Uzagaku (Ozagaku) (御座楽)

Uzagaku (Ozagaku) is chamber music of the Ryukyu kingdom. It is a style of music with roots in the Ming and Qing dynasties that was developed with the aim of fostering warm diplomatic relations. The origins go back to around the 16th century, though it became a lost art when handing down of the form died out with the demise of the Ryukyu kingdom.


Music with roots in China was performed in the Ryukyu kingdom when diplomatic missions arrived from China (Ming & Qing) or whenever missions of gratitude and congratulations (Edo nobori) were sent to Shogun Tokugawa. During that time, music performed sitting down indoors was called 'Uzagaku' (lit. seated music), while music performed outdoors to accompany processions was called 'Rujigaku' (lit. route music). Uzagaku was a solemn and refined form of Gagagu (traditional Japanese court music), whereas Rujigaku utilized instruments such as the charamela (a shawm-like double reed wind instrument) and taiko (large drum) for impressive and inspirational musical effect.

In the Ryukyu kingdom there were regions where the descendents of naturalized Chinese settled together, becoming known as the 'Thirty Six Families of Kume'. Individuals included as part of the Thirty Six Families of Kume took orders from the Ryukyu monarchy, studied Chinese culture,including language and music, in mainland China, principally Fujian Province. Many of the musical masters who passed on the traditions of Ryukyu Uzagaku were members of the Thirty Six Families of Kume.

For 'Edo nobori (the missions to Edo),' boys were trained in musical repertoire by music teachers before attaining manhood and, participated in Uzagaku ensembles as 'Gakudoji (lit. child musicians).'
All were children of 3rd rank officials and good families, and much was expected of these elite children. During the roughly 200-year-long period of missions to Edo from 1653 to 1850, approximately 70 works were produced and performed. Ensembles consisted of a maximum of 6 performers who often switched between around 10 pieces in any one performance. Besides instrumental pieces, chants ('Ming compositions' and 'Qing compositions') were performed.

During the Edo period, the Ryukyu kingdom was nominally a tributary state of Ming, and later Qing China, but in real terms was ruled by the Satsuma clan. Whenever a Ryukyu delegation was on 'Edo nobori (a mission to Edo)', the Satsuma clan had Ryukyuan music performed. The Satsuma clan would often play 'Rujigaku (lit. route music)' for people along the road to Edo and 'Uzagaku (lit. seated music)' for important people in the Edo shogunate below the status of Shogun as a show of power.

The East Asian countries that use Chinese characters, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, each had 'Gagaku' court music imported from China. Ryukyuan Uzagaku (lit. seated music) was also part of this tradition and in quality and elegance surpassed Gagaku from mainland Japan.

Afterwards, with the abolishment of domains and creation of prefectures in the Meiji era, the Ryukyu kingdom came to an end. The Meiji government annexed the Ryukyus calling them 'Okinawa Prefecture,' although Qing China, the Ryukyu's nominal suzerain, expressed its dissatisfaction at this. This questionable situation in international relations became one reason that the traditions of Okinawan music of Chinese origin and in particular 'Uzagaku (lit. seated music)' ceased to be passed down in the Meiji period. The final documented performance of 'Uzagaku' was in 1888 in the presence of Hirobumi ITO.

Current Situation

Existing materials relating to Uzagaku are scarce.

- Instruments: Fortunately, the actual instruments presented to the Owari Tokugawa Family (Tokugawa Art Gallery, Nagoya City) and the Mito Tokugawa family (Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture) during 'Edo nobori (missions to Edo)' exist to this day. Also, reproduction instruments are on display at Shuri-jo Castle park.

- Picture: Okinawa Prefectural Museum warehouse, 'Picture of Ryukyu people performing music seated and dancing.'
The letters of gratitude sent by King Sho Iku in 1832 include a scroll depicting a musical performance, dance and play held at the Shimazu mansion in Shiba-Shirokane in Edo.

- Song lists: notes about ensemble makeup and song lists are recorded in "Tsuko Ichiran" and other records of 'Edo nobori'.

- Sheet Music: Seihin YAMAUCHI (1890 - 1986) transcribed melodies in 1912 that were sung to him by elderly people into sheet music (Western 5 stave format), and amongst these transcriptions there are at least 3 styles of Uzagaku compiled into Yamauchi's "Research into Ancient Chants & Secret Pieces of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Ryukyu-ocho Koyo Hikyoku no kenkyu)" of 1964. Being based on the vague recollections of elderly people, all the tunes are fragments. However, at the present time this is all that remains of Uzagaku sheet music.

- Lyrics: Some lyrics remain that were transcribed into a notebook by Yoshitaro KAMAKURA (1898-1983) prior to Shuri-jo Castle being burnt during the war (Okinawa Prefectural Arts University Library Warehouse 'Yoshitaro KAMAKURA Notebook 54 "Chinese Poem & Tang Dance Compilation"').

There is apparently music identical to Uzagaku still performed on mainland China although, at the moment, academics are researching which Uzagaku correspond to which pieces from the Chinese mainland.

In recent years in Okinawa Prefecture, events such as the restoration of Shuri-jo Castle have presented greater opportunities to reassess Ryukyu kingdom court culture. The restored castle was like an 'empty box', devoid of pageantry and music. Also, there is a trend to look again at 'Uzagaku' as a symbol of Okinawa's unique identity and international exchange. Having accepted that times are changing, presently, efforts are being made to revive Uzagaku.