Eisa is a form of folk dance originating from the Okinawa Islands, Japan. In origin it is a Bon dance that is performed by young people of each community during the Bon festival to honor the spirits of their ancestors. However, it underwent drastic changes in the 20th century and is today seen as a vital part of Okinawan culture.
Eisa as we see today is danced by 20-30 young men and women, mainly in a circle to the accompaniment of singing, chanting, and drumming by the dancers, and folk songs played on the sanshin. Three types of drums are used in various combinations, depending upon regional style: the odaiko , a large barrel drum; the shimedaiko, a medium-sized drum similar to ones used in Noh theatre; and the paarankuu, a small hand drum similar to ones used in Buddhist ceremony. The dancers also sometimes play small hand gongs and yotsutake castanets. Eisa dancers wear various costumes, usually according to local tradition and sex of the dancer; modern costumes are often brightly colored and feature a characteristic, colorful knotted turban. Special vests and leggings are also popular.
The origin of Eisa is unclear just like other folk performing arts. Iha Fuyu argued that the name of Eisa was related to wesa omoro, a phrase appearing in Volume 14 of the Omoro Soshi (16th-17th centuries). This theory is no longer supported. It is more likely that the name derived from an exclamation used in the original song of Eisa, the Mamauya Ninbuchi (Mamaoya Nembutsu. The standardization of the written form was relatively new. Meiji era newspaper articles used various forms including Yensaa, Yaisaa and Ensaa.
The core of Eisa consists of nembutsu songs. The Ryukyu-koku yuraiki (1713) attributes the introduction of nembutsu to Taichu (1552-1639), a Jodo sect monk from Mutsu Province. According to the record, he translated Buddhist teaching into the vernacular speech and taught it to the people of Naha during the reign of Sho Nei. Other sources confirm that Taichu stayed in the capital region for three years in the early 1600s and converted the king and other high-ranking officials. Some researchers speculate that he introduced odori nembutsu or dancing nembutsu to Naha. However, Taichu's teaching did not prevail; it was barely carried on by his followers in Kakinohana, Naha.
Another important factor related to the origin of Eisa is Chondaraa, a group of puppeteers. The Ryukyu-koku yuraiki records two theories regarding the etymology of Chondaraa. One is that it indicates their origin, Kyoto. The other is that its founder was named Kyo (no) Kotaro . The fact that their origin had been obscured by the early 18th century suggests that they came from mainland Japan a long time ago. Based on modern-day Shuri Kubagawa-cho (part of the capital Shuri), they performed puppet plays, chanted Banzei (manzai) on celebratory occasions and sang nembutsu songs as a funeral service. For these reasons, they were also called Ninbuchaa (nembutsu prayer) or Yanzayaa (banzei chanter). It is uncertain if the Chondaraa performed nembutsu from the very beginning or learned later from a different group. Unlike Taichu's followers, they wandered around Okinawa Island.
The spread of nembutsu from mainland Japan was not limited to Okinawa. In the Yaeyama Islands, Bon dance is usually called Angama and is accompanied with nembutsu songs. The Amami Islands also have nembutsu songs, but at least some of them may belong to a tradition different from Okinawa's Chondaraa. Note that these traditions are not identified with Eisa. Eisa is considered specific to the Okinawa Islands.
Pre-World War II Traditions
It is not clear when nembutsu songs spread to central Okinawa, which later played a central role in transforming Eisa. According to an oral tradition, Eisa was introduced to Kamiyama, Ginowan in the Meiji period, when a wealthy farmer invited performers from Shuri and made them teach Bon dance to young villagers. The community of Ganeko, Ginowan has a similar oral history. It appears that Eisa spread to northern Okinawa from the late Meiji period to the early Showa period. Several communities in northern Okinawa believe that Eisa was introduced from Sesoko, Motobu, a supplying center of seasonal workers.
In modern Okinawa, Eisa has gradually changed itself into popular entertainment by incorporating non-Buddhist folk songs and by adding visually appealing choreography although the Eisa dance still began with nembutsu songs such as Mamauya Ninbuchi, Choja nu Nagari, and Yamabushi". It has also developed regional variants. Kobayashi Yukio, a researcher of Okinawan folk songs, classified various forms of Eisa into four groups:
- Taiko Eisa: mainly performed in central Okinawa. A parade is led by male drummers and is followed by female or mixed dancers. A dozen of songs are performed in a mid-tempo.
- Paaranku Eisa: distributed in Uruma of midwestern Okinawa. A parade led by hand drummers and followed by a mixed group of men and women. A dozen of songs are performed in an unhurried tempo.
- Drumless Eisa: a typical of the Motobu Peninsula (Nago, Motobu and Nakijin) in northern Okinawa. Men and women line up in a circle around a wooden scaffold where sanshin is played. Dancers use no drum. A dozen to twenty songs are performed in a fast tempo.
- Female Eisa: distributed in the northern end of Okinawa. A dozen to twenty songs with varying tempo are performed solely by women.
Kobayashi Yukio analyzes modern Eisa as a result of the effort by each community's newly organized youth association, an influence from sophisticated theatrical performance of Naha, and a social movement of modernization that forced young people to turn from "sexually explicit" gathering to the "healthy" dance.
Eisa was to be performed at the Bon Festival. It is not known when it extended to other occasions. Newspaper articles confirm that Eisa, together with other folk performing arts, had been performed as an attraction at various government-sponsored exhibitions in central Okinawa already in 1900s.
Post-World War II Transformation
Eisa underwent drastic changes in post-World War II Okinawa. In 1956, then under U.S. occupation, the first Zento Eisa Contest was held in Koza (part of the modern-day city of Okinawa). It was originally an effort to recover from a great damage to the base-dependent commercial city caused by the "Off Limits" ordinance by the U.S. military.
As a contest, participating groups were judged by screening criteria such as costumes, formation, technique, the number of performers and innovativeness. Folklorist Kumada Susumu noted values imposed by the criteria. They clearly emphasized group dynamics although earlier groups were not necessarily large. Contrary to today's perception of Eisa as Okinawa's tradition, they did encourage the creative nature of Eisa. In fact it was not uncommon to wear Western clothing during the performance.
Another major event, "Youth Furusato Eisa Festival" began in Naha in 1964, originally under the name of "All Okinawa Seinen Eisa Contest." At first both events took a form of competition. In 1975 the latter abolished the contest and changed itself into a non-competitive festival, which was followed by the former in 1977. One reason behind the change was that some youth associations started showing their dissatisfaction at values imposed by the contests.
Eisa had changed itself into spectacular group dynamics that was to fascinate the audience. To give the performance more punch, participating groups adopted an increasingly large number of drums. The adoption of luxurious uniforms was another effort to win the contest.
A new form of Eisa, so-called "club team Eisa," came on the scene in 1980s. The Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko, formed in 1982, is a typical example. While "traditional" Eisa is performed by community-based youth associations, new clubs are independent of local communities. They are characterized by a break from perceived tradition, for example, with the adoption of Okinawa pop and the participation of female drummers. Okinawa pop in turn approached Eisa in 1990s.
Club team Eisa grew into a significant success. They managed to export Eisa to Miyako and Yaeyama of Okinawa Prefecture, to Yoron Island (1992) and Okinoerabu Island (1993) of neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture, and to the Kanto and Kansai regions, where people of Okinawan descent concentrated. The Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko now has oversea charters.
One consequence of the rise of club team Eisa is a crisis in authenticity. In response, youth associations increasingly see their community-based Eisa as Okinawan tradition although the perceived tradition is a result of "growing pains" of up to 1970s.