A Key Leader in the Expansion of the Okinawan Festival in Hawai‘i

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The writers are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Manoa. Both volunteer with JCCH.

Roy Kaneshiro (Photo courtesy of Roy Kaneshiro)

In 1980, Roy Kaneshiro’s first trip to Okinawa changed his life forever. Although he grew up in a family with strong connections to their home village of Chatan, Okinawa, Kaneshiro admitted that his knowledge of the country’s rich history and culture were slim.

Growing Up

Kaneshiro’s grandparents Kiman and Maka Kaneshiro immigrated to Hawai‘i to work in the cane fields. Like many other Okinawan immigrants, they soon turned to farming. They began by raising and selling hogs in Mö‘ili‘ili in the years before the war.

When Kishun (Roy’s father) joined his father, they started a duck farm in 1944, selling duck meat to Chinese restaurants.

In 1947, they moved to poultry and found selling eggs more profitable than ducks. As kids, Kaneshiro recalled the detailed work involved in getting the eggs ready for sale and how he and his two brothers, Ronald and Roy, helped to gather the eggs.

Kaneshiro admitted that he didn’t excel when it came to school. While attending the University of Hawai‘i, he eventually took over farming responsibilities from his father in the 1970s. The family finally sold the poultry farm in 2015 to a company based in Hokkaidö. According to Kaneshiro, the family was reluctant to let go of the farm but agreed to sell when they learned that the company would be in good hands. The Japanese company promised to carry on the high standards that the Kaneshiros had worked so hard to achieve.

Family Connections with Okinawa

In 1928, Kaneshiro’s family was key in creating the Chatan Club, an Okinawan sonjinkai (village club) in Hawai‘i. When the club was officially recognized in 1933, his grandfather was the third president. Kaneshiro recalled club picnics with 200 to 300 people attending. Not only his grandfather but his father and older brother also served as presidents of the club. Eventually, Kaneshiro also became president of the organization.

As a child, he vaguely recalled hearing about the effects of the war in Okinawa. His family sent a sewing machine, collected clothes; others even sent hogs. According to Kaneshiro, “My family sent these items to our relatives in Okinawa because of the war but they didn’t really talk much about what actually happened there.”

Life-changing Visits to Okinawa

While he was engaged in largely social activities with the Chatan Club, he admitted that he had little knowledge of the larger Okinawan story. This changed in 1980 when he was 37 years old. The Okinawan government invited young Hawai‘i folks with ancestral roots from over 35 towns and villages to participate in a one-week study tour of the country. The purpose was to raise an awareness of the Hawai‘i-Okinawa connection and create a deeper understanding of Okinawa’s history. Kaneshiro was selected to represent the Chatan Club.

Kaneshiro said, “My eyes and mind were opened on that tour.” He heard stories about Okinawa’s tragic war experiences and unique culture from official tour guides and relatives for the first time, including the epic Battle of Okinawa in 1945 — one of the bloodiest encounters in the Pacific. The brutal fighting, Japanese kamikaze attacks, and the assault of allied ships and tanks left almost 150,000 Okinawans among the casualties. Over 2,000 middle-school boys forced into frontline service by the Imperial Japanese army died on the battlefields.

As part of his visit, Kaneshiro visited his home-village of Chatan, the Peace Memorial Park — the site of the final battle between the U.S. and Japan, and Kadena Air Base — the hub of U.S. airpower in the Pacific.

He recognized similarities with Hawai‘i in terms of geography, climate and military presence. Kaneshiro started to understand the complex mix of positive and negative reactions among Okinawans over the U.S. military presence. On the one hand, U.S. installations had contributed to the economy of the country. On the other hand, Okinawans also resented their lack of voice in future directions for the bases. Kaneshiro saw for himself the sharp divide between the wealth on display at the Kadena Air Base and the poverty of the surrounding local areas. He made additional visits that inspired him to consider ways to bring the culture of Okinawa to Hawai‘i.

Creating the Okinawan Festival in Hawai‘i

In 1981, he became the president-elect of the Hawaii United Okinawan Association. From leading one of the local clubs, he now had a major role in the statewide organization. This gave him the opportunity to introduce something novel — creating a matsuri or festival similar to one he had seen on his visits. In Okinawa, they had a tug of war that pitted village against village. That particular event was not possible in Hawai‘i because of liability issues but Kaneshiro knew that entertainment and food were great ways to connect the Okinawan groups and to invite participation from the larger community and visitors.

The idea was not to make money. His vision was to “make people aware of our culture.” He said, “We wanted to introduce people to different Okinawan foods, the dance, the music.”

Gov. George Ariyoshi signed a proclamation designating Aug. 22 – Sept. 19, 1982 as “Okinawan Heritage Month in Hawai‘i.” From left: State Representative Ken Kiyabu, Hui O Laulima member Alice Njus, 1982 Okinawan Festival chairman Stanley Takamine, Roy Kaneshiro, 1982 Okinawa Festival honorary chairman Steven Nagamine, and HOL member Betty Higa. (Photo from the 1982 Okinawan Festival program booklet)

Before the Okinawan Festival was established, a similar cultural program had already been initiated and organized by Hui O Laulima, an Okinawan women’s group. Their goal was to share the Okinawan culture with the public through exhibitions and demonstrations. In 1971, HOL’s first “Cultural Jubilee” was held at the Ala Moana Hotel. It was co-sponsored by the United Okinawan Association (now known as the Hawaii United Okinawa Association).

Hui O Laulima and the then-UOA continued their joint sponsorship of the cultural jubilee until 1982 when the desire to reach out to the broader local community resulted in the birth of the first Okinawan Festival.

Although Kapi‘olani Park was considered as a site for the first festival, they realized the logistics would be difficult for the festival’s electrical and plumbing needs. They finally settled on McCoy Pavilion at Ala Moana Park, a perfect spot that was self-contained with an auditorium and access to smaller meeting rooms. The first HUOA festival was held in 1982 with Stan Takamine as chair. The different villages and prefectures all helped; the Okinawan Times was instrumental in sending a samisen player to aid with entertainment. Kaneshiro remembered that an elderly lady attending the festival told him that she was too old to visit Okinawa but that this event had brought Okinawa to Hawai‘i. Kaneshiro said, “She was really happy. That kind of stuff, it just kinda makes you aware and just appreciate.”

In the ensuing years, the festival was held at Thomas Square and Kapi‘olani Park. In 2017 HUOA had to cancel the event because of weather issues and hurricane threats. This led to moving the festival to its current location at the Hawai‘i Convention Center in 2018. Last year, the festival was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic government mandated lockdown. The same will happen this year on Sept. 4 and 5.

Looking Back

Kaneshiro admitted that witnessing how the Okinawan community always came together for the festival was a heart-warming experience. “It’s really amazing when you see everybody working together. For a lot of them, it’s a sacrifice. The carpenters, they go almost a week, repairing the structures. I am just so proud of the Okinawan community.”

The United Okinawa Association’s Okinawan Festival had its start at the McCoy Pavillion at Ala Moana Park. (Photo courtesy HUOA)

Modesty and humility are ingrained in Kaneshiro. He said his father always told him, “Don’t do anything where you expect to take the credit. The credit goes to those that help you. What he was telling me was don’t do something so that you can be recognized with praise for your achievements. If you do something because you believe in it, then go do it.”

Kaneshiro continues to live this simple philosophy. Now retired, he said, “When you think of life, and I talk to my friends, we golf and all that, and we talk about life. None of us are wealthy. We’re all average. We have good wives. We have good kids. We are doing things that we enjoy. What more is there in life?”


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