Earlier this year, the Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association installed its 2017 officers and advisors and honored its Uchinanchu of the Year (see Hawai‘i Herald, April 7, 2017). Tom Yamamoto, 2016 president, passed the gavel to his successor, Vince Watabu, at a gathering attended by more than 800 on Jan. 21 at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. Yamamoto is the vice principal of ‘Iliahi Elementary School in Wahiawä and has been leading the Hawai‘i-Okinawa student exchange program for several years.
Yamamoto has long been a dedicated student of both Okinawan and Hawaiian culture — he earned his shinjinsho (first level certificate) in Afuso Ryu sanshin, plays ‘ukulele and dances hula. Thus, his theme as president incorporated both Okinawan and Hawaiian language, “Itsi Madin (Okinawan) . . . Laulima (Hawaiian),” meaning “Forever Working Together.”
Yamamoto said 2016 was “an eventful year” and one he will remember forever because “so many people offered their hearts and hands.” He had a chance to experience that firsthand when the threat of a major hurricane forced the cancellation of the Okinawan Festival. In the days leading up to Hurricane Lester’s anticipated arrival on Labor Day weekend, all of the festival preparations at Kapi‘olani Park had to be broken down and packed up — all of which was done with Uchinanchu and Uchinanchu-at-heart volunteer labor. “This laulima (lending a helping hand) — Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) for yuimaaruu (helping each other) — was truly an amazing sight to see,” he said.
Yamamoto also introduced the HUOA’s first Pau Hana Concert, which featured Nä Hökü Hanohano-award winning group Maunalua at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. The evening concert raised funds for both the HUOA and the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts.
He also led 1,800-plus Uchinanchu and Uchinanchu-at-heart to Okinawa for the sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, commonly referred to as the Taikai.
Yamamoto concluded his outgoing president’s message, saying, “I am humbled and grateful to have been part of this journey with you.”
Yamamoto’s successor, Vince Watabu, selected “Muteei Sakeei,” Uchinaaguchi for “Thriving Prosperity,” as his theme for 2017. Serving with him will be Courtney Takara, president-elect; vice presidents Marc Hirai, Jocelyn Ige and Kent Yamauchi; executive secretary Sandra Yanagi; assistant executive secretary Terry Goya; Japanese language secretary Kumiko Yabe Domingo; treasurer Stephanie Katayama; assistant treasurer Norman Nakasone; and advisors Mark Higa, Lynn Miyahira Krupa, David Arakawa, Ford Chinen, Grant “Sandaa” Murata; Paul Komeiji and Cyrus Tamashiro. Circuit Judge Karen Nakasone, a Yagaji Club member, served as the installing officer.
Watabu, who has made his career in the printing industry, is in charge of new business development for Obun Hawaii Inc. He reminded the audience that HUOA’s mission is to perpetuate Okinawan culture. Although the word “culture” immediately brings to mind Okinawan music and dance, he said culture is also about memory and taste, like “learning how to cook from your grandmother and your mother” so you can capture the taste of a certain food. “There are things we have to remember,” he said.
Watabu, who was the 2016 Okinawan Festival chair, shared that people nicknamed him “E.K.” — “event killer” — after he decided to cancel the Okinawan Festival rather than risk injury or the loss of human life as a result of the storm. The HUOA was able to recoup some of its losses thanks to the generosity of many vendors and the support of the public and the city in turning out for andagi (Okinawan doughnuts) and T-shirt sales on the Honolulu Civic Center grounds after the storm had passed O‘ahu.
High on Watabu’s priority list is the strengthening of HUOA’s business operations, beginning with the building of the Hawaii Okinawa Plaza across the street from the Hawaii Okinawa Center. When completed, it will provide an income stream for the HUOA, he explained. “Within the next month, it will start construction.”
Watabu’s maternal roots in Okinawa are in Ginoza Village. He thanked Ginoza Mayor Atsushi Toma for travelling from Okinawa to witness the installation of a Ginoza descendant as HUOA president.
Historically, HUOA’s newly installed presidents have shared their “talents” with the audience by singing an Okinawan song or performing an Okinawan dance or doing a sanshin performance. Watabu’s talent was a well-kept secret. He changed the lyrics of crooner Tony Bennett’s much-loved song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” to “I Left My Heart in Okinawa,” and then enlisted the audience in group-singing the Watabu version of “Uchinanchu” to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Several government officials offered congratulations to the HUOA and its new officers, among them, Gov. David Ige, Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa and Ginoza Village Mayor Atsushi Toma.
Gov. Ige, who was part of the Hawai‘i delegation at the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, said Hawai‘i and Okinawa share a “very strong” relationship and similarities in areas such renewable energy exploration, educational exchange, agriculture and interest in the culinary arts. He said he enjoyed the rafute (slow-cooked shoyu pork) and Spam, but had not yet acquired a taste for göya (bitter melon), which his wife Dawn loves.
“I am so honored to be the first Uchinanchu governor in the United States,” said Ige, noting that one in four of the Taikai attendees was from Hawai‘i. “Can you imagine that? You made an indelible impact,” he told the audience. He also said that 2016 president Tom Yamamoto became a YouTube “hero” with his hula rendition of “Nani Ko‘olau.
“I was so proud to see so many of you there — a people-to-people commitment to be Okinawan. I cannot tell you how proud I was of all of you for really bringing Hawai‘i to Okinawa.”