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Archive for the ‘Uchinaa Pop’ Category

Last week was an absolute whirlwind. And as much as I tried to get this blog post down as immediately as I could after the festival was over, now, nearly a week later, the whole thing is mostly a blur – but still an extremely positive experience that I am sure will stay with me for a long time to come. I am so lucky that the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which happens only once every five years, happened to come around while I am here studying in Okinawa. Some 6000 people of Okinawan descent (=Uchinanchu) came from all around the world for a massive reunion party unlike any I have ever seen. The week included so many events it made my head spin – music and dance performances, talks & lectures, eisa, sumo, food booths, cultural lessons/workshops, all across the island (and on some of the other islands too) – but I think for most people the main thing was simply coming here with family and friends, and meeting up with other family and friends, visiting the ancestral homeland to explore or deepen one’s connections to one’s roots, but also to just go out and have a great vacation, with food and drink and partying..

A one-sheet extra edition, compiled and printed super fast, and handed out at the end of Wednesday’s participants’ parade, before the parade was even over!

For my part, both because I’m living here (and was therefore not quite in full-on mental vacation mode) and because I didn’t really have all that many people to hang out with, I’m not sure I had quite the full experience. But, still, I attended so many events, and had a really great time hanging out with the people I did know.

As of a few months ago, my friend Shari with the Hawaiʻi contingent thought it might be difficult for tiny Hawaiʻi to beat the 1100 or so registered attendees from the huge country of Brazil, but in the end, Hawaiʻi sent over 1800 people to the Taikai – and big thanks to Shari for helping me to be one of them. Groups from Peru and Argentina were big, too, and numerous groups from all different parts across the mainland US, of course. Germany, the UK, France, Australia. China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawan associations from different parts of mainland Japan, as well, of course. I think one of the surprising ones for me was New Caledonia – it makes sense, I suppose, that there’d be a lot of Okinawans there, just like in Hawaiʻi and Guam, but, still, it was a huge contingent. All of these Uchinanchu from all around the world coming together, not only were there some 6000 additional people visiting the island for the last week, but it was a majorly prominent big event, with newspapers putting out special editions reporting on the Festival, and a great many shops hanging signs and so forth. Everyone knew it was going on. It made for a really nice atmosphere – I didn’t end up talking to too many people who I just ran into on the street, but, having so many people here who you know are in a similar situation to yourself (well, not quite to myself, but I sort of adopted the identity of an Uchinanchu returning for the Festival) really creates such a wonderful open, friendly, sort of feeling.

Gov. Onaga of Okinawa, with the flags of some of the many countries & regions represented, welcoming everyone back home. I wish I had taken more photos of just generally seeing people on the street, or photos of small parties with friends. Drat.

And I think that was one of the main things that really struck me about the whole thing. It’s corny, but it’s real, that all of these people from all around the world, have come together in friendship – and more than that, really, as family – to celebrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Of course, with any such group so large, you’re going to have people acting like strangers – like the strangers they are – to a large extent; but, at the same time, while I generally try to avoid making generalizations about a whole people, I really do feel that the Okinawans are the most welcoming and inclusive people I know. Meeting fellow Uchinanchu, they share in that like they’re family. And with someone like myself, who is not Okinawan (and never can be), Okinawans here in Okinawa have been friendly as could be, and diaspora Okinawans have been just so welcoming, so accepting, inviting me into their group to go out for drinks, or whatever… Months ago, when I was first hearing about the Taikai, Shari was on Hawaiʻi Public Radio telling people about the Taikai, and about registering through the Hawaiʻi United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I sent her a message saying, basically, I’m not Okinawan, and I haven’t lived in Hawaiʻi in quite a few years, but should I register through HUOA? Is there a way to register just as a loner? And I am so glad to have registered with HUOA. Somehow, I didn’t get that same feeling this weekend as I did a few months ago in LA of feeling like I was back in Hawaiʻi, but still, it’s really something to feel a part of a community, a part of a group – to feel some connection to Hawaiian community, to Hawaiʻi as a cultural space. And I really can’t wait to go spend time in Hawaiʻi again, to maintain those connections.

My point is, attending the opening ceremonies at Onoyama Park Cellular Stadium, seeing thousands of Okinawans celebrating together, showing their pride in their individual cities or countries, but also in being Okinawan, and seeing Gov. Onaga and the prefecture of Okinawa more broadly welcoming them home in this way, it’s just so touching. Reminds me of the Olympics, in a sense, just that cheesy but nevertheless genuine heartwarming feeling of people coming together, in friendship, from all around the world, which puts tears in your eyes. Even before the official opening ceremonies on Thursday, on the day before, there was a participants’ parade in which everyone, in their respective national or regional contingents, marched down Kokusai-dôri (the main street of Naha). As Hawaiʻi was one of the first groups to walk, I got to finish walking the parade, and then turn around and become a spectator to watch all the other groups pass by – and seeing Okinawans from Texas, from Guam, from Bolivia.. even from Zambia, was just incredible. Most people had matching shirts, really “representing” their various countries or regions, and they waved flags, blasted music, performed dances. And, both at the parade and all through the week, local Okinawans would stop people, and hold their hand, and say “welcome home” (o-kaeri-nasai), often with tears in their eyes. I’m getting a little bit teary just writing about it.

Some of my friends have better photos than this; some experienced it rather directly. I, too, was greeted similarly on a number of occasions. It’s a really incredible feeling, for strangers, just anyone, people you meet on the street, to treat you like family, to welcome you home like this.

There were times during the week that I felt I wished we could all have what the Okinawans have. I mean, it comes from pain, from suffering, and I certainly do not wish that upon anyone, that anyone should have to go through what the Okinawans have. Their independent kingdom, so culturally rich and vibrant, was unilaterally abolished and annexed, and the islands’ economy allowed to flounder and collapse, leading a great many to emigrate to Hawaiʻi, the US, South America, and elsewhere right around 1900. This was followed in 1945 by Japan allowing Okinawa to become a battlefield, for a last stand for Imperial Japan, a battle which ended in the deaths of roughly 1/4 of Okinawa’s civilian population, and the utter destruction of much of the island. And indeed, that suffering or oppression is ongoing, as roughly 1/5th of Okinawa’s land continues to be occupied by US military bases today, with both Tokyo and Washington agreeing to essentially use the entire island as a strategic military position, rather than truly seeing it as an equal part of Japan, with equal rights to not have to put up with all the many repercussions of that.

But, my feeling is that through all of this, the Okinawan people have such an appreciation for one another, and for their diasporic relatives, addressing one another not as strangers who happen to have some commonality or similarity, but addressing one another as long-lost distant family. They speak of the Okinawan diaspora as being true Uchinanchu just as much, and as doing great things for Okinawa, or in the name of the Okinawan people. They speak of being linked by one heart, one soul, of being inseparably tied to this place as the homeland. We heard stories from members of the older generation, who speak of having lived overseas (in diaspora) for fifty or sixty years, but that when they dream of home, it is Okinawa they dream of. We heard from members of the younger generation, who have come here to Okinawa as exchange students in order to explore their roots. We heard from Gov. Onaga and other top people in Okinawa, who welcomed these thousands of Okinawans home, speaking of how proud Okinawa is of all of them out there in the world. Speaking of the special spirit, the strength, the power, of Uchinanchu. And at both the opening and closing ceremonies, we saw some of the real all-stars of Okinawan pop/rock/whatever music performing, not as distant, untouchable, impersonal celebrities who might happen to share some common ethnic designation, but rather, as people excited and emotional to be involved in such an event, welcoming all these people home. I wish we all could have such a strong feeling of identity, of togetherness, of ties to the land, of appreciation for our ancestors, of love for our culture, and without anyone else seeing our pride and our togetherness as a dangerous or ugly form of nationalism, or as illegitimate or inappropriate in whatever way. Maybe it’s just my perspective based on who *I* am, my own ethnic/cultural background, my own family’s history, but to me, this all feels “pure” in a way. A pure and wholly positive feeling, and display, of pride of identity, without any of the negative connotations that prevent us from demonstrating our pride in the same way in being American, Japanese, German, Jewish, or any number of other identities. I wish I could wave the Hawaiian flag and feel it was my own. I wish I could wave the Israeli flag and have people see it in that same light – as a long-oppressed minority, an indigenous people, regaining our homeland after centuries of occupation.

Ukwanshin Kabudan, performing in their own short play about the history and experiences of Okinawan immigrants to Hawaiʻi. The group is now working with an NPO called Okinawa Hands-On to produce a documentary on the importance of maintaining the Okinawan language. If you might be interested in contributing to this effort, and to the production of more plays like the one from which this photo was taken, see the Okinawa Hands-On website.

Hanging out with diaspora Okinawans, and studying Okinawan history and culture, has really helped me think about and understand and appreciate my own background as well. It’s all too easy to study history or culture (arts) as objects to be studied – as bodies of knowledge to simply read about, learn about, know, and then share. Names, dates, events, facts. And I do love that stuff. And I do think it’s important. But the ways in which we live our very real lives, the ways in which every individual person, every individual family, has their story, their experiences, their particular relationships with their identity; the way we struggle, as individuals, as families, as local communities, and as a people as a whole (e.g. the Okinawan people), to know the past and to keep those lessons with us, to have appreciation for our ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be here today, to hold onto some notion of our heritage while still living the more immediate, if mundane, priorities of everyday modern life… has really gotten me to think about my own Jewish identity, my relationship with my grandparents and their story, their identity, the heritage that I have inherited, what sort of life I want to live and what lessons I should want to pass down to my own children. How do we embody our ethnic or cultural identities and make that truly a part of who we are? How do we honor who our ancestors would have wanted us to be? How do we maintain traditions, and not lose them, while at the same time not preserving them in a sterile unchanging way like in a glass jar? And how do we maintain them while also dealing with the demands of regular, everyday, modern life?

Some people I would love to get to know, and who I suspect would actually be quite friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike the air or impression that I think is not uncommon within New York or Tokyo of unapproachability. You know, it’s funny, for a post all about making friends and feelings of friendship and family, I still can’t believe (still as in as I continue to write this, from however many paragraphs earlier) that I took no photos at all of new or old friends, or of hanging out with people this whole week. That’s what the whole damn thing was about (partially)!

Another thing that comes up when hanging out with Hawaiʻi folks is the sense I get that in Hawaiʻi, and in Okinawa, it’s not so much about knowing your way around the city/island, knowing cool places, in an impersonal way, nor is it about “who you know” (personal networks) in a high-powered, self-important way, but rather that it’s very much about just being friendly and making friends, and that’s something I have really grown to love and enjoy. I know my way around New York and Tokyo to a certain extent – I have my favorite restaurants, etc.; I know certain short-cuts or certain back ways or whatever. And I’d long aspired to develop that more for those two cities, and for everywhere I went. But, being knowledgeable in that sort of way can be rather impersonal – knowing the best restaurants in the city, being up on the latest trends, doesn’t mean you actually know anyone, or that they know you. And, like at that party I happened to be invited to that one time at the apartment of a curator for the Guggenheim, New York can feel like it’s all about moving in important circles. Who you know, as in who you can name drop, who you can get favors from. But in Hawaiʻi, and I think maybe in Okinawa too, it’s not about that stuff. It’s about being real, genuine friends with people who just happen to be guesthouse operators, restaurant owners, magazine editors, archivists… It’s maybe a little hard to put into words, I guess, what the difference is that I sense. But it’s about the easy, friendly, accessibility of making friends with people in all sorts of circles. Introductions go a long way here, and people are friendly and open and welcoming. They aren’t necessarily looking for what they can get out of you, or looking skeptically at this stranger wondering why should we really be friends. And I think that’s something I struggle with within myself – wanting to be on good, friendly, terms with more or less everyone in my life, but at the same time I have a hard time really accepting that someone else sees me as a friend until we’ve hung out many times and I feel a genuine sense of closeness. Anyway, I’m getting a little too personal, or self-psychoanalyzing or something. The point is, I’ve been here for all of six weeks, and by virtue of friends’ introductions, I already have connections, if not outright friendships, with quite a few grad students and professors, plus a guesthouse owner or manager, the editor of a major local magazine, an archivist… and in Hawaiʻi, through one means or another, I think I have friends or at least acquaintances, connections of some sort, with at least a few bars and restaurants, with multiple people at the Honolulu Museum of Arts, many on campus of course, but also with HUOA, the Japanese Cultural Center, the synagogue, and so on and so forth, after only three years of living there, by virtue of friendliness, aloha spirit, introductions, and the fact that it’s all in all a relatively small place. By contrast, I’ve lived in New York more or less my whole life (when I wasn’t in London or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or Okinawa or California), and while I am fortunate to have a few friends in a few “high” places here and there, for the most part, I already feel more “connected” here in Okinawa, and in Hawaiʻi, than I ever have (and perhaps ever will) in New York – and not only in the professional networking “what can I get out of you” sort of way, but even in the sense of having social circles I feel I can rely upon to invite me out.

Here’s part of where the difference comes in: in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa, I never felt like I was walking with an elite crowd. I never felt like we were calling up a place to make a reservation and saying “do you know who I am?” “Oh, yes, of course, anything for you, Mr. so-and-so.” No. It was more like calling up and saying “Hey, [insert name]! How’s it going? Thanks again for such-and-such the other night. It was a really fun time. Listen, I have some friends coming into town. You think you have space?” “Oh, yeah, of course! It’s always great to see you! I can’t wait to meet your friends!” After the Taikai was over, just a few days ago, I went over to the guesthouse where one of my friends had been staying, to inquire about making a reservation myself. And, not only did the manager/owner immediately say,

“Travis! Yes, she told me you’d be coming. Great to meet you!”

and then talk to me excitedly about how wonderful that mutual friend is, a nice, fun, generous, warm, person, but then even in the middle of showing me around the guesthouse, she saw someone walking past on the street (a friend? a regular guest?) and called out to him “Oh! Takeo! I didn’t know you were back!” And then interrupted our little “tour” to go chat with him. I just love the idea of this kind of not-so-strictly-professional, friendly, attitude. Like I might also become not only a regular guest, but actually a friend, and might even get introduced to other friends, and, I dunno, just, feel happy and welcomed and feel a part of a real network of actual friends here, more so than just being an experienced, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, visitor.

This weekend was incredible. So much fun, so exciting, but also emotional at times, very moving. It’s also given me a lot to think about; it’s refreshed my feeling of membership in a Hawaiʻi community, for which I could not be more grateful; and it’s helped me make some new friends and contacts here in Okinawa, which is sure to be fruitful going forward.

The above is all just one version of one attempt at organizing my thoughts and feelings on all of this… I still barely know how I think about all of this. My identity, my relationship to all of these things, remain a work in progress. I may at some point come back and write more about the Taikai, specifically about some of the many events I attended over the course of the Festival, which I barely touched upon at all in this post. But, feeling already so far behind (posting this so many days after the Taikai ended), I’m not sure I will get around to it. In the meantime, for those interested, please do feel free to check out my documentation of my experience of the Taikai, on Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube.

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Thanks to Simone Salmon, I had the opportunity a week or so ago to guest host a radio show on UCSB’s campus radio station, KCSB 91.9. I of course used the opportunity to share Okinawan music with whoever was listening… Probably did more talking than any music host ever. But I wanted to share with listeners (all, you know, ten of them or whatever) something more about the historical context, the meaning of the songs, and so forth…

It was just a one-time gig, but it was a ton of fun! I wish I had thought to try to pursue doing a regular radio show earlier on… But, then, that one night guest hosting also went so much easier because I had Simone manning the mixing boards and everything. Who knew running a radio show involved so many buttons and sliders and meticulous timing!?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

Playlist:
1. “Kagiyade-fuu ~ Intro” by Mongol 800
2. “Asadoya Yunta” 安里屋ユンタ by Daiku Tetsuhiro 大工哲弘
3. “Asadoya Yunta” 安里屋ユンタ by Natsukawa Rimi 夏川りみ
4. “Nada Sou Sou” 涙そうそう by Yanawaraba やなわらばー
5. “Ka Nahona Pili Kai” by Kealiʻi Reichel
6. “Shimanchu nu takara” 島人ぬ宝 by Begin
7. “Shima uta” 島唄 by The Boom
8. “Nubui Kuduchi” 上り口説 by Ukwanshin Kabudan 御冠船歌舞団
9. “Wuduyi Kuwadisa” 踊くはでさ by Shimabukuro Masao 島袋正雄
10. “Tomari Takahashi” 泊高橋 by Noborikawa Seijin 登川誠仁
11. “Uchina Noir: Ghosts of Chibichiri Cave” by Joseph Yoshimasu Kamiya (available on BANDCAMP!)
12. “Hana – Subete no Hito no Kokoro ni Hana wo” 花~すべての人の心に花を by Kina Shokichi & Champloose 喜納昌吉 & チャンプルーズ
13. “Heiwa no Ryûka” 平和の琉歌 by Nenes ネーネーズ
14. “Miruku Yugafu, Undercooled” 弥勒世果報 ~ Undercooled by Sakamoto Ryûichi & Unaigumi 坂本龍一 & うないぐみ
15. “Kanpoo nu kweenukusaa” 艦砲ぬ喰ぇーぬくさー by Deigo Musume でいご娘
16. “Toki wo koe” 時を越え by HY
17. “Miruku Munari” ミルクムナリ by Hidekatsu 日出克
18. “Shichigwachi Eisa” 七月えいさー by Rinken Band りんけんバンド
19. “Iwai Bushi” 祝節 from a YouTube video that seems to have been taken down. So sorry to not be able to give proper attribution!! yikes!
20. “Snow in Okinawa” 沖縄に降る雪 (Okinawa ni furu yuki) by Miyazawa Kazufumi 宮沢和史
21. “OK” by Talvin Singh
22. “Tinsagu nu Hana Dub” by Ryukyu Underground
23. “Uchi-NanChamploo” うちなんちゃんぷるー by HIFANA (ft. Kotobuki)
24. “Ashimiji Bushi” 汗水節 by Okinawa University of the Arts Gamelan Ensemble 沖縄芸術大学ガムラン (see also this post from two years ago)
25. “Country Roads” カントリー・ロード (from the Studio Ghibli movie “Whisper of the Heart” 耳を澄ませば) by DJ Sasa & the Islanders
26. “Kajadifu Bushi” かぎやで風 by Harry Seisho Nakasone
27. “Tôshin Doi” 唐船どーい from this YouTube video uploaded by teamrimi

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8/4

What wonderful fortune to get to be here in Okinawa for the annual 10,000 person Eisa Festival! I’d long thought about eventually getting to see such festivals in Okinawa – along with the Naha Tug-of-War and the Dragon Boat races – but, really, what luck that it should happen to land within the one week that I’m scheduled to be in Okinawa this summer.

Unlike the time I nearly missed Gion Matsuri by waking up “late” at 10 or 11am (in my defense, it was a weekend, and I was out until 4 or 5am doing karaoke ^_^), this festival didn’t start until quite later in the day, and I’d been in the habit of getting up at 7 or 8 anyway. So I had the whole morning to poke around Shuri in search of obscure historical sites. I had certain ones in mind, such as the home of this or that famous courtier, but in my attempts to find them, I got quite turned around, and spit out again just outside the castle, which is not where I was trying to be… But, then, with the kind help of a friendly local fellow who called out “Hello! Good morning!” to me as he washed his dogs in his garage, I was pointed down a little side street loaded with wonderful little historical sites, including some I’d been having some serious difficulty finding on my own.

Right: These sections of stone walls are all that survive of the residence of Sai On (1682-1761), one of the most celebrated, and arguably one of the most influential government officials in the history of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. But, that anything survives at all is, I think, pretty impressive. Whether the plot is a parking lot because people aren’t rebuilding on it out of respect (or ‘orphaned’ property ownership issues) or something, I don’t know, but it certainly does help one to clearly see the size of the plot.

Some, disappointingly, consisted of nothing more than a sign, plaque, or marker, meaning I have nothing really to show (e.g. on this blog, or on a Wiki article about the site) for it. But, even so, it was great to get a little bit more of a feel for the layout of Shuri as a town/city. After all, if you visit only the castle, only the big-name sites, and temples and such, it becomes easy to forget to think about basic questions, such as, where did the nobles/aristocrats live? And in what sort of homes? Even if nothing survives of the homes themselves, there’s still something pretty cool, pretty impressive, about being able to find/know, roughly, the historical location of a given aristocrat’s home. And while it’s very difficult to really get a good sense of the feel, the atmosphere, the patterns of aristocratic life at that time, given how much the streets have changed, even so, there is still something to be gained from seeing the size of the residential plots, the arrangements of the streets, how far even prominent officials’ homes were from the castle, and how they’re interspersed with natural springs1, shrines, temples, and the like.

Adani-gaa-daki, an utaki – a shrine of the native Ryukyuan religion, neither Shinto nor Buddhist – in Shuri.

My adventures in Shuri worked out wonderfully, ending just in time for me to grab a delicious lunch of Okinawa soba and then make my way back to Kokusai-dôri for the festival. I missed perhaps the most exciting and photogenic part, as all the different eisa groups parade down the street, looking like a just incredible crowd, all in brilliant colored costumes and such. Not because of time, so much as simply because I didn’t understand how this all worked, or where the best place to stand would be. But, so it goes. I’ll know better for next time.

This was followed by the main event of the festival, performances by a series of eisa groups, simultaneously in a number of locations, mostly along Kokusai-dôri. I was quite confused at first, as one group would perform, and then a whole bunch of other groups would pass right by, without performing for our particular space, leaving huge gaps of 10-20 minutes during which, if you just stayed in that one spot, it looked/felt like the whole parade, the whole event, had just dissipated, ended, fallen apart. So I walked up to another spot, and caught another performance, but then things would dissipate in that spot, and a whole bunch of other groups would walk right past, while yet another group would start performing where I had been to begin with. I had asked one of the staff how it all worked, and whether I should stay in one place or if I should walk up, or if there were any better or best place to try to watch from – he’d said to just stay in one place and I’d get to see everything. As it turns out, I finally figured out after a few hours, it is impossible to see all the groups, all the performances. If you stand at Spot 1 (just outside the Mitsukoshi, let’s say, at a certain point along the street), you’ll see groups A, C, D, and F, but not B or E. Groups B and E don’t perform at Spot 1 – they just walk right past, skipping it, to perform instead at Spot 2. And if you walk from Spot 1, to Spot 2, in order to catch them, well, now you’re missing Group C or D, back at your original spot.

As a result, I spent most of the day hearing really exciting-sounding performances from down the street, only to miss out on actually seeing them as they skipped over my spot and walked right on past. Of course, by the time I knew their performance sounded exciting, it was already begun, and too late to walk over there and check it out – and, by the time I saw them pass by my spot, rather than stopping, it was already crowded enough at the next spot that I couldn’t simply walk over there to see them. Oh well.

Somehow this post has gotten terribly negative and kvetchy. But in truth, it was a great time, a really incredible show, and a wonderful experience. As I first began walking up Kokusai-dôri, just as the festival was starting, and I heard & saw the last group in line performing, tens of them all in matching costumes and with (nearly) perfectly matching choreography, performing to a lively Okinawan song I liked (though, lol, I actually can’t remember what it was at all), I have to admit, I nearly cried, I was so excited to get to be there to see this. And, yeah, sure, most of the groups performing songs I know and love were the groups whose performances I missed, and yeah, the one group I’d actually heard of and would have gone out of my way to see – Ryûkyû-koku Matsuri Daiko – I didn’t realize that’s who it was until it was too late, and so I missed their performance too.

But, oh my god, were the kids cute, and the teens and grown-ups passionate and talented and clearly having a ton of fun. And I think the really key part that I enjoyed the most is that this is not a professional performance – it’s people being people, having fun, supporting one another, coming out to see their friends’ groups, cheering on groups from other towns who they don’t know, chatting with other groups and sort of connecting within that common bond of being eisa performers, and sometimes even joining in dancing with one another’s other groups. I saw parents cheering on their kids, a man spraying kids with a hose to help them cool off… In some groups, you could see those in their teens or 20s actively helping and guiding and encouraging the little ones, and while many of the groups were really quite excellent, well-practiced and well-prepared, there were a lot that were also just having fun and doing their best – a lot of groups from elementary or middle schools, and at least one from some kind of home for those with mental disabilities.

And the groups came from all over the island (some maybe from other islands? I’m not sure), all with different colors and costumes, and different styles. Some played relatively traditional eisa music, some danced to more popular songs – some even used mainland Japanese mainstream J-pop songs; some had more of a powerful, strong, martial arts element to their style; and some had live sanshin playing, though most had it piped in.

All in all, it was just wonderful to get to see eisa performed here in Okinawa, at the 10,000 Person Eisa Festival, along the Kokusai-dôri. I’ve been fortunate to see and enjoy many eisa-style performances at the Hawaii Okinawa Festival, which of course only whet my appetite for more, and made it all the more fun to recognize songs or dances… seeing this really added to my experience of yet another side of Okinawan life and culture. Not just the historical sites and museums, the restaurants (food, cuisine), and the very much aimed-at-tourists live performances at shimauta bars and the like, and most certainly not only the US military bases issue, but, this too. People practicing two or three times a week with their neighbors or their classmates, at middle schools and temples and community centers, and getting together to parade and dance and perform for one another, all together, in an annual, “traditional” festival celebrating Okinawan culture and identity.

PS I somehow suspected that, at such a big-deal event, I just might run into someone from East-West Center, or Akisamiyo! (the EWC/UHM Okinawan students group). I’d heard stories of EWC people running into one another, unexpectedly, halfway across the globe, and I figured just maybe it would happen to me. And what do you know, it did. Ran into one of the guys from the Akisamiyo! group, here for a term or two as an exchange student at Ryûdai. Small world. Or something.



(1) If you’re not just talking about the castle, and big sites like that, but are looking for smaller, backstreets sorts of historical sites like I was, about half the sites you’ll find on a map, or in wandering, are springs. Personally, with apologies, I find it difficult to get too interested about this. But, they clearly played a major role in both the practical lifestyle and spiritual geography of the city.

Once again, all photos and videos are my own. You can see all my Okinawa photos from this trip on Flickr.

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8/3

Above: Shuri Castle as seen from the monorail.

With apologies to those looking forward to my next post about Exploring Sakura, I’m afraid that’ll have to wait…
As a result of some incredible generosity, I am here in Okinawa for a week, a whole week, mostly on my own (woo!), but with some expectation that I’ll be diligent and responsible and spend my time doing research. From my first day alone, the trip was already to my mind a huge success in terms of research – I got to see and handle in person a whole bunch of original documents, and came away with hundreds of photos which I can then study later. But, I also knew, almost from the moment I landed, that I was not going to waste an opportunity like this by spending the whole week in archives and libraries. The way I see it, or maybe I’m just inventing self-justifications, but, walking around and experiencing the city – and seeking out historical sites – is important research as well.

Anyway, let me jump into it. I arrived quite late at night on a Friday, taking the monorail directly from the airport to my hotel (how convenient!), and arriving at the hotel around 11:30pm. To my surprise, there were plenty of bars and such still quite hopping at that late hour. Of course, once I thought about it a moment, I realized 11:30 is actually really not all that late – not for a real city. I’ve just gotten too used to Sakura, and to my on-campus life back in the States, and to a “tomorrow’s a school day” sort of schedule from my few weeks in Yokohama earlier in the summer. For a real city, having plenty of restaurants and bars that stay open until two in the morning is quite normal. And given Naha’s identity as a tourist destination, and given the incredible heat and humidity at the peak of the day, it really makes perfect sense that lots of places would be staying open later.1 And, as a real proper city, it’s not just Okinawan and Japanese places – Naha has plenty of bars and restaurants serving a wider variety of foods and atmospheres. My first night here, I went to a bar near the hotel serving pasta and pizza and the like, and apparently specializing in saké from Saga prefecture? Just seeing this level of activity and variety, my excitement to explore Naha, to really get to know it, to hopefully someday live here for a longer period of time, was really re-kindled.


The next morning, the main order of business for the day was to visit the Prefectural Archives. This was my first time working in an archives in Japan, and I was a bit nervous about how difficult it might be to get in, or how strict they might be on certain rules, etc. But, my professor had called and faxed ahead on my behalf (yes, they still use fax in Japan. a lot.), and the archives people were really nice. They prepared everything for me ahead of time, so when it came time to request materials, they had them all set aside already, and could very quickly and easily just bring over the next batch of five things at a time. They even allowed an exception, to allow me to skip out on wearing gloves while handling the objects. Now, I know that some of you are probably gasping or tsk tsking right now, but, this is what I was taught at the Smithsonian, and having now experienced trying to handle these things with gloves, I completely see what the Smithsonian collections managers / conservators were talking about – even with the thinnest of gloves on, it makes your hands feel really fumbly and awkward, making it very difficult to handle thin delicate pieces of paper with the proper care, and very difficult to turn pages. I tried wearing the gloves at first, but I quickly realized that if I continued to wear them, I was going to risk tearing something, or being unable to fold or unfold it properly. Some of these things were on extremely thin pieces of paper… but, to my surprise, the staff was kind enough to let me skip out on the gloves. I know that every archive/museum has different policies, and I certainly meant to obey them and not to give anyone any trouble, but, boy, those gloves would have been such an incredible hassle – and risky, for my proper handling of the objects.

A statue of Joe Yabuki from Ashita no Joe, sitting outside a shop on Kokusai-dôri. I guess he’s moved from the rainbow bench I saw him on five years ago, on the same street.

Thanks to everyone’s incredible kindness and organization and such, I was able to finish in one day the archives work that I thought would take two or three. Afterwards, I poked around Shuri a little, then headed over to Kokusai-dôri (the main shopping street in Naha – mostly touristy souvenir shops & restaurants, but also department stores, etc.) in the hopes of finding a Post Office ATM that was still open.2 Note to self – my American ATM card absolutely does not work at Lawson’s or FamilyMart, and there are no 7-11’s in Okinawa.

Ended the night with a visit to the Nenes’ live house, which was great fun. And did I mention it was my birthday? I can’t imagine a better way to spend a birthday.

From some notes I sketched out while at the bar:

Ten years ago today, I was in Kyoto for the first time, dying in the heat, and celebrating my 21st birthday alone, with a carton of umeshu from the conbini. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have an amazing time in Kyoto that week.

Tonight, it’s my 31st birthday, and I’m at the Nenes’ shimauta live bar on Kokusai-dori in Naha. And trying habu shu for the first time. It’s terrible, of course. But I’ve had a great time in Okinawa the last day or so, and I’m still here for a week!

Kind of weird to reflect on it… I can’t believe that was ten years ago. I mean, yes, it does feel like a long time ago, but, at the same time, to think I’ve been coming to Japan for ten years, or to put it another way, to think that I’ve seen Japan ten years ago, and five years ago, and today, to think that I’ve become able to talk about how it used to be – that enough time has passed that I might actually notice changes, differences, developments in Japan.

Thinking of what I’m doing right now, the direction my career and research and such has taken, now that I’m doing Ryukyuan history, being in Okinawa for the 10th anniversary of the end of my first time in Japan is really something special.

Below: The beach at Ôgimi-son, where we went on Day 3.


(1) I shouldn’t be putting so much reliance on this, but I caught a bit of a TV program the other day that was comparing different prefectures, and one of the random items they pointed out about Okinawa is that many supermarkets stay open super late, and that a lot of people do their grocery shopping late at night, avoiding the heat of the day. I may be reading too much into it, but I thought the program was implying that especially in the summer, many Okinawans stay up or stay out later, in general.

(2) I know it may seem counter-intuitive or unexpected, but the ATMs at the post offices in Japan are one of the chief places where you can use your international (e.g. American) ATM card. And, I’ve been told they have really low fees and/or good exchange rates, but actually I don’t know the details on that. Reportedly, 7-11 is another place where you can expect your ATM card to work. But, I can now say from direct experience that Lawson and FamilyMart are not on that list.

All photos my own. I don’t know when I’ll get around to doing anything to organize them more properly, but all of my Okinawa photos from this summer can be seen on Flickr.

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To the extent that I know my way around New York City, it’s mainly that I know my way around Japan-related places, from the Buddhist temple up near Columbia, to the many Japanese restaurants on & around St. Mark’s, to Japan Society, Japanese groceries, Kinokuniya, and Book-Off.

I journeyed into the city yesterday to check out the Japan Block Fair for the first time, and after that, took some time to check in on a few of these Japan-related places, both old and new.

I’d been to Japan Day at Central Park once, but never to Japan Block Fair. The latter feels like a much smaller event, but only because it’s packed into a much smaller space. Yesterday’s block fair squeezed twenty or so booths into the space of one city block – between 39th and 40th streets, on just one side of Park Avenue. A couple hundred people were in attendance, recreating the feel of the crush of maneuvering your way through Shibuya, or along Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Booths included a few selling tenugui, second-hand kimono, and the like, as well as a travel agency handing out flyers, one booth selling delicious iced green tea, a rummage sale booth, and numerous stands selling takoyaki, yakisoba and the like. I had hoped to find new zori (sandals), but no such luck. Many of the booths were collecting donations for tsunami relief. A few booths represented specific regions – the Aomori kenjinkai had a booth, and were selling food, though to my disappointment weren’t really advertising Aomori with pictures or books, videos of tsugaru shamisen performances, or any kind of flyers (but that’s okay); Shikoku was well-represented, with a Sanuki Udon booth selling freshly handmade noodles, and a “Home Island Project” booth from Tokushima.


The Home Island Project describes itself as “aim[ing] at raising awareness about our “Home Island” SHIKOKU and turning the island into [a] magnet for people around the world.” Their banners and outfits were impressively designed and cohesive, with a clean, sleek design in a beautiful shade of blue; members associated with the project performed Awa Odori, a festival dance for which Tokushima prefecture is particularly famous. I’ve never yet myself been to Shikoku, but I really would love to go. Lots to see and do, from the many still-intact original Edo-period castles, to Dôgo Onsen (inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away), to seeing kabuki at the Kanamaru-za, the oldest still-operating kabuki theater in the country, to the contemporary art goings-on on Inland Sea islands Shôdoshima and Naoshima.

The Fair also included the NY Street Ramen Contest, in which eight or so restaurants and other organizations prepared different types of ramen dishes, and guests taste-tested and judged their favorites. For most of the day the line was way too long for me to even think about getting involved, but just at the very end, suddenly there was no line at all, so I squeezed in and tried a few of the ramen dishes. The cold (hiyashi ramen) dish with shaved ice and sesame dressing from Hôryû Ramen was quite good, as was the tonkotsu shio ramen from Nobu Chan, but of the three I tried, my favorite was Ramen Misoya’s Hokkaido-style miso ramen with corn and a french fry.

The main attraction for me – the main reason I made sure not to miss the Fair – was that a group called Ryû-kaji was performing. My father always says you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough (or wait and happen to come across it), and once again, I guess he was proven right, because while I was beginning to get kind of skeptical that I’d ever find an Okinawan sanshin group, or teacher, here in NY, yesterday I came across Ryûkaji, and their sensei Taguchi Saki. The group played a bunch of Okinawan songs, some more traditional, some folk songs (e.g. Asadoya Yunta), and some more modern pop songs (e.g. Ojii jiman no Orion Beer). They looked great in black (for the girls) and purple kasuri kimono (for the guys), with sensei in full-on yellow and red bingata, her hair up in a bun Okinawan style. Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the students, and to sensei, about the possibility of taking lessons, and I am looking forward to doing so. One-on-one lessons will hopefully get me seeing some improvement, even though it’s only for a few months, before I leave New York for new adventures.

All in all, the Block Fair was great. I thought it a little funny that I didn’t see any people, or organizations or groups that I was familiar with, and it remains a mystery to me as to who exactly is behind this, since it’s not Japan Society or Asia Society or any organization with a recognizable name. But, then, I guess that’s a function of it being New York. The vastness of the city and its communities, the incredible number of Japanese restaurants and organizations, bringing a degree of impersonality. I think that, with time, I could get to know some of the movers and shakers, get to know the people behind some of the restaurants, but I think it would take a lot longer than it did in Hawaii, where the community is much smaller, and many of the same people are involved (or at least attending) in the many different events.

I left the Block Fair eventually, and made my way to Kinokuniya, just because it was nearby. Nothing’s changed over there – still an amazing selection, still all of it quite overpriced. It’s a shame we can’t magically meld Kinokuniya’s (brand-new, imported) selection with BookOff’s far more reasonable (second-hand) prices. Seventy bucks for a kabuki DVD!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d be better off if you didn’t carry it at all – as is, you’re just taunting me.

The final stop for the day was to check out the new Uniqlo flagship store, on Fifth Ave at 53rd St. The largest retail store on Fifth Ave at 89,000 square feet, the store is really something. And, despite my best intentions not to buy anything, I couldn’t resist the half-off T-shirt sale, and ended up with a few from their large selection of One Piece designs. The t-shirts on offer also included a bunch of Japanese corporate logo designs, from Marukame udon to Vermont Curry to Kewpie mayonnaise, as well as Gundam, Evangelion, Mickey Mouse, and Coca-Cola designs. A recent blog post or article I saw talked about how Uniqlo has become sort of anti-fashionable in Japan lately, stigmatized I guess chiefly because it’s so cheap, and because no matter how good you may look, what’s really important (apparently) is that you spent a lot of money on it. Conspicuous consumption. I guess. But, whether New York is just behind the curve (which I’m sure it is, along with myself), or whether the Japanese are just being over-commercialist and crazy, Uniqlo’s offerings are actually pretty nice. A lot of the stuff is just super basic, and I’ve complained before (although perhaps not on this blog; I don’t remember) that I go to a Japanese store for Japanese fashion, not for plain ordinary shirts and jeans like I can get at any American store (e.g. Gap, Old Navy).

But Uniqlo keeps up with fashion, and while they may not have anything too radical, they do have slim fit shirts and slacks, three-quarter length pants (read: capris) for guys, and the like, as well as their own branded and supposedly revolutionary AIRism and Heattech materials, meant to be super thin and light, while keeping you plenty cool or warm (respectively). Now if they took that one further step, and started carrying (a) the same things that they offer in their Japan stores, and (b) a few more things with slightly Asian-fashion touches, like the high collars we see on hoodies and jackets on Asian fashion sites like YesStyle.com, and presumably (I haven’t been there in a while) on the streets of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Also – neckties, bowties, suspenders, and cooler belts. The mannequins looked very cool in slim neckties and bowties, or in neon-colored suspenders, but there were absolutely zero of these goods for sale; the belts were all brown leather, pretty standard and boring. Uniqlo has definitely kicked it up a notch, making things we want – like cardigans, slim pants, and t-shirts with Japanese designs – affordable and available all in one place. They just need to tweak that dial a tiny bit further, and then it could become my absolute #1 go-to store…

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I’ve featured a few of my favorite songs or videos on here a few times before, but here’s some more I’d like to share. I don’t know if there’s a word for this sub-genre, or if it even is technically a sub-genre (any ethnomusicologists out there?), but I love the use of traditional instruments, sampling of traditional songs, to create very (post-?)modern, current music with the flavor of East Asian tradition.

I’m sure plenty could be written, and has been written, about the socio-cultural discursive impact of a neo-traditional revival movement, and performativity of identity. But, I’d rather not deal with that today. Just some of my favorite bands/artists who you might not learn of or come across otherwise. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


Guitar – Naoki

Guitar (ギター), also known as Michael Luckner, is a German music artist based in Germany. I love the koto(?) trills and such in this song. It’s easily my favorite of what I’ve heard of his, but there’s tons more that’s also quite good.


Shanghai Restoration Project – The Bund (instrumental)

The Shanghai Restoration Project is group headed by Chinese-American Dave Liang. Their music, as you can hear, is very modern, using elements of electronica (I guess?, or something along those lines?), but their use of traditional Chinese instruments, and especially their song titles – which include “Bund”, “Nanking Road”, and “MCMXXXVII” – definitely help evoke the idea/aesthetic of 1920s-1930s Shanghai as romanticized in fiction, film, etc. . Personally, I much prefer the instrumental versions of their songs, and am glad for the availability of these, as the vocals are often in English, and too hip-hop or otherwise non-traditional/non-Chinese for my taste. But, anyway, what I like of their stuff, I really like.


Rin’ – Jikuu


Rin’ – Murasaki no yukari, futatabi

RIN’, a trio of young women who graduated Geidai (Tokyo National University of the Arts) together, were only active from 2003 until 2009, when they broke up, but in the intervening time, they put out some really great stuff. Their music employs mainly koto, shakuhachi, and biwa, and includes an album inspired by the Tale of Genji, as well as one entitled “Inland Sea,” in which they collaborated with American vocalists (e.g. Lisa Loeb), producing something that was, I thought, the perfect blend of American mainstream and traditional Japanese – plenty accessible, yet with just enough of a twist to be interesting, novel, new, intriguing, and maybe enough to get American mainstream listeners to try out Japanese music.

I like the first song much better, but the second provides a visual example of the aesthetic of their videos, and indicating, I think, that they’re not about exploiting tradition for the benefit of modern music, but rather quite the opposite. The feeling I get from this video is one of trying to make the traditional more hip, more accessible, and trying to drum up interest in the traditional, showing how dynamic a shamisen can be, how rocking a Noh stage can be, and how cool kimono can be.


HIFANA – Uchi-nan-champloo

HIFANA is a Tokyo-based group mixing very Okinawan sounds with hip-hop/reggae and electronica flavors. This is easily one of my favorite tracks from all the artists I’ve heard who make use of Okinawan folk music sounds. The video for their song WAMONO is pretty awesome too.


Ryukyu Underground – Umaku Kamade

Ryukyu Underground is the duo Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor, from the UK and US respectively, who met in Okinawa, and DJed there for a time, mixing samples of Okinawan folk music with electronica and such. Gaining popularity, they were later able to collaborate directly with prominent Okinawan folk singers to produce original tracks. Many of their tracks are simply named after traditional folk songs that they remix – Tingsagu nu Hana Dub is one of my favorites. Other tracks have more general new age / electronica sort of titles, like “East is East” and “The Spaces Between.” But, then, too, a few, such as “Koza Riot” make it clear that they are familiar with, and are addressing, the complex and dark history of US involvement in Okinawa.


Yoshida Brothers – Modern


Monkey Majik feat. Yoshida Brothers – Change

Finally, we have Yoshida Brothers, who are surely the top, leading, most famous non-traditional shamisen players in Japan. What sets them apart from all these others is that (so far as I know) they don’t use electronica remixing or anything of the sort, but really rely chiefly on the shamisen itself. Their music is so energetic… it really highlights the energy and potential of traditional Japanese music – that there’s no need to think of it as dusty, old, or boring.

Monkey Majik is a pair of brothers from Canada, based now in Sendai, whose music, for the most part, is indistinguishable from that of a mainstream Canadian alternative rock band with no connections to Japan at all. That is to say, they do use some Japanese in their lyrics and song titles, making it pretty clear; but their sound is nothing remarkable to me. Except for this album on which they collaborated with Yoshida Brothers, and created some really incredible, catchy, wonderful stuff. … In any case, like their sound or not, I love their story – the fact that two brothers in Japan teaching English, just regular 20-something white guys, could become this popular and successful, rather than getting stuck still teaching English, or having to move back home, is pretty damn cool.

—-

So, that’s it. A quick romp through a few of my favorite bands/artists reviving (hopefully?) interest in traditional Japanese (or Chinese or Okinawan) sounds. I hope you like some of them; and if you have others you like, please leave a comment, and share it with us.

Happy New Year, everyone! May 2012 bring health and happiness, and hopefully some adventure (of the good kind) as well.

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Kôhaku Uta Gassen, or “Red-White Song Battle,” is what Japan does for New Year’s Eve. Tens of the biggest acts in Jpop and enka get together, in two teams, and perform for about four hours in a spectacle that, while it may sound kind of corny and silly on the surface, is easily as grand and expensively put-together as, for example, the musical performances at the Oscars.

I still owe you guys (owe myself?) a rundown of my thoughts on this latest Kôhaku.. Hopefully I’ll get around to it before the end of January. Most of my friends – including Japanese friends – think it silly, corny, or absurd that I should want to watch such a thing (imagine someone getting genuinely excited about watching Dick Clark / Ryan Seacrest’s New Year’s Eve show). But, in addition to being purely entertaining, Kôhaku is a great opportunity to learn about what songs are (were) hot in Japan in the past year – to discover new favorites – and also to see your favorite bands/singers perform.

I made many discoveries this time around; one of which was that the band HY is Okinawan (named after, apparently, their hometown of Higashi Yakena). The song they performed on Kôhaku, “Toki wo koe” (時をこえ) or “Extending/Moving Across Time,” has been stuck in my head ever since, and so I feel I want to share it with you.

Overall, I feel it has a very standard pop-rock-alternative sort of sound, something perhaps particularly Japanese, but on the surface not particularly Okinawan. Yet, underneath that, there is very much that feel, that flavor, that atmosphere of the Okinawan sound. The distinctive sound of the sanshin is there, not blatantly and obviously, but just subtly contributing to the Okinawan feel of the song. I never cease to be amazed at how distinctive such a thing can be – how much an instrument can sound so very different and distinctive as to mark a piece of music as definitively Okinawan, simply through something in the quality of the strings and the body of the instrument, and the way it is played. … The melody, while again seeming very much standard on the surface, seems to contain elements of Okinawan music, elements that remind you subtly, sub-consciously, of Okinawan folk music even as the sound more generally just seems modern and either Japanese or aculturally global. And, finally, there are the lyrics, and the sad but hopeful nostalgic tone of the song overall, which reminds me very much of the story behind this video, which I have linked before (it’s clips from the movie “Nabbie no koi,” which does not originally have anything to do with the song ‘Okinawa ni furu yuki’ to which it is set here); I think these same visuals would go really well with HY’s “Toki wo koe.” Then, of course, there are the eisa drums and chanting, and uniquely Okinawan phrases in the lyrics, but those don’t come in until later.

Sure, there are plenty of nostalgic songs from every culture – Japan not least among them – which speak of memories of grandparents and honoring their hard lives and sacrifices. But somehow I feel something special, something unique, in the way Okinawans remember and honor their grandparents; I guess it connects in to the devastation of Okinawa in the war, and the combination of terrible sadness and brilliant hope and optimism coming out of that.

Sorry for the overly lengthy introduction and rambling on…

Getting down to it, here is the song itself, “Toki wo koe” by HY, with my translation of the lyrics.

昔の話を聞いたのさ 自由な恋すら許されず
おばぁーは泣く泣く嫁いだよ あの人に別れも告げぬまま

昔の話を聞いたのさ 火の粉が雨のように降る
おばぁーはとにかく走ったよ あの人の命を気にかけて

曲がる腰 細い足 おばぁーの生きてきた証
その笑顔 その言葉 変わらぬものもある…

胸に刻みなさい あなたのその鼓動
昔、昔に繋がる この命 大切に生きなさい

昔の話を聞いたのさ 十四の頃から働いて
家族と別れて一人きり 涙は流せぬ生きる為

その時代を物語る おじぃーの話を聞いたのさ
しわくちゃな顔さえも 誇らしかったんだ

そっと頬伝う 温かい涙を見て思ったよ
誰かに伝えなきゃ 僕らが伝えなきゃ

「家族の事を1番に」 昔の人は言いました
“命どぅ宝”の言葉こそ 忘れちゃいけないもの

今日もまたひとつ 過ぎ去られる記憶
だから僕達は この歌にのせてさ 届けなきゃあなたへ

昔の話を聞いたのさ 笑うおばぁーのその横で
輝くおじぃーのその涙 かけがえのないもの見つけたよ

I heard the stories of long ago // Even loving freely was not allowed
Grandma married crying, crying // Having not told her beloved* of their parting

I heard the stories of long ago // Sparks fell like rain
Even so Grandma ran // Worried about the life of her beloved

Her bent back, her thin legs // The evidence that Grandma had lived [to the fullest] up to this point
That smile, those words // There were also things that never changed

Engrave it upon your heart // Your heartbeat [thinking of this]
This life, connected to long, long ago // Live with importance**

I heard the stories of long ago // She worked from the age of 14
Separated from family, living alone // In order to live without tears flowing

Telling of that time // I heard Grandpa’s stories
Even his wrinkled face // was filled with pride

His cheeks softly tell // Seeing warm tears, I thought
Someone has to tell it // We need to tell it

Family first // People of the past said
The phrase “Life is a Treasure” especially // is something that cannot be forgotten

Today one more // forgotten memory
Therefore we // placed into this song // that which must be conveyed, to you

I heard the stories of long ago // Next to Grandma who was laughing
The glistening tears of Grandpa // I discovered something for which there is no substitute

——-
*Ano hito literally just means “that person,” but most often implies the idea of “his/her beloved”.
**Taisetsu ni, literally means something like “take it as important,” “treat it like it is important.” It’s one of my favorite phrases in Japanese that I wish we had something direct and easy for in English.

(I tried to put the lyrics & translation next to one another in columns, but it got too skinny and just didn’t look right. I hope this arrangement is to people’s liking…)

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