Young Okinawa

This is an article I wrote in 2003. It features three young women who are now in their 30s and still very active in Okinawan music. Mika Uchizato became the mother of two children and moved back to her native island Minami Daito. We met again a couple of years ago when she was back in Okinawa to record with English composer and musician Guy Sigsworth and we are still awaiting the results.

Kanako Hatoma continues to sing and perform both solo and with her family band, while Chihiro Kamiya has gone on to have a successful career and made her best album Utaui in 2012. In addition Mayuko Higa, who is also mentioned in the article, went on to become a member of Nenes and is now a solo artist with a debut album released last year.

Young Okinawa

Ry Cooder famously declared about Okinawa in these pages that “the great guys are dead. I do better Okinawan than they do now.” John Potter reckons differently, and sends in the new Okinawan girl power…

“Hi there soldier, where are you based?” I’m not used to being addressed this way. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve been mistaken for one of the American military. I’m an Englishman living in mainland Japan and have just stepped out of the airport at Okinawa’s capital Naha. I’m here for the umpteenth time on the first step of another journey to investigate the wonderful roots music of the Ryukyu Islands. The plane on the two hour flight from Osaka was sprinkled with beefy shaven-headed young men with American accents on their way back from leave, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised if this airport bus driver thinks I’m one of his charges. I name the hotel where I’m to stay, he’s nonplussed for a second, then directs me to the regular taxis.

Okinawa, by far the largest of the beautiful subtropical Ryukyu Islands, is still host to 75% of the US forces in Japan and their bases occupy 20% of the island’s land. In mainland Japan this is conveniently easy to forget but there are continual reminders here. On my way back from a visit to see Nenes the next night the taxi driver is reluctant to pick me up as he wants to make sure I won’t try to pay him in US dollars. The relief is enormous when I tell him in his own language that I’m not American, have been living in Japan for many years, and have a pocketful of yen. As I write, an American serviceman has just been jailed for the rape of a young Okinawan woman and people are still cautious about their largely unwanted guests, after a series of crimes involving rapes, theft and violence that stretch back many years.

Not so long ago Ry Cooder – who collaborated with the original Nenes, and years before that with Shoukichi Kina – grumpily announced in a fRoots interview that all the great Okinawan singers are dead. My own experience has been rather different. And lately has there been a steady stream of new young singers and musicians from the islands which has threatened to become a glut. Many of these seem to be women, and some of them are excellent.

In the past year or so a lot of attention has been given to two young Okinawan women singers – at least in mainland Japan where they have become big names on a par with the pop stars there. 23-year-old Chitose Hajime from the Amami islands, to the north of Okinawa, was the first to stun the nation when she sold a million copies of her debut album. When she was still a teenager I saw her at the Ryukyu Festival, singing with sanshin, and she reappeared there in 2002 to be almost mobbed by an adoring crowd. But her albums now eschew all reference to the sanshin and are instead competent but very much Japanised with session musicians for the mainland audience. Only her typical falsetto Amami singing remains. Even her own appearance has undergone a radical change for her new album, as she has lost weight, her formerly prominent teeth have been altered, and in general she now looks indistinguishable from most other Japanese pop idols. I passed a Chitose Hajime poster in a CD shop the other week and had to look twice to make sure it really was her.

Since the rise of Chitose Hajime the Japanese mainland has adopted and created a second Ryukyu star, this time from the southernmost islands of Yaeyama. Rimi Natsukawa is a few years older than Chitose Hajime but is the new face of Okinawan music for many Japanese. Her cover of a song by the popular trio Begin became a hit single and has now been followed by nationwide television appearances and best-selling albums. However, while Hajime retains her native island singing style, Natsukawa’s recordings are rather bland, her choice of material unadventurous. In short, the Okinawan spirit just doesn’t seem to be there as much as it is with many of her contemporaries.

It’s these other young and more rootsy contemporaries that I’m in search of. At least three of them who impress me much more than Hajime or Natsukawa are now in my range of fire. They are Mika Uchizato (23), Chihiro Kamiya (21), and Kanako Hatoma (20). All three come from musical families, have made singles and debut albums which have gained much critical approval, and are already well-known singers and sanshin players around the islands, if not in mainland Japan.

Of course, it’s difficult to find anyone in the Ryukyu Islands who doesn’t come from a musical family. Every other person I meet seems able to play the sanshin or sing minyo (folk songs) or be related to someone who’s made an album. Not surprising that Okinawa became known historically as ‘The Island of Songs and Dances’ and it really is the last outpost of Japan where the traditional music is still a vital and living thing. Eliza Carthy would love it here.

Mika Uchizato

The first one I track down is Mika Uchizato. As well as her own debut album and a new mini-album, she is the haunting voice on much of Ryukyu Underground’s second album, Mo Ashibi. Getting around Okinawa by public transport is not an easy task especially at night and a taxi fare can mount up. She is singing at a newish minyo-style bar situated in the plush Zanpa Misaki Royal Hotel – a hotel so big that you can see the brightly lit neon sign on its roof as you fly in to Naha airport at night. But the hotel is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in Yomitan, a good hour from Naha by car. To the rescue comes Ryukyu Underground’s Keith Gordon who takes me there in his open top two seater sports car. In the hot Okinawan night I gaze at the stars on the way.

Mika Uchizato sings to her own sanshin accompaniment, occasional taiko (drum) provided by Masao Teruya, and with backing tracks for some songs. Mika is tiny. Just 147 cm (4 ft 8 in) she later tells me, which is, well, short. But what a voice. Slightly husky (which she puts down to cigarette smoking), it’s really powerful and it comes as a surprise that one so small should have such a belting voice. It reminds me a bit of Misako Koja. Later she tells me unprompted that Misako Koja is her favourite woman singer. Her performance is also so happy, energetic and full of life that it simply makes you feel a whole lot better. The audience agree and are soon up and doing the arm-flinging katcharsee dance.

Several of her songs are from her native island of Minami Daito, one of the two isolated Daito islands – known as Minami (South) and Kita (North) – which are a long way to the east of Okinawa in the Pacific Ocean. After the show she answers some of my questions, first about her background. “I live on my own in Okinawa now so I miss my parents and brothers and sisters who live on Minami Daito. The ship takes 14 hours to get there but you can fly there in an hour. The first people who came to Minami Daito to start a new life were from Hachijo island in Tokyo prefecture, so they have some different customs and the music is different too. My own family originally came from Kume island. My grandparents moved to Minami Daito for work and this is why I was born there. The island’s history is very short and it’s just over a hundred years since the first people came there.”

“I speak now with an Okinawan dialect, but it seems that the dialect will disappear in the future. For example, if I didn’t sing minyo I probably wouldn’t speak in the dialect so much. I see a lot of young people who don’t speak it much. I don’t want it to disappear, so I try to use even little words like haisai (hello) and mensore (welcome) as much as possible.”

Mika is also full of life off stage, is very happy to talk, has a down-to-earth manner and a very positive outlook. So how about working with Ryukyu Underground, an American and a Brit who had previously only used samples rather than a ‘real’ vocalist for their modern technological take on Okinawan music. It must have been quite a challenge for her, and Keith Gordon had already told me that she was (like the airport bus driver) somewhat nonplussed at first. With Keith safely out of the way I pop the question.

“I knew Ryukyu Underground before I joined their recording. Keith asked me to sing with them. It was the first experience of this kind for me. I sang minyo but in some ways it was not like minyo. People of my age in Okinawa can find out about minyo through Ryukyu Underground’s music. This is really good. Also, to play with them for me was a very good experience. It was difficult because I usually just sing songs with a sanshin. So the rhythm is different. I thought Keith and Jon Taylor knew more than I do about minyo. They tried very hard to understand the meaning of the lyrics. There was a certain difficulty of having communication in different languages but they both have a passion for Okinawan music and so we could communicate well through music. I was very impressed and moved about their attitude. I want to carry on playing minyo and also I want to play with many different musicians like Ryukyu Underground. I don’t discriminate against any genre. I’m happy to play with any musicians, not just in Japan, but I’m also interested in going abroad and playing with other musicians there. I want people to listen to minyo through my performances.”

And the inevitable query came up of what she thought about the young musicians coming through. ”I think it’s a very good thing that there are many good young musicians coming up. In my case when I was a child the sanshin sound and minyo songs surrounded your life in a very normal daily way. So when I left Minami Daito to go to mainland Japan this was the first time I realized how wonderful Okinawan minyo is. And how important it is. I know a lot of other young musicians from Okinawa who feel the same way because they’ve had the same experience. Any Okinawan musician – it doesn’t matter which genre – they seem to have Okinawan roots of their own and it’s something you can’t forget. I can see those young musicians are actually increasing. Some of them often come back to their traditional roots even if they are playing rock music and they understand better because they are brought up this way.”

“I’m just doing Okinawan music in a simple way. There are always people who have a different taste. Some people like my music and some people might hate it depending on their taste. My idea is that I want to sing my music in a simple way. I don’t want to change like Chitose Hajime and Rimi Natsukawa have, though I respect them too. This new mini-album of mine has a very simple and basic sound in which I tried to remember some of the songs I used to sing when I was a child. I basically don’t want to be like anybody else. My idea is to never forget my roots and to do exactly what I want, which is a simple presentation, always going back to my roots.”

Kanako Hatoma at Bashofu

Later I am whisked back to Naha in the early hours and the next morning I’m off again, this time further south to Ishigaki island, 50 minutes by plane from Okinawa, and the main island of the Yaeyama chain. Tonight is the final of the Tubarama Taikai (contest). Tubarama is the most famous of Yaeyama minyo songs and a singer’s ability to perform it well is one of the benchmarks by which musicians are judged. Entries come in from all over the Ryukyu Islands as well as a few from mainland Japan and there are qualifying rounds. Tonight’s final is held outdoors under a full moon on another hot evening with the large audience sitting on the grass in a park in the small city of Ishigaki. Families are here with picnics and many are sipping beer or the local awamori liquor. There are 23 performances of the same song by 23 different singers. There’s a wide age range among the finalists too with the youngest just 15, the oldest 56.

Just a short walk from the park is Bashofu the minyo ‘live house’ run by Kanako Hatoma’s parents and it’s here where I adjourn after the Tubarama contest. Kanako’s mother Chiyoko is a well-known singer herself who is appearing at the Ryukyu Festival this year but her daughter has already released a single and album since being discovered by Okinawan singer, producer and songwriter Sadao China. The bubbly, ever-cheerful Kanako is now at university and her recording career seems to be on hold for the moment though she still does regular live performances. Tonight she gets on stage to sing alone, and with her parents, and to do a duet – of the song Tubarama of course – together with another remarkable talent, the 14 year old Mayuko Higa. I asked Kanako first about the Tubarama contest.

“I went to the Tubarama Taikai when I was 15 and I won the Shoreisho (Encouragement Award).  Often the youngest singer gets it to give them encouragement for the future. The listeners are interested in minyo very much, so they find each performance different – but of course I understand that your English readers might find it odd to hear the same song again and again! But I never get fed up with it. I’m very interested in the really young ones and I always wonder how they’re going to sing. A lot of young people are coming through because there’s always a qualifying round and many of them don’t get as far as the final. I went to the qualifying round in Ishigaki and the youngest singer was eight years old. Tubarama is a difficult song to sing and especially so for children. Sometimes they just sing the way their teacher tells them, but Mayuko Higa was always different. She just listens and then sings in her own way.”

How about the new young Okinawan singers in general? “I don’t think the great singers are dead at all. There are always great singers. It just goes on from one generation to the next in Okinawan music. Nowadays many people use Western electric instruments. That doesn’t mean the tradition has ended, it’s just a new development. A lot of young singers have come through in the same natural way. Going back in history it was forbidden for young people to play sanshin because they had to work. Things have changed now and people understand that playing sanshin and singing minyo is an important cultural thing and so older people know better about letting the young play minyo. I think it’s a good thing that someone like Rimi Natsukawa discovered Okinawan music and that’s fine, but I’m not sure she can do it well. I joined her two albums to do hayashi (backing vocals) but I had to change my own singing to fit in with her. I’m not so happy if everybody listens to her songs and thinks this is the real Okinawan music but I understand that this is one way to spread Okinawan music in Japan.”

And how about Kanako’s own music in the future. With still more than a year to go at university what does she think is next for her. “I don’t know about my next CD because I’m just concentrating on the university at the moment and I haven’t sung so much. Probably when I make another album it will be produced by Sadao China again because I like him. I haven’t decided yet about the long-term future. I’m studying history and I want to get a teacher’s diploma to teach on a small Yaeyama island or maybe I’ll become a professional singer. I live in Tokyo now during the university term and I’m having a good time but I can’t avoid thinking about the difference in the air and the colour of the sky. Definitely Okinawa is the place you want to be.”

Chihiro & Mika

A week or two later, at the annual Ryukyu Festival in Osaka, I finally manage to catch up with the third of these young women, Chihiro Kamiya, backstage after her performance. Chihiro’s uncle is a minyo singer and her cousin has already recorded and is well-known in Japan. Chihiro herself has been singing since she was three and is an accomplished sanshin player.  She has appeared several times on television, and has just made her debut album Miyarabi Shimauta. This is a strong set of Okinawan flavoured songs in which she is backed by an electric band including much in demand young multi-instrumentalist Toru Yonaha. Today was a completely different kind of performance with just simple sanshin accompaniment and she was joined on stage by Mika Uchizato to sing as a duo, something they have recently done in Okinawa too. (Kanako Hatoma is also at the festival today as a surprise guest, dashing past us to go on stage as I begin talking with Chihiro).

“My family traditionally were all minyo singers. We come from Tsuken (a small island off Okinawa) and my family runs a minshuku (guesthouse) there with a little stage, so I’ve been singing since I was three. When I was at high school I was sometimes a bit embarrassed to do minyo. So I formed a band there to do pop and rock music and I was the vocalist.”

“The album was not just my idea. The musicians and everyone involved all decided together. It has a traditional Okinawan base but we decided to use many different instruments and to sing some songs in Japanese to appeal to Japanese people and the younger generation too. I wanted it to be popular. It’s very difficult, even for me, to understand lyrics in Uchinaguchi (Okinawan) because nowadays young people don’t speak it much. So it’s not so natural for me but I read the lyrics and asked my parents about the meaning to get it into my mind. My uncle and cousin heard the new album and knew that it wasn’t exactly traditional but they think it’s good that now I do a lot of performances and they understand that I can do both styles of music.”

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been doing this kind of work. There are quite a few young people doing this but there are not many people who can be like me and go on a stage, for example at today’s Ryukyu Festival. I’m very lucky to be in that position so I want to carry on doing it. It’s a special thing. My friends generally are very supportive and they come to see my concerts and give my performances a very warm reception. But at first they were surprised, because I hadn’t told them much about my singing minyo ever since I was a small child.”

I wondered how she got together to sing with Mika Uchizato. “Mika Uchizato and I have both been playing minyo since we were children. Sometimes we were on the same stage at minyo contests but we never really talked to each other. Then last April we met and talked for the first time at a photo session for a CD jacket. At that time we realised that we came from quite similar minyo backgrounds. Then we started singing together. Not many people have such a similar background as us. Singing on my own is good but it’s also fun to sing together with Mika. I sometimes feel it’s a very motivating thing and that I want to sing well with her. It’s fun and I enjoy it.”

As far as these young women and their music are concerned, Okinawa is still very definitely the place to be.

Thanks to Mika, Kanako and Chihiro for their time, Keith Gordon for driving me around, and Midori Potter for help with translations.

(fRoots Magazine, Nos.247/248, January/February 2004)

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