Okinawan dance can be an emotional experience that enables dancer, musician, and audience to share in the unique story of the ryuka. It can be as mesmerizing as feeling the seabreeze blowing against your face as the tears well up from heartaching loneliness for a loved one’s departure in “Hanafu”. Okinawan dance or “ryubu”(short for Ryukyu buyo), as its called now, has developed from the Ukwanshin udui (classical court dances), kumi udui(classical musical dance drama), fwa udui(folk dances), to the sousaku(new choreographed dances), shibai(plays), and kageki(musical folk play). No matter how diverse the performing arts were, the dances in them held no ryuha, or “style”, and students were encouraged to learn beyond the walls of their sensei’s studio. Appreciation and recognition of the differences was as natural as breathing. However, today, the world of Okinawan dance has taken on a very different road that is leading it farther and farther away from the source and tradition. This path that is basically ruining “ryubu” is the iemoto system.
In 1983, when I first visited Okinawa and went for training and testing there, there were only a few iemoto. Literally translating to “founder of the house”, this title has been used and passed down through a familial lineage in mainland Japan for centuries, especially in schools of art and culture. It is similar to the pyramid system in the west, but a bit more structured and with a very disciplined framework of etiquette and rules. The title is usually passed down to an heir that is in the bloodline. In Okinawa however, it was first started by Yuko Majikina upon returning to Okinawa after the war, to sort of copyright his style and choreography. After this, others were encouraged by Japanese officials to take on this title, but the structure and discipline never resembled the Japanese iemoto system. All it was, was a title. However, due to this, many different “styles” of ryuha emerged, such as Majikina Honryu, Tamagusuku Ryu, Miyagi Ryu, Tokashiki Ryu, and others. Prior to this, the dance movements were attributed to “so and so’s ” kenkyu jo, or place of study. Nowadays, it is a collaberation of style and “dojo”, leaving out the “kenkyu” or study. The iemoto system has, within the last 10-15 years reached an “epidemic”. Everyone wants to have this title, and when they feel like it, tacks it on to their name, as leader of their school. Prices have risen in tuition, styles are getting less recognizable, and teaching certificates are sporting a price tag of $5000 for the first level teaching certificate. In the Tamagusuku Ryu itself, there are more than 10 self proclaimed iemoto, which is absurd to the Japanese performing artists. It seems that pride, prestige, popularity, and money had driven many to take on the popular title. The dance art has be come an “all about me” world. Okinawa’s iemoto enjoy large dance studios, and roam the streets in designer wear and bags, as many students barely can afford to learn the art.
In the days when the current iemoto were learning dance, the sensei seldom took money for teaching, and teaching certificates. The teachers of old lived on the donations of food and money from fans, supporters, and students. Their places of teaching were in small cramped houses, outdoors, or wherever was available. Recognition of one’s talents and level of dance was by what the teacher saw, and came when the sensei felt it was right. It was a priviledge to be given a certificate of teaching, which basically graduated you from the school to go off and start on your own. It was similar to a family, and having a child go out into the world to start a life. In teaching, a sensei would often send students to different teachers to learn a certain dance or style of that particular school. Students were taken care of by the sensei like their own children. There wasn’t a wall between schools. Today, it is virtually impossible to learn from another school. During the training period of testing for “konkuru” ( testing/contest sponsored by the newspaper companies, and which also have added to the problems in the performing arts), tuitions are almost doubled, and money collected for almost everything from snacks for the sensei, gratuity for make-up, and rental of costumes. After the test is done, if a student passes, or doesn’t pass, an envelope of monetary gratitude is expected to be given to the head of the school. This kind of “protocol” would have been unheard of by the late sensei who were responsible for returning the pride and traditions of dance to the people after the war. The current system does not reflect the values and emotes an identity that is anything but Okinawan. Many great dancers have left because they have been suffocated by restrictions as to not excel or shine out more than the iemoto themselves. The family feeling within the schools have gone as the iemoto try to imitate the Japanese system without actually understanding it, and realizing that the Okinawan performing arts has a style and protocol unique to Okinawa, just as the people and culture are different. The future generations of leaders in Okinawan dance art need to rethink this iemoto system, and hopefully realize that this system was never part of the art, and should be eliminated to allow growth again.