The Sounds of Amami~奄美を彩る音~




Rosemary White



The moment you arrive on Amami Oshima, you immediately feel the unique and distinct atmosphere of the island; the sights, the smells, the sounds, and more combine to make up the Amami Oshima experience.

Even the slightest sound can provoke a feeling that something about your surroundings is fundamentally different.  Amami Oshima hosts many striking sounds that are different even from the rest of Japan, so in this article I’d like to introduce the various sounds that you encounter while on Amami Oshima.

The ‘Oshima-zemi’

Various interesting insects live on Amami due to the subtropical climate, but the elusive ‘Oshima-zemi’ stands out from the others.  The ‘Oshima-zemi’ is a kind of cicada that only lives on the Ryukyu Islands from Amami Oshima down to the main island of Okinawa.

Of those travelling to Amami for the first time, many don’t even know the ‘Oshima-zemi’ exists; when people hear the sound it makes, most think it is a birdcall!

However, it is not a birdcall at all, it is the ‘Oshima-zemi’ cicada, whose song builds a chorus of sound surrounding the dense forests that cover the mountains and hills of Amami Oshima in the summers.

These cicadas don’t usually go far into the more populated areas on Amami, but maybe you’ll get a chance to see one on your visit here!  You’ll definitely hear them if you visit in the summer!

Check out the following link for a video of the ‘Oshima-zemi’ and its sound!


There are 3 different types of common geckoes that can be found just about everywhere on Amami Oshima, even inside buildings and houses!

These are generally called ‘yamori,’ derived from the kanji characters for ‘house protector.’  The people of Amami Oshima consider these geckoes to be guardians of the home, especially because they eat insects and other pests that enter buildings, so they live together peacefully.

On summer nights, one type of ‘yamori’ actually has a specific sound it makes; this is known in English as the common house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus).  It makes a kind of chirping noise, almost like the clicking sound that people make with horses.

Check out the sound it makes on this website here!

The Language of Amami Oshima

On Amami Oshima, the local languages (known as ‘shima-guchi’ on Amami) are actually different from standard Japanese and other dialects.  There are two separate languages on Amami as well; there is the Northern Amami-Oshima language and the Southern Amami-Oshima language, which are related to Japanese and the language spoken in Okinawa, but are still quite different.

However, very few people actually speak these languages fluently.  Most adult islanders speak a mix of standard Japanese with a variation of the Amami dialect, and the Amami languages are essentially a foreign language to many islanders (especially younger people).

There are various efforts to continue education of these Amami languages to keep them from completely dying out, including educational videos and radio programs (to be continued in the next section).
Take a look at the following two videos and compare for yourself!  The first video is in standard Japanese, and the second one is in the southern Amami Language.



Southern Amami-Oshima:

While walking around the streets on Amami Oshima, take a minute to listen to the conversations of those around you, especially those who are between older people.  Chances are you’ll hear a mix of the Amami dialect and the Amami language!

Local Radio Stations

The local radio stations of Amami Oshima are not only a main channel for people to connect on the island, but they also hold special programs to further spread the unique culture of Amami.

Many mix the local dialect with Japanese in their broadcasts, and host educational shows about the Amami languages with the aim of increasing speakers of these languages.  They play Amami local folksongs (‘shima-uta’) and other popular local artists, as well as provide essential information during emergencies.

In Amami City, the Amami FM radio station is played in the streets, as well as in many shops and restaurants.  While walking through the shopping area you could hear classic Japanese Enka songs, then a ‘shima-uta’ folksong sung in the Amami language, and then a local hip-hop duo.  The variety and incorporation of the Amami community creates a very interesting and engaging atmosphere.

You can listen to Amami FM live broadcasts online (this page gives you instructions) or on the ListenRadio app (however it is all in Japanese), and if you visit Amami you will surely encounter the broadcasts of the various stations!


A speaker on the street, which the Amami FM programs are broadcast from

 ‘Shima-uta’ (local folksongs)


The people of Amami Oshima are very proud of their musical heritage that distinguishes them from the rest of Japan, and even the world.  ‘Shima-uta’ songs are characterized by a simple yet refined ‘shamisen’ (three-stringed Japanese guitar) tune combined with a particular high-range singing style that is created by keeping vocal chords tight while singing, and occasionally a beat played on the ‘chijin’ drum.

‘Shima-uta’ are songs created to tell of the daily lives of the islanders, conveying everything from hardships, to traditions, and love stories.

However, the ‘shima-uta’ style of singing used to be a way to interact with one another; people would hold gatherings and casually sing improvised lyrics to someone playing the ‘shamisen’ (paired with ample drinking of the Amami kokuto shochu liquor that is made with brown sugar, of course).

The ‘shima-uta’ from Amami Oshima have been passed down through word of mouth in communities for many years, and thanks to modern technology they can be preserved for many more years to come.

Check out these popular ‘shima-uta’ artists, and share this beautiful art form!

Anna Sato, Tomoki Sato, Shingo Maeyama, Chitose Hajime

There are also various restaurants that have live ‘shima-uta’ performances, so keep an eye out for those as well!


Shingo Maeyama performing at a local festival, accompanied by Juri Mukai

Amami Oshima is truly a one-of-a-kind island, and the sounds that one encounters on the island is only a small part of that.  Come to Amami and experience all of its charm for yourself!


Tomori Beach, Kasari area of Amami City



















































Rosemary White

Rosemary White

Born and raised in New Mexico, U.S.A, I have worked as a Coordinator for International Relations for Amami City as of August, 2018. I translate materials such as Amamikke articles as well as write my own, and I run the Amami Island Info facebook, insta and twitter accounts. Amami foodie and tour guide in the making. アメリカのニューメキシコ州生まれ育ち、2018の8月から奄美市の国際交流員(CIR)として奄美大島に来島。観光パンフレットやあまみっけの記事の翻訳、SNS情報発信。自然探検、美食家。

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