Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
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
Similar to the four-string ‘ukulele in Hawai‘i, the three-string sanshin provides a distinct sound unique to Okinawa.
Legend has it that the first person to write and compose music for the sanshin is Akainko (red dog’s child). The people of Sobe, Yomitan were suffering because of a drought; crops were failing and the villagers were running out of drinking water. One day, a stray red-colored dog led a woman named Chira to a cave with a fresh-water spring and saved the villagers from dying of thirst. Grateful, Chira took Akainko in as her pet.
Well known for her beauty, many men proposed to marry Chira. She eventually married one of the suitors who was killed by a jealous competitor who spread rumors that she became pregnant with her dog, when in fact, it was by her now-dead husband.
The spreading of lies caused Chira to move to Tsuken-jima where she gave birth to a baby boy. Before her parents could visit her, however, she committed suicide from the shame brought upon her from the fabricated story.
Chira’s parents took the boy back to Yomitan where he became known as Akainko. One day, the sound of rain inspired him to make a sanshin out of wood and horsetail hair for string. Akainko loved to sing and play his sanshin. Today, a shrine sits on top of the hill across of Torii Station’s main gate to honor Akainko.
Kuruchi no Mori, Growing Trees of Kindness
Many people in Okinawa and around the world eternalize the memory of Akainko by taking lessons and plucking the strings of the sanshin, but the future availability of wood to make the instrument is also important to its preservation. One of the woods used to make sanshin is kuroki, known as kuruchi (ebony tree) in the Uchinäguchi original Okinawan language. Officials from Yomitan started to grow kuruchi behind Zakimi Castle in 2008.
Expressing his desire to perpetuate the sanshin, Kazufumi Miyazawa, musical artist and founder of the Japanese band The Boom remarks, “I want to fill Okinawa 100 years from now with trees from the Kuruchi No Mori.”
Ryükyü chanter and performing artist, Daiichi Hirata, shares the same vision and took over leadership of the “Kuruchi No Mori 100-Years Project” with Miyazawa in 2012.
According to Hirata, the forest overlooking the East China Sea is the home to over 3,000 ebony trees. It will take 100 years for the wood to mature to be made into sanshin. Only the core turns into a dark brown color, and each tree can be cut into two sections and quartered to produce eight pieces of wood, each that will become the sao or necks of sanshin. To ensure the future of Okinawa’s music, Hirata organizes a group of volunteers who show up the third Sunday of every month to maintain the grounds, water the trees and weed the area.
Hawaii United Okinawa Association member, Shari Tamashiro, sends aloha and financial support from the people of Hawai‘i. The Itoman Shijin Kai president and Wahiawa Kyo Yu Kai club member first learned about the project from Hirata and his wife, Yoko, in 2014 when Tamashiro took off from her Kapi‘olani Community College cybrarian job to take a trip to Okinawa and make a stop at the forest herself and help with weeding.
With the seed of an idea, Tamashiro spread awareness and started a fundraiser at the HUOA 2018 Okinawan Festival with her friend Jayne Hirata’s help in painting a board with a tree trunk and branches guarded by a pair of Okinawan shïsä guardian lions.
Tamashiro received donations in $34 increments. The numbers three (san) and four (shi) in Japanese put together becomes “sanshin.” A leaf representing each donation was added to the board until the tree grew to $2,400.
A similar tree, made out of cloth, was created in 2019 with leaves and flowers depicting $20 and $100 donations for a total amount of $3,200 this time. Tamashiro is thankful to Afuso Ryu Choichi Kai U.S.A-Hawai‘i, Jikoen Hongwanji Mission and numerous individuals for their generous support. She was touched to learn that Uchinänchu from Ohio were inspired by the first Hawai‘i kuruchi-donation tree and sent their own tree of support. Like the growth of the plant, kindness was spreading!
Artist Masami Kinjo Grows a New Tree of Kindness
Recently joining the effort is jewelry artist Masami Kinjo. Born in Tökyö, Kinjo specialized in metallurgy and graduated from Tamagawa University with her art degree in 1990. After working for the Marubeni Corporation from 1990 to 1992, she moved to Hawai‘i to study English via the University of Hawai‘i’s New Intensive Courses in English program from 1992 to 1994. While enjoying the beauty of the islands she was able to gain hands-on experience by working part time at one of Hawai‘i’s long-established jewelry shops applying enamel and creating prototype forms.
Kinjo also met her future Okinawan husband who was in Hawai‘i and participated in the same NICE program studies. You may recognize President Hitoshi Kinjo if you’ve stopped by or stayed at Hotel Sun Palace Kyuyokan in Kumoji, Naha — a 73-year-old establishment started by his grandfather after the war.
The two held a wedding ceremony and reception in Hawai‘i in 1994 and moved back to Okinawa to celebrate with family and friends at President Kinjo’s other hotel, Palace in Moon Beach in Onna-son.
After settling into her new island lifestyle, Kinjo used her balloon artist certification from 1997 to decorate venues for wedding ceremonies and other events. While balancing her time raising two children and assisting her husband at the hotel, she also traveled numerous times to Tökyö to attend workshops at a jewelry school there.
She became certified by La Vague jewelry school as a clay art instructor in 2010 while learning Hawaiian jewelry engraving techniques from a Japanese instructor from 2010 to 2012. Kinjo placed third in the 2011 Swarovski Gems Style Max Japan Contest and then, from 2013, continued her study of engraving techniques under a master engraver from Hawai‘i.
Kinjo established her own signature jewelry under the name “Ki-Lei Designs.” Hawaiian themes can be seen in her maile leaf and plumeria flower designs that are romantically engraved into rings, bracelets and pendants while Okinawan themes are evident in hana (flower) blocks and rectangular minsa pieces. To add to her list of credentials, Kinjo became a certified senior advisor by the Japan Pearl Promotion Society in 2020.
Earlier this year, Kinjo dreamed up a new item to add to her line of jewelry. After carefully selecting leaves for their unique sizes and shapes from the trees of the Kuruchi No Mori, she applies several coats of silver to them to create kuruchi-leaf jewelry. She presented pendants symbolizing the sanshin to both Miyazawa and Hirata and recently started making earrings with the leaves as well. Kinjo hopes that Uchinānanchu and those that love Okinawa around the world will take her jewelry home and be reminded of Okinawa and the Kuruchi No Mori everytime they wear it.
A portion of the proceeds from her kuruchi jewelry sales are being donated to the Kuruchi No Mori Association which help pay for expenses associated with the care of these trees. Her kuruchi-leaf jewelry and wide array of other works are on display and for sale in the lobby of Hotel Sun Palace Kyuyokan, at XROSS R (pronounced “Cross R”) gift shop in Mihama American Village’s Depot Island in Chatan, and at the Okinawa Sanshin Kumiai’s Naha shop and online store.
I drive by the Kuruchi No Mori, which is less than a mile away from my house, all the time when I take the back road lined with sugar cane stalks. As I pass by, I think about the project, volunteers, and supporters who ensure that the sounds of the sanshin and Okinawa’s distinct and unique identity will resonate for generations to come.
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 children and live in Yomitan.