As previously stated, the islands that make up Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, have their own culture and customs that are different from the rest of the country. One example of this unique Okinawan culture is a famous dance called Eisa (エイサー). Eisa is a traditional dance with a long history. It originates from a folk song that used to be sung several hundred years ago. The dance style was passed down by groups of young people who would pay respect to their ancestors each summer by marching through their neighborhoods while playing taiko drums. However, the dance underwent drastic changes in 1995 and today it is Okinawa’s most internationally recognized performing art form.
Paying respect to one’s ancestors is part of Obon, a Japanese Buddhist custom which started over 500 years ago. This Buddhist custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to their ancestral family places and the spirits of their ancestors are said to revisit the household altars. The three-day event traditionally ends with a dance of joy called Bon Odori.
In 1995 the people of Okinawa incorporated the Eisa dance into this summer celebration. At that time, the first Summer Festival in Naha – Ten Thousand Eisa Dance Parade was held. With an open call inviting all those interested, a total of 8,000 performers spread out along Kokusai Dori (International Road) in Naha City and gave a spectacular performance. Every year the parade, which takes place on the first Sunday of August, grows in popularity and has become Okinawa’s leading festival.
For one full week, a variety of events unfold all around Kokusai Dori with the Ten Thousand Eisa Dance Parade being the main attraction. The unique rhythms and movements of Eisa are accompanied by the beating of drums and a beautiful, lively dance that involves the entire body. Recently some people have started using rock and pop music instead of just traditional music to create popular new styles of dance known as Creative Eisa.
The end of the parade is signified by a large group dance called the Eisa Pageant. A group of 1,000 selected participants practice for two months to perfect their synchronized movements. This show makes for a great finale with people up and down the street dancing to the beat of the taiko drum.
Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to participate in this dance that requires two months of practice. But anyone can participate in the Niwaka Eisa Dance Group. After two hours of practice, you’ll be able to perform Eisa in front of spectators. The cost of participation is ¥1,500.