Karleen C. Chinen
(This story was first published in the Nov. 21, 1986, edition of The Hawai‘i Herald following my first trip to Japan. Parts of it have been re-edited.)
I should have been bursting with excitement: I was on my way to Okinawa — my first trip to my ancestral homeland. Everyone who had visited Okinawa had raved about the beauty of the land and the warmth of its people. But as I stared out of the window of my plane and watched the city of Hiroshima grow smaller, and smaller, until it finally disappeared from sight, I knew the hour of reckoning was near.
This would be a bittersweet journey “home.” Not quite a year had gone by since Mom had passed. She was born on Maui, but at 10 months old, her mother had taken her and her brother to Okinawa so they could care for Mom’s widowed father-in-law. The first steps she had taken as a baby learning to walk were on Okinawan soil. And the first words she spoke and understood were Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language). The first place she recognized as home was her house in Okinawa.
In 1930, when Mom was 12, her mother — who had remarried after her marriage to my grandfather had dissolved — put her on a ship back to Hawai‘i to live with my grandfather, who also had remarried. She was accompanied by a calabash relative named Ansho Uchima, whom we grew up calling “Big Uncle.” Big Uncle was like a big brother to Mom and like a grandfather to my siblings and me as we were growing up. I think my grandmother decided that Mom should grow up as an American citizen.
Mom would not see her mother again for 30 years. They may have communicated through letters, but I don’t know that for sure. I do know that Grandma gave her youngest daughter from her second marriage the same name as Mom: Kiyoko.
In the 30 years they were separated, Mom grew into womanhood, trusting only her good sense and her gut. She married my dad, a man her mother never met, less than three months before America would enter World War II with Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor and then watch him ship out with the 100th Infantry Battalion nine months later. In 1945, American troops would invade the island home in which she had grown up, putting innocent civilians like Grandma and her family in the crossfire. In the 30 years she and Grandma were separated, Mom would give birth to four children. Only the youngest, my brother Carlton, had a chance to meet our grandmother when Mom took him to Okinawa so Grandma could see him with her own eyes. Carlton was not even 2, and too young to remember the stress he put her through as a woman traveling alone with an active and squirmy toddler. Three years after that trip, Grandma died in Okinawa at the age of 71.
Mom spent only 12 years of her life in Okinawa, but those years impacted her forever. More than anyone else, she was responsible for the pride I felt in my Okinawan heritage. She never forced it on me. Instead, she introduced the culture subtly. She let me have fun with it, all the while knowing that my mind and heart were absorbing all aspects of it — the music, the sound of the language, the fascination with Okinawan dance and crafts. I always knew that if I had the chance to visit Okinawa, I wanted her beside me. Dad, too, but Mom, especially. I wanted her to show me where she had lived, where she had played as a child. . .
everything. But that was not to be. So when my plane touched down at Naha International Airport, a part of me was anxious to see as much as I could in the two and a half days I would be there, while another part of me didn’t want to get off of the plane.
I should have found comfort in knowing that I would be seeing my relatives — Mom’s half-sisters and half-brothers. I had met most of them during their earlier visits to Hawai‘i. So we all had memories of happier days when Mom was with us. Many times, tears welled in our eyes as we recalled those days. But nothing could have prevented that. I found solace in knowing that she was with me in spirit.
Okinawa was vastly different from what I had seen of mainland Japan — so different that at times they seemed to be in opposite ends of the earth. The comfort of Honshu’s cool, crisp autumn weather had spoiled me. Okinawa was warm like Hawai‘i, and humid.
“Gee, this looks and feels a lot like Hawai‘i,” I thought to myself as I exited Naha Airport with Aunty Kikue, Mom’s eldest half-sister, and her husband, Uncle Ryoyu (Kuwae), and Uncle Tamotsu Arata, Mom’s eldest half-brother. They had come from Awase to pick me up. The skies were balmy and blue, and for the first time in two weeks, I could actually feel the warmth of the sun.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what I had expected Okinawa to be like — maybe somewhat modern, but not as highrise-ish as the capital city of Naha turned out to be. Maybe in my mind was someplace that was a little bit of old and a little bit of new.
If I learned anything during the trip, it was the importance of viewing things in perspective. I had been so bowled over by Tökyö, Kyöto and Hiroshima. The energy of the speeding shinkansen, commuter trains traveling just feet above pedestrian traffic and the rush for the subway had made me feel like a small-town girl who was seeing the world for the first time. But my reaction to Okinawa was so different. Instead of the “Wow!” I had felt in Honshu, my reaction to Okinawa was a somewhat disappointing “Ohhhh. . .”
I felt rotten about not feeling the same kind of enthusiasm I had felt in mainland Japan. After all, my roots were here in this land. But slowly, I began to realize that so much of Okinawa’s beauty lay in her earthiness and in the strength and spirit of her people.
Like the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who had risen from the ashes after the atomic bombings of their homeland, so had Okinawans picked up the pieces after the devastating Battle of Okinawa. Some 250,000 soldiers and civilians were killed, and the islands had been left in ruins. For 27 years after the war, Okinawa had been an orphan, with the United States as its foster parent.
One of the things I enjoyed doing wherever I went in Japan was studying faces. In the faces of the Okinawan elders I saw strength and determination. I recognized that same strength in the faces of the Okinawan Issei who had immigrated to Hawai‘i in the early 1900s.
I wasn’t at all surprised by the warmth of Okinawa’s Uchinanchu. Granted, my interaction with them was rather limited because most of my time was spent with my relatives, whose hospitality knew no bounds. However, the Okinawans I did meet only reinforced what everyone had told me about their friendliness.
My first afternoon was spent at the International Exchange Division of the Okinawa Prefectural Government in Naha, going over the scheduled events for the Naha Matsuri (tug of war festival), which I planned to cover. Auntie Kikue was impressed to see my name on a board of expected guests. The ken-cho people were familiar with Hawai‘i’s Okinawan organizations and fondly recalled meeting their “cousins” from Hawai‘i.
Prior to departing from Honolulu, United Okinawan Association president Edward Kuba had written to them, requesting their assistance in providing me with a good position from which I could shoot pictures of the tsunahiki.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the rain, watching the colorful Naha Matsuri parade along Kokusai Dori, which had been closed to traffic. Throngs of spectators lined both sides of the street, rubber-necking to see what was coming up next. Besides the marching bands, there were youth baseball teams, boy scout troops, a square dance group, floats and Okinawan dance groups.
But the group that everyone stood up and took notice of was a Hawaiian troupe. I don’t think they were from Hawai‘i, but their hula performance sure got the crowd excited. Television camera crews turned on their lights to shoot film of them and still photographers jumped out in front of the crowd to get their shots. I began to realize the kind of magic that the mere mention of “Hawai‘i” commanded.
My three nights in Okinawa were spent in what we jokingly referred to as the “Arata Hotel” in Takahara. Actually, it was Uncle Nobu and Auntie Keiko Arata’s beautiful home overlooking Nakagusuku Bay. They have four children — my cousins — whom I was meeting for the first time. Even before I met the eldest, 16-year-old Kayo, I felt like I already knew her. Kayo was about 2 years old when Mom and Dad visited Okinawa in 1972. They had stayed with Uncle Nobu and Auntie Keiko. After returning from that trip, Mom had often talked about Kayo and how she referred to Mom as “Hawai‘i no obasan.” During their stay, Mom had taught Kayo to say “Good Morning” in English. They were all great kids, and although language prevented us from really getting to know each other, I’m glad I had a chance to meet them.
Although an ocean separates us, the ties between the families in Okinawa and the ones here in Hawai‘i are strong, so I never felt like a stranger in their home. I talked with them like I talked with my aunties and uncles here in Hawai‘i. Quite a few of them are employed by the U.S. military, while others have jobs in private industry.
Throughout all of Japan, the American presence was strongest in Okinawa, where some 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed. Because of that, I could purchase some things with American currency back then. I also saw more signs in English and a wider variety of American fast food outlets than I had even seen in Tökyö. But driving through the main drag of Okinawa City, which caters heavily to military personnel, is like driving through California Avenue in Wahiawä. I could feel the military’s presence in the kinds of businesses that lined the streets.
I also had a chance to meet relatives on Dad’s side of the family when I took some omiyage items to them. They lived in Koza, which is part of Okinawa City. I got to meet Grandpa Chinen’s sister-in-law, who was in her 80s. She lived with her daughter and son-in-law in a modest house surrounded by sugar cane fields.
In mainland Japan, I had seen endless fields of rice and tea bushes. Okinawa was different. There was so much of Hawai‘i in Okinawa. Sugar was the crop, and in certain areas of the island, I also saw pineapple fields.
I knew that two and a half days would not be nearly enough time to see Okinawa. But we got in as much sightseeing as we possibly could. The ocean along the northern coast of the island was breathtaking and unspoiled, its shades of aqua like a painting.
The other sight that fascinated me was the Peace Tower in southern Okinawa near the Peace Park, where the 1945 Battle of Okinawa took it fiercest toll. Inside the walls of this serene, seven-sided tower, symbolizing the seven continents and seven seas, sits a 50-foot high statue of a hand-carved Buddha. It had taken 16 years to complete this beautiful tribute to peace.
THE NAHA MATSURI
I couldn’t believe the size of the crowd that had gathered along Route 58 for the annual tsunahiki festival. It looked like a million people were in the street — all jockeying for the best vantage point from which to view the tsunahiki, or better yet, to grab on to the rope and pull for either the nishi (west), or higashi (east) team.
The ken-cho (Prefectural Government) staff had reserved a seat for me in the special viewing section and had also made arrangements for me to shoot photos from the Ryukyu Broadcasting Corporation offices overlooking Route 58, the only Japanese government highway running through Okinawa. The entire area was buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the start of what is Naha’s biggest festival of the year and the largest in all of Okinawa. (The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, held every five years now, is probably bigger.)
The tsunahiki started a century ago when a plague of locusts invaded the rice fields, threatening the year’s crop. The farmers are said to have waved their banners, pounded their drums and clanged their gongs throughout the night to scare off the locusts. Others say the tsunahiki is held each year to pray for a good fish haul or a bountiful harvest.
The events leading up to the tsunahiki were as colorful. There were lots of speeches and karate demonstrations. In preparation for the actual tug-of-war, two ropes (one each representing east and west) — each with a loop at the end — are brought together at an intersection and joined with a huge piece of wood called a nuchigi. The ropes are said to represent a male and a female. The villagers get out their drums and bells and banners, as they had on this day, to cheer on their favorite team. The Okinawan tsunahiki is a free-for-all tug of war open to anyone who wants to jump in, grab on to a portion of the rope and pull.
Finally, at 5:36 p.m., some two and a half hours after the festivities had officially begun, they were ready to start the tug of war. “Washoi! Washoi!” was the battle cry as the two sides pulled for four minutes and 36 seconds, a new record time. The next 12 months would hopefully bring bountiful harvests for those who had pulled for the higashi team. The tsunahiki was over before I even knew it.
As I made my way down the street, I saw people cutting off pieces of the rope, so I helped myself to some, as well. I learned later that it is supposed to bring good luck. We’ll see.
My journey “home” to Okinawa had been filled with mixed emotions. In many ways, it had helped me deal with my loss of Mom. Maybe by next time I’ll be able to search for the paths Mom once walked along. The one thing I am sure of is that there will definitely be a next time for me.