Songs from the Edge of Japan

Last month I met Matt Gillan for the first time. He is the author of a new book, Songs from the Edge of Japan: Music-making in Yaeyama and Okinawa which has recently been published by Ashgate as part of the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) Musicology Series. Matt is originally from the UK and he currently lectures in music at International Christian University in Tokyo. I was very pleased to meet him when he found time to visit my home in Okinawa on one of his research trips and we were able to spend some time chatting about many Okinawan music-related things.

Matt’s book is largely the result of fieldwork he carried out while living on the island of Ishigaki and its focus is on the songs and music of the Yaeyama Islands. He explores music in rituals; there is a chapter on lineages and preservation groups; and another on the annual Tubarama contest held on Ishigaki. Some of the Yaeyama musicians also covered in The Power of Okinawa are touched on in his final chapter ‘The Okinawa Boom – Local Music on the National Stage’ and these include Begin, Tetsuhiro Daiku, Yasukatsu Oshima and Yukito Ara.

This book is a work of scholarly research but also very readable. Matt Gillan is a musician himself and took part in several of the events he describes as a participant observer. In fact, it seems that he was so much in demand as a singer and sanshin player of traditional songs that he was in danger of becoming more of a participant than an observer.

The photo on the book’s cover is of the Miruku deity at the Harvest festival on Hatoma Island in 2002. Those with sharp eyes may also notice singers Kanako Hatoma and her father Takashi Hatoma in the background.

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7 Comments on “Songs from the Edge of Japan”

  1. toranosuke Says:

    Thanks for sharing about this. I’ve grown more interested in the music of the Yaeyamas lately, as I have not only started practicing hands-on Okinawan koten ongaku sanshin, and Okinawan dance, but have also heard several fascinating lectures recently from scholars researching dance traditions on Taketomi and Tarama Islands. I have only been to Okinawa once, and very briefly, visiting only Naha & Shuri, but my interest is (re)kindled now to want to see festivals & the associated performances on Taketomi, Tarama, and elsewhere. Looking forward to getting my hands on this book – hopefully it’s pretty accessible for someone who’s not a music scholar…


    • What you’re doing sounds very interesting. Tarama is one of the islands I haven’t visited yet but I hope to get there sometime. Good luck with everything!

      • toranosuke Says:

        Well, I’m not sure it’s anything I’m doing, so much as just talks I’ve gotten to hear about other people’s interesting and exciting research, but thanks! I’m hoping to be able to continue practicing sanshin and dance once I leave Hawaii and return to the US mainland, but we shall see… it may be difficult to find teachers. がんばりますけどね!

  2. dave Says:

    I edit a journal (based in Nagoya) and I will try and get hold of the book from Ashgate–recently we have reviewed a number of books on ethnomusicology in Asia in the SOAS/Ashgate series, and this one looks great, plus I have a personal interest in Okinawa, hence I read your blog….


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