Saturday, March 28, 2009

Seimei: Pronounced "She Me"

There's a strange phenomenon that occurs in everyone's life when they become middle aged. You become nostalgic and start thinking back to the good old days. It always seems that when this happens to me, it's the family things that I remember first and foremost. I come from a large family and there are a lot of advantages to being from a large family. One thing that comes to mind is the many holidays and the associated family traditions.

Holidays almost always meant a gathering of the clan to include members of the extended family. For a few precious hours, the house would become a sea of humanity as Aunts and Uncles spent hours on end catching up on old times as the children played with reckless abandon. As with every family gathering there was always a huge feast, accidents happened, tempers flared and fortunately quickly subsided. There was always the some time taken out for remembrance of those who were no longer with us.

Okinawa doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas or a lot of the same holidays we do in the west. But they do have plenty of their own holidays and traditions to speak of. One of these celebrated throughout much of the month of April is called Seimei. Pronounced "She Me" in the local dialect, Seimei is a gathering of all the family and it is rich with ritual and tradition that goes back for hundreds, maybe even a thousand years. Some of the rituals and traditions associated with it may seem strange to westerners at the onset. But if you take time to examine them, you'll find that there are many similarities as well.

Of all the rituals associated with Seimei, perhaps the one that is most important and seems the strangest to westerners is the gathering of the clan at the family crypt. Here it's a picnic like atmosphere. Everything that takes place seems for the most part to be normal but it's the location that seems most strange. You need only remember that it's a time of remembrance to bring a sense of normality to it. In Japan, the family is very high in order of importance. In Okinawa, it's first and foremost.

Okinawans think of themselves not so much in terms of what they are as in a vocation or profession. Much more important in their culture is their family lineage. Most people from the older generations can tell from the family name, where on the island the family originated. For example they might know that the Oshiro's come from Itoman in the south, the Yonamine's come from the Motobu peninsula in the north and the Tsuhako's come from Chinen in the east and so on. Though not as common as it used to be, in some cases, it's even still possible to tell what a persons profession is based on their family name.

A lot of preparations go into holding a successful Seimei. Because families are extended and attendance is practically mandatory, some scheduling has to be done to insure that daughters and their husbands can attend. After all, they must also attend the husband's side of the family's celebration too. Traditional foods are prepared the night before as well as the morning of. Incense and offerings to the ancestors must be prepared.


On the day of the big event and everyone finally arrives, the area must be cleaned of weeds and debris. The offerings are arranged before the altar and incense is burned. The incense used is a special kind that consists of three individual sticks that are fused together. One stick of three is burned for every living member of the household to include those, like myself, who are related by marriage. Lastly, paper representing money is burned and offered to the ancestors. I guess that's because in Heaven they don't take credit cards.

After all the offerings are made to the ancestors and the incense is finally burned away, the family begins to feast. Traditional foods such as fish tempura, gobo root, daikon radish Kamabokko (fish cake) and San-mai-nikku (pork belly) are consumed. For dessert, mochi is on the menu. Mochi is rice that is cooked, pounded and finely kneaded into a paste. Its then stuffed with something sweet, usually adzuki beans and dusted with confectioner's sugar. The whole ceremony lasts about an hour.

Afterward, everyone usually returns to the head of the clan's home and the feasting and fellowship last well into the evening hours. Include a little beer or sake and it may go on through to the next morning. That's all well and good provided you don't have to work the next day. But in Okinawa, allowances are made for this because Seimei is such an important part of the culture. It's who they are!

Need to get in or keep in touch with your family and friends? Try these genuine Goya Republic Post Cards. This photo was taken of a shaman priestess at work and was originally published in the last issue of Everywhere Magazine.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's called a Sanshin


The Okinawan people are great lovers of music. One Okinawan gentleman I was acquainted with once told me with great pride that after he finished college and got his first real job, he took the very first pay check he received and blew it all on a Sanshin just so he could have something to do in the evening hours when he was bored. I think he mentioned that he was paid by the month at that time. That's a bit extreme in my book but I guess some people would rather play music than eat.
Suffice it to say, it's simply a safe bet to say that when it comes to music, nothing quite says Okinawa like a Sanshin! Some people refer to it as the Okinawa banjo. It's made from a snakeskin-covered resonance chamber, a short neck in comparison with its younger mainland Japanese cousin the samisen and has but three strings. Some say its close in resemblance and appearance with the Chinese “Sanxian” suggests Chinese origins. This only makes sense since the old Kingdom of the Ryukyus (what Okinawa used to be known as) had very close ties with China.

It's an enduring part of the culture of the islands. The devastation that was The Battle of Okinawa laid everything waste. People were starving and homeless. People scrounged for whatever they could. The U.S. military built up the island in preparation for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. An atomic bomb or two got the cooler heads in mainland Japan thinking about survival and fortunately the invasion was averted.

But it was this massive American build up in preparation for the invasion that sustained the people for a time after the battle. It also created the one thing the people had plenty of, scrap. This is where the true genius of the Okinawan people showed through. These days we often flippantly say that one man's trash is another man's treasure. The people of Okinawa proved that theory in spades! Think of the closing scene from the movie "Tea House of the August Moon" and multiply that by a thousand and you'll probably have it just about right.

This ingenuity is on display today at the new prefectural museum in Naha, Okinawa's capitol city. There on display visitors can see the many things created out of the war machines refuse. There's a fishing boat made from the belly fuel tank of an American fighter plane and cookware made from discarded artillery shells just to name a few. One of the enduring symbols of Okinawa's rise from the ashes is the Kankan Sanshin. This is a musical instrument made from discarded cookie tins and coffee cans.

Kankan Sanshins are popular gifts and easily found by walking through the markets. True musical aficionados look for the real thing which is made from the snakeskin of the venomous Habu. Due to international wildlife protection treaties, it is presently not legal to export snakeskin-covered Sanshins to some countries. For anyone interested in purchasing a Sanshin to take out of Okinawa, it is probably advisable to purchase one that is not covered with snakeskin. Non-snakeskin-covered Sanshins tend to be less well made, have inferior sound qualities and are thus much cheaper to buy.

There are essentially two options available to someone looking for a quality Sanshin. They can purchase a real snakeskin Sanshin and have the resonance chamber covered in material that resembles snakeskin. Most music stores that deal in Sanshin's can do this for a nominal fee. The other option is they can move to Okinawa. Me personally, I chose the latter.


The Sanshin is very important to Okinawan music. Virtually all traditional folk music called "Mineo" or "Minyo" is accompanied by Sanshin, Taiko drums or both. It's a unique style of music that ranges in tempo and beat from happy go lucky to painfully slow. To the first time listener unfamiliar with the genre, it can sometimes get your blood up and be spiritually uplifting or to others it can sound like someone molesting a cat. But with the popularity of all things Okinawan these days, the instrument has transcended traditional music and found its way into Japanese Pop!

The Sanshin is as Okinawan as the banjo is American or the bagpipes Scottish. Popular Okinawan based artists and bands from Kina Shokiichi, The Boom, Begin and Orange Range just to name a few incorporate the Sanshin into much if not all of their musical fare. They enjoy success that reaches far beyond the tiny island they all call home. Some even say they owe much of their success to the unique sound of this very unique musical instrument. The Sanshin has without a doubt a very interesting history that in many ways defines a whole culture.


Here's a favorite photo of mine that I digitally enhanced to make look like a painting. I have more available at my store which you can see by clicking on the picture here or the title of this post. Enjoy your visit to the Goya Republic.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Old Fashioned Way

Grain cultivation has been the mainstay of mankind for several thousand years. It is the stuff that empires were built on, wars were started over and it is the foundation of our many diverse civilizations. Wheat barley and rye became the staples of western Asia and Europe. Rice spread through southern and eastern Asia. Here on tiny Okinawa it waited until the 11th Century when a local feudal lord imported it from China and started his own rice crop for his own personal uses.

Key to cultivating this staple of Asia is a plentiful supply of fresh water and is the basis of the theory of "Hydraulic Despotism." This theory basically states that those who controlled the water controlled cultivation and therefore the right to rule. In what has become present day China, Japan and the many countries of Southeast Asia, the great rivers and plains were developed to build this cash crop and the economy. Rice became not only currency, it was king and the king maker.
On tiny Okinawa, with few navigable rivers, a small watershed and limited tillable terrain spring water was often the key to a successful crop. Those that controlled the water supply again controlled the local economy. More rice cultivation meant more money and prosperity. Unfortunately, the limited amount of arable land practically assured that the rice economy was barely sufficient to support the local populace.

The work of rice cultivation is back breaking to say the least. Places where the land is relatively flat and large rice paddies could be more easily built are very few. In the more rugged hill country "which is roughly all of Okinawa" smaller terraced paddies had to be built along the steep hillsides. Water dykes of rock and mud were constructed on steep hillsides and changed the landscape. The force of gravity was ingeniously employed to provide water from mountain springs to the crop lands below.

Even in the low lands where cultivation areas were well established the work was not easy. Rice is grown from seedlings which are produced in the winter months for planting in the spring. Each year the fields have to be meticulously prepared from dry ground. The soil is turned over and cleared of invasive plants. Once ready the fields are flooded and the soil is turned again. Planting time arrives with the warm winds of spring. Whole families and sometimes even whole communities collectively shared in the toils of planting and the hoped for prosperity of the harvest.

After the planting came the waiting and hoping. Okinawa is frequented by many typhoons which give the region its nickname "typhoon alley!" In addition to the elements, the crop could easily be threatened by invasive insects, amphibian species and migratory waterfowl. Drought, disease, thieves and feuding warlords intent on stealing the crop was a constant threat. The farmer had to be ever diligent to watch over his labors and protect his livelihood.

As the time of harvest approached, the fields were drained and when the time was right the crop was harvested all by hand. Tares were hung to dry in the late summer sun and then sent to the threshing floor. A portion of the crop was set aside as seed for the following spring. What wasn't collected from them as taxes or rents was all they had and it usually wasn't much. Ingenious farmers and communities found ways to hide away a little extra to help assure their survival through the winter months and into the following growing season and the cycle renewed itself.

To be successful, one not only had to be industrious but ingenious. Along with the cultivation of the crop came new ways to make the labor easier and the yield greater. As some farmers found success, their families, their wealth and their power in the community grew. Success was often rewarded with land for more cultivation. Families grew into villages and trade changed villages into towns and cities. But it was a thin and fragile line between success and starvation. A typhoon, drought or blight could wipe out a fortune and several generations of hard back breaking work in a single season.

With the industrial revolution came the need for even more cultivation to feed the masses that moved from the countryside to the now burgeoning cities. New inventions came into the market that made planting, protecting the crop and harvesting even easier and provided farmers the opportunities to expand even further. In no time at all it seemed that work that once took twenty people to do now only take one or two to complete.

In the last generation or so mankind has seen the emergence of the environmental movement. Insecticides and fertilizers "chemicals" that helped increase crop yields and fueled the now global economy are now viewed as threatening our very survival. Some think that mans own ingenuity may be the instrument of his own demise. Still others will say that we're thinking far too much. Now it has become stylish and people are looking to go "Green." Instead of using pesticides to poison threatening species and potentially ourselves, environmentally friendly ways are being given a second and third look. It seems that once again, all that was old has now become new again. In some cases, at least in this one, the term "old fashioned" seems to be back in vogue and the cycle of life like the seasons of the year continues on.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Democracy, it Ain't Cheap!

From JPG Magazine website 15 June 2008.

At least once a week my friend Mike and I get 1 day pass from our wives to go out and do what we like to do best. That is to get out and about the beautiful island paradise of Okinawa, Japan that we now call home. But there once was a time for both of us that the uniform of the day consisted of items other than Aloha shirts, shorts, flip-flops and in my case, a ball cap to protect my brain housing group from getting fried by the sun.

Mike spent just a tad under 30 years in the Marine Corps and I barely survived a scant distance past twenty in the Navy. These days, though we patrol distant lands by choice, we are armed only with our cameras, tripods and enough Yen for gas, lunch and to feed our politically incorrect addiction to tobacco products. Anything to support the American Farmer!

Usually we spend the day along the beach taking pictures of migratory waterfowl and whatever interesting critters that washes up on the beach. Occasionally we will take a trip to some of the more exotic places to see on this little strip of coral and limestone in the far western pacific. There are quite a few interesting places to see as well as photograph here. As a matter of fact, that was our intent this particular morning but fate seemed to say otherwise.

Our intent that morning was to drive south to one of the salt marshes where the local news reports had spotted a scoop beaked heron that had fishing line tangled around its beak and was in danger of starving. The drive south would have taken us at least an hour and we both needed to stop by the ATM machine on the nearby Marine base for a little walking around money.

As we approached the gate we began to hear the sounds of chanting on loudspeakers and we knew immediately that one of the local groups was protesting the presence of the U.S. military here. With our cameras at the ready we walked around the corner of the entertainment district right outside the main gate to see them in all their glory.

There were a dozen or more people standing outside the main gate holding their signs and chanting slogans. Though many of the signs were in both Japanese and English, all of the chanting was in Japanese so most of the Marines and Sailors inside the fence line knew nothing of what they were saying. It was 0800 and most of them were busy at work doing what they do best, defending freedom and democracy around the globe.

Mike and I quickly fixed our lenses in their general direction as our shutters snapped greedily away. To their credit, protests here are for the most part very peaceful and last only a few minutes. Molotov cocktails, rocks, insults, spit and other bodily excretions hurled at authority figures are almost exclusively reserved for students at American Universities.

Perhaps more than most peoples around the globe, the Okinawan's have a right to dislike the military. Sixty three years ago during the World War Two battle that claims this islands name, over a quarter of a million souls met their maker during the three month long battle known locally as the "Typhoon of Steel." More than two thirds of that number was civilians. Compare that to the number of years our forces have been in Iraq, and though no number of lives lost is insignificant, it pales by comparison.

And mind you, they weren't just protesting our presence there, they have a disdain for all military. They chanted for the Japanese military or JSDF to leave just as loudly as they chanted for our "Yankees to Go Home!" My heart went out to them. Not necessarily because I agreed with them in this instance. You must remember that I wore a uniform, I know the costs of freedom and better men than I lost their lives defending their right to be there.

That was perhaps the thing about the whole episode that was most amusing to me. What those men and women outside the gates protesting with their signs and chants failed to realize is that the men and women in uniform inside those gates would gladly lay down their lives to defend their right to protest. To me, that is democracy. It isn't free and it's worth defending!

Edited to add, Many of the protests held here like anywhere else are questionable if not outright bogus. Since the original posting on the JPG magazine website, these good people were given a legitimate reason to be concerned about. It's alleged that a stray round from a range on this very base was to have landed in a residential area just to the south. The ranges face away from the populated areas and thus a round landing in an opposite direction from where the targets are located is puzzling. Stay tuned for more information by checking out my Expatriate Games Blog as the event unfolds.

Regardless, I think all sides could use a little "Latitude" adjustment!