Kings and Queens

Once upon a time, Okinawa was its own ‘nation’, the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. With a distinct language and culture, it was, and in some ways still is, very distinct from mainland Japan, which took it over in 1879.

Every five years, Okinawans living abroad hold a massive reunion on Okinawa, with tens of thousands of people with Okinawan roots returning to the motherland. It’s the Uchinanchu Festival, and it turns Okinawa into a huge sort of party, with festivals, concerts, and inter cultural events.

One such event that I happened to catch was the Shuri Castle Festival, with its procession of the Kings and Queens of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It took place not at the castle itself, but on Kokusai Dori, the ‘main strip’ of downtown Naha.

First came the King and the Queen, followed by other members of the court. The procession turned out to be a solemn affair, with people in traditional costumes making slow steps down the street, some playing instruments such as sanshin, or doing a dance.

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The costumes were all very interesting – and totally different from anything you’d ever see at a festival in mainland Japan. But for me, the stars of the show arrived at the very end of the procession: the ladies with the large elaborate hats known as Hanagasa. A true symbol of Okinawa, the Hanagasa represents a red hibiscus, and the blue sections represent the waves of the ocean.

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They were gone too soon! And they really stole the show. Everyone wanted to follow them to take pictures. Their kimono are also special because they are made with the bingata designs, an Okinawan art style using stencils and dye.

The longer I stay here, the more I begin to understand why people consider themselves Okinawan first, and Japanese second.

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