An Eisa Festival: Photo Essay

Eisa is a dance unique to Okinawa Prefecture. Similar, in some ways, to the dances performed during Obon (An ancestor worship event in mainland Japan), Eisa may be seen anytime, year-round in Okinawa.

The photos below were taken on August 14, 2010 at an Eisa Matsuri (Festival) in Kin Village, my hometown. This time of year there’s a Festival going on somewhere every weekend and I attend as many as possible, sometimes two or three a day.

Traditionally all the performers had to be single men and women between the ages of 20 and 29. Over the past few years it has been difficult to find enough dancers to fill the Eisa Groups so, today many of the participants are married and in their thirties.

For now, I’ll let the photos and captions tell the story and introduce you to some of the characters.

Women dance and wave paper fans and the men chant while beating drums.

This character (A Gajan Gani) amuses the crowds by dancing to his own beat. Usually out of step with whatever the rest of the dancers are doing, he entertains folks on the sidelines, much like a circus clown.

Women wear Summer Kimonos (Yukata) and the color of their clothing and fans indicate which district of the village they come from.

A Gajan Gani holds a village banner and stands still for a moment. His robe is made from woven banana fibers. He’s considered a Buffoon by many but, his antics while dancing and waving a banana leaf are meant to chase mosquitoes away.

Refreshment tents surround the field where the dances take place and spectators sitting on mats line the field. Music from Sanshin (3 stringed instruments) by a live band is piped over a loudspeaker system. The men beating the drums determine the pace of the dancers.

A Gajan Gani holds a Hatagashira (Village banner) while his companions whistle and wave their palm fronds and banana leafs. The pace of the dances picks up as the sun sets.

Two Eisa Gals pose for the camera prior to doing their number on the field.

The small handheld drums are called Panraku. The large drum is an Odaiko.

This character is known as a Chondara. He’s another entertainer who may carry the village banner or tease the crowds and dance out of step but, he leaves the mosquitoes to others.

Having just finished a performance, the Eisa Gals posed for a group photo. They can’t resist throwing a Peace Sign along with their smiles, a cultural phenomenon that drives cameramen crazy.

The closing dance, called Kachashii, is one where all the Eisa participants and the audience swarm the stage. If you can smile, whistle, flail your arms and legs in the air without knocking anyone over and chant “Ya sa sa sa sa sa sa”, you’re invited to join-in. The music is lively, fast-paced and meant for everyone from 8 months to over 80 years so, there’s no sense in being shy. You’ll be dragged in.

Two Eisa Guys posed for this shot after the lights went out on the athletic field. They’ve spent hours in the hot sun, danced until way after sunset, will return the drums, banners and costumes to the village and continue partying until the wee hours of the morning. It’s the Okinawan way.

All photos used in this post copyright of Michael Lynch

Read more:
Okinawa: The far South in Japan
Fireworks and American culture: personal freedom and contractual obligations
Dance and Drums at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival in Peru

About the author

Michael Lynch
Mike is a freelance photographer and writer who has been living in Okinawa, Japan for over 30 years.
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6 Comments

  • rebecca

    love the colourful pics, Mike! Just wondering how you pronounce “Eisa”?

    thanks!

  • Bec,
    It’s easy a hard “A” or Eh? and a “sa”. Hope that helps. One of these days, I should get into video filming but, still trying to master still shots !

    Cheers,
    Mike

  • This looks like a lot of fun. Hope you got chance to join in despite wielding the camera. Love the photos!

  • Oh, no! I wouldn’t think of trying to join in. These young folks practice for months before they are allowed to perform. I suppose, maybe, I could imitate the guys who look like Town Drunks!

  • But everyone can join in at the end, right? It does look like a lot of co-ordination goes into the dancing. I was in the majorettes once for our village carnival, I guess that would be the nearest thing we have to this in the UK. We’re definintely more amateurish though!

  • Ah, at the end. Well, I was too busy hauling the cameras around and promised some folks I’d get posed-still photos when they were done so, lucky for me, I didn’t have to dance!