Ryūka (琉歌, lit. "Ryūkyū song/poem") is a genre of songs and poetry originating from the Okinawa Islands, Okinawa Prefecture of southwestern Japan. Most ryūka are featured by the 8-8-8-6 syllable structure.

Concepts and classification

The word ryūka (ruuka in archaic pronunciation[1]) was first attested in the Kon-kōken-shū (1711). The name came into use when Ryūkyū's pechin class in Shuri and Naha embraced Japanese high culture including waka. It is analogous with the Japanese custom of contrasting Japanese poetry (waka or yamato-uta) with Chinese poetry (kara-uta). There is abundant evidence that ryūka was simply referred to as uta (songs and/or poems) in colloquial use.[2]

In its original form, ryūka was songs to be sung with sanshin, rather than poems to be read aloud. Thus it is more comparable with Japanese imayō, kinsei kouta and dodoitsu than with waka. The composers of ryūka were not only those in the upper class, but also included a girl who was sold to the red-light district called Yoshiya Chiru and a woman farmer of passion called Onna Nabe. However, the male members of the pechin class in Shuri and Naha started to read ryūka just like waka. They hold utakai, or a gathering for reading a collection of poems on a common theme, for both ryūka and waka. Some famous ryūka poets like Heshikiya Chōbin and Motobu Chōkyū were also waka poets.[2][3]

Researchers disagree on the scope of ryūka. In the narrowest definition, it only refers to songs and poems with the 8-8-8-6 syllable structure. This standard form is specifically called tanka (短歌, lit. "short song/poem"). In a slightly broader definition, ryūka also covers nakafū (仲風), which typically has the 7-5-8-6 or 5-5-8-6 syllable patterns. It is a hybrid of waka (first two units) and ryūka (second two units). The invention of nakafū was traditionally attributed to the 18th century poet Heshikiya Chōbin, and it was mainly composed by the male members of the pechin class. Another form called chōka (長歌, lit. "long poem") is characterized by a series of 8-8 syllable patterns with a 6-syllable unit at the end. There are some 20 chōka in the records.[2]

In the broadest definition, ryūka includes tsurane (つらね), kiyari (木遣り) and kuduchi (口説). Tsurane shares the series of 8-8-...-6 syllable patterns with chōka. However, it is typically longer than chōka and can be seen as an extended narrative poem. Kiyari was sung by construction workers. Although the same genre exists in Japan, the Ryukyuan version is characterized by 8-syllable units. Kuduchi was Japanese-style songs that usually consist of a series of the 7-5 syllable pattern. It is said to have originally been performed to entertain Satsuma bureaucrats.[2]

Okinawa shares its 8-8-8-6 syllable structure with its northern neighbor Amami, where the songs in this form are known as shima-uta and are considered a separate genre. Okinawa's southern neighbors, Miyako and Yaeyama, did not embrace ryūka. Miyako developed its own lyric songs named tōgani and shunkani while Yaeyama has tubarāma and sunkani. Unlike ryūka, they show relatively free verse forms.[4][3]


Ryūka is an innovative form that emerged relatively recently. The earliest ryūka found in the literature is of the late 17th century. However, there remains a disagreement over exactly how it evolved. Hokama Shuzen considered that the earliest form of songs were incantations that were sometimes chanted rather than were sung. From such incantations, epic songs such as Okinawa's umui and kwēna and Amami's omori and nagare emerged. Epic songs then evolved into lyric songs (feelings of individuals) including Amami's shima-uta and Okinawa's ryūka. He claimed that the development of lyrical ryūka from epic omoro happened in the 15th to 16th centuries when Okinawan people were supposedly liberated from religious bondage and began to express personal feelings. He also considered that the introduction of sanshin helped the transition from the long, relatively free verse forms to the short, fixed verse form.[2]

Ono Jūrō also supported the staged development from epic songs to lyric songs. However, his theory is radically different from Hokama's in that the 8-8-8-6 form was formed under the influence of kinsei kouta of Japan, which has the 7-7-7-5 syllable structure. He dismissed the hypothesis that the first stanza of omoro of the later stage partly showed the 8-8-8-6 pattern, which he reanalyzed as kwēna-like 5-3, 5-3, and 5-5-3. He dated the formation of ryūka to the first half of the 17th century, shortly after kinsei kouta became common in Japan.[4]

Ryūka reached at its peak from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. While it was originally songs to be sung, the pechin class in Shuri and Naha treated them as poems to be read aloud, under the heavy influence from Japanese high culture. For its origin as songs, early ryūka anthologies were classified by melodies rather than by themes as are done for waka. The Ryūkyū daikashū (1878) adopted a hierarchical classification: melodies as the major categories and themes as minor categories. The Kokin Ryūka-shū (1895) switched to the theme-based classification.[3] Today ryūka may be classified into 1) celebration poetry 2) seasonal or scenery poetry 3) love poetry 4) teaching poetry 5) travel poetry 6) smallpox poetry. Of these classifications, love poetry is well described in ryūka. Peculiar is the smallpox poetry; the purpose of glorification of smallpox demon is improvement from deadly infection of smallpox.[5] There is a collection of smallpox poetry including 105 poems published in 1805.[6]

Ryūka as poems gained a wider audience after the Japanese annexation of Ryūkyū. Losing income and status, the former pechin class moved from Shuri and Naha to Northern Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama, and other regions, and spread its high culture around Okinawa Prefecture. Newspapers, which first appeared in Okinawa Prefecture in the 1890s, had readers' sections for ryūka and waka.[3] Ryūka is popular now not only in people living in Okinawa Prefecture, but also in Okinawan people who have immigrated to Peru and Hawaii.[7]

Writing and pronunciation

While Modern Okinawan is characterized by drastic sound changes that happened in the relatively recent past, the standard reading of ryūka reflects conservative literary forms based on the Shuri dialect. Ryūka is written with a mixture of kanji and hiragana, as in Written Japanese. Spellings are even more conservative than pronunciations. As a consequence, there are substantial disparities between spelling and pronunciation.[2]


Kiyunu hukurashaya
na’unijana tatiru

The pride I feel today;
What can I compare it to?

The budding flowers'
reception of the morning dew (unknown composer)
Unnadaki agata
satuga umarijima

Muin ushinukiti
kugata nasana (Onna Nabe)
The village on the other side of Mount Onna
is where I was born

I want to push away the woods
and pull it near (Onna Nabe)
及ばらぬ とめば想ひ増鏡
影やちやうも写ち 拝みほしやの
Uyubarantumiba umui mashikagami
Kajiyachon uchuchi ’ugamibushanu (Yoshiya Chiru)
My lover and I are of different social positions. My affection increases like Masukagami.
I would like see his face with my mirror.(Yoshiya Chiru)
Makkwa narabitaru
’yuminu chirinasaya

Chukiya irisagati
fuyunu yafan (Akamine Ueekata)
Our pillows side-by-side;
The heartlessness of my dreams

The moon sets in the west
a winter's midnight (Akamine Oyakata)
(a coded reference to dreaming of a lover while sleeping alone in a bed set for two)
Utaya sanshinni
’udui hanishichuti

Churagasanu utuji
ashibu urisha (Unknown composer)
Playing Sanshin songs;
Bouncing back and forth in dance

The caregiver of a smallpox patient
plays happily
古血わじらてど 欠きて 居やびむぬ
命のある間は 使かて たぼり(鳥刺小橋川)
Furuchi wajiratidu kakiti uyabimunu
Nuchinu aru weedaya chikati taburi (Torisashi Kobashigawa)
Though the impure blood flows (due to syphilis)
Please use me as long as I am alive (The composer was blamed for using broken coins)(Torisashi Kobashigawa)
Migushikuni nubuti
tisaji muchagiriba

Haifuninu nareya
chumidu miyuru
I climbed to Mie Castle
to signal by raising a washcloth

But the ship was so fast
it was only visible for the blink of an eye
Yuruharasu funiya
ninufabushi miati

Wannacheru uyaya
Wandu miati (Unknown composer)
The boat sailing at night
looks to the north star

My mother who gave birth to me
looks to me.[11]

See also


  • Kei Higa Okinawa Encyclopedia1983, Okinawa Times, Naha, jō, chū, ge.
  • Yoji Aoyama Ryūka Omoshiro Tokuhon (Interesting Ryukas) 1998, Kyodo Shuppan, Naha
  • Nihon Shodō Bijutukan Ryuka - the heart of the poems of the Southern Island 1992, Kyoiku Shodo Shuppan Kyokai, Tokyo
  • Masanori Nakahodo Various aspects of Okinawan literature, Postwar literature, Dialect poems, Dramas, Ryūka, Tanka 2010, Borderink, Naha, ISBN 978-4-89982-168-7


  1. "Shuri-Naha Dialect Dictionary: ruuka" (in Japanese). Retrieved 15 August 2016.
  2. Hokama Shuzen 外間守善 (1995). "Ryūka-ron 琉歌論". Nantō bungaku-ron 南島文学論 (in Japanese).
  3. Ikemiya Masaharu 池宮正治 (2015). Ryūkyū bungaku sōron 琉球文学総論 (in Japanese).
  4. Ono Jūrō 小野重朗 (1977). Nantō kayō 南島歌謡 (in Japanese).
  5. Higa[1983ge:848]
  6. Higa[1983ge:450]
  7. Nakahodo[2010:220-252]
  8. Nihon Shodou[1992:74]
  9. Aoyama[1998:200]
  10. Nihon Shodou[1992:76]
  11. Nihon Shodou[1992:98]
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