Mission Accomplished, Thanks to My Big Village
Jodie Chiemi Ching
It was about a year ago that I decided to take on the challenge of earning my Yüshü-shö certification in classical Okinawan uta-sanshin, the art of singing and playing the three-stringed sanshin instrument simultaneously. Yüshü-shö is the second of three major certifications — Shinjin-shö being the first and Saikö-shö being the third.
“What in the world was I thinking?!”
I had reasoned that my boys were a little older now, 11 and 13, so they didn’t need my attention as much as they did before. Also, much of my work as a writer guided me toward subjects connected to my ancestral roots, and I was ready for a new challenge.
Twenty years ago, I was fortunate to have received an Okinawa Prefectural Government scholarship for the descendants of Okinawan immigrants. The scholarship allowed me to study at the University of the Ryukyus (also referred to as “Ryudai”) for a year. I attended classes at Ryudai during the day; at night, I studied uta-sanshin at Grandmaster Choichi Terukina’s dojo, Ryukyu Koten Afuso Ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai, in Naha.
Prior to leaving for Okinawa in 1998, I had begun studying sanshin with Choichi-Sensei’s first and top Hawai‘i student, Grant “Sandaa” Murata, who continues to be my teacher today.
Choichi-Sensei encouraged everyone who came as exchange students to train for Shinjin-shö, the first level certification. Having no idea of what I was getting myself into, I readily agreed. “Hai!” I said enthusiastically.
Although there isn’t much I remember from 20 years ago, a few memories have stuck with me. I remember the tears of frustration as we worked every day to polish and perfect the song we were learning, “Nufwa-bushi,” a bittersweet love story.
Whenever one of us got discouraged, Choichi-Sensei was especially empathetic and supportive. “Daaiijoouubu,” he assured us. I trusted him that everything would be OK and continued to persevere.
Another emotion I recall is the feeling of “Yatta! . . . I did it!” It was a reward, but it also made me realize that if I worked hard, I could overcome any obstacle. I guess that’s why I am such a glutton for punishment –– I love that amazing feeling of accomplishment.
Fast forward to 2018.
Today, I am a writer, a mom of two boys and a wife. My husband and I bought a house in need of major renovations that we decided to do ourselves.
Needless to say, life in 1998 was so much simpler. As a student, it took only 30 minutes to thoroughly clean my small dorm room. And, to earn my Shinjin-shö certificate, I only had to learn one difficult song.
This time around, I had to learn four songs and be prepared to perform two of them — the two performance songs would be announced two weeks before our test date. Between shuttling my sons to school, music lessons and concerts, the never-ending battle to keep up with laundry, cooking meals and helping my husband with the renovations, it was hard to find time to practice.
The first song everyone learns is “Chikuten-bushi,” also known as “the monster,” because of its complexity and lack of patterns. Just the first two minutes of the nearly-nine-minute-long song about an abundant rice harvest was like “American Ninja Warrior” for uta-sanshin. After spending months just learning the intro section, I asked myself the inevitable: “What did I get myself into?”
The weeks flew by quickly. Finally, a month before the test date, I had learned and was able to play “Chikuten-bushi” in its entirety. But, there was still so much to fix and polish. The panic intensified at this point as I suddenly realized that I had three more songs to learn.
My mentors, Sandaa-Sensei, of course, along with the other Afuso Ryu sensei — Chikako Shimamura, June Nakama, Sean Sadaoka and Kenton Odo — all offered a little, or a lot, of advice at some point. I implemented any advice these sensei and sempai (mentors) gave me.
Preparing was also an emotional challenge. Whenever I practiced, I felt guilty that things weren’t getting done and that my husband had to pick up the slack of renovating the house or helping with the kids. When I didn’t practice, I worried that I wouldn’t learn my songs in time for the test.
“Why . . . ?”
“Why do you guys do this to yourselves?” my husband Alex asked me once. I couldn’t explain why. After all, it’s not like I’m going to get rich like Bruno Mars by singing classical Ryukyuan poems about rice plants being a metaphor for abundance and humility.
When I told my boys about my desire to be connected to my ancestral roots and to strengthening my sense of identity, they replied, “Yeah, that’s what an old person would say.”
I stopped there at the risk of sounding like my mother. What I really wanted to say was, “Wait until you’re my age.”
Off to Okinawa
Approximately two weeks before test day, the test songs were finally announced. My Hawai‘i test-mates –– Naomi Oshiro, Yoko Kaneshiro and Bob Yonahara –– and I had put all our effort into “Chikuten-bushi” and were praying that it would be one of the songs. The Okinawan music gods heard our prayers. Mastering “Chikuten-bushi” and “Kwamucha,” a song about a lonely plover, by Aug. 6 was the goal.
There was no turning back now. I suddenly felt nauseous. I couldn’t play “Chikuten-bushi” very well, and I didn’t even know “Kwamucha” — and the test was only two weeks away! Hawai‘i Herald editor Karleen Chinen suggested that I document my journey in a first-person piece. I warned her then that the story appeared to be all about gloom and doom.
To their credit, our dedicated Afuso Ryu sensei never gave up on us. Like cram school, Shimamura-Sensei gave us extra lessons. I was at her house more than I was at my own. Sandaa-Sensei would rub his shiny, balding head when my 45-year-old petrified brain couldn’t catch the tune or the hand motions. I quickly theorized that his students were to blame for his hair loss. More guilt . . .
The time to depart for Okinawa came all too soon. We weren’t ready; it did not look good.
Naomi Oshiro and I arrived in Naha on the evening of July 26. We rested in the Asato condominium we had rented at the top of Kokusai Doori (street). The next morning, we went to Choichi-Sensei’s dojo with smiles and omiyage in hand.
The dojo is a three-story building. The first floor was filled with students practicing for the first level Shinjin-shö test. The second floor is the Terukina family residence, where students are called upon to play solo in front of Choichi-Sensei for his critique. The third floor houses another practice space and a small recording studio.
One day, Yoko Kaneshiro was practicing in front of a large patina green paper-mâché statue of Choichi-Sensei’s teacher, Haruyuki Miyazato-Sensei. Yoko sat on the floor singing “Chikuten-bushi” while looking up at Miyazato-Sensei. Watching her moved me to tears because she, too, felt connected to the ancestors and spirits represented in that room.
In the corner stood a statue of Kannon-sama. A photograph of Choichi-Sensei’s late son, Tomoyuki, performing with the energetic Akebono Sound band hung on the wall with the name of our friend — and Yoko’s late husband — Miles Kaneshiro. Also hanging on the wall were the names of all of the Afuso Ryu students who had earned certifications, including the more than 50 from Hawai‘i.
Yoko helped and encouraged me a lot, reminding me of how supportive and encouraging Miles had been when I was practicing for Shinjin-shö. For three days straight, including our test day, a fly kept hanging around us at the dojo and at the Ryukyu Shimpo building, the location of our test. Yoko said it was Miles cheering us on. We all agreed that it had to be our friend Miles, remembering how encouraging, and, yes, sometimes a bit annoying Miles could be.
The Shinjin-shö test was held July 30 and 31. Hawai‘i Afuso Ryu members Cassie Nakagawa; father and son, Wesley and recent high school grad Wren Waniya; Cuyler Yogi and Devin Kawamura all passed the Shinjin-shö test with flying colors. The only hiccup was the Waniya men’s delay in Tökyö due to a passing typhoon.
Choichi-Sensei and his eldest son, Tomokuni Terukina-Sensei, were now ready to focus on the Yüshü-shö students. Reluctantly, I told Tomokuni-Sensei that I still needed to memorize “Kwamucha.” “What?!” he replied in perfect English.
All the others knew the song and did everything they could to get me up to speed. After about two or three days of intensive coaching, I could play “Kwamucha.” It’s amazing what I could do knowing there were less than 10 days before the test and that I had spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to get there.
For two weeks straight, we practiced eight to 10 hours per day, sometimes independently, other times with Tomokuni-Sensei.
After shedding a lot of tears and powering on with encouraging words from my fellow students and our sensei, the test day finally arrived. Of the 31 taking the test, I would be the 26th to perform.
We all ate a good breakfast and then headed to the dojo to warm up. The Hawai‘i members were scheduled to test in the afternoon, so we practiced until lunchtime. We were all nervous, so no one had much of an appetite, except for Yoko, who was always hungry. We had some onigiri and practiced a little more. We were all just looking forward to putting the test behind us.
The scariest part was the anticipation and knowing that you had one shot in front of the judges. Once you strike the first note of your song, there is no turning back. I kept telling myself not to think of the past or the future. Once in front of the judges, the power to pass lies in what I do in the present. Whenever I felt nervous, I would bring my mind back to the present. My old meditation practice helped me to remain calm.
After lunch, we headed to the Ryukyu Shimpo building, the newspaper company where the test was being held. (Ryukyu Shimpo sponsors the sanshin certification test. Its competitor, Okinawa Times, sponsors the certification test in Ryukyuan dance.) There, we dressed in our montsuki tomisode kimono. Bob Yonahara dressed in his montsuki hakama. Getting dressed made us nervous all over again. As the last in the Hawai‘i group to be tested, I couldn’t help but feel like my turn was taking forever to come.
Finally, I was called to standby. Choichi-Sensei was there to tune my sanshin. We waited for the tester before me to finish. Then, as is tradition, Sensei stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He told me to take three deep breaths and then sent me off with two pats on the back and a gentle nudge.
I walked onto the stage from the side curtain. At the center of the stage, I bowed to the five judges, all dressed in dark-colored suits, seated in the front. I kimono-walked my way to the red zabuton (square pillow for sitting on the ground) in the middle of the stage. Holding the neck of my sanshin parallel to the ground and my tsimi (sanshin pick) in my left hand, I knelt onto the zabuton. After placing my instrument and tsimi down in front of me, I bowed deeply to the judges.
I then picked up my sanshin and positioned myself to begin playing. Tomokuni-Sensei has a spot-on description for this moment. He says it’s like the fear you feel just before jumping out of an airplane. Once you start playing, you can’t stop. It’s like you’re falling. And then, when you land, in other words, finish the song, you want to kiss the ground and you realize that you are still running full speed on adrenaline.
That’s pretty accurate. Heart still pounding, I feigned calmness and walked off the stage. I felt such relief that my mission was complete. We all hugged each other and took pictures together. Later that evening, we learned that all of us from Hawai‘i had passed. Of the 31 who took the Yüshü-shö exam, 55 percent passed. At a nearby izakaya (pub) that night, we celebrated with lots of kampai, happy tears and promises to get together again.
Now back home in Hawai‘i, I want to thank everyone who supported my journey — my family, friends and sensei. I also want to thank the Hawaii United Okinawa Association and its “With Love from Lorraine” cultural grant fund that supported my trip to Okinawa for my Yüshü-shö. The fund was started by Arthur Kaneshiro and his family and friends in memory of Art’s late wife, Lorraine. With this journey completed, I know that it really did take a village to help me succeed.