What’s Eisa?

The Origin of Eisa

It can be said that the eisa is imilar in some ways to the bon-odori dance seen throughout mainland Japan. Just as the bon-odori is the dance of the Bon period in the summer, the eisa, too, is a traditional event of the Bon, except in the lunar calendar. One cannot speak of the ethnic culture of Okinawa without explaining the Omoro. The Omoro is a collection of ancient poems and songs, mostly celebrating the religious beliefs, history, land, and heroes of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus which is now the prefecture of Okinawa. The Omoro is believed to originate from the distinctive beliefs of the ancient Ryukyus, and passed on by priestesses known as Nuru during the 12th to the 17th centuries.

The Omoro is compiled in volumes of what is known as the Omoro Soshi. It is commonly believed that the culture of the Ryukyus evolved with the meshing of the cultures of the time and cultures from China, Southeast Asia and Japan. And over time, the distinctive Ryukyuan culture came to be, and we can say that the eisa is one of the customs and traditions borne from this history.

The custom of eisa is believed to warmly welcome and send off the spirits of the deceased during the Bon in the lunar calendar. We can safely say that this belief is most likely based on Buddhist beliefs, and from the tales of the elders, the eisa is a form of Nenbutsu-odori, or Ninbucha-udui, in the language of the Ryukyus. Ninbucha are monks that went from household to household, offering prayers to Buddha on their behalf and receiving food in return. One of the songs that the eisa of all districts dance to, called Shitigwacha, tells that eisa descends from the Nenbutsu-odori.

We can see the strong connection of the eisa and the Nenbutsu-odori in the tradition of collecting donations and beverages from local households. It was approximately 250 years ago that this form of Nenbutsu-odori came to be known as eisa, and it was also around this time that eisa began to be accompanied by the string instrument of sanshin.

However, although the eisa has been passed on as a form of Nenbutsu-odori, there are no records to back up this notion, and the truth in the origins of eisa remains to be speculated.

Differences Between Traditional Eisa & Original Eisa

Traditionally, many seinenkai groups, inherit distinctive features of the eisa of their district or group. Every group has their own unique rhythms and choreography, that we cannot categorize eisa into a single form. In some districts, where eisa was essentially not a part of the local tradition, the seinenkai of the area learn the traditional dances from neighboring districts that have had eisa rooted as part of their local culture. The seinenkai group who had the opportunity to learn the eisa, then works to develop their own original style. These two types of traditional eisa, one where unique rhythms and choreography have been passed down for generations, and the other, where their distinctive styles are based on traditional forms of their neighboring districts or other groups, are known as Traditional Eisa.On the other hand, styles of eisa that are not tied down to the traditional forms, and those accompanied by modern sounds and choreography, are known as Original Eisa. This form has gained popularity in the recent years, dancing to not only traditional Okinawan music, but also to rock, pop and other modern music. The Original Eisa performamce enthusiastically embrace new styles and dance, offering great entertainment factors to captivate the audience.
Seinen (Youth) Furusato Eisa Festival Executive Committee (Okinawa Prefectural Seinendan Council)
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