The “Bashofu” Story Has Roots in Hawai‘i and Okinawa
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Umi no ao sa ni, sora no ao . . . (Deep emerald hues of the sea, the radiant blue hues in the sky . . .)
For many Uchinanchu around the world, just hearing the first line of the song “Bashofu” triggers powerful emotions. Hearts flutter and eyes well up with tears. The beauty of the lyrics and the melody are enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.
“Bashofu,” a composition by two native Okinawans, was released in 1965. The music was composed by Tsuneo Fukuhara and the lyrics were penned by Yoshikazu Yoshimoto.
But the song’s origins date back to the early 1960s, when both Hawai‘i and Okinawa were undergoing a great deal of change — socially, economically and politically.
In 1959, Hawai‘i became America’s 50th state. Elvis; tiki culture; Polynesian-themed hotels, restaurants and cocktails; and surfing all became America’s image of Hawai‘i. The newly opened Ala Moana Shopping Center was being touted as “the largest shopping center in America.”
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Okinawa was caught in an identity crisis following the Battle of Okinawa. Japan’s defeat left Okinawa under the governance of the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyus until 1972. That year, the islands were returned to Japan and once again became a prefecture after a reversion agreement was reached between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. But, from the war’s end until reversion in 1972, Okinawan citizens were a country-less people — neither Japanese nor Americans.
And so begins the story of a beautiful young Japanese American singer from Hawai‘i named Clara Arakawa who had taken a civil service job in Okinawa. She wanted to take advantage of her time there to learn Okinawan music. Thanks to her aunt, Chieko Arakawa Nodoyama — who, as a midwife, had helped bring noted Okinawan composer Tsuneo Fukuhara into the world — Clara Arakawa was able to meet Fukuhara. The composer was known for his sweet sounding melodies.
When Fukuhara heard Clara Arakawa’s stunning vocal abilities, he was inspired to compose the music for “Bashofu.”
A 2006 story in the Ryukyu Shimpo, a daily newspaper in Okinawa, noted that since Arakawa’s first language was not Japanese, Fukuhara wanted to compose a song that could easily be sung by a non-native speaker.
At the time, a Japanese song titled “Hotaru no Hikari” (“Glow of a Firefly”) had been incorporated into the tune of the Scottish folk song “Auld Lang Syne.” That’s where Fukuhara got the idea to use a Western waltz melody for his composition, which eventually became “Bashofu.”
A musical concept like that had never before been tried in Okinawa. With “Bashofu,” a new genre of music was born.
Just about the same time, Yasukazu Yoshikawa had written a composition about his childhood memories on rural Hatoma Island, an island barely a kilometer in diameter located in the Yaeyama Island group of Okinawa. In his lyrics, Yoshikawa recalled his mother weaving bashofu fabric from the fibers of a plant related to common banana trees, the beauty of the ocean and the warm subtropical breezes of Hatoma Island.
When Yoshikawa learned that Fukuhara was looking for lyrics for his music, he thought his poem might be a nice fit.
Fukuhara’s composition and Yoshikawa’s lyrics were wed perfectly with Arakawa’s vocals. The trifecta of talents came together divinely, creating a timeless tune that takes us back to Okinawa. And thus the song “Bashofu” was born.
The Ryukyu Broadcasting Corporation adopted “Bashofu” as its “home song.” Arakawa was also invited to sing on the American military base television station for personnel stationed in Okinawa.
While working in Okinawa, Arakawa met an American Army medical officer, Capt. Yoshitaka Shitanishi, a California Nikkei who happened to be stationed in Okinawa. The couple married and moved to California and had two children, Jay and Keri.
In 1982, while visiting Clara and her family, Clara’s parents were invited on a fishing trip by their son-in-law and his orthodontist friend. Everyone in the family, except for Clara’s mother, joined the trip. While at sea, they encountered a severe storm. All of them were lost at sea, including Clara’s and Yoshitaka’s two children, Jay and Keri, both younger than 7. Only Clara’s mother survived because she had stayed behind.
Clara’s niece, Allison Arakawa Sears — the daughter of Clara’s brother Andrew and his wife Bernice — shares her aunt’s talent for singing. She shared her memory of the tragedy with the Herald.
“I was 8 years old at the time. I was a bit young and not really aware of the details of what was going on. I recall we were in limbo while they were missing. I imagined them being stranded on a desert island. Childhood wishful thinking,” Sears calls it. “It was only a few weeks, but it felt like years.”
“Kind and loving” is how Sears and the Arakawa family remember Clara. They are proud of her accomplishments. “She was a talented singer and very beautiful,” said Sears. “She entered and placed second in the Hui Makaala Pageant. She worked at the Pagoda Restaurant, where she also sang. In high school, she was a swimmer and an ROTC sponsor. She excelled at everything and, in particular, was an exceptional baker. She even made my parents’ seven-tier wedding cake! Aunty Clara was a sweet and wonderful person, always smiling and so warm-hearted.”
Over the years, Sears has continued to perpetuate her aunt’s legacy through her own vocal talent, honed by the late music teacher Harry Urata. Sears has been singing on stage before audiences since she was 4 years old.
In 1994, Sears spent a year studying at the University of the Ryukyus as a recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government scholarship for descendants of Okinawan immigrants. That, she said, is when her appreciation for the song “Bashofu” deepened.
“I have been singing ‘Bashofu’ as long as I can remember, and growing up, it was just ‘Aunty Clara’s song’ that we sang all the time. It wasn’t until I lived in Okinawa and met with Fukuhara-Sensei that the impact of the song and history behind it really sank in,” Sears said.
“Everyone in Okinawa knows ‘Bashofu.’ To know that it was written for, and originally sung by my aunty is pretty special. Fukuhara-Sensei has composed many popular songs and his musical greatness is inspiring. It was humbling to have spent time with him, hear him play music and learn about Okinawa. To be connected to Sensei’s legacy and the one that my aunty left behind through ‘Bashofu’ is something that I will always cherish and do my best to carry forward.”
“Bashofu” is also widely performed by well-known singers and musicians: ‘ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro played it at the Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association’s Okinawan Festival in 2000, and at last year’s festival, singer Rimi Na-
tsukawa from Okinawa performed “Bashofu” to an appreciative crowd.
Even those who don’t know the meaning of the lyrics are captured by the melody.
“I always loved the melody, especially when Rimi (Natsukawa) sings it. I didn’t know the lyrics,” said Rei Takayama, a yonsei Okinawan. And then she learned the meaning of the song. “I love it even more now,” she said.
HUOA vice president Lynn Miyahira Krupa grew up hearing “Bashofu” being sung by other Hawai‘i-born Okinawans. “A beautiful, lilting song that I will always remember Lorraine Kaneshiro and Marion Arakaki singing at (Okinawan) events when I was a child,” said Miyahira Krupa.
How has “Bashofu” managed to transcend time and distance?
“The Issei who came from Okinawa had a strong connection to their homeland,” says Sears of Hawai‘i’s connection to “Bashofu.” “Since most never returned to Okinawa to live, they perpetuated the culture in Hawai‘i through music, dance, karate, sports and social clubs. ‘Bashofu’ has been popular because of this. The song talks about ‘my home, Okinawa’ –– the blue ocean and skies. It’s a nostalgic Okinawan waltz that immediately transports you back to Okinawa. I think this is what makes it so near and dear to the hearts of Okinawans everywhere.”
Sears often thinks about what her Aunty Clara might say about the popularity of “Bashofu.”
“She would be very happy and grateful to know that ‘Bashofu’ has a lasting impact on generations of Uchinanchu and to all who find a connection with the song. She was a very gracious and humble person, so I know she would be thankful for having the privilege of being part of the song’s legacy.”
Umi no ao sa ni, sora no ao,
Minami no kaze ni, midori ba no.
Basho wa nasake ni te o maneku.
Tokonatsu no kuni, washita shima Uchinaa.
Shuri no kojo no, ishi datami,
Mukashi o shinobu katahotori.
Minoreru basho ureteira,
Midori ba no shita, washita shima Uchinaa.
Ima wa mukashi no, Shui tinjanashi.
To-o tsumugi hata o ori,
Jono sasageta bashofu,
Asaji kunji no, washita shima Uchinaa.
Deep emerald hues of the sea, the radiant blue hues in the sky,
Blown by south winds, the rolling green leaves.
The ripple of basho leaves wave affectionately to me.
Land of eternal summers, Oh my beloved islands of Uchinaa.
The aging castle in the capital, its stone tatami-like floors,
Weave images in their ancient mosaic pathways.
Fruit-laden basho were all full with ripening fruit,
Shaded by leaves ever so verdure. Oh my beloved islands of Uchinaa.
No longer the towering majestic structure it once was,
When people used Chinese methods to weave cloth,
And to the nobility presented gifts of abaca cloth,
Woven with basho fibers. Oh my beloved islands of Uchinaa.