Archive for the ‘Notes from the Ryukyus’ category

The Fragility of Life

September 13, 2021

Okinawa is still in a so-called ‘state of emergency’ because of the pandemic. Despite this, the beach near my home is more crowded than ever with weekend visitors, swimmers, snorkelers, and surfers. Few seem to take much notice of the crisis. But last week all this was overshadowed for me by news of how fragile life can be when I learned of the very sudden and unexpected death of my friend and neighbour Nao Nishimata. 

About ten years ago I was contacted for the first time by Nao. She had heard of my interest in Okinawan music and got in touch to introduce herself. It turned out that not only did she live close by, but she was living in the very same street just a few seconds walk from my home. 

Shortly afterwards, Nao introduced me to the Okinawan-Peruvian singer Lucy Nagamine and the two of them came to my house armed with sanshin, guitar and sanba to perform a live set in my own living room. Nao was a great organiser and as well as playing guitar for Lucy she was important in promoting her career in Okinawa. I once asked if she was Lucy’s manager, but she always insisted on describing herself simply as a ‘supporter’.

Nao (left) and Lucy at my home, February 2011

She arranged for me to interview Lucy that year for the UK’s fRoots magazine (now in the Features Archive of this blog). And in August of that year, she invited my family to a beach party in Nanjo where a photo session took place for the release of a new Lucy album. We are all there, captured on the CD inlay photo, dancing on the beach. Later that evening she and Lucy played at our local festival.

Three years ago, when Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa for the Basque Ryukyu Project, Nao came to my aid again with ideas for venues for him to play, and she invited Mikel to be the guest on Ichariba Amigos! the weekly radio show she hosted so expertly. After playing music together on the show, she and Lucy then spent the rest of the day with him introducing him to all things Okinawan.

In her unobtrusive way Nao was also part of many other activities involving Okinawan music and the performing arts and she had connections everywhere. This was brought home to me at her funeral ceremony last week attended by so many people, some coming from mainland Japan. Apart from all this, she was the finest neighbour it’s possible to have. She is already greatly missed.

But the sadness of last week doesn’t end there as just three days after Nao’s passing came the news that English singer-guitarist-composer Michael Chapman had died at his home at the age of 80. Michael had been one of my teenage heroes ever since I first saw and met him at the Jacquard Folk Club in Norwich back in the 1960s. I’ll repeat (from a previous blog post) how this came about on the evening I went to see the Incredible String Band:

“… a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever.”

Michael Chapman

That London meeting – in 1995 – was the last time I saw him in person. We talked during the break, he remembered me from the folk club days, and he was curious about why I was living in Kobe at the time. The city had just been struck by a major earthquake. He gave me a copy of his novel Firewater Dreams which he signed and inscribed “To John after all these years”.

He had just made the album Navigation which was a huge return to form. Much more was to follow and in his last years he made two of his best albums 50 recorded in America and True North (both reviewed on this blog) and was discovered by a new younger audience. We stayed in touch for a while after that last meeting and I tried unsuccessfully to arrange some dates in Japan for him in the 90s which is something I always regret not being able to do.

Michael Chapman was never a big star, but he was uncompromising in his musical honesty and integrity, and he managed to create and sustain a living as a professional musician for more than half a century. His unique guitar style draws on elements of blues and jazz as much as it does on the folk tag that was often erroneously given to him. He leaves behind a large body of recorded work – I’m listening again to some of it now – and there won’t be another like him. I just wish we could have met again.

Forever Chemicals & Okinawan Spirit

August 18, 2021

“A situation is arising in which people from outside the islands, such as yourself, can inspire Okinawans to understand their own culture and identity.” These words were spoken to me by iconic Okinawan singer and activist Shoukichi Kina several years ago during an interview included in The Power of Okinawa book. (Well, he said it in Japanese, and this is the English translation).

We were talking about independence for the Ryukyu Islands and how the younger generation of Okinawans were too influenced by Japan nowadays to give much thought to such matters. Years later not a great deal has changed regarding independence which is still not a vital issue in most people’s minds. Equally though, not much has changed (or is ever likely to) while the islands remain under the colonial rule of Japan, with the use and misuse of large swathes of stolen land by US occupation forces and their military bases.

Accidents and incidents, crimes, and environmental degradation, all continue with the tacit approval of a Japanese government that has no intention of doing anything to seriously relieve Okinawans of their burden, let alone grant more autonomy. Prime Minister Suga follows the same path trodden by his predecessor Abe and is only remarkable for his self-professed ignorance of Okinawan history, his disregard and lack of empathy for the sufferings of the Ryukyu people then and now.

Kina surprised me a bit by his optimism and belief that change – or at least more awareness – could come from the outside. This might come from non-Okinawan ‘allies’ interested and concerned about these islands, and equally from those in the large Okinawan diaspora who have family roots back in the Ryukyus. 

Maybe Kina had a point. Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell is one ‘outsider’ who has worked tirelessly on Okinawan issues. His book Poisoning the Pacific was a thoroughly researched, eye-opening record of the US military’s secret dumping of chemical weapons. He has also co-directed a 24-minute video report with an Okinawan TV station which is essential viewing. (The video now has English subtitles). Forever Chemicals is a shocking look into how the US military contaminated the water for 450,000 Okinawans:

Watching the video (as I hope you will too), it was most disappointing to see the indignation of local people met with such apparent indifference from their own government officials all too keen to avoid making a fuss or fighting for their rights.

The American-Uchinanchu activist Byron Fija has written of Okinawans being the victims of Stockholm syndrome, unwilling to free themselves from attachment to their Japanese and American oppressors and even sympathising with them. This term came to mind again when I read the short story ‘Gubeikou Spirit’ by Te-Ping Chen from her book Land of Big Numbers published earlier this year.

In the story a group of passengers are delayed on the Gubeikou station platform by a late train. They are told to stay in the station until the problem is fixed. However, the delay goes on for hours, then days, then weeks. Food, drinks, and other supplies are delivered to them by station employees. They are even given t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Gubeikou Spirit’ and praised for their patience and resilience. Gradually the stranded passengers come to accept their predicament, and they begin to prefer it to life outside. It’s an allegory that could well have been written about Okinawa.

The logo for the Ichariba Choodee podcast

But to return to those engaged in discussions about the Ryukyus, there is an entertaining and informative new monthly podcast named Ichariba Choodee. Subtitled ‘Okinawan Voices and Stories’ its purpose is to explore various topics, from identity to language revitalisation. Episodes feature guest speakers who are usually involved in a specific subject connected to Okinawa. In the latest episode there is a discussion of hajichi, the traditional tattooing that was eventually banned after Japan took control of the islands. A second part on this topic is coming soon.  

The hosts are Mariko Middleton, Erica Kunihasa, and Tori Toguchi who are all based in the USA but with Uchinanchu family roots in Okinawa. What is so engaging about the discussions up to now is that the three bring such a lightness of touch to the proceedings as they chat freely about their own heritage.

They are concerned, in their own words, with “celebrating and preserving our culture, connecting the diaspora, and both proudly and humbly educating and learning along the way”. The title of their podcast, available in all the usual places (website link below), is the Ryukyu saying sometimes translated as: ‘When we meet, we become brothers, sisters, family’.

There are others outside the islands who have done important work recently in drawing attention, in their own different ways, to Okinawa and its issues through their writing. Among them are the authors Akemi Johnson (Night in the American Village) and Elizabeth Miki Brina (Speak, Okinawa) whose books have already been discussed elsewhere on this blog. 

Shoukichi Kina has always been fond of talking about the need for great ‘Okinawan spirit’. It’s become almost his mantra. Perhaps his idea that those outside the islands can help inspire Okinawans to a greater understanding of their own spirit, culture, identity, and indeed rights, will come true after all. I hope so.

https://www.shimanchupodcast.com/

More Notes on Nenes

July 24, 2021

It’s almost two years since I wrote the first ‘Notes on Nenes’ for this blog. It’s still there so you can look it up. At that time, my interest in the original Nenes quartet had been rekindled by a meeting with Henry Johnson who was visiting Okinawa from New Zealand where he is Professor in the Department of Music at Otago University.

I’ve only met Henry a few times when he has been let loose on one of his research trips to these islands, but – apart from us being fellow exiled Brits – we always have plenty to talk about and he’s obviously a very fine chap. He is the music expert while I’m just the music enthusiast, so it’s always good to learn more by asking him lots of theoretical questions.

His further planned visits to Okinawa have had to be curtailed owing to the dreaded pandemic so I don’t know when we’ll see each other again. However, on our last meeting he talked of a book he was working on about the Nenes phenomenon. This year the book sees the light of day as part of the Bloomsbury Publishing series of short books on popular music albums.

The Nenes book is published under Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Japan series. These are in-depth examinations of Japanese albums of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (so Okinawa is shoehorned in). Among the titles already published are studies of albums by Perfume and Shonen Knife.

At under 200 pages, the new book is titled Nenes’ Koza Dabasa and subtitled ‘Okinawa in the World Music Market’. As its name suggests it is focused on an analysis of Koza Dabasa the fourth album by Nenes released in 1994. The album received critical acclaim (not least from me) and is widely regarded as their best with contributions from several American musicians including Ry Cooder and David Hidalgo.

This is much more than just a study of the album. What the book also does is to place Okinawan music in relation to Japan and the world. An early chapter on ‘Uchina Pop and Chanpuru Culture’ explains much of the background to the music of these islands. This is followed by a chapter on the members of Nenes and their related personnel such as mentor Sadao China, arranger Kazuya Sahara, and the guest musicians they have worked with.

Another chapter on ‘Island Culture’ discusses the concepts of shima, hometown, and shima-uta, with a detailed look at their recording of the traditional song ‘Kurushima Kuduchi’. Later, there is another close analysis, this time of an original song, ‘Amerika-dori’. This forms part of the chapter ‘War and Peace’, where there is a discussion of history and the relative lack of focus on war and military base issues in much of the Nenes repertoire. Generally, their song lyrics prefer to celebrate the positive aspects of island life. ‘Amerika-dori’, for instance, is a joyful song about the mix of people and cultures in Koza and it steers clear of both the conflict between Okinawa and its military occupiers America and colonial oppressors Japan. It is suggested, however, that it’s possible to read the song in a slightly different way if you scratch beneath the surface.

Koza Dabasa was, of course, a product of the original Nenes line-up, but the book doesn’t shy away from addressing the fact that the group has continually changed its members since that time and has evolved into a kind of music franchise under the direction of Sadao China. His energy is now mostly channelled into promoting live performances at their home venue in Naha where they cater mainly to audiences of tourists.

The appendices to the book gather details of all the recordings and include a run down on members of the ever-changing Nenes line-ups. I also learned some interesting nuggets of peripheral information along the way. I had no idea that Japanese band Shang Shang Typhoon had guested on Cyndi Lauper’s 1986 album Sisters of Avalon – an album I’ve listened to many times. I was also initially surprised that Four Sisters had toured overseas – until I saw the reference to this was from my own book The Power of Okinawa. Thanks for the reminder.

Nenes’ Koza Dabasa is well-written in a readable and clear style. For such a relatively slim volume it covers just about everything you need to know. It may be primarily an academic book, but it will be of great interest to any general reader, myself included, who is an Okinawan music enthusiast. It will be especially valuable to those who would like to know more of the story behind Nenes.

That story continues up to the present day and since the completion of Nenes’ Koza Dabasa there has been yet another new Nenes album release. (Or rather Nenez, as the romanisation of their newest incarnation now appears). The album was released last month and is titled Gajumaru. It is being promoted as music to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Nenes album.

Much like one of its recent predecessors Reborn, the Gajumaru album contains re-recordings of 14 songs from previous albums. Whereas Reborn was a reworking of some of the classic Nenes songs of old, the new release contains what is described as recordings of songs ‘carefully selected’ by Sadao China from four albums by the post-original line-ups: Chura Uta (2002), Shu (2004), Sai (2008), and Okurimono (2010).

The cover image is created in the same style and in similar red colours to the Nenes debut album Ikawu (1991). This would seem to be one for completists only though it may well satisfy tourists and some uncritical Okinawans. For the rest of us, it’s perhaps better to read Henry Johnson’s book and give ourselves a treat by listening again to Koza Dabasa when the original Nenes were at their very best.

Irei no Hi 2021

June 24, 2021

23rd June is a public holiday in the Ryukyus. This is Irei no Hi, the day when all those who died in the Battle of Okinawa are remembered. The total number of dead is currently 241,632.  Yesterday was the 76th anniversary and there were ceremonies throughout the islands.

The main ceremony was held as usual at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park near my home in Itoman. In recent years there has been very sunny weather but this time the rainy season lingers on, and the televised ceremony took place in wet conditions. The pandemic also shows little sign of abating and with Okinawa still in a state of emergency, the event was drastically scaled down with only around 30 invited guests.

The 2021 ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo)

Fortunately, this meant there was no appearance from Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who must have been relieved not to face the Okinawan public again. Instead, he sent a video message. His face appeared on a large screen, and he talked of the wounds of the Okinawan people and the need to ease their base burden. It was an emotionless speech of hypocrisy and insincerity from someone who has claimed not to know about the history of Okinawa, or want to talk about it, because he was born after the war.

Much more impressive was the peace poem recited (also partly sung) by Miharu Uehara, aged 13, from Miyako Island. Her poem ‘Mirukuyu no Uta’ (Songs of Peacetime) was chosen from 1,500 entries from schoolchildren around the islands.  

It’s sadly ironic that while people gathered here to remember the dead, just up the road on the Itoman coast the digging continues. This is where remains of the war dead are almost certainly mixed in the earth used as landfill for the unwanted new American base at Henoko. Even Okinawa’s governor Denny Tamaki seems unwilling, or else unable, to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, news this week reported on the continuing danger of many unexploded US shells from the Battle of Okinawa.

While Irei no Hi is a public holiday here, it is just another day in mainland Japan. In a survey conducted this month, and just published in the Okinawa Times newspaper, it was reported that 75.5% of Japanese had never even heard of Irei no Hi. This underlines just how far from justice and fair treatment Okinawa remains, with a large part of its main island still occupied by US bases, and the ‘prefecture’ a colony of Japan.

Speak, Okinawa

May 7, 2021

The English Football League Championship has just been won by the club I support. This means next season Norwich City will play in the Premier League. Naturally, I felt like shouting this news from the rooftops last Saturday night. But that would have upset my neighbours in Okinawa who have never heard of my team anyway.

Instead, I should have gone on social media to post, tweet, like, share, and emote all about it. However, while Norwich were being crowned champions, they and all other football clubs in England were boycotting social media platforms in a three-day protest about the abuse (racial and otherwise) footballers have suffered. This online abuse has gone unpunished by the social media companies. I supported the boycott so had to hold back my online celebrations.

A boycott alone won’t solve anything, but it is a gesture worth making. Despite its darker side, social media is frequently used as a power for good. Not least as a valuable source to enable people with similar interests to share ideas and information, to keep in touch, make useful contacts, and to promote campaigns for positive change.

I was reminded of this when reading the new book Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina. I had missed this memoir when it came out earlier this year but was then alerted to its existence by the author Akemi Johnson, who I follow, when she tweeted the link to her Washington Post review of Brina’s book.

Akemi Johnson has been mentioned here before. Her own book Night in the American Village (2019) is an enlightening account of the lives of women in relation to American bases on Okinawa. The new book by Elizabeth Miki Brina is also strongly connected with Okinawa but hers is a memoir and in some ways, it reminded me of Kyoko Mori’s The Dream of Water (1995) especially in its narrator’s search for an understanding of family, roots, culture, and heritage.

Brina’s parents met in a nightclub in Okinawa, her mother a local waitress, and her father a white American soldier from a wealthy family. Elizabeth was brought up mostly in America where she was embarrassed by her mother’s accent and Okinawan background. Siding with her father she writes of pushing her mother away and then, after years of rebellion and self-destruction, to the gradual realisation of Okinawa’s tragic history, and eventually towards a reconciliation of sorts with her mother.

The memoir is written in a series of short chapters with the cumulative effect of telling both the story of her life up to now, her relationship with her parents, and her time growing up as an Asian-American.

It does two important things. First, it tells the story of the tortured relationship with her mother that leads to the beginnings of a reconciliation and to an apology. This part of the book is at times heartrending. There are no epiphanies because the turning point is always much more gradual and imperceptible. But the book also does much more than this.  

Its second important achievement – also heartrending – is to tell in short, simple, straightforward prose, the history of Okinawa. These chapters are written in bite-sized pieces covering the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom and up to the present and the ongoing protests over the base construction at Henoko. Being told from the point of view of island people living through these times creates a sense of immediacy and realism that is quite remarkable.

In fact, this is a remarkable and moving book. There are a couple of very tiny mistakes with Japanese words and, not surprisingly, I found the description of the sanshin as a ‘sanshin guitar’ grating. (Nitpicking is a bad habit of mine, or so I’ve been told). But Speak, Okinawa also moved me to tears and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And to get back to where I started. The online abuse of footballers in England is bad enough. But what we are seeing now with Asian hate, not just in America but elsewhere in the world, is utterly despicable. Elizabeth Miki Brina’s book is infused with the sense of her being uncomfortably perceived by others as an Asian not wholly belonging to America. It shows the effects of colonialism and racism and offers ideas of how to fight back.

Closer to home, the ongoing abuse of Okinawa itself by Japan and America is something the outside world needs to know about.

Thoughts in the Park

March 10, 2021

I like walking in Heiwasozo no Mori Koen near my home on the south coast of Okinawa. I go there regularly and it’s also a great place to have lunch out in the open. The spacious park is on a hillside that slopes down to the ocean at the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea. On weekdays there are few visitors and I sometimes have the entire place to myself. 

Now things are changing. The park itself is the same, thankfully, but a large adjacent area has been taken over by a mining company and is being dug up. As can be seen in these photos taken from the park yesterday, it has become a blot on the otherwise beautiful landscape. On my visit yesterday the noise from dump trucks, and diggers moving rocks and earth, reverberated around the park and was incessant and unrelenting.

This, of course, is an area where there are many memorials and peace monuments to the tens of thousands who suffered unspeakable horrors and terrible deaths here in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It’s seen now as a sacred place by Okinawans, where families of war victims visit to pray. Close to the park is one of the most important monuments, Konpaku no To, built by the people to honour all lives lost at this spot which was littered with bones and human remains. 

The reason for all the digging nearby is only too well-known in Okinawa but is still a matter of little consequence in Japan and elsewhere. Its purpose is to gather earth for the landfill at the proposed new US military base much further north on the island at Henoko. The rocks, earth and soil will be dumped in the ocean at Oura Bay as a lot more landfill is needed than was at first thought. Long before this, there has been great concern at the damage to the coral reefs, and rare marine creatures of Oura Bay such as the dugong.

Inevitably, the work to provide landfill from Itoman involves digging up the bones of many who died here and whose remains are now mixed in with the soil. There have been many protests and a movement to stop this desecration. These include a weeklong hunger strike earlier this month by activist Takamatsu Gushiken whose volunteer group Gamafuya has been working to uncover and identify the bones of the dead and return them to their families.

But the US war machine rolls on – aided and abetted by Japan and its government who have always shown nothing but ill-disguised disdain for the plight of its colony Okinawa. And it’s all very well talking of the need for better treatment and more autonomy. This looks more than ever like a pipe dream while the Ryukyu Islands remain dependent on Japan. 

Meanwhile, the awful irony is that the war dead are now contributing to the construction of yet another unwanted military base on Okinawa. Even after all this time their bones still have no place to rest. They are, in effect, being killed twice, and #dontkilltwice is already widespread on social media campaigns and discussions around the issue.

Much respect is due to those such as Takamatsu Gushiken who never gives up, and to the persistence of peace activists in Okinawa who never forget the lessons of war. Also, to those of the Okinawa diaspora who are helping to bring this matter to the attention of the outside world.   

Roots Album Round-up 2020

December 9, 2020

It’s that time of the year to look back and reflect on the albums that reached me in 2020. Despite the pandemic, new roots music kept on coming and there were several new Okinawan albums to review.

This year, songs from Yonaguni were unusually well represented with new recordings by Ayame Band’s Takao Nagama and a debut album from Yuu Yonaha. There was also the arrival of a welcome second release from Okinawa Americana.

But – and just for fun – these were the Power of Okinawa’s top three joint best albums (together with little quotes from my reviews):

VARIOUS ARTISTS   Okinawa Yuumoasongu Ketteiban (Respect) Nine singers share a double album focusing on the humorous side of Okinawa. “The album is packed with fine songs, and the vocals, sanshin, and general musicianship are exemplary throughout.”

MUTSUMI ARAGAKI   Another World of Okinawan Music (Niinuhai) An adventurous, experimental album from the sanshin virtuoso. It also came with a DVD.  “…essential listening for anyone interested in what is going on now in Okinawan music and in the exciting new directions in which Aragaki is taking it.”

NARISE ARAKAKI   Shinayakani…Shimauta (Miri Records) The debut album of the young singer from Yaese. “Managing to sound fresh while drawing on the living traditions of the islands’ music, she can be rightly proud of this album.”

As for ‘Roots Music from Out There’, there were many to choose from including important new releases from Estonia’s Trad.Attack! and English folk legend Shirley Collins. The collaboration by Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn was a highlight and so was Jake Blount’s Spider Tales. Then there was Cinder Well whose meditative No Summer caught the mood of the times perfectly, as did the album by Emily Barker. 

So, an impossible task, but my personal favourite was:

PHARIS AND JASON ROMERO   Bet on Love The best record yet from the Canadian duo. “The deceptively simple and timeless quality of Pharis and Jason’s music seems more essential now than ever in these troubled times.”

Reviews of all these albums and more are on the blog. Tracks from most of the non-Okinawan ones reviewed can also be listened to on my Contemporary Roots Music Mix at K.O.L. Radio on Mixcloud. An Okinawan music radio mix is also on the way soon.

Poisoning the Pacific

November 4, 2020

While the world awaits the result of the US presidential election it’s a timely moment to draw attention to a new book published last month documenting the toxic influence of American power in Asia. Poisoning the Pacific is by Welsh investigative journalist Jon Mitchell who is based in Japan and writes regularly for the Okinawa Times newspaper.

In writing the book Mitchell had access to 12,000 pages of US government documents under the US Freedom of Information Act. He also did his own extensive research and interviews with local people and military veterans. As a result, his book “chronicles the US military’s decades-long contamination of indigenous lands across the Pacific as well as the ocean itself, endangering lives and ecosystems across the vast Pacific Ocean.”

While Guam features heavily, much attention is also paid to Okinawa where the US seized land and violated human rights with the full support of Japan. The author writes of the continuing US legacy of radioactive waste, nerve agents, and chemical weapons such as Agent Orange.

The review of the book in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper says that the US has maintained “a base” in Okinawa for decades. If only that were true! The reality is much worse, with much of the main island still occupied by numerous military bases more than 75 years after the end of the Battle of Okinawa.

It is unlikely the US government will be thrilled with the book. In fact, Mitchell received much opposition to his investigations and was also monitored by the US marine corps criminal investigation division. Thankfully, he was able to conclude the book and it sits nicely alongside another recent book on Okinawa, Akemi Johnson’s excellent Night in the American Village mentioned here last year.

As for the US presidential election, it would be nice to believe that the appalling Donald Trump will be soundly beaten. Sadly though, for Okinawa at least, it will make little or no difference who wins while Japan’s PM Suga is intent on continuing his country’s support for America and its military bases that litter the island.

Poisoning the Pacific is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

https://www.jonmitchellinjapan.com/

Anniversary in a Pandemic 3

August 28, 2020

The first of these Anniversary in a Pandemic pieces appeared earlier this year. It began by mentioning the ten years that has passed since the publication of the 2nd edition of the book The Power of Okinawa as well as the commencement of this blog. However, the year 2020 saw a much more important landmark as it was the 50th anniversary in May of what has become an Okinawan music institution – Campus Records.

As anyone from Okinawa with an interest in roots music will surely know, Campus Records is a music shop in Koza as well as a record label releasing music by local musicians, and it has been run since its inception by Yoshikatsu Bise, popularly known as Bisekatsu. In addition to his half century as its founder he is also a well-known record producer, songwriter, and concert promoter.

It was in 2005, on the 35th anniversary of Campus Records, that I interviewed Bisekatsu for the UK’s fRoots magazine and the article is still in the Features Archive category of this blog. At that time, I had already known him for a few years and his genial personality, generosity, helpfulness, and immense knowledge of Okinawa’s music history has been invaluable to me and many others.

Some of the many Okinawan musicians on Campus albums

Moving on another decade, a 45th anniversary album compilation of Campus recordings was released (perhaps a 50th is now on the way?) and most recently Bisekatsu was finally given official recognition, at the age of 80, for his lifetime of work in Okinawan music when he received the prestigious Choho Miyara Music Award last year. The contribution of daughter Makiko Bise has also ensured the Campus name thrives, and long may it continue.

It’s also hoped that Bisekatsu – and everyone else on these islands – manages to steer clear of the dreaded coronavirus. Since the last Power of Okinawa pandemic update in June there have been significant changes owing to the resurgence of Covid-19 and, at the time of writing, Okinawa is under a State of Emergency declared by Governor Denny Tamaki.

The complacent words of the Japanese government on its ‘success’ in the pandemic now look hollow as numbers have risen. (Today’s news that PM Abe is resigning gives no reason to believe that anything will change). The increase in infections has been rapid on Okinawa and it’s not hard to see why. The American military exceeded even their own expectations by ignoring all the rules and partying both inside and outside the bases for their 4th July celebrations, leading almost inevitably to a resumption of the outbreak after many weeks without a single case.

Yukito Ara (of The Sakishima Meeting) during their live show this week

Governor Tamaki has gone on record as saying the pandemic situation was also exacerbated by the Japanese government’s ‘Go To Travel’ campaign that offered large discounts to encourage domestic travel. Okinawa is, of course, heavily reliant on its tourism but no doubt this also led to more cases of Covid-19 and contributed to a situation where Okinawa has now had to return to its State of Emergency. At the time of writing, the total number of infected has increased to 2,013 while the number of deaths has risen to 26.

It is notable that despite a State of Emergency, no UK-style ‘lockdown’ is in place either here or in mainland Japan. Instead the public are advised, rather than ordered, to take precautions to avoid the spread of the virus and generally this advice is adhered to very well. Face masks are ever-present on almost everyone venturing out, though attention to social distancing is often less rigorous.

As for live music, Shoukichi Kina had planned a rare concert in Naha, but this had to be cancelled, while many other musicians are streaming their live performances from home. Some are also streaming from live venues without audiences, such as the show by The Sakishima Meeting and other musicians in Koza this week.

Finally, and of course needless to say… Stay safe!

Anniversary in a Pandemic 2

June 8, 2020

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 10th anniversary of the updated edition of The Power of Okinawa book. Since then I was reminded of another milestone when Dutch musician Pascal Plantinga got in touch to say he had been listening to Paul Fisher interviewing me on his Far Side Radio show. It came as a surprise to realise that it’s almost ten years since I spoke on Paul’s weekly one-hour programme through a telephone link to London from my (then) new home in Okinawa.

Pascal Plantinga at the Niraikanai Matsuri in Okinawa (Photo: Heiko Junge)

With the UK still under lockdown owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Far Side Radio has taken the opportunity to broadcast again a series of interviews with people connected with Asian music. As well as my own interview in which I recommended (and Paul played) songs by Toru Yonaha, Nenes, Yasukatsu Oshima, and Yuki Yamazato, they include talks with Pascal Plantinga, Isamu Shimoji and many others. There are currently 18 episodes available.

To access any of them go to:

https://www.farsidemusic.com/acatalog/Far_Side_Radio.html

Live music during a pandemic cannot be stopped completely and many musicians have taken to streaming shows from their homes through various social media platforms. Meanwhile new album releases have continued to trickle through – if not so much from Okinawa then from various other sources around the world. Even the venerable Bob Dylan, now in his eightieth year, has a new album on the way.

Here in Okinawa the most interesting new release for me has been Donan by Takao Nagama (although the very, very long-awaited solo album by Mutsumi Aragaki seems to be finally about to be unleashed). Generally though, too many Okinawan releases slip out almost unnoticed. Some of them can also be downright difficult to find, stream, download or otherwise access, especially overseas, in all the usual ways that the outside world seems to manage perfectly well.

Jake Blount: banjoist, fiddler, singer, LGBTQ activist

As a critic or reviewer, it is also frustrating sometimes having to act as a detective to find detailed information about new recordings from Okinawa when many overseas music publicists, such as Hearth Music in North America, provide excellent services with extensive media kits, information and photos to support their artists. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in the increased number of albums reviewed in the ‘Roots Music from Out There’ category of this blog.

One of those artists featured here recently is Jake Blount whose album Spider Tales came out a few days ago and has been getting rave reviews right across the board. His album was reviewed here back in March. Blount, as an outspoken black, queer artist, has rapidly become even more important in these times when the Black Lives Matter movement has become so vital that it has eclipsed even coronavirus news following recent events in America and subsequent protests around the world.

But finally, back to the pandemic in Okinawa. Since my previous post in April when the first death had just been recorded, the number of deaths has risen to just seven, the total number of cases is 142, and there have been no newly reported cases of the virus for nearly six weeks. In mainland Japan the situation has naturally been worse.

Despite PM Abe’s government not imposing a lockdown and trying to play down the virus in its early days when Japan was still desperate for the Olympic Games to go ahead, the belated measures taken have been more successful than might have been expected.

Finance Minister Taro Aso: not known for subtlety

It is still too soon to be overly optimistic but if Japan has managed to cope relatively well, the reasons are something that may only become apparent when all this is over, if then. At present it seems to be down more to luck than judgement from a government that has always appeared distant from its people, bordering on arrogant (and worse as far as Okinawa is concerned).

Not helpful are the comments of Finance Minister Taro Aso, a man who always puts his foot in it. He has long rivalled even Donald Trump in his lack of subtlety. This time he condescendingly puts down Japan’s relatively low mortality rate to its superior culture. The Asahi Shimbun quotes him as boasting: “I often got phone calls from people in other countries asking, ‘Do you guys have your own special medicine or something? I told these people, ‘Between your country and our country, mindo (the level of people) is different.’ And that made them speechless and quiet. Every time.”

No wonder they were speechless. I think listening to Jake Blount is a great antidote to all of this in such times. Or to any of the many great Okinawan singers and musicians produced by these islands.

Anyway, stay safe, as everyone always says.