Sansei Scholar Wesley Ueunten on What it Means to be Okinawan

Ida Yoshinaga

Researching Uchinanchu Within the Global Community

Wesley Ueunten (上運天巌), an accomplished professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, spent his pandemic year in Okinawa on a Fulbright award, teaching at a local college. He and his part-Okinawan wife were sandwiched between raising their young child and caring for his wife’s elderly mother during the global coronavirus outbreak. Through the videochat magic of Zoom, we caught up after decades of finding our own pathways in the university system. I first met Ueunten when we crossed paths in the Tökyö get-togethers of Kimberly Fujiuchi, a future University of Hawai’i at Mänoa alumni leader who, back in the early 1990s, had organized social gatherings of young Hawai’i Nikkei who were studying or working in Japan. We were fellow graduate students at the time, studying our ancestral cultures within academia: me trying to grasp Japanese business practices in Tökyö prior to my time as a UHM doctoral student in sociology; and Ueunten rising as a promising scholar of Okinawan history and society as a Ph.D. student in ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

By the late 1990s, Ueunten and I competed (unsuccessfully) as finalists for the Japanese American studies position that Franklin Odo had once held in the UHM Ethnic Studies department. In 2000, we met again at the “Uchinanchu Diaspora: Memories, Continuities and Constructions” conference in Okinawan studies, held at the Hawaii Okinawa Center to commemorate the centennial of Okinawan immigration to the islands. The community-engaged series of public educational events was co-organized by leaders of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association and by Ueunten’s and my mutual mentor Dr. Joyce Chinen.

There, Ueunten spoke alongside Native Hawaiian activist Puanani Burgess and a host of prominent scholars in the thriving new field of Okinawan diaspora studies, before a Hawai‘i audience who were invited to learn about their culture and history.

Ueunten and I found ourselves listening to one panel while arguing passionately over the nature of social responsibility that Okinawan settlers wielded towards Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous peoples of the globe (he had insisted, “I cannot betray my community” by critiquing members’ political role as settlers; I had pushed him to do more to educate that community on its kuleana). At the time, Ueunten was quickly making a name for himself through research on Uchinanchu wartime internment in Peru and on the histories of other Okinawan immigrant communities that had settled in Latin America.

It was obvious to my Yamatunchu (non-Okinawan Japanese) self back then, as it is even more abundantly apparent now — after decades of his outstanding contributions to Uchinanchu diaspora studies — that this Kaua‘i-raised intellectual embraces a vision of Okinawans as not just economically successful immigrants to Hawai‘i, but as caring citizens of the world.

Speaking at a 2019 event at the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, California, while holding a hogen fuda, a technology for Native Okinawan-language repression, in his hands. (Photo by Scott Tsuchitani.)

In particular, Ueunten encourages his fellow Okinawans to pay mind to local populations who are more marginalized and oppressed than Uchinanchu settlers in their adopted geographical regions. To be conscious of those who might be raising their voices in the global political struggle for human rights, fair treatment and social equality.

The justice-oriented scholar of Okinawan diasporic studies, community-engaged sanshin practitioner and “sandwich-generation” caregiver took the time to share his impressive life story with the Herald, for which we are grateful!

Family Diversity in Class Backgrounds

The son of Sensuke Ueunten and Chiyo Gushiken (Ueunten), Wesley was born and raised on Kaua‘i, growing up in Kalaheo under the loving care of two Nisei Okinawan parents. “Like a lot of us, my grandparents (on both sides) came to work in the sugar cane industry,” he explains.

However, when conversing with this Hawai‘i-grown, world-class thinker, what seems like a simple family story soon proves complex underneath. Even in the process of recounting his personal narrative, Ueunten brings forward the diversity of Okinawan class culture within his childhood household.

His father’s side of the family had immigrated from Sashiki, but his mother’s came from Ahagun. Both sides had migrated to Hawai‘i from southern Okinawa. “The interesting thing is that my father’s side is from the old upper class in Okinawa. I did some research; after the annexation of Okinawa, they had lost their class status. They went to Sashiki, the farmlands of Okinawa, where they made a settlement of the upper-class people,” he reveals. Those settlements were called “yaadui,” an upper-class immigrant cluster within Okinawa, of which Sashiki had quite a few, according to Ueunten. Perhaps due to their previous status-born privilege, residents of the yaadui had tended to marry mainly within their class.

On his mom’s side, however, Ueunten’s ancestors were what he calls “mizu nomi bakusho” — peasants who were so poor that they could only drink water to survive. His maternal grandmother’s side was from the marginalized class of struggling farmers. Due to the significant gap in social status, the cultural temperament of the two sides of Ueunten’s family differed. His father’s family culture was more Confucian with a serious nature. His mother’s side consisted of outgoing, unique characters, with many colorful personalities.

When Ueunten visited Okinawa as a college student in the 1980s, he also learned that on his maternal side of the family, the “root” ancestor was a woman. This was unusual — “It took me a while to process that.” Apparently, she was a single mother who got pregnant then decided to settle down in the Ahagun area. (Though no one knows exactly when she had migrated to what would become their hometown, it was probably around 100-200 years ago.)

The two sides of the family exhibited different characteristics, as they came from distinct class cultures of Uchinanchu. Ueunten found the contrast interesting. “I was lucky, being exposed to diversity in Okinawan culture. My father’s side had a written genealogy (in classic Chinese writing) going back to the late 1400s; my mom’s side had none,” he shares.

The implications were not as simple as upper class = privilege always. Ueunten was told by other Okinawans that for the non-upper-class members of their society, who had no writing unlike the upper class, when an ancestor dies, the person becomes a god after a few decades; their identity is free to move on. (“Kamisama ni natta,” he explains.)  With upper-class Okinawans, when a person dies, you have to write their name down, then there is a genealogy recalled and a process that the family must go through. After this process, the deceased finally can move on, so after death, they are not as free as the commoners might be. Ueunten finds these class differences that lay beneath the cultures of both sides of his family quite fascinating!

Mostly, he marvels that his mother and father were even able to wed, a fortunate outcome of being part of the Uchinanchu diaspora rather than staying in their homeland. “They (his parents) would not have married in Okinawa; they married because they were Nisei in Hawai‘i,” he says.

His Parents’ Evolving Cultural Identification

On his dad’s side, Ueunten’s father Sensuke Ueunten was the oldest of 13 children; Sensuke had felt pressure as the chönan (oldest son) to study really hard. “When we had family get-togethers (on my dad’s side), no one talked,” Wesley says, remembering also that Okinawan relatives on his mom’s had described this paternal side of the family as serious and quiet.

His Nisei father had planned to become a dentist; Sensuke went to the mainland in the late 1940s to train in this medical specialty but soon got drafted into the U.S. Army. During the Korean War, he served on the front fixing soldiers’ teeth. Then Sensuke was soon stationed as a military dentist in Okinawa for about a year with his wife, Ueunten’s mother Chiyo Ueunten. This proved a life-changing experience in terms of the female Okinawan American’s cultural identity.

As a Nisei, Chiyo Gushiken grew up in Hawai‘i shamed for being Okinawan. Her mom — Wesley’s “Baban,” Kamado Gushiken — had cultural tattoos on her hands, which made her daughter (his mother) embarrassed when she was growing up. But later she came to live in Okinawa as an adult, because her husband was stationed there after World War II. As the wife of a U.S. officer, she enjoyed a high-ranking, middle-class status. She started to visit and get to know relatives in Okinawa and ended up falling in love with the culture for the first time.

When his mother returned to Hawai‘i, she discovered a new desire to learn about Okinawan history and culture. She got her friends interested too; the women learned Okinawan dance, playing LPs (records) back in those days. “Those songs have been very appealing to me,” admits Ueunten, himself a musical performer.

Ueunten’s highly spiritual “Baban” (Kamado Gushiken) and himself in Koloa, Kaua‘i, around 1978. (Photo courtesy of the Ueunten Family)

Ueunten today feels fortunate to have shared in his mother’s new love for all things Okinawan, even in her womb.

“She and her friends were so into Okinawan culture in the 1950s-‘60s; they had asked a Honolulu (dance) sensei to come from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i to teach [them]. I was in her stomach, listening to this music,” he recalls. So as a youngster, “whenever I heard (Okinawan) music, I would get excited. I would hear the sound of the sanshin and feel both excited and calmed.”

But this ethnic-national pride was “mixed with being Sansei and the stigmatization of Okinawan history and culture and identity (in those days). And also mixed with (my awareness of the) presence of U.S. military bases on Okinawa.” His parents had lived in Machinato military housing (Makiminato in Japanese), where they spent a year and a half while his father served and where they enjoyed a nice big car.

An Initial Take on the Meaning of “Okinawan”

For Ueunten, when compared to his parents’ Nisei generation, growing up as a Sansei Okinawan did not involve as much social stigma. Even for his mother, this once-  commonplace prejudice faced by many Okinawans in the early to mid-twentieth century was partly lessened by the fact that she had a few close friends who were “naichi” (today called Yamatunchu, ethnic Japanese). These friends would get really angry about discrimination perpetrated by Japanese against Okinawans.

“She (my mother) would tell stories when I was growing up: (about) going to Japanese school and being treated differently; being stared at by others,” he recalls. “With Okinawan women who have tattoos on their hands, when naichi looked at them, they thought, ‘barbarians.’”

He describes his mother’s generation as having a “feeling of being dirty,” and how she had “wished she could wash it (the cultural stigma) off,” he explains. “That’s why a lot of Nisei Okinawans did not really emphasize Okinawan identity. That’s what my mother grew up with. But the act of trying to downplay your identity makes your identity more salient,” he reveals.

Ueunten likens his effort at cultural repression due to outside prejudice, to telling someone “Don’t think of pizza.” But then, he adds, “you think about it all day long! You think about being Okinawan more and more (when being told not to embrace, or value, this identity) – that’s what happened to my mom,” he evaluates the complicated psychological dynamic.

In the 1980s, he had heard stories from friends who shared how their parents dealt with this topic. As children themselves, his friends’ parents were told that they could not hang out with Okinawans. “When I was growing up, it (this kind of prejudice) was less common,” he notes.

In response to questions regarding his cultural or ethnic identity, Ueunten says, “It is interesting, because the more I think of what is an Okinawan, the more I start to question Okinawan identity. I think the beauty of being Okinawan is understanding that … the notion of being Okinawan is just a temporary concept. I am trying to articulate (ideas such as) What is Okinawan? My last name? My body type? The fact I like to play sanshin? My love for Okinawa? Does that make me Okinawan?”

He digs for deeper implications beyond the surface meaning of this term emphasizing that “There’s not one (single) thing that makes me Okinawan. What I want to pass down (to my children) is the stories of being Okinawan — stories of diversity. My parents (being) from different class backgrounds (even) in Okinawa. Diversity — and agency (a term from academia) — meaning doing things to change the world around you.

“[For example] My mom grew up being ashamed of being Okinawan; (then) she thought, I will change that by doing Okinawan dance and teaching my children to be proud of being Okinawan,” Ueunten illustrates. From his perspective of trying to understand what his mother had done, Ueunten believes that she must have felt: That’s my Okinawan identity.

However, “If we are going to pass down Okinawan identity, if we pass down words and ideas such as ‘Ryukyuan’ — they (should) come with the understanding that these concepts are just tools. If I am to pass on my toolkit to the next generation, it is not just that I’m going to give them the tool — the drill,” he elaborates. For his own children, he thinks, What if I pass on a power saw and not give them instructions (on how to use it)? (They) Might use that power saw without pulling the cord that starts it! So “passing on Okinawan identity and stories includes an understanding of diversity and agency; these understandings (of identity and stories) are just tools.”

Coming Into His Own Identity

Ueunten traces back his early stage of “coming into an Okinawan identity” back to childhood. During this time he felt lucky, because “My mother’s side are very spiritual Okinawans. Both my Nisei mom and Issei grandma retained a lot of the spiritualty of Okinawa.”

He recalls that when his maternal grandmother, Kamado Gushiken, had stayed with his parents and family in their Kaua‘i home, she would be “getting up in morning and praying to the sun; she was so spiritual. My mom picked up a lot of that and my relatives (did too). We were always exposed to Okinawan spirituality (as a main part of our identity). That kind of sunk in as I was growing up,” he remembers.

This type of honoring the natural world is similar, in many ways, to the religious practices of people from other global Indigenous cultures. “Growing up in Hawai‘i,” he reflects, “we were exposed to Native Hawaiian and some elements of Filipino culture, too. We see those (spiritual) elements in these communities and also in mainland Native American cultures as well as Indigenous cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia and so on.”

More sanshin performance with Ryukyu Koten Ongaku Afuso Ryu Gensei Kai (from left) master instructor Grant “Masandü” Murata (left), Wesley Uyeunten, and Alfred Kina, 1990. (Photo provided by Wesley Ueunten.)

Ueunten first became intellectually interested in his cultural identity while living in Japan as an undergraduate student at a small university in Saitama. In those days, there was no Okinawan studies in such student exchange programming; everything was about Japanese culture.

He was feeling at that time that “I am Okinawan, not Japanese!” — but Ueunten thinks now that the others in the program and campus had just viewed him “as that guy who was Japanese American but a funny kind of Japanese.” Fortunately, he was introduced to a young woman from Okinawa whose family moved to Tökyö. She had grown up both in Okinawa and Tökyö. The female undergraduate student was really into her Uchinanchu identity and shared her learning about that with Ueunten, bringing him Okinawan books and music. “I was blown away … that was a big shot in the arm,” he appreciates now.

Ueunten remarks that “Okinawan cultural identity was passed on in my life by women. The most impactful people (in my life) have been my Baban, mother, wife and other women. They live the culture that’s been passed on to me.” When he confides to me these patterns, I remember that during his long tenure in the Bay Area, Ueunten had been involved with helping Uchinanchu female peace activists organize and educate the public on the issue of the demilitarization of Okinawa during the late 1990s, following highly publicized community protests in the Ryükyüs against the sexual assault of Okinawan girls and women by U.S. soldiers.

At the time, I had been struck by the way that he behaved respectfully towards the female activists, criticizing sexist men in the movement for not letting the women lead their group in a democratic, community-driven process. Like many Okinawan American cis males of his generation, who follow the less patriarchal cultural conventions of their ancestors, Ueunten is, among other things, a feminist.

Befriending that female Okinawan student during the exchange program was Ueunten’s first exposure in Japan to Okinawan culture. Though “I did meet relatives from Okinawa who had visited Hawai‘i, too. But in the 1970s – ‘80s, even Okinawans from Okinawa had played down their identity. But this woman I met at the university was like, I am Okinawan – you are Okinawan, too! That was a big influence,” he said.

Perhaps following in the footsteps of the spiritual Gushiken, his maternal grandmother, Ueunten realizes that “the people you meet a long time ago — there is a reason why you meet them. And you keep meeting them down the line. I kept in touch with her (the female college student) down the years. Our lives have been intertwined. Her buyö sensei was in SF (where I teach) – all these connections happen. I am not sure how it works but it does work.”

 Diasporic Okinawan Studies: Sharing Stories for “Bottom-Up” Solidarity and Empathy

Ueunten views his place within Okinawan studies as continuing over a century of Uchinanchu intellectual work that stretches back to Okinawa’s annexation by Japan in 1868. Those whose scholarship had inspired his own research efforts were “People like Ifa Fuyū and other Okinawan scholars who struggled to create this legitimate field of Okinawan studies. I have been fortunate to be exposed to these great scholars, largely through George Kerr,” he says of the distinguished U.S. diplomat who had served as a major historian of Okinawan social history during the postwar period.

An accidental but significant family connection brought Kerr into the lives of his parents even before Ueunten was born. The latter admits, “It’s funny; Kerr was visiting Kaua‘i in the 1950s when I was not born yet. He came up to my dad and asked, ‘’Ueunten’ — that is Okinawan, yes?’”

Dentist Sensuke Ueunten had responded incredulously: How do you know Okinawa? So he and his wife Chiyo, who was Sensuke’s receptionist, invited the former Naval attache to dinner. There, Kerr gave the Okinawan couple his famous 1958 book that described Uchinanchu people’s history and that drew from the work of Fuyū and other Indigenous Okinawan scholars of the culture. Ueunten still returns to this “Okinawa” book from time to time, valuing it because “He (Kerr) had used those scholars (in his work). I read it cover to cover as a kid. It was a big influence.”

At the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, Ueunten studied under the Okinawan scholar of Okinawan and Japanese history, Mitsugu Sakihara, as an undergraduate student. The UHM Ethnic Studies Program/Department also made a strong impact upon his thinking when he got into it in the early 1980s. At the same time, events celebrating the 80th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawai‘i were going on in the community; related to that, the “Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii” (1981) book put out by the UHM ES Center for Oral History became another historic milestone that also shaped him.

Ueunten thinks that with this book’s publication, the term “Uchinanchu” became less of a whispered phrase and more a statement of pride: “We could (now) say it. Our parents had used it and relatives too, but secretly: “Hey you guys: ‘Arakaki,’ (that’s) Uchinanchu, right?” he gives as an example. “But after that it became okay (to use it publicly), just like “Black is Beautiful” in the 1960s and ‘70s.” These two phenomena, he notes, are connected through the approach of ethnic studies, a community-engaged discipline that insists that academic scholarship be relevant to the needs of actual people outside of the university.

Ueunten emphasizes the connection between the UHM Ethnic Studies program and the HUOA, which together produced that big volume which was very “epoch-making” for a community book in the early 1980s.

“I went to Ethnic Studies at UH. It was like a “bottom-up” study (of society) — how (regular working) people had agency even though they did not seem to have it at the time. People tried to change their lives by going on strike for better working conditions, teaching children the culture, retaining the culture and joining with other races and ethnic groups for justice. So (to me) being Okinawan is also being in solidarity with other people. This was a very important message I got.

“So I learned Okinawan studies very traditionally — from Kerr and other scholars — but also was influenced by ethnic studies, social movements and solidarity with other people. That impacted me.

“My (version of) Okinawan studies is also different, in a way: it is a Hawai’i-born Okinawan studies, not only looking at Okinawa but at the history of its immigrants and their descendants. And their struggles to define ourselves and put this into (definition) our identities. Are we just going to be Okinawans in terms of having a beautiful past culture; of ‘we had a kingdom’? That’s important, but how to practice our identity also comes from our ethnic-studies community and the building of solidarity with other groups,” he stresses.

Solidarity might come easily to faculty at San Francisco State University, the institution with the first (and only) Asian American studies department in the nation. As a professor who teaches diverse students at SFSU, including Southeast Asians who are Hmong or Cambodian, LatinX students, houseless learners and those from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, Ueunten likens classroom instruction to an exchange of stories between those of different cultural origins. “Teaching for me has become more about learning from each other and going ‘Hey I have a story like that, too!’” he admits.

Ueunten treasures his encounters with these students. “What is most precious to me is their empathy for other people,” he says of the current generation. “They listen to what I have to say about Okinawa; I can hear their stories, too. Some of these stories are heartbreaking; I am not trying to romanticize it, but some students are barely surviving mentally. There are homeless students at San Francisco State University. A lot (of them) are from immigrant backgrounds; they are struggling with all the trauma. Some come from refugee backgrounds.

“I guess what I have learned is that empathy is very important — through hearing stories but also (witnessing student) caring. They care about other people. I kept getting students younger than me but their wisdom — some are 18, 19, 20 — and sense of caring is way stronger than mine. They care about me, saying, Professor, take care now. These students are not getting by financially and mentally, but they are concerned about me from this sense of caring! We care as a collective, learning and caring about others — and finally learning to care about ourselves,” he realizes.

Ethnonationalism Versus a Chimu-Driven Politics

Okinawan studies today, asserts Ueunten, heads into two major directions – one subfield of research oriented around those who live within the Uchinanchu diaspora (such as Okinawan Americans working in the U.S.) who are looking at the complexities of Okinawan identity and history. He sums up these scholars as: “A lot of us do not grow up speaking Okinawan but still have an Okinawan identity.” And a second subfield of study, which has thrived as the Okinawan homeland loses its own identity (/identities) and language/s to mainstream Japanese perspectives and global pop culture, concerns researching Okinawans in Okinawa themselves.

For the latter effort, Ueunten is concerned that some Okinawan scholars and community activists might turn towards ethnonationalism, a reactionary trend popular both in the Japanese mainland as well as the continental U.S. (e.g., some strains of alt-right fundamentalism, especially as typified by communities backing the rise of ex-President Donald Trump). Ethnonationalists “go into the pure essence of their culture and identity”; in the case of Okinawan studies, this would be illustrated by “People who believe, like, ‘Ryükyü, Ryükyü,’ (who are) very essentialist [wanting to boil culture down into a “pure,” one-note essence].

“One thing the diaspora can contribute is to combat ethnonationalism,” he believes. “We (overseas Okinawans) live in a condition of hybridity but still retain a strong identity of who we are. That’s where Okinawan scholarship can be advanced: looking at Okinawa as a diaspora (not as a pure trait or unified set of traits).”

The Hawai‘i Okinawan experience lets him provide an example: many diasporic Okinawans in the islands practice the cultural and performing arts of their ancestors but with their immigrant communities evolving these traditions without over-emphasis on purity of form. Instead, there is “a lot of empathy towards other groups in a whole aloha way – maybe not so as to appropriate Hawaiian culture, but a (generous) Polynesian feeling of aloha. If those things can be part of Okinawan identity, then I have less worry of the future,” Ueunten shares with me.

Contributing sanshin music at 50th anniversary of the establishment of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University with students, colleagues and friends. (Photo by Scott Tsuchitani.)

In likening Okinawan culture to those of other Indigenous communities, he often speaks of centering chimu — one’s feelings stemming from the heart and soul — paying attention to the emotions being passed down. “We are not Indigenous in the same way as Native Hawaiians but in different ways,” he says of how chimu resembles the concept of aloha. “Okinawans use the word chimu to say something like chimu gurisan, or “My heart hurts, which is like kawaisoo in Japanese (“I feel pity”).  Or they may say chimu don don, my heart is thumping to express excitement. If we talk about Indigeneity that is what we talk about: the idea of chimu and how it ties us to other people, not just Okinawans. Other people, other beings like animals, other sentient beings,” Ueunten analyzes.

Some of the older Okinawan studies scholars show a resistance to calling the culture “Indigenous,” because in the old days the term for Indigenous folk was “dojin” — literally, Natives were called “dirt people” (more generously, people of the earth).  So the term was stigmatized as uncivilized, as “those people from down south.” However, with more young scholars and community activists embracing the historical, cultural and political-economic parallels between Okinawans and other Indigenous groups, Uchinanchu must be Indigenous in their own way, without taking from Native Americans or Native Hawaiians. “That is a great conversation; we should have the conversation,” Ueunten urges. The dynamism and open-endedness of the topic, he asserts, is important.

Final Reflections: “Gratitude to All the Spirits in Each Room”

In conclusion, Ueunten reflects, “Maybe being Okinawan is being not Okinawan. You’re one with Native Hawaiians, white people, African Americans. Okinawan identity is a tool helping us realize that we’re all connected.

“If you are a finger pointing at the moon, Okinawan identity is the finger — but the moon is where you want to go. We are all connected under the same moon.

“So Okinawan identity is a very important tool but not a reality. But we mistake the model, the map, for reality. I think Okinawans know that.

“Keep your chimu and feel fortunate that we are from Hawai‘i, from a Native Hawaiian-embracing culture. We also want to give back to the culture, because the community has embraced us.      

“My grandma, even when she was really old, went to all rooms of the house. She prayed, feeling gratitude to all the spirits of each room, towards the planet and other people.”

Note: For two great pieces that demonstrate Ueunten’s philosophy of community-engaged scholarship, see “PLAYING WITH CHIMU (Heart/Soul): Reclaiming Cultural Identity with the Okinawan Sanshin” ( and “Incorporating an Okinawan Perspective into Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University” (

Former Herald staff writer Ida Yoshinaga is an Assistant Professor of Science Fiction Film at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has recently moved from Honolulu to Atlanta and, as a spouse and in-law of Hawai‘i Uchinanchu, is happy to contribute to the Okinawan Festival special edition of The Hawai}i Herald for the first time.


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