Ryler Nielsen Carries Okinawa in His Heart
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In his dream, Ryler Nielsen is walking through the winding streets of the neighborhoods of his youth in Chatan and Yomitan on the island of Okinawa, surrounded by old friends and familiar landmarks. Nothing has changed, and yet, everything is even more beautiful.
“When I go to the [Okinawan] Festival at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, I first hear the drums and then the music,” says the six-foot-tall, red-bearded Nielsen. “It really speaks to my soul and it makes me miss my home.”
Born in Utah, Nielsen moved to Okinawa at the age of 14 when his father took a civilian job with the U.S. military in what was supposed to have been a temporary role before returning stateside.
“We were all so excited,” remembered Nielsen. “Utah is a desert, and in the winter, it is freezing cold. All we could think of were sandy beaches, blue skies and the ocean.” Nielsen’s parents ended up making Okinawa their home for over 10 years and young Ryler Nielsen fell in love with a land that was completely different from anything he had experienced in America.
“Utah is 95 percent Caucasian and in Okinawa, I was the minority,” he said. “It was eye-opening and I began to see that the world was a lot bigger than I realized. It was good for me.”
Living outside of the military bubble among Okinawa’s civilian population, the Nielsen family was instantly adopted by strangers who made them a part of the community.
“Everywhere we went, people were so welcoming and they wanted to make sure that we were comfortable and enjoying ourselves.”
Over time, Nielsen recognized that although he had moved to Japan, Okinawa was a completely different world unique unto itself. Once an independent and sovereign nation, the Ryükyü Kingdom had been invaded and occupied by its imperial neighbor to the north. But the islands’ people had never forgotten their true roots nor lost their separate identity.
“The language was the biggest difference. Everybody could speak Japanese, but I heard so many different words in Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language), and Okinawa has hundreds of outlying islands where other dialects are spoken,” said Nielsen, today a high school Japanese language teacher who also researches the various dialects of Uchinaaguchi.
Fascinated by what he was learning, Nielsen dove deeper into the still waters of the history and customs that surrounded him, eventually dedicating his life to understanding everything he could about his new home.
“What has always struck me about the Okinawan culture is its openness. There were so many people who were willing to help me learn, and I recognize that inclusivity even in the local festival here,” Nielsen said. “Even though I look like a tourist, nobody cares. They are just happy that I am there.”
After graduating from Kadena High School, a U.S. Department of Defense school located on Kadena Air Base, Nielsen returned to the states for college, majoring in Japanese. He also earned a master’s in second language instruction. After graduating, Nielsen returned to Japan, this time to Kyüshü to serve a two-year mission for his church.
“Only on my mission did I really begin to sense how different Okinawa was from Japan. Everything from the food, to the makeup and costumes of the traditional dances and festivals were very different from what I knew growing up.”
Nielsen also cringed when he overheard Japanese stereotypes of Okinawa and found himself speaking up against the mischaracterization of his boyhood home.
“Too often, Okinawan differences are marginalized as crude and unsophisticated. But I grew up in the Uchinanchu culture, so I thought it was normal and even better than anything I saw in the rest of Japan.”
The ties that bind Okinawa to Nielsen’s memory have been frayed, however, as a rising tide of military-related anti-Americanism has mounted in recent years. Spurred by dangerous accidents and violent crimes against the civilian population in the congested residential area of Ginowan, home also to Marine Corps Station Futenma, and the Japanese government’s ham-handed attempt to relocate the Futenma base to pristine Henoko Bay to the north, Okinawans are now standing their ground and demanding a place at the table in order to control their future. While Nielsen supports their cause, he is conflicted by the changes it has brought.
“There were small protests when I was growing up, but that was always the minority view and I never thought I was in danger. It’s different today and I hate to see this, because as an American, I always felt welcomed as a young person.”
Within the past year, Nielsen, who recently married, took his new bride to Okinawa to revisit his childhood haunts and reconnect with his past.
“Maybe other people might not perceive me this way, but I feel parts of me are Okinawan. My food preferences, the way I speak, how I interact with people were deeply influenced by the years I spent there, because it was a time in my life when I was figuring out who I was in this world. I would move back there in a second if I could, and so would my parents. In a lot of ways, a big piece of my heart is still in Okinawa.”
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.