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How the Musical "King Sho Hashi" United the Power of the Okinawan People

In 2009, the Okinawa Association of America marked its 100th anniversary.  As part of its celebration, it brought the musical King Sho Hashi – Dynamic Ryukyu from Okinawa to the Redondo Beach Performance Center, just outside Los Angeles. The show was held on August 28.

King Sho Hashi was the first ruler of the Ryukyu Kingdom after Okinawa was united in 1429 from the three mountains – Northern Mountain, Central Mountain and Southern Mountain – which it had been divided into until then. During his reign, he completed expansion of the Shurijo castle which was used as the royal palace, and put great effort into developing trade with China, Japan (which was a foreign country in the 15th century), Korea and countries to the south. 

I’m not from Okinawa, but because I had previously had the fortune of interviewing Okinawans in America, I was invited to the performance by people involved with the Okinawa Association of America.

The musical King Sho Hashi has King Sho Hashi – the “Hometown Hero” for Okinawans – as the main character. Featuring everything from eisa dance, taiko drums, male dance, female dance, lion dance and karate to modern music and even a collaboration of hula from Hawaii (home to many Okinawan immigrants), you can really call it a compilation of all forms of Okinawan entertainment.

Discussing his purpose in creating the work, producer and stage director Daiichi Hirata said, “For Okinawans, King Sho Hashi was the first historical figure to have a truly positive impact on the country. I want to take that passionate Okinawan tradition and convey it to future generations using King Sho Hashi as the motif.” 

The audience was as fired up as the performers on stage. Together with a troupe from Okinawa featuring Hirata, the cast brought together artists from Hawaii and local performers from Los Angeles. The audience was filled with people involved with the Okinawa Association of America coming out to support family members.  

Young dancers from an American eisa troupe stood in the aisles, holding their taiko drums and putting on a powerful performance. Without leaving their seats, countless people in the audience waived their hands in the air in sync with the performance.

After the ending where the performers and audience united in singing the Okinawan song, “Hana” (Flower), there was a standing ovation and enthusiastic applause. This writer, too, felt a warm wave of emotion.  I was strongly moved by the bond felt between the powerful performers who portrayed their hometown of Okinawa through dance and song, and the Okinawans now living in America far removed from their land of birth.

On stage hung a large banner with word “Sho” written on it to represent the royal family. The spirit with which King Sho Hashi united the Ryukyu Islands still connects the hearts of Okinawans today. In the performance hall, it was like a small Uchinanchu convention.

The reason for my past interviews with Okinawans was my own simple curiosity. I wanted to know, “Why are there so many Okinawans in America?” As I did my research, I found there were many people who left a resource-poor island in search of opportunity, moving to Hawaii and the American mainland – and that immigration accelerated as the people who went before found success. I also learned that Okinawans who moved overseas gave each other a helping hand and supported one another. That deep love of their homeland and passion came through very clearly with each Okinawan I interviewed.

After writing “The Okinawa in U.S.A. ” articles, I was invited to this performance and accompanied by Mr. Tome from the Okinawa Association of America. It was a wonderful opportunity to really cover Okinawa. It was Mr. Tome who introduced me to Okinawa mayor Mitsuko Tomon who wants to bring eisa dance to the world; Hiroyuki Tsuchiya, who made rice brandy popular throughout Japan; Yasushi Tamanaha of the Okinawa Prefecture Office who started the Mozoku boom; and others, all of whom were extremely interesting (and full of energy). As part of that group and the common theme of “Getting to Know Today’s Okinawa”, I also met of Hiroko Sho, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Ryukyuus who is an expert on Ryukyu Island cuisine as health food.

Just before the interview, Mr. Tome told me that, “If we were in a different time, Professor Sho would be queen of the Ryukyus royal family.” At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Okinawan history and didn’t really get what he meant. But I get it now. She is the woman who married into the Sho royal family that has continued from the end of the Ryukyu Kingdom through today. In other words, she is the spouse of a descendant of the main character in this musical. Ignorance is truly a frightening thing.

The set of King Sho Hashi, performed by a collaboration of a troupe from Okinawa and artists from Hawaii and Los Angeles.

© 2009 Keiko Fukuda

culture identity musical OAA okinawa