Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Keeping The Memories of Loved Ones Alive in Our Hearts
“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
Traditionally people around the world welcome the new year on Jan. 1 with champagne, gourmet dishes and fireworks. In Japan, during Oshögatsu (New Year’s Day) people eat osechi ryöri (traditional food) and shop for fukubukuro (lucky bags) stuffed with items that are typically discounted 50% or more.
In Okinawa, another New Year’s Day is celebrated for ancestors believed to reside in gusö – the afterlife or ancestors’ world. Known as Jüroku-nichi-sai, the event is held on the 16th day after the first full moon of the lunar-calendar New Year. This year’s lunar new year is on Feb. 12, so Jüroku-nichi-sai falls on Feb. 27.
When there is a death in the family, the New Year is not celebrated in the traditional way by exchanging nengajö postcards with family and friends as is done in western culture with Christmas cards. In Okinawa, relatives also refrain from visiting the family of the deceased person during the New Year.
Since my wife’s mother passed away in April last year, she sent out mochü hagaki (mourning postcards) in November notifying family and friends on our annual mailing list. As such, no one sent us nengajö this year. Relatives in Naha also didn’t visit as they normally do each year.
On Feb. 27, we — Keiko and her brother’s families — will gather as usual at their parents’ house in Awase, Okinawa-shi, where her oldest brother still lives, to celebrate the New Year with meals and conversation. Relatives from Naha will visit and bring oseibo (year-end gifts), and we’ll also serve them food and share some laughs together before they return home.
Another passing which greatly saddened me was that of Meikö Kinjō, one of the four original oyakata masters who founded Yachimun No Sato (Pottery Village) in Yomitan. Not only did I lose my best friend in Okinawa on Aug. 12; I lost my brother. Although I wish everyone could have met him at his studio; perhaps you can meet him in my personal recollection of our times spent together.
It was great to hear your chönan (oldest son) Ryünosuke’s voice when he called me on Aug. 13 last year. I hadn’t been in touch with you for most of last year due to my recovery from surgery and coronavirus restrictions. I was speechless when he told me about your passing the previous day. That was the third time since moving to Okinawa two-and-a-half decades ago, I broke down crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t hold back the emotions from recalling memories of our time spent together.
When I arrived in Okinawa in December 1994, I had no intention to marry and live here long term. That all changed the next year when I met Keiko and we started dating. Eventually I made the decision to make Okinawa my home.
I remember a mutual coworker taking Keiko and me to your studio in December 1995 during the annual (pottery festival) so she could choose a going away gift since she was transferring to another office. That’s when I first met you, and you invited me to come back on the last night for the uchiage (after party) to celebrate the closing of the festival with you and your friends. I barely knew the Japanese language so I was nervous when it was my turn to give a speech and share my comments in front of everyone about the festival.
Except for the years when I flew back to Hawai‘i to spend the holidays there, it was always fun helping you host your friends and customers around the irori (fireplace) with coffee or tea, snacks and stories during the annual tökiichi. I became a fixture there, because I was touched when people told me they remembered me from past festivals.
I remember lining the woven basket used to serve andagi (fried Okinawan doughnuts) for visitors with banana leaves every morning for the three days each year. That basket still means so much to me after first hearing the story of how your grandparents made it; how they had raised you because you lost both parents during the war.
I won’t forget the smell of kemuri (smoke) rising from the irori as I burned maki (firewood) that you often asked me to so you could have hai (ash) to mix with other materials to make ögusuriya (green), köbaruto (cobalt blue), and mangan (dark brown), among other colors, for your yachimun. I’ll continue to make sure no one burns plastic bags, cigarette butt or other such items so that Ryünosuke will have the finest hai to use as he continues your legacy.
Before I came home in the fall of 2011 from my first of five six-month trips to Georgia for Air Force Reserve duty, I remember Keiko telling that me you had called; you were looking for me and I should get in touch with you, once I came home and settled in. When I visited you at your köbö (studio), I thought you just needed help for a few hours with carrying and moving stuff around. I had known of your stroke several months prior but didn’t realize you were asking me to help with preparing your yachimun that was scattered all over the köbö for the upcoming tökiichi.
I didn’t expect to be helping my best friend in Okinawa with his pottery work so much. It was quite an experience to assist on most days from morning until late at night for weeks on end. The military side of me wanted to jump in right away each day and get work done, but you taught me how to start after “kokoro ochitsuite kara” (after our emotions have settled). I enjoyed our yuntaku (talk story/conversation) around the irori every morning and throughout the day as we sipped on coffee in your yachimun.
I had no interest in learning how to make or work with yachimun. So even though I didn’t create any pottery, I was honored to be asked to perform all the other tasks associated with producing your works. Closing my waki (armpit) for stability to apply glaze to the mouth of cups with a brush, as I let the wheel do the work in spinning the item around; using a pumice to clean tanaita (shelf boards) in preparation for firing; and shirishiri (sanding) the bottom of fired pieces for smoothness, all while keeping the irori stoked with maki.
One of the greatest and most unique cultural experiences I’ve had in Okinawa is firing the noborigama (climbing kiln) six times. When I followed you and Ryünosuke from the köbö down to the noborigama, I thought I was only going to observe so I freaked out when you told me to jump in and help fire, too, after you explained that temperatures reach around 2,200F.
After first making mistakes with maki-ire (firing/stoking with firewood) and you having to take over, I felt like I accomplished something when you let me try again. And when you finally said I was throwing the firewood correctly into the three specific locations of the noborigama – oku (deep), naka (middle), and hana (near the side wall of the kiln).
I freaked out again when you started walking back to the köbö because you said you were going to sleep. But I was honored to know that you had left me alone on the right side of the noborigama to help the fire, with Ryünosuke on the left side; I could then maintain a balanced fire in the way that I had been performing maki-ire. I’m part Hawaiian but don’t have a Hawaiian name, so “Waiki” — the command for stoking the fire with firewood as the flames settle — is the name you gave to me, along with the heavy-duty gloves from that first firing in 2011, which I will always cherish.
I was honored once again to receive one of the tsubo (pots) that you made during that particular time as a gift to celebrate my recent promotion to lieutenant colonel. I will always treasure the story you told me about how one goes along the ups and downs of the seven humps of the dragon’s back to reach the highest level at the head. My military career certainly had its ups and downs, and I’ll always remember that story every time I look at the dragons circling the top of the tsubo.
In addition to the first precious tsubo you gave me six years earlier when I got promoted to major, you gave me another tsubo to commemorate our firing of the noborigama together. Most people might look at the tsubo and probably think the büra (pieces of the noborigama ceiling that fall onto pottery during the firing and become affixed) are defects, but these pieces tell me that the pottery was “born” using the traditional method versus being baked in an electric or kerosene kiln.
Do you remember the quietness, especially during the evening when no one else was around, when we fired the noborigama? And the sight of waving flames that had started off as orange but turned white because of the high temperatures? I can still hear the sound of the apiton wood hitting each other as I rummaged through the nearby rack to carefully select pieces for my next throw. And I can still feel the heaviness of that particular maki and the crackling sounds of the burning oil as it was consumed by the fire.
Sharing conversations and laughs with your family and friends at the uchiage each year is a great memory. I was again honored when you passed the torch of shikai (emcee) duties from your friend (whom, I found out years later, was my friend’s father!) to me in 2011. Those were really fun nights with your family and friends and guest appearances by Akira Chibana and his opera singing.
I really enjoyed our numerous conversations around the irori about both Okinawan and American language, history, and culture. I’m glad I could somewhat keep up as you started talking about American actors from the 1960s and 1970s, and I was amazed that you knew more than me about the American political scene!
What are the things that I remember you said? One saying that comes to the forefront of my mind is, “Keiken wa gakushü, gakushü wa keiken” – Experience is learning, learning is experience.
I also remember you repeatedly telling me, “We are family; we are brothers.” Also that even though the public isn’t allowed to enter any of the köbö in Yachimun No Sato throughout the year except during the three days of the tökiichi, I could bring anyone I wanted to at any time.
I can’t quantify it, but when you passed away on Aug. 12, I lost a super huge part of “My Okinawa.” There’s no one else in two and a half decades here that I clicked better with, on all levels. I’ll always remember how we would sit around the irori with a bunch of your friends, too. But you and I were the only ones laughing at our jokes because we were the only ones who could understand each other’s humor.
And I’ll remember how you always sang the opening lines to the song “Sen No Kaze Ni Natte (On Becoming a Thousand Winds)”:
Watashi no ohaka no mae de nakanaide kudasai.
Soko ni watashi wa imasen.
Nemutte nan ka imasen.
Do not stand before my grave and weep.
I am not there.
I am not asleep.
Well, that’s exactly what I feel like doing – standing at your ohaka and crying. Even after all these years, I don’t know where you got the saying and specific number but, “I love you 10,000 times!” Kinjō-san, my Okinawan best friend and brother.
Note: “Sen No Kaze Ni Natte” is a single by Japanese vocalist Masafumi Akikawa. The lyrics are a Japanese interpretation of the poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by poet Mary Elizabeth Frye.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to fulfill his U.S. Air Force ROTC commitment. There, he met his future wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin is now retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two adult children.