Traditional Okinawan Arts
Discover centuries of traditional arts and culture
As the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa flourished through trade with China, Japan, and other countries throughout Asia. It also prospered culturally, taking different ideas and cultural elements from its trading partners and mixing them with its own to create something distinctly Okinawan. This concept of blending, or champuru, can be seen in many different aspects of Okinawan life and culture, especially its traditional arts and crafts. These centuries-old artforms have stood the test of time, and offer visitors exciting opportunities to get hands on with the history of the islands.
Okinawa’s traditional pottery, yachimun, blends influences and techniques from China, mainland Japan, and Korea. While yachimun was practiced in various regions throughout Okinawa, in 1682 pottery kilns were relocated to Tsuboya, in Naha, giving rise to Tsuboya ware (Tsuboya-yaki), one of Okinawa’s most enduring styles of pottery.
Tsuboya ware is as practical as it is beautiful. It is made with regional clay, and can be divided into two broad categories: arayachi and joyachi. Arayachi pieces are rustic, unglazed works such as sake flasks and water jugs. Joyachi works are artfully glazed in bright colors, and range from casual tableware to works of art.
Although Tsuboya is still a hub for pottery, the yachimun tradition has spread further. In 1972 Jiro Kinjo, a potter honored as a Living National Treasure of Okinawa, opened a studio in Yomitan. With an abundance of high quality clay in the area, many artisans followed, and the Yomitan Pottery Village (Yachimun no Sato) was founded. An annual Yachimun Fair is held in October or November in Yomitan, and in November in Tsuboya.
Glass production in Okinawa began in the early Meiji era (1868–1912). Originally the glass produced was transparent, but the post-war period gave rise to colorful Ryukyu glass. In the scarcity following WWII, craftsmen would collect glass bottles discarded by the U.S. military, to melt down and recycle into cups and other utensils. Today, Ryukyu glass wares come in a vast array of colors and styles.
Kijoka bashofu is a traditional Okinawan textile made from banana fiber that has been produced in the islands for centuries. Over 40 trees are needed to make the thread for a standard roll of fabric, and the process of harvesting and weaving is done completely by hand. Natural plant dyes are used to create the soft colors of the threads, which are woven in simple, geometric patterns. The fabric itself is durable but lightweight. While it is rarely used for kimono these days, bashofu accessories like neckties, cushion covers, and handbags are quite common. Kijoka bashofu is an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Japan.
Bingata is another representative Okinawan craft with a long legacy, with origins thought to date back to the 15th century. The dyeing technique incorporates aspects of Chinese stencil dyeing, cotton printing techniques from Java and India, and the intricate hand dyeing seen in Kyoto yuzen silks to create vibrant floral patterned designs. The vivid colors used for bingata were quite expensive, and so historically it was only worn by royalty and warriors. The color of the fabric was assigned by class, age, and gender to indicate social status; yellow, derived from the bark of the garcinia (Garcinia subelliptica) tree, was reserved for the highest rank.
The sanshin is a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument covered in snakeskin that features heavily in traditional Ryukyuan music. While it is said to have come from China, the sanshin has become the representative instrument of the islands. From court performances to festival music, the sound of the sanshin is never far off when exploring Okinawa.