Next week my students, they are still too new to be my kids yet, are going on their school trip to Okinawa so in music class they are singing a lot of Okinawan songs. I had forgotten how much I like a lot of stuff that comes from Okinawa. It largely proves that Japanese pop music can have a depth to it that isn't reflected in the majority of TV backed hits. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Okinawa, as a prefecture, has a lot of street cred, if you will. It was an independent kingdom concurred by the Japanese, tortured by the Japanese, destroyed by the American, occupied by the Americans and exploited by both countries. It has the highest poverty rates in Japan. Here the band Begin sings the song "Shimanchu no Takara" "Shimanchu" is the Okinawan reading of "島人” meaning "island person." "Takara" means treasure. No, it is not about pirates. In this song he talks about the things that were important to him growing up on the island. I particularly like the line where he choses to say "They don't let us have TV or radio." Not "We don't have TVs or radios." Strangely, I went to see a Japanese folk rock show last night and this guy played this song. I was really stoked. I think a lot of younger people get the message about Okinawa.
This next song, "Shimauta, "Island Song", by The Boom is more in your face. Not in its sound or approach, its lyrics are a bit vague, but in its theme and deeper substance. On the surface this song can be read as a sweet love song about a young boy saying goodbye to his romantic interests in the forest on the island. It is really about the forced mass suicides preceeding the U.S. invasion, and about a young student, as many of the suicides were, saying goodbye to the world. It is a terribly wrenching song, but an enduring pop hit. But, here is the weird part. The Boom isn't from Okinawa. They are from Yamanashi, but the singer became very touched by Okinawa and its music. Still, a good song on the topic.
I will put two versions here. One with the English translation, and the next live from Tokyo because it seems so in your face aggresive in a way to me. Notice in both of these songs the use of the Sanshin.
I should also point out that the first guitar riff in "Shimauta" is probably one of the most famous and recognizable in Japanese music.
Moving back to Okinawan music from Okinawa. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Mongol 800, whose songs are not particularly political but whose radness is overwhelmingly. If you lived in Japan in 2001-2002 this song was unavoidable, and there was nothing wrong with that. "Chisanakoinouta" is still one of my favorite songs in any language ever. You don;t have to know anything about Japanese. Here.