Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
Location: Gushikawa Memorial Park, April 2017
The Obon season concluded while I was in Hawai‘i, volunteering with the Okinawa Prefectural Library staff at the Okinawan Festival. Several Uchinanchu who were in Hawai‘i on work-related projects in late August rushed back to Okinawa by Sept. 3 in order to be home for Obon. Most of them were chönan, or eldest sons, in the family.
Shi-mi is somewhat related to Obon in that we pay our respects to our departed loved ones, although at a different time of the year. Shi-mi is known as the “Tomb Sweeping Festival” and is held in April.
Okinawans visit the burial tombs, or ohaka, of their ancestors to pay their respects. Depending on the family’s schedule, the observance can stretch into May, as well. It’s the one time of the year when relatives gather to clean the tombs and eat lunch at the tomb site after first offering the food to their ancestors. If your family tomb is located in an area overgrown with bushes and weeds, you might find poisonous habu snakes while cleaning the site, so you have to be careful.
My Okinawa friend, Masaji Matsuda, pointed out a cultural difference between Okinawa and Hawai‘i. In Hawai‘i, it’s not uncommon for families to visit their family ohaka (grave) on a more regular basis — monthly, weekly, even daily. In Okinawa, Masaji noted, relatives only visit and clean their tombs once a year.
My wife Keiko’s father passed away in 2010 and we kept his ikotsu (bones and ashes) in a temple since we hadn’t purchased a tomb plot at the time. Since then, we found a plot at Gushikawa Memorial Park in Gushikawa City, built the tomb and moved my father-in-law’s ikotsu there. Because it is an established cemetery site, the grounds are well-maintained and there are benches to sit on and water pipes and trash cans located throughout the park.
One of the photos in this piece shows the tomb with the name “Yamakawa” and “house/family” in kanji and flowers and food in the front. Keiko’s brother, who is in the Japan Coast Guard, assigned to the office on Ishigaki Island, south of Okinawa island, came back for Shi-mi, so we decided to get together on the afternoon of April 29.
Keiko’s father is the only deceased member of their family right now, so only his ikotsu are in the tomb. Her mom’s remains will be placed in the tomb when she passes. Keiko’s oldest sister is married and lives in Hokkaidö, so her remains will be interred with her husband’s in their tomb in Hokkaidö when she passes. Keiko’s oldest brother is single — his remains will go in the Yamakawa tomb, along with the second brother, his wife and their oldest son, I think, when the time comes. Since they have more family members whose ikotsu will go into the tomb, their tomb is larger than ours.
Keiko and I decided to purchase a tomb plot right next to her family’s so that we can all, eventually, be in the same location. On the left of the Yamakawa tomb is ours, with my family name, Sewake, in kanji written vertically. The kamon, or family crest, of my Sewake ancestors from Hiroshima — a circle with nine bamboo leaves, or kyuumaisasa — is also engraved on their tomb. Because I am from Hawai‘i, Keiko wanted to add the maile lei design. We paid ¥1,000,000 (a little over $9,000) for the plot and tomb, with the designs and lettering included in the price.
Besides Keiko and me, our son Yoshiaki’s ikotsu will be placed in it, along with those of his wife, assuming he gets married. Our daughter Mizuki’s remains will go into her husband’s tomb if she gets married. If she doesn’t, she will join us in our tomb.
I realize that this isn’t the most pleasant subject to discuss, but it is, nevertheless, a part of life here in Okinawa and something to consider.
On a lighter note, however, Keiko’s sister-in-law prepared our bentö, which we offered to Keiko’s father’s spirit first. The bentö included sushi, tofu, kamaboko, konnyaku, mochi, among other items — all homemade — and all oishii (delicious)!
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, O‘ahu, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. He met his future wife, Keiko, within a month and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin retired from the Air Force and, recently from the Air Force Reserves. He now works as a customer service representative for Hotel Sun Palace Kyuyokan in Naha. Colin and Keiko have two teenaged children and make their home in Yomitan.