins of the sanshin. Take a bit of summer reading with you into autumn, and debunk the myths of Okinawa through its music: pick up The Power of Okinawa by John Potter.

Although primarily a chronicle of the roots music from the Ryukyu Kingdom, the first third of the book provides fascinating background to Okinawa, required reading for anyone confused about the islands and its peoples. You learn the origins of the sanshin (not an off-shoot of the Japanese shamisen, as many believe, but evolved from the original Chinese instrument, the sanxian, which the Chinese brought to the Ryukyu Kingdom as early as the 15th century), the many cultural influences active in the Ryukyu Islands (China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, America – to name a few) and why Okinawa has justification to ask for independence from Japan. (Caught for centuries between the larger powers that surround them geographically, The Ryukyu Kingdom maintained its independence all the way until 1879, when Japan forcibly invaded). In a straightforward, conversational tone, Potter explains the cultural and historical heritage of this island chain, with many anecdotal asides that make for enjoyable reading.

Potter does not back down from the controversy. There is an entire chapter devoted to Shoukichi Kina, musical activist and prominent Okinawan politician. From his early success with “Haisai Ojisan”, to his rebellious years and time in an Hawaiian jail to his musical success with Champloose and move into activism, Kina’s story itself pairs well with sun, water, and your own growing awareness of the myriad of influences at work in the Ryukyu Islands.

The book ends by detailing the international artists influenced by the ‘Okinawan Sound’, and by describing the foreign artists who have made the Ryukyu Islands their adopted home. Potter includes interviews and comments from a wide-range of musicians, and one finishes feeling the beat of an entire world within Japan – previously mostly unknown or misunderstood as a vacation paradise or centre for American/ Japanese tensions. As Potter explains, “The everyday existence of Okinawan music still pervades the lives of Okinawans in a way almost unthinkable in the rest of Japan. Stories of taxi drivers in Okinawa carrying a sanshin in the back of the cab are by no means fanciful. And on the mainland, the many Okinawans living in Osaka defend their culture fiercely.”

The reference at the end includes recommended CDs and websites to satisfy your burgeoning taste for Okinawan music, books for extended reading, and even live venues in the Ryukyu Islands to consult when planning your next trip.

As The Power of Okinawa teaches, “by the end of the seventh century, the Chinese had been searching for several hundred years for the supreme secret – the secret of everlasting life. They believed that somewhere out there in the Eastern Seas was a Land of Happy Immortals…in the year 608, the Chinese finally reached a land which they believed was the place they had been searching for.” Potter surmises the mystical island was Okinawa or the islands just to the north of it. Modern research supports the longevity of the Ryukyu peoples, and perhaps these relaxed peoples, eager to lend a song or friendship, once convinced visiting Chinese envoys they had discovered immortality. You can taste a bit of it yourself, along with a cold one at the shore, by dipping into their music in the waning heat of summer.

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8 Comments on “Japan Times review”

  1. tn Says:

    Great review! I think the book is really fascinating and having this blog as an extension of the book is great. Always a pleasure.

  2. Keith Says:

    Nice review. Well done, John!

  3. Cecilia SMITH Says:

    Is there any plan to reprint? Even as an e-book? I have a student from Okinawa who wants to research Okinawan music. The book is hard to get hold of.

    • I’m sorry but there are no plans to reprint the book in any way. It should still be available at the Washita shops in mainland Japan and at other bookstores in Okinawa. It’s also on sale by mail order from Far Side Music in the UK. If your student can’t find a copy then please ask her/him to contact me directly and I may be able to help.

  4. Cecilia Says:


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