Eisa - The Okinawan Spirit|
July 15 according to the lunar calendar is the busiest and most colorful day in Okinawa. To Uchinanchu (Okinawans), this day is a most chim-dondon (exciting) occasion.|
Eisa dancing is performed on the last day of the three-day Obon celebration (a traditional Japanese summer festival to pray for the ancestors) to bid farewell to the ancestors’ spirits (michi-junee). Young men and women travel around residential streets and business areas performing eisa, accompanied by drums, folk songs, chants and whistling.
Eisa is said to have started with ninbuchaa (“monks” in Okinawan dialect) who chanted nenbutsu (reciting the name of Buddha) and danced at funerals and Buddhist ceremonies when the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism was introduced to the Ryukyu Kingdom. After World War II, due to the All-Okinawa Eisa Festival promoted by Okinawa City, youth associations in each area developed their own particular variety of eisa with gorgeous costumes and showy dancing.
July 13 according to the lunar calendar is called “Unkei,” the day to welcome the ancestors’ spirits. July 15 (in some areas, July 16), when eisa is performed, is called “Uukui,” the day for seeing off the ancestors’ spirits. Eisa was originally performed so that people could give the spirits a good send-off.
Many companies observe the last day of Obon as a holiday; on Uukui, the Obon mood pervades the entire island. Around sunset, youths gather at village festival venues or community centers, and michi-junee begins.
All-Okinawa Eisa Festival
The All-Okinawa Eisa Festival, held every August, is the festival at which eisa groups from each area gather and perform their dances. This event is attended by over 200,000 people every year including both locals and tourists. Many eisa groups, from youth to children’s groups, women’s associations and foreigners’ groups, compete in this festival. At the neighboring open space, the Koza Orion Beer Fest is held, featuring local musicians, a beer-drinking contest and other entertainment. This is the summer event where people have a fun time drinking a lot of beer and dancing.
Are there any other Obon events popular with local youth in Japan, a country that places great importance on its legacy of old traditions? Sonda Eisa in Okinawa City has become popular because the Sonda Eisa Youth Group has appeared on NHK’s annual “Kouhaku Uta Gassen” (Red and White Singing Contest held every New Year’s Eve). Although eisa is performed during all three days of Obon in the Okinawa City area, this dynamic eisa event is performed on Hyakken Street in Sonda on the last day of the festival. The purpose is to have a good time dancing together rather than competing to win. After the performance, everybody dances kachaashii. The sound of the drums and the energetic eisa dancing with the shout, “Suri saa saa” is one of the highlights of Okinawa’s summer.