Okinawa openly welcomed the knowledge and skills gained through trade and exchanges with Japan and China, as well as other East and Southeast Asian countries during the Great Trade Era, which spanned between the 14th and 16th centuries, and incorporated it into Ryukyu society to form the foundation on which its unique culture has developed.
Performing arts such as playing the sanshin and dancing were developed at banquets to cater to the Chinese envoys, while kumiodori dance came from the influence of noh and kabuki from Japan during the 18th century.
Crafts were refined with improved quality and skills to pay tribute to the Edo shogunate in the 17th century. The Disposition of Ryukyu brought competition with cheap products from the mainland Japan, but the Okinawan crafts began to receive high praise as they entered the Showa era in the early-middle decades of the 20th century.
During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the traditional culture, both tangible and intangible, were subjected to devastating damage. Since the end of the war, traditional crafts have evolved in response to the needs of the times and began to establish its current status.
After the war, traditional performing arts quickly recovered as a way to heal the hearts of the people, and these have been passed down at the local level from one generation to the next.
In Okinawa, pottery is called yachimun. The quality of pottery improved through exchanges with neighboring countries such as China and Korea, and in 1616, potters of Korean-style pottery were invited from Satsuma in Japan to further elevate the craft.
In 1682, pottery kilns located in three different places were consolidated in Tsuboya, Naha, which then became the birthplace of Tsuboya-yaki, the pottery that most typifies Okinawan pottery. Prior to this, pottery was produced in numerous regions of Okinawa. Of note is the ruin of a kiln in Kina, the Yomitan area of Central Okinawa, that was used to make Kinayaki, which is said to be the oldest variety amongst Okinawan pottery.
In 1972, as a result of Jiro Kinjo, a designated Living National Treasure of Okinawa, opening a studio in Yomitan, many potters followed, and Yomitan became a place known for yachimun alongside Tsuboya in Naha.
The Yachimun Fair is held on the third Saturday and Sunday of October in Yomitan, and in November in Tsuboya, Naha, we highly recommend you visit if you have a chance.
Glass production in Okinawa began in the early Meiji era. At the time, the glass produced was transparent, unlike the colorful ones you see today. The Ryukyu glass, as it is known today, came into existence after the war. It all started with reusing discarded empty glass coca-cola and juice bottles from the US military to make cups and other daily necessities in times of scarcity. Today, there are highly artistic pieces in a vast array of colors.
Bashofu has one of the longest histories among woven fabrics in Okinawa. Well known for its properties of allowing air flow helping the wearer to keep cool, and for its durability, it was worn by everyone, from the common people to the warrior class. Over 40 leaves of the basho tree are used to make the thread needed to weave one standard roll, and because the work is done entirely by hand, it requires skilled technique and patience. Nowadays, it is seldom used to make kimonos for everyday wear, and used instead to make products of other forms, such as accessories and bags.
Bingata, the dyed fabric representative of Okinawa, is thought to be the product of incorporating the techniques of printed cotton from India and Java, as well as pattern papers and Kyoyuzen from China, and craftsmanship in this areas had become highly developed by the mid-18th century. Dyes such as Ryukyu indigo and Garcinia were valuable, thus they were developed for clothing intended to be worn by royalty and the warrior class. With yellow as the color for the highest rank, colors were assigned by class, age, and gender.
Sanshin is the prominent instrument representative of the performing arts in Okinawa and said to have come from China, becoming a common musical instrument in Ryukyu around the 16th century. It is still used to perform Ryukyuan music, and you can hear the sound of sanshin everywhere in Okinawa even today.