Columnist’s 46th Birthday Sparks a Reality Check
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
I don’t know why it is, but I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to remembering certain dates. And I don’t mean just birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but other dates as well — dates marking certain milestones in my life. For example, I’ll never forget Monday, Dec. 12, 1994, the day I arrived in Okinawa. Last month marked 23 years of uninterrupted residence in Okinawa for me. I have now spent more of my 46 years of life here than I have in the sands of my birth: Hawai‘i.
When I graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa on May 15, 1994, I was simultaneously commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I was ordered to report to the 18th Contracting Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.
I immediately went next door to inform my Wahiawä neighbors, the Teruyas, who were originally from Okinawa. In my mind, I can still hear Mrs. Teruya’s voice from that conversation, telling me that I was going to come back home married. I doubted her, because marriage was not even in my vocabulary at the time.
Keiko and I began dating a month after I arrived and we got married in August 1996, less than two years after I began my tour of duty in Okinawa. I ended up making Okinawa my home.
Mrs. Teruya had also told me to look up Jimmy Inamine. I later learned that Jimmy founded and owned the largest bakery chain in Okinawa. Jimmy had close ties to Mr. Teruya and had taught him about baking — and he wasn’t haole (Caucasian), as his first name implied.
When I had filled out my “dream sheet” several months before graduating and requested assignment at a base in Japan, I had mainland Japan in mind — you know, sakura cherry blossoms, trains and women walking around in kimono. My Air Force ROTC friend who was several years ahead of me and already working at Kadena AB got wind of my assignment and spoke to the captain in the squadron to which I had been assigned. That captain had been designated as my sponsor. A short time later, he sent me a welcome package. When I opened the welcome booklet to Kadena AB and Okinawa, the pictures of hibiscus, people on jet skis, and funny-looking kimono and women hairdos confused me. Okinawa was supposed to be in Japan, but, somehow, it didn’t match my image of what Japan was supposed to be.
I spent my last summer in Hawai‘i working at the Zippy’s restaurant in Wahiawä and substitute teaching as I awaited orders to first head to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, in October to take a Contracting 101 (Basic Contracting) course with 11 other brand new 2nd lieutenants. After a month and a half, it was time to deploy to my first duty assignment on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
I flew from San Antonio Airport to Los Angeles International on a commercial airliner and then boarded my military charter flight, which was a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 aircraft, to Yokota AB on the outskirts of Tökyö. After a short stop to refuel and service the aircraft, I was on my way to Okinawa.
I remember passing over the Kadena AB runway just before lunchtime on that Monday as the aircrew was turning the aircraft around to position it for its final approach. I looked out of my window and saw that the blue ocean wasn’t any different than the ocean in Hawai‘i, but that the cars were traveling on the left side of the road. When I exited the aircraft, it was colder than the winter season in Hawai‘i and I wished that I had worn more than my white Air Force ROTC polo shirt and a thin black jacket with my Sewake family kamon (family crest) embroidered on it.
After clearing customs and immigrations, my captain sponsor took me to meet my squadron commander. Lt. Col. Bobby W. Moore welcomed me into the squadron, Kadena Air Base, and Okinawa, gave me the standard speech about performing to the high standards of the officer corps and invited me to attend the squadron’s Christmas party that Thursday. I told him that I didn’t have a suit, that I was still living out of my suitcase. He told me to just show up with what I had. So I did . . . in my same light black jacket, same jeans and the same white slip-on shoes that I had worn on the flight over, although a different polo shirt, to the Rocker NCO (noncommissioned officers) Club. I learned later that some of the Okinawans in the squadron were looking at me and asking, “Who brought their high school kid to the squadron Christmas party?” Someone then told them, “No, that’s Lieutenant Sewake, the new lieutenant being assigned to our squadron!”
I spent my first week getting settled in — shopping for groceries, signing up for a room in the single officers’ dorm and buying a 1986 Honda Integra for $1,100 from a staff sergeant who was departing. I remember seeing more hibiscus flowers here while driving a quarter-mile than I ever saw in Hawai‘i. My adventures in what would become my new home were about to begin.
REFLECTIONS ON THE PAST 23 YEARS
I’ve looked forward to the day when I could say that more than half of my life has been spent in Okinawa. I’ve shared with many people how I left everything behind in Hawai‘i — family, friends, food, language, culture, the lifestyle — to settle here with Keiko in her homeland. Twenty-three years isn’t a magic number, but I didn’t realize what an emotional milestone it would be for me until I hit it and began reflecting on my experiences over the past two-plus decades in “my new Hawai‘i.”
So, what has my life been like here in Okinawa? What have I experienced in the past 23 years? What is Okinawa to me? This “My Hawai‘i” column allows me to share my answers to those questions with people all over the world, especially those in Hawai‘i who are curious about what life is like in Keiko’s motherland through my experiences as her husband and as a permanent resident. So, here are some things that I’ve been reflecting on and remembering as I write this column . . .
I saw mizore ice pellets fall in January 2016 — my coldest winter in more than four decades of life. I’ve been through numerous typhoons, including Typhoon Kirk, whose eye crossed over the runway at Kadena Air Base in August 1996 and kept us indoors for two full days.
I’ve eaten saa-taa andagi (Okinawan doughnuts — in Hawai‘i, you just call them andagi), gö-ya champuru (stir-fried bittermelon dish), Okinawa soba (noodles with rafute pork), mimigaa (pig ears), nakamijiru (pig intestine soup), yagijiru (goat soup) and chi-iricha (stir-fried pork blood). I’ve filleted fresh fish given to me by my Yomitan neighbor after he returned to the boat ramp down the street from our houses. I’ve been part of the Hawai‘i Club assembly line, helping to wrap 300-plus laulau (pork wrapped and steamed in taro leaves) to prepare for our hosting of Hawai‘i sumo wrestlers Akebono (Chad Rowan), Konishiki (Saleva‘a Atisanoe) and Musashimaru (Fiamalu Penitani) at a “small” private gathering in December 1995.
In 1999, I learned that pi-tu is the Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) word for “dolphin” while eating and drinking with the construction workers at the surabu paa-tei (slab party) for our house when it was being constructed. The homeowners traditionally provide food and drinks for the workers at this slab party after the concrete for the foundation and the rest of the house has been poured.
Since moving in to our home in Nagahama, Yomitan, I’ve seen my neighbor’s 7-year old daughter, who used to follow Keiko and me around our house, grow into a woman, who is now a working mom raising three kids of her own.
I’ve sat through several initial and renewal classes to get my Japanese driver’s license, not knowing much of what was being said during the two-hour courses. I’ve used the same license to drive to nearby islands such as Hamahiga, Henza, Miyagi, Ikei, Ou, Yagaji, Sesoko, Kouri, O and Senaga in the two cars and two vans that I’ve owned. I’ve been to other islands such as Tsuken, Izeya, Iheya, Iriomote and Taketomi by ferry and flown by commuter jetliner to Ishigaki.
I’ve performed Hawaiian music on the stage of the 1,000-seat Tedako Hall in Urasoe three times between 2007 and 2009 with three other Hawai‘i guys and our bass player, who is originally from Tökyö, when our Kiakaka Krew band supported a hula hälau (hula school) at several community performances and its annual hö‘ike (exhibition) show. I remember the Polynesian voyaging canoe Höküle‘a making the first of its seven Japan ports of call in Okinawa in April 2007. I couldn’t attend the welcoming ceremony, but I met the crew at a private party for Hawai‘i transplants and later helped them load their bags in the rain and remained onboard with them until they sailed out of Itoman Harbor. And, I remember hanging out with members of the musical group Kalapana, eating lunch and dinner with them and driving them around during their first Okinawa public performance at the Camp Foster Festival in April 2015.
I’ve seen both the poisonous Okinawa habu and nonvenomous akamataa snakes on the road — some run over, and some alive and crawling. I’ve run over the short and stubby hime habu, also known locally as nii-bu-ya because of its slower movements, compared to the regular habu, on the main road leading to my driveway.
I also saw how poisonous the habu venom is when Koa, our purebred Shiba dog, was bitten by a habu in our backyard. Koa died three days later after his gums began melting away and he choked on his own blood as the veterinarian’s husband made his last effort to resuscitate him with CPR so that Koa could make it to his fourth birthday.
I witnessed the passing and joined Keiko’s family in mourning the passing of her dad, Saburo Yamakawa, in 2010, and the father of my church pastor a short time after that. I remember their bodies being carted into their respective crematory cell and family and friends weeping as the eldest sons pushed the button to start the fire and the cremation process. And, I remember assisting Keiko’s family in picking up the remaining bones and ashes with large wooden chopsticks and placing them into an urn several hours later after the remains were carted out. I remember deciding to build our ohaka tomb next to Keiko’s dad’s tomb a few years ago so that we could all be close to each other. When I told my friends about it, they all said, “You know you’re really local and permanent when you build your haka.”
I also witnessed the start of new life and a new generation with the birth of our two children at Toyama Hospital in Makiminato in 1998 and 2000. What a contrast to giving birth in America, where mothers are discharged a day or so after giving birth. I slept in a three-piece tatami (mat) room in Keiko’s hospital room for the week that she was there — the same length of time all mothers spend in the hospital before being sent home with their newborn babies.
As our children — daughter Mizuki and son Aki — grew up, I attended their annual undökai sports day events and ran my share of relays in which parents and grandparents also participate in the races. It was also my once-a-year opportunity to talk story with my nearby neighbor, Alberto Shiroma, from the Okinawa-Latin band, “Diamantes.” My daytime work schedule and his night-time work schedule never allowed us to catch up with each other, except for undökai days.
I learned about the Japanese educational system’s curriculum and testing process for university admission, but I still can’t explain it well, even after Mizuki entered Yamaguchi Daigaku (university) early last year.
I remember the old Naha Airport before the new Naha International Airport opened in 1998. I remember Mihama American Village in Chatan in the mid-1990s when it was filled in and flat and the seven-plex theater was the first building to come up. The large parking lot was still gravel and sand and black and yellow polypropylene rope was fastened to the ground to mark the stalls for cars. I also remember parking my car on the side of the road where Ono Kau Kau now stands, jumping over the seawall, and following other Hawai‘i surfers out to catch waves where the Chatan Harbor and Hilton Hotel have taken their place. Can’t do that anymore.
I remember the Yui Rail monorail starting up in 2006. I remember the expressway that ran from Nago to Shuri before the extension was built to go further into Haebaru, below Naha Airport. I remember the amusement park at the northern end of Okinawa Expo Park, next to Emerald Beach, and told Keiko while we were still dating in the mid-1990s that I would never ride that rusted roller coaster structure.
I’ve eaten my fill of Okinawan food in numerous visits to Keiko’s relatives’ houses in the Shuri area during Obon (holiday honoring deceased relatives) and Oshögatsu (New Year’s) . . . five to six of the same meal in one afternoon, one for each house visited, because of the kame kame culture of being urged to eat, despite being stuffed!
MY NEW ‘OHANA (FAMILY)
I’ve reminded Keiko many times and shared with several friends how I didn’t grow up here, so I’m not surrounded by people with whom I am familiar. I’m not just talking about my immediate family, but others, as well, like my neighbors, my grade school teachers and principals, the Big Way Grocery Store (now Tamura’s) manager, the other fishermen lining the Hale’iwa breakwall, etc. Every relationship I have here was created from scratch since first arriving in 1994, and since I don’t have my own family surrounding me, I consider everyone I meet and remain in contact with to be my extended ‘ohana.
Even after many years of climbing the ranks and eventually sitting in the commander’s seat of the 18th Contracting Squadron for a few months in 2007, I maintain a close relationship with several Okinawans from the office. I still get together annually with people I worked with, some from as far back as December 1994 when I first arrived. Some are retired and some are still working, but they all know Keiko and me from when we started dating and then got married and the subsequent years we spent working together.
I experienced the warm-hearted, friendly yuimaaru (working together for a common goal) spirit of my neighbors in the Nagahama area of Yomitan when the Nagahama Kariyushi Kai moai social gathering group threw a party for me after learning that I had been promoted to Major in 2005. About 90 of the neighbors came out again in 2011 when I held a Lieutenant Colonel promotion party at the Nagahama Kouminkan (community center). In traditional U.S. military fashion, I wanted to gather everyone together to thank them for supporting my career and family and to feed everyone. I didn’t expect any gifts, but a pottery guy who lives down the street whom I had never met before showed up and surprised me with a large tsubo ceramic pot he had made as a gift!
I met Meiko Kinjo for the first time a year after arriving on the island. My relationship with this oyakata pottery master, who is one of the four Yomitan Zanyaki Pottery Association members that started the Yachimun No Sato Pottery Village, is a special one. He continues to call me to help with his yachimun pottery work, especially before and during the annual festival in December. This 74-year old man, who lost both his parents in the Battle of Okinawa in World War II and was raised by his grandparents, constantly refers to us as “brothers” and has given me the unique experience of firing the noborigama outdoor climbing kiln six times in recent years.
In 2016, Fukue Takayesu made me her hänai (Hawaiian for “adopted”) musuko-san, or son, after I helped her locate her late husband’s grandfather’s ohaka in Hilo on the Big Island. I make it a point to visit her and enjoy a tasty bowl of yushidoufu soba whenever I can.
And, more recently, Hiroaki Hara from the Okinawa Prefectural Library became my “younger brother” after I got involved with and supported OPL’s first-generation immigrant reference services at the Sixth Worldwide Okinawan Festival in October 2016. Some 273 requests were submitted, over half of them from Hawai‘i Uchinanchu. I also helped the Okinawa Prefectural Library at the 2017 Okinawan Festival, where 140 cases were also processed. Hiro really became my hänai brother, not just because he stayed at my parents’ house in Wahiawä for two nights after the festival, but because he helped my mom, Lauretta, one of the University of Hawai‘i Volleyball “aunties,” make crown flower lei for that week’s games.
MY NEW HOME
The list of my new, extended family goes on and on. I can’t name all of them, but I consider everyone to be an important part of my life here in my new, adopted home. The tropical weather, scenery and island lifestyle are so much like Hawai‘i. But, as I wrote earlier, Okinawa is not just beautiful in what can be seen with the eyes, but, more importantly, what is felt in the heart. The people make it what it is today. And now, having lived more than half my life here in Okinawa, I can honestly say that I am at home in “my Hawai‘i.”
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.