Nubui Kuduchi

Sometimes an idea percolates for a while and takes its time. And sometimes, the universe just up and smacks you on the head and says “DO THE THING.”

And before you know it, all the background documentation is written, the citation list is complete, and you’re translating one of the oldest songs you can find into a form that you hope will resonate with the English-speaking audience you hope to perform it to, once the world is normal again.

I owe a debt to Bardic Laurel Lanea verch Kerrigan, who planted this seed in my heart long ago and encouraged me to chase this weird Bardic rabbit and share something the SCA has never seen before.

I also owe a debt to Okinawan sanshin teachers like Seki Hiroshi, who has provided such a wealth of information. I know my translation will be a pale imitation of the original, but I hope it can capture a little of the spirit of the song. And I hope I can muddle through the sanshin part– I don’t like the fact that I’m learning the instrument disconnected from its pedagogical tradition, but I will do my best.

Now for the hard part, actually translating it and gently massaging into a different language…

Dyeing adventures

This one’s not strictly Ryukyu-related, but I’ve been experimenting with natural dyes recently. Last summer I tried out tickseed sunflower (yellow) and black walnut (brown) as well as doing an indigo vat.

This time, I used elm bark from a branch that fell off a tree in my yard. Dyeing books and blogs say elm makes a pretty tan-pink. That turned out to be my result too, but the color wasn’t as strong as others I’ve seen online.

Elm bark on wool, linen and cotton with various mordants and modifiers as labeled.

I also spun about 2lb of wool into roughly worsted-weight yarn that will eventually become a backstrap-woven project. But before that I had to dye and finish the yarn. I used logwood to dye it. (I have a few natural dyes around, but apparently a tree related to the South American logwood was used in 9thC Japan for dye, so that helped me choose which one to use for this project.) I mordanted with alum and it dyed a pretty purple – but I heard it would fade terribly, so I over-dyed that with a tiny bit of iron modifier (0.5cc Fe(II)SO4) and that deepened and darkened the color to a dark lilac grey.

Choosing Ryukyuan names

A big part of developing a persona is choosing a name. Once an SCA identity is set, it tends to be pretty sticky – people will start calling you by your SCA name as soon as they learn it. (Unfortunately, I have not had good luck with choosing a name and I’m about to do a 3rd iteration and folks are really going to start getting confused soon; I’m unhappy about this!)

For the average SCAdian, there’s quite a bit of name documentation – databases of digitized birth records. (Thank the Mormons for this.) You can pick a location and a time and either find a name you like, or see if you can document the one you want. Once you’ve decided, your local herald will complete a form, and send it off to the kingdom and society for approval.

For those of us doing non-European personas, documenting a name is a bigger challenge. I recently learned some of the rules around documenting a name in the SCA. It is possible to provide documentation outside the established Society sources, but it requires documenting 3 instances dating to earlier than 1650.

Luckily, my husband’s family had their family history transcribed from the records kept in Tokyo (which were a copy of records that were at Shuri but were destroyed). This is basically a list of names from the 10th century[1] traced on the male side and including only sons, until the 1800s when male and female children are both listed in the records.

It was very common for Ryukyuan men’s given names within a family to all start with the same kanji. My husband’s male ancestors’ names all started with 賢, “ken” meaning wisdom. After reading through the names he decided he wanted Kenshin, which was there in the list around 1560, written 賢親 (“parents’ wisdom”). The family name is simply his mother’s family name, written in the Okinawan language style rather than Japanese-style. So his name is pretty straightforward to document, though it doesn’t meet the 3 instances rule.

For female names, it’s a lot harder since women’s names aren’t recorded and even in stories the few women you see are princesses and have names/titles a mile long that I can’t parse. I dug through a ton of Japanese-language sources on the internet looking for a source of characteristic Ryukyu women’s names. There was a noted peculiarity not seen in mainland naming practices: names of auspicious animals and plants, like Tsuru “crane”, Ushi “cow”, Matsu “pine”, Kame “turtle”. [2]I could work with that, and chose 亀 Kame as my given name. When I got a copy of my husband’s family records, there were in fact names of this style, but not until the 19th century.

Ryukyu bingata has been an interest of mine for a while, and I wove into my backstory that I was a member of one of the families at Shuri that dyed bingata. (They’re all still around today and have shops in Naha!) I chose to use the name of one of the families, Shiroma, written 城間 ; in Ryukyu pronounciation that’s Gusukuma.

Today, as I was digging through the records to find the kanji for Kenshin, I realized that there were 2 women’s names recorded within SCA period: Uni Ufugusku’s sisters, Masato and Shiki (~1420). Shiki’s name is written 思亀. (Masato’s name is not provided in kanji). I noted that Shiki was a compound using 亀 “kame”. Looking at the more recent records, I didn’t see any single-kanji names until the 20th century, so it looked like I would need a 2-kanji name. Shiki 思亀 “turtle thoughts/feeling/heart” is nice enough and more importantly, it’s documentable.

So, after dropping my local herald a really long email this morning (he is being totally awesome about my research rabbit hole and is enjoying the research himself, thankfully) it looks like I’m going to need to re-re-introduce myself. But my name might have a chance of being accepted by the Society.


[1]Amazingly, the record goes back 25 generations to the 11th century and the Tenson line of chiefs. While this is pretty cool, a bigger point of pride is that the lineage also goes through a guy named Uni Ufugusuku and his wife, the princess Momoto Fumiagari, whose story is a wonderful historical soap opera. Uni Ufugusuku is also important to the history of martial arts in Okinawa. (He’s kind of a big deal.)

[2]Someday I want to do more research on animal/plant symbolism. It’s fascinating.

Who writes your story? Documenting a culture

When I visited Okinawa, I was enchanted by all the stories around me – stories rooted in place and time. Walking through Shuri Castle and learning about its history, and listening as my mother-in-law pointed out the most sacred places in the castle grounds, where the noro would talk to the gods. Seeing tombs dotting the hills as we drove from one side of the island to the other. Shopping in Hewa-dori and listening to the old grandmas calling out for customers. Visiting my husband’s grandparents’ now-abandoned home, and hearing all the ghost stories. Seeing the “monkey tree” in the base housing where my husband climbed as a child. Kneeling on the floor while his aunt lit incense and told the spirits about how well the family was doing, in a language I couldn’t understand but I could read the pride in her face.

As we started to put our personas together in the SCA, I came back to these experiences and stories, wanting to weave them into the stories we were building for ourselves. That was all well and good, but I needed documentation: material culture, artifacts, paintings, written histories. Luckily the internet has many places to start, and we dove in. After many Inter-Library Loan requests, I found ethnographies in English from early American visitors to Okinawa as well as from after World War II when Americans tried to understand the people whose island they occupied. Dating earlier, I found Japanese and Chinese writings and illustrations describing the clothes and practices of the foreign and unusual Ryukyuan people.

What I have not found much of (and still struggle to find) is records of Ryukyu that were created locally. It appears that most of the kingdom’s written records, and many of its artifacts and treasures, were lost to earlier fires or in the devastation of WWII. Some items had been sent away before the war, and still remain in foreign museum collections (ask me sometime why a very excellent collection of Ryukyu material culture is in Germany). Some items were in homes or non-official buildings that survived the war, and many of those were re-discovered and collected (sadly, many of these were lost in the recent fire at Shuri). Some things were re-created, and in a lot of cases this has led to a renaissance of old arts that were all but lost.

It’s a bit tricky to study a culture only viewed through a foreign lens; you spend a lot of time asking things like: how is this different than the documenting country’s culture, what would they have thought about that, how might they have wanted to portray this to readers back home to support a political/religious/cultural supremacist agenda, are there any ways in which this might be inaccurate or distorted? Is this illustration accurate, or meaning to portray people as backwards or exotic? And when sources like this get used as SCA documentation… well, you either wind up portraying something incorrectly or you have to really dig into the points where the description is unreliable and try to correct it with what little evidence you have.[1]

That’s why I strive to connect with the stories. The Okinawan people, both in the prefecture and throughout their diaspora, never lost touch with their history, even when they adapt to being part of Japan or live in Hawaii or Brazil or all around the world, and they’re continuing to practice arts and write their history. I’m grateful for these sources of culture, and as much as I can I want to incorporate the modern experience of Okinawans and their pride in their history into my research. I also hope, someday, to visit the island again and do some research locally: visit historical sites and museums and libraries, learn crafts in a hands-on way from an experienced teacher rather than reading about it and fumbling through. Maybe this is the keystone of what I mean when I say I want to portray Ryukyu culture respectfully: the descendants of the citizens of the Ryukyu Kingdom are still alive, their culture is still vibrant, and their scholarship and interpretation of their past is authoritative.


[1] And not to put too fine a point on it, but within the SCA many people, especially those who have at least a passing familiarity with Japan, don’t understand that Ryukyu is independent through most of SCA period. It’s frustrating to watch people apply their knowledge of Japan to my persona; I imagine many look at me and think “bad Japanese” about the style of my clothing. Often strangers come up and speak Japanese to me at events; while I’m always on the lookout for conversation practice this catches me off guard. “Thank you, but I’m not Japanese, I’m from the Ryukyu Kingdom.” Sometimes this is a good jumping-off point for a teaching moment, but usually it’s just awkward.

Learning about Ryukyu Music and Sanshin

Music is the heartbeat of a culture. Learning more about Ryukyu music, as well as the folk music of modern Okinawa, has been my favorite research deep dive so far!

My mother-in-law is from Okinawa, and sometimes some of her favorite singers come on TV (NHK is always on at my inlaws’). I learned from her that the Okinawan songs are different than the folks songs of mainland Japanese. She’s filled with nostalgia when she hears them. The more upbeat forms of Okinawan music are a party – a joy to listen to.

My MIL also plays the sanshin, a three-stringed banjo-like instrument. Her sanshin traveled to the US with her many years ago, and is of the old-fashioned style, snakeskin cover and all. It’s beautiful, though the snakeskin is not happy in the cold, dry climate here. She has to play it everyday to keep the skin smooth, and puts out a bowl of water in the room to help keep it hydrated.

Bardic is one of my developing interests in the SCA, and last summer I attended an event where all attendees had to pay “tax” of bringing a story, poem, joke or song to share. (It was a great event, and pushed me out of my comfort zone into performing!) I scoured the internet for a story for my new Ryukyu persona, and settled on the gruesome tale of the evil Kurogane (Ufumura Udun). As I poked around, I found there was a song that went along with the story, so I brought that too. The recording I linked there has a lovely sanshin counter-melody and I wondered if I could learn to play it. So it began.

At least in this neck of the woods, you can’t exactly walk into your local music store and find a sanshin. I visited fine stores that stocked obscure, vintage instruments, and none of them had ever seen one. I wouldn’t shut up about the thing for months. Eventually my husband wound up ordering one from Okinawa and it arrived in time for him to give it to me as a Christmas gift (which was AMAZING <3) It has a nylon cover rather than snakeskin, which makes caring for it a lot easier!

I’ve been playing music my whole life. This… was new. It came with an instructional book in Japanese; I have extremely rudimentary Japanese skills and reading it was slow going. I got the bridge on, figured out the proper tuning (C-F-C) and then it was time to decipher the sheet music. I needed two breakthroughs: First, the music is read starting at the top right corner and going down the columns and to the left. Second, each kanji maps to a specific tone value on the sanshin, according to a system called kunkunshi. I wrote up a cheat sheet to map kanji to notes, and that made reading the music a lot faster. (The small columns are for the sung words and notes.)

Now that I could clumsily play the thing, it was time to read up on the instrument’s history. This post and this paper were really valuable references. The first says that the Chinese sanxian probably traveled to Ryukyu with the 32 Min Chinese families that settled at Kumemura in 1392, and developed into the sanshin. The second has a lot of information about how the sanshin was taught, how music was disseminated among students, and gave excellent information about the oldest surviving collections of sanshin music (my next mission is to find photographs of a copy). It also talked about the uta-sanshin tradition, or “song-sanshin” – the history of it as an accompanying instrument.

One of the first songs I learned from my intro book was Aha Bushi – I later found out that this is pretty much the first song everyone learns! But I was like “oh there are words!” I’ve never been good at singing and playing at the same time, but it was time to learn. I also learned about Ryuka – Ryukyu poetry. Similar to Japanese poetic forms, it’s arranged by syllables per line (Aha Bushi is 8-8-8-6). So that’s material for another deep dive, later.

Meanwhile, I practice. At 12th Night last weekend, I spent some time hanging out in the lobby near the hotel bar and playing; quite a few people stopped and asked about the sanshin and its sheet music. I also had the chance to bring out the story of Kurogane again and play Aha Bushi in the Bardic Circle after court. SCA folks have boundless curiosity about cultures and items they haven’t encountered before, and they were excited and encouraging. It was a lot of fun.

Ryuso: Ryukyuan Clothing

Well, the very first thing a SCAdian needs is clothes, right? It’s only natural that I might start my research here!

One of the interesting (and frustrating) things about starting to study Ryukyu is that there aren’t many sources written by Ryukyuans about themselves, or surviving Ryukyu artwork. (Sadly, a lot of these may have been lost in World War 2 when much of the island was destroyed.) There are surviving sources from Japan and China about Ryukyu, and US and Japanese works about Okinawa later. Some of the sources tend to focus on the differences between the documenting culture and Ryukyu – which isn’t bad, as long as you recognize it as a view through a foreign lens.

After its subjugation and annexation, Okinawan culture shifted towards Japanese tastes in a lot of ways. However, the Okinawan people tended to maintain their artistic heritage – music and dance and the costumes of those arts are a good place to start, especially for folks looking for details on courtly life at Shuri.

The garments of Ryukyuan commoners resemble those of Japanese kimono in many ways, but some details differ: The silhouettes are much more blousy (Ryukyu looms were wider than Japanese ones), the sleeves are open and attached at the arm to allow air circulation, and collars are double width and folded over. Commoners might wear a single knee-length outer garment (it’s a tropical island!) and sumptuary laws forbid them from wearing sandals or tabi so they went barefoot. Men’s garments were simply belted; women wore them in a style called “ushinchi” (ウシンチー) where the collar was tucked into the waist of an undergarment and bloused around the waist to keep it closed. (A series of illustrations of how this works is here.) Women also wore their garments tied closed, not belted.

Both women and men grew their hair long and pinned it up with hairpins called jiifaa, which were made of different materials according to the status of the wearer. The buns might be worn askew.

The clothing of the nobility was predictably more complex. Men wore longer black robes, and more elaborate belts and hats (hachimachi) colored according to their rank. Women wore long, pleated skirts called kakan and underjackets called dujin, with brightly colored coats. If there were visiting envoys from China or Japan, the court would adapt their dress to that of the visiting country – so fashion varied quite a bit. A fun look at post-period noble’s clothing is the NHK drama Tempest (see a preview here and some analysis of the costumes here! (Many of the pictures below are from this page, which is in Chinese. Google Translate is amazing.)

Ryukyu was known for the high quality of its weaving and dyeing. Commoners wore bast fiber cloth such as ramie, hemp and cotton; typical of Ryukyu is the cloth known as bashofu, painstakingly woven from fiber banana. (Read more about bashofu in the English-language book “The Origins of Banana-fibre Cloth in the Ryukyus, Japan (Studia Anthropologica)” by Katrien Hendrickx) The nobility wore imported silk as well. Indigo was the most common dyestuff, and commoners’ clothes were typically indigo-dyed, though other outlying islands had unique dyeing traditions (like Amami islands’ mud-dyeing). A variety of other plant dyes were used as well. An ikat weaving technique called kasuri was especially prized and its patterns spread and were broadly emulated. A dyeing technique known as bingata produced beautiful, brightly colored cloth for the nobility that emulated fine Chinese brocades. See more examples of bingata from museum collection here. An excellent, English-language documentation of bingata is “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Japan: Bingata a traditional dyed textile from Okinawa” by Sumiko Sarashima. See more modern examples of typical Ryukyu textiles here.

As might be expected of clothing from a tropical island, Ryuso is comfortable for summer events, and it can be layered for winter events (the court garments can be quite warm!)

Cotton and linen are great choices for simpler garments. The dujin/kakan above is white, medium-weight linen. The garment on the left is blue chambray with an interesting overshot weave; it was a try at emulating kasuri. Robert Kaufman has a very nice collection of Japanese-print cottons including a couple different kasuri prints; I used that for my husband’s garment that I’m wearing in the third picture as a coat over the blue chambray and the dujin/kakan under that. Finally, the last picture is my husband and me in fancy garb. He is in a black denim kimono with the belt and hachimachi/hat of a peechin of 5th rank, and a navy silk haori over it. I’m wearing the white dujin and kakan, a red dujin over that, and a vintage kimono from Okinawa that I took apart and re-sewed (I let out all the seam allowances to be more like the generous Ryukyu silhouette, and added red silk sleeve lining – it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad!)

I’ll have to go into construction in another post, but if you have experience sewing kimono this will be straightforward. Just keep in mind the differences between Yamato kimono and Ryuso, choose appropriate fabrics, and enjoy!

An introduction

This blog is documentation of my research, projects and experiences as I explore a Ryukyuan persona in the SCA.

Back in 2014, I visited Okinawa with my boyfriend (now husband) and his family to visit his mother’s family and hometown there. Okinawa is beautiful, full of wonderfully friendly people, and has a rich history and culture that I learned were distinct from the rest of Japan, of which it is now a prefecture. Until the early 1600s, it was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, known for trade and diplomacy.

A few years later, a friend introduced me to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA for short) and I was hooked. I started off with a generic 14thC European persona but soon realized that wasn’t where my interest was. I talked it over with my husband and we decided that it would be interesting to explore his heritage (and maybe do some interesting research) by adopting Ryukyuan personas.

I’m just about 2 years into my time in the SCA and finally starting to flesh out this persona, a lady of Shuri Castle named Kame Gusukuma. Ryukyu was known for superb weaving and dyeing, and this aligns with my interests.

There are a lot of opportunities and challenges in adopting a persona well outside of the typical SCA. I’m hoping that this blog will not only document my activities in developing this persona, but provide support (maybe even community?) for people who are interested in the Kingdom of Ryukyu in the SCA. Right now, I haven’t heard of anyone besides my husband and me with Ryukyu personas. I’m hoping to connect with some!

There are also some issues around choosing a persona based on a colonized people and culture that is not mine. In all things, I hope to treat it with respect.