The Omoro Sôshi is a compilation of ancient poems and songs from Okinawa and the Amami Islands, collected into 22 volumes and written primarily in hiragana with some simple kanji. There are 1,553 poems in the collection, but many are repeated; the number of unique pieces is 1,144. It is one of the only surviving examples of native Ryukyuan written material dating before the 16th century.
The hiragana used, however, is a traditional Okinawan orthography which associates different sounds to the characters than their normal Japanese readings. The characters used to write omoro, for example (おもろ), would be written this same way, but pronounced as umuru in the Okinawan language.
The poetry contained in the volumes extends from the 12th century, or possibly earlier, to some composed by the Queen of King Shô Nei (1589-1619). Though formally composed and recorded at these times, many are believed to derive from far earlier traditions, as a result of their language, style, and content. The poems contained in the compilation vary, but follow a general pattern of celebrating famous heroes of the past, from poets and warriors to kings and voyagers. A few are love poems. They range from two verses to forty, some making extensive use of rhyme and couplet structures.
Sôshi (草紙) means simply a written work, but the origins and meaning of the term "omoro" are more elusive. Iha Fuyû was among the scholars who traced it to various words associated with oracles and divine songs. He further derived the term as referring to omori (お杜, O: umui), a Ryukyuan word for sacred groves. Nakahara Zenchû, on the other hand, traced it back to the Ryukyuan umuru, or umuin (related to the Japanese omou) meaning "to think, to feel, to love".
Regardless of the true meaning or origins of the term, however, a basic cloud of meanings is nevertheless apparent. The omoro sôshi, a "compilation of thoughts" or of collective memory, is also associated with sacred groves and with divine songs.
The omoro, as a form, are said to be the predecessors in Ryukyuan culture to distinct forms of music, dance, and literature; they incorporate all three of these. Only after centuries of development, and influence from China, Japan, and various Southeast Asian cultures, did distinct traditions of music, dance, and literature develop, literature being the only one to be recorded with any consistency. Outside of what might be inferred or reconstructed from the Omoro Sôshi, no record survives today of earlier forms of Ryukyuan music and dance. Some sources indicate that prior to the 15th century, Okinawa had no instrumental tradition, and that omoro were sung or chanted to the beat of another performer's clapping.
Though reflective of ancient folk traditions, the poetry also reflects the intricate links the Ryukyus enjoyed with other nearby states. Many of the Ryukyuan islands, largely culturally and linguistically isolated, are mentioned, along with various locations in Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and beyond.
The Omoro Sôshi was first compiled in 1532, and again in 1613 and 1623, as part of attempts by the royal government to help secure their cultural or spiritual legitimacy and power. The first compilation came just after the reign of Shô Shin, who consolidated, centralized, and reformed the government, and the second was performed only a few years after Ryukyu became a direct vassal to Satsuma han. At both times, cultural and ideological means, as well as more mundane political ones, were needed to help ensure unity, and to maintain a connection to tradition and history. The Omoro sôshi was recompiled in 1710 following a palace fire, and it is this version which survives today.
A twenty-two volume manuscript copy of the Omoro sôshi, possibly the only extant historical copy, was stolen during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It had been kept in the Nakagusuku palace since the 1870s, along with a large collection of other royal objects not brought to Tokyo by the royal family following the fall of the kingdom. In 1945, as the Battle of Okinawa began, eight royal stewards charged with overseeing the collection hid this copy of the Omoro sôshi in a drainage ditch outside the castle, along with a number of other objects including a royal crown. When they returned to recover the objects after the battle, however, they were all gone. Several of the objects, including this copy of the Omoro sôshi, were later discovered to have been taken by a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt. Sternfelt brought the documents to Asian art expert Langdon Warner at the Harvard Art Museums to be appraised in December 1945; in 1953, convinced of their value, he relinquished them to agents of the US federal government, who promptly returned them to Okinawa. Some of the objects hidden in that ditch, however, have not been recovered.
Only a small handful of scholars have studied the documents in any significant depth. The vast changes in Ryukyuan culture and language over the last several centuries have made the poetry difficult to access and understand, and Iha Fuyû (d. 1947) and Nakahara Zenchû (d. 1964) were among the only ones to study it extensively. Torigoe Kenzaburô (b. 1914) after focusing on the indigenous Ryukyuan religion earlier in his academic career (c. 1940-44), studied the Omoro sôshi for roughly thirty years in the 1940s-60s, eventually publishing in 1968 a five-volume, roughly 3000 page Omoro sôshi zenshaku, or "Complete Translation of the Omoro sôshi," based on the so-called Shô-ke bon, the manuscript copy held by the Shô family, the former royal family of Ryûkyû. Nakahara, Iha, and several others have used the compilation as a basis for research into ancient Ryukyuan customs and society. Thorough analysis has been able to yield some elements of a foundation of understanding of ancient governance, social structures, and folk religion, but it cannot be expected that a fuller understanding will be able to be derived from the material.
- Though written in kana as saushi (さうし), it is pronounced as soushi (そうし) and is sometimes written this way in modern texts. This is a typical vowel shift in classical Japanese.
- Sakihara, Mitsugu. A Brief History of Early Okinawa Based on the Omoro Sōshi. Tokyo: Honpo Shoseki Press, 1987. p6.
- Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 2.
- Sakihara. pp3-4.
- Thompson, Robin. "The Music of Ryukyu." Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. p310.
- Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 3.
- Located just outside Shuri castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku gusuku, located elsewhere on the island.
- William Honan, "Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts," New York Times, 13 July 1997.
- Yamaguchi Eitetsu, "On Torigoe Omoro," Abstract for presentation at 5th International Conference on Okinawan Studies, Ca' Foscari University of Venice, 14-16 September 2006.