Kunjan Sabakuyi

For the Ryukyu royal government, the Yanbaru mountain forests in northern Okinawa were important resources for materials used in construction and shipbuilding, and as firewood and charcoal. Isn’t it said that Higaonna Kanryo transported “firewood” with a boat type referred to as “Yanbaru-sen”? Just a thought.

Still today the woodcutters’ chant called “Kunjan sabakuyi” is handed down as a folk entertainment. “Kunjan” is the Okinawan pronunciation for Kunigami, i.e., the northern part of Okinawa Island. “Sabakuyi” refers to local government officials stationed in the guardhouses of the northern rural districts to manage timber distribution, among other things. In other words, “Kunjan sabakuyi” means “The Local Government Officials of Kunigami District.”

The “Kunjan sabakuyi” includes music and chanting while wearing workers’ dresses and typically clownesque beards and wigs, but also with different stage settings. Some of the movements are reminiscent of karate and bōjutsu moves, or maybe it is vice versa. The “Kunjan sabakuyi” was quite popular among the people and fragments of it have been handed down over generations until today.

The “Kunjan sabakuyi” is the only performing art left from what was once a whole program of performances. Back then, these performing arts where played on occasion of the reconstruction of Shuri Castle’s main hall. The last of these reconstructions took place in 1846, and it is said that karate was part of these performances.

I remember having read that Higaonna Kanryo “was known for being very supple and quick on his feet.” Well, if you transport, load and unload timber, you better be quick on your feet.

© 2022, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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