On the 30-odd subtropical isles of the Ogasawara Island chain that lie sparkling in the South Pacific, some 1,000 km south of Tokyo, there exists a unique music and dance form classified as an Intangible Cultural Property of the capital. Historians have traced the evolution of this performing art to the confluence of unrelated styles from Japan and Micronesia and Palau, 2,000 km south of the Ogasawaras. Termed nan’yo, which in Japanese refers to “influence from the south,” these performances emerged in the Ogasawaras in the 1930s, and experts hold them up as evidence of how culture has spread along sea routes between islands through the ages.

The crosspollination of the Ogasawaras is on display this month at the Tokyo Summer Festival 2007, when singers and dancers from the Ogasawaras and Palau showcase these traditional arts under the theme “Towards the Islands — Sounds Across the Sea.”

The dance element of the performance, nan’yo odori, can be traced to hula in Hawaii, from where the original people of the Ogasawaras migrated. The first traces of Hawaiian settlers found by anthropologists on the Ogasawaras date to about 1830, and the word Oubeikei, used in Japan in reference to Ogasawarans, backs this up — it means Westerner. Says Masaki Shibuya, a dancer who arrived in the Ogasawaras two decades ago from Tokyo, “Nan’yo dance is strong and rhythmic. The counts (for the steps) are ‘than, than, thaka,’ and the rhythm goes on in that cycle — which is conveyed to the audience through the stamping feet of the dancer.”

Ancient chants, led by musicians now in their 80s, can be traced back to once-abundant indigenous shamanism practiced on the Ogasawaras. Experts also detect the influence of the Shinto religion in the songs, an influence that trickled in through the Japanese who settled on the islands from Hachijojima Island, 700 km to the north, in the late 1830s. The lyrics of the songs are a mix of Japanese, Polynesian and English, the latter borrowed from elementary-school songs sung in Japanese schools before World War II — and therefore some of the songs have Christian origins.

Nan’yo performers dance to the kaka, a drum carved from the wood of the tamana tree, which is indigenous to the Ogasawaras, while ukulele music accompanies the folk songs. The sounds are haunting and remind the listener of the sounds of the sea — the whispering waves, the deep blue of the ocean and the islanders’ spiritual communion with their surroundings. The result is that 25 hours south of Tokyo by boat can be found dance and music with rich anthropological roots — South Pacific, Japanese and European. In 1987, a nan’yo odori preservation association was established to maintain the performing art, promote it, and to identify the various forms of foreign and local influences that created it.

The first European to visit the Ogasawaras was Spanish explorer Bernardo de la Torre in 1543. In 1593 they were visited by the Japanese samurai Ogasawara Sadayori, from whom the islands derive their name. British and American whalers built shipyards in the islands between 1820-30. The islands were claimed by Japan from the British in 1875 and became part of Tokyo Prefecture in 1880.

According to Junko Konishi, a musicology professor at Shizuoka University, the Ogasawaras flourished as a staging point between mainland Japan and Micronesia between 1914 and 1945. The movement of Ogasawarans visiting or migrating to Micronesia, and further southwest to the islands of Palau, resulted in a wide exchange of musical styles, she explains.

Inhabitants of small islands, according to Konishi, constantly grapple with lack of space, the vagaries of the weather, boredom, and a stream of visitors who often take their land and water. This pattern contributes to regular migration between small islands. Thus, says Konishi, survival is an issue that consumes their lives, a situation that creates a population with tough physical and mental abilities combined with the capacity to respect and absorb others.

“The culture of smaller islands is extremely rich in diversity, and this is the main difference between them and bigger islands such as mainland Japan and Okinawa,” says Konishi.

The larger land mass of big islands provides greater food and water self-sufficiency, conditions that allow the development of an indigenous culture distinct from the volatility of the constant mixing and borrowing strains of smaller islands. “To be frank, I find the dynamism of smaller islands far more interesting than the mainstream cultures of bigger islands,” Konishi points out. “The tougher lifestyles have made the people clever and deeply conscious of the importance of community. This is their strength.”

According to Tokyo Summer Festival producer Kazuo Iida, the Ogasawaras reflect a culture that is closer to the slower pace of Micronesia than that of mainland Japan. “Still, what is deeply enticing is that the Ogasawaras are essentially a part of the Japanese culture,” Iida says. “The exercise is humbling. The conventional view in Japan is that the nation has a mainland culture and the cultures of Okinawa and Hokkaido. This narrow definition of Japanese culture ignores smaller islands, and it is time for us to have a second look. These concerts create this opportunity.”

To that end, organizers have already staged concerts by folk performers from Aogashima, an island with just 190 inhabitants at the southernmost tip of the Izu Peninsula. Aogashima’s isolation has helped preserve a unique culture, religion and performing arts that have long since fallen out of practice on Hachijojima.

Iida hopes the festival serves as a platform to share views between people living on bigger islands, such as mainland Japan, and smaller islands.

“The concerts are aimed at not only bringing to the public a knowledge of the hidden influences in Japanese culture, but also involve the fascinating experiment of helping people to look at each other from their various island backgrounds,” he says.

Such positive analysis has begun to appeal to people in large cities. Tokyoites are some of the Ogasawaras most ardent fans, joining ukulele clubs and studying nan’yo odori as well as visiting Micronesia for further research.

As Shibuya explains, “The attraction of a plural society is becoming more pertinent in the world. Where better to experience it than the Ogasawaras, right in our own neighborhood?”

“Dances and Ancient Chants from the Ogasawara Islands and Palau” will be performed at 7 p.m. on July 31 and Aug. 1 at Koi Small Hall, Tokyo; tickets 4,000 yen from Arion Ticket Centre on (03) 5301-0950. For more information, visit www.arion-edo.org

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.