Field Notes: Ring in the Lunar New Year with These Okinawan Lion Dancers
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Okinawa Lion Dancers.
photos: leah friel
What it is
Hawai‘i Okinawa Creative Arts performs shishimai—an Okinawan style of lion dance—that mixes traditional and modern elements with a costumed flair that often includes thick rope hair.
Director Jon Itomura says the organization formed in 2012 to help perpetuate, promote and preserve Okinawan culture in Hawai‘i.
“I noticed that there were not many Okinawa lions represented in Hawai‘i compared to the Southern Chinese lion that is very popular and often represented at local events,” Itomura says.
“Mythical creatures are often a combination of creatures,” he says. “In Okinawa, it more often resembles the lion dog.”
Lion dances are a traditional way for some Asian cultures to mark the beginning of the Lunar New Year, which is Feb. 16 this year. “If the lion bites you, it brings good luck,” Itomura says.
His group’s dancers range in age from 3 to 26 with a support team that includes parents and grandparents. Their lions usually have large solid heads fashioned from materials that include carved wood, fiberglass, or foam decorated with a thick rope to form the lion’s coat and mane, Itomura says, although children learn with lightweight homemade heads made of cardboard.
How it started
An attorney by day, Itomura became more and more interested in his Okinawan cultural roots as an adult returning home to the Islands after living in Colorado. In 2000, he participated in bon dances with the Young Okinawans of Hawai‘i and has traveled to Okinawa to visit villages, watch performances and learn about the different dance traditions found in each community.
“We also incorporate contemporary dance, Okinawa drumming or eisa, and sanshin (Okinawan version of the Japanese shamisen),” he says. “At times, I don’t know how to say no, so we do two in one evening.”
Itomura says the stringed instrument holds a unique place in Okinawa’s history. The southern island prefecture of Japan lost more than a third of its civilian population during World War II’s Battle of Okinawa along with many treasured family heirlooms, including the sanshin, he explains, and survivors so yearned for the sound of the instrument to soothe their grief and pain they made their own from anything they could find, such as parachute cords, chair legs and coffee cans.
How to get involved
People usually watch a performance or know someone in the group and ask to join. Families often sign up together, Itomura says, noting that at one point there were eight pairs of siblings performing. One of the youngest lion dancers is Leicie Tonouchi, 7, whose dad, author and “Pidgin Guerilla” Lee Tonouchi, cheers her on.
They first saw the lion dance at the Okinawan Festival and that’s how she got interested. She says carrying the head is the hardest part. “Sometimes I want to learn the sanshin,” she says.
Itomura plays the drums, teaches and dances. He says the group owns one lion, with a fiberglass head that cost $4,000, but put together the body from raffia and golf net. “We have a total of seven lions in our collection now,” he says, with the other six on loan from clubs that wanted their lions to come to life.
Any inanimate figure is called shisaa
Live adaptation is shishi
Lion (shishi) dance (mai) shishimai
Cory Yamashiro, 7
Mililani Mauka Elementary School student
“I got really interested. It looked fun doing the lions. I wanted to do that. When I get bigger, I can do the bigger ones. You have to be strong.”
Amanda Nitta, 16
Kaiser High School sophomore
“I like the feeling when the crowd gives back. Like the other day when a girl came up to me after and gave me a hug and said, I really enjoyed your dancing.”
Joel Itomura, 17
Mid-Pacific Institute senior (Jon’s son)
“It’s with a good group of people. It’s very fun, it’s contemporary, there’s room to improvise. It’s a way of being in touch with my culture, especially with everything being so busy.”
To find out more, contact Jon Itomura at (808) 282-5338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.