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
This past summer, Keiko and I were excited to see U.S. and Japan teams take medals in various sports as we kept up with the Tökyö Olympic games. And on the last day of the Olympics, Keiko and I took the silver (wedding anniversary) medal in the marriage event.
Following my graduation from the University of Hawai‘i in May 1994, I received orders to depart for Lackland Air Force Base in Texas at the end of October for a basic course in the contracting career field to which I was being assigned. After about six weeks, I flew from San Antonio to Los Angeles via a commercial airline and then picked up the “Freedom Bird” (now known as the Patriot Express), a military charter flight, to Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tökyö.
I spent a few minutes in the chilly morning air to soak up the excitement of my first time in Japan before I went back inside the lounge. I waited while the ground crew refueled and prepared the aircraft for it’s last leg to Kaden Air Base in Okinawa.
When I arrived in Okinawa on Dec. 12, 1994, I met the commander of the squadron I was assigned to, stocked up on groceries and bought a used car from another military member who was leaving and settled into my dorm room.
After reporting to work a week later and being introduced to everyone, all the Okinawan ladies commented that Keiko was going to be happy after finding out that I was the new 2nd Lieutenant being assigned to the squadron — and I was single. I kept wondering who this Keiko person was and finally met her after another week passed. She had just returned from her vacation with friends in the U.S. mainland.
I was first assigned to the systems management and analysis section as part of my training rotation where Keiko worked. Within a few weeks we were dating.
We spent a lot of weekends driving around the island together. Even for Keiko, as a local Okinawan, it was fun to get around and see many places. Because we kept our relationship low key as advised by the squadron commander due to my military officer status and role, only a few people knew we were dating.
I still remember the Okinawan ladies in the squadron bringing me food every day to take back to my dorm because they felt sorry that I was single and thought that I didn’t have anything to eat. Little did they know, I was dating Keiko and had made her a spare key so she was usually in my room before I got home from work cooking something for us. I ended up with tons of food and snacks almost every night.
By the summer of 1995, I proposed to Keiko and we decided not continue working in the same squadron so, in November, she announced to her office that she was transferring. Lots of personnel, especially the Okinawan ladies, were concerned about why she was leaving. Everyone thought there was something going on in the squadron. Keiko’s military supervisor, a technical sergeant, and fellow U.S. civil service worker both approached her to see if they did or said something wrong to her and asked why she was leaving. She then replied, “Because I’m marrying Lt. Sewake!”
Everyone was sad to hear about her transfer, but the tears of sorrow turned into tears of happiness as there was a sigh of relief and the Okinawan ladies had a good laugh about how they kept feeding me for almost a year because they thought I was going hungry every night.
Our wedding day was approaching and the summer was busy with preparations for our life together. We found a house in Miyagi, Chatan that we both liked and moved in about two weeks prior to getting married. I was then promoted to 1st Lieutenant on Aug. 5, 1996.
That same week I was participating in a base exercise wearing my training chemical protective gear and other equipment. During a lull in the action when we could take off our gas masks and helmets, the colonel who was the deputy commander of the 18th Logistics Group that the 18th Contracting Squadron fell under came over to me and said, “Hey, I heard someone got married today!” as he shook my hand to congratulate me.
Keiko had taken off from work on Aug. 8, 1996 to submit our marriage paperwork to the Chatan Shiyakusho (city office) while I was sweating it out in the exercise. She said that a lot of couples were standing in line with her to submit their paperwork on the 8th day of the 8th month of the 8th Heisei Year. She chose that specific day as our marriage date because the widening shape of the kanji character for the number eight in the Japanese culture represents prosperity and growth. Several days later we hunkered down at home as the eye of Typhoon Kirk traveled across the Kadena AB runway.
As we began to plan for our wedding reception in Okinawa, I started to learn about the cultural differences from what I was used to in Hawai‘i. When Keiko said we had to deliver our invitations, I thought she meant that we had to put stamps on the envelopes and drop them off at the post office. I didn’t know we would be spending our entire Saturday driving around the Shuri area of Naha visiting her uncles and aunties for 30-45 minutes each so she and her dad could introduce me to them.
We held our wedding ceremony and reception in January 1997 at the Pacific Hotel in Naha where Keiko’s cousin was one of the managers. We invited about 75 family and friends including five of her nephews and nieces and my mom and brother from Hawai‘i. Typically couples or entire families will be invited to weddings in Hawai‘i, but in Japan usually it’s just a representative from each family that attends.
After a Shintö-style ceremony, we stayed in our traditional clothing — me in my hakama (traditional trousers worn over a kimono) and Keiko in her kimono with her face, neck and chest full of white make up — and entered the reception ballroom with spotlights shining on us as upbeat contemporary music played. A hotel staff member wearing a black suit and white gloves guided us on where to go and what to do the whole time.
After we were introduced and Keiko’s uncle gave the kanpai (toast), we took our seats as a couple of her aunties honored us with the “Kagiyadefü” a traditional Okinawan celebratory dance. Before I could even take a bite of my dinner, the staff member was tapping me on my shoulder and instructed us to leave the room to change into our second outfit: Western wedding whites. In Okinawa, it is customary for family and friends of the bride and groom to provide entertainment throughout the program so guests were kept occupied while Keiko and I changed and took our next set of pictures. To represent my side of the family, my brother Kelvin played Kalapana’s “Nightbird” and “Sweet Memory” by Cyril Pahinui, Larry Kimura, and Brian Hussey with my guitar.
For our second grand entrance, Keiko and I were guided along the way to the main table so that we could light each table’s center candle as guests congratulated us and took pictures. Near the main table, we lit a wick that connected several candles placed on stands to form a heart shape. As the wick burned and lit each candle, it ended with lighting the last candle which was the largest and decorated on one side with the numbers one to 25 in gold foil. We were told to take the candle home and to celebrate each anniversary by lighting it until one number melts and disappears. And we did cut the traditional wedding cake which was a few layers tall. It took me a few seconds to figure out that after the knife wouldn’t move downward that the bottom layer we were cutting was actually just frosting over a plastic cake-shaped mold for ceremonial purposes and picture taking. The staff boxed the top layer for us to take home which we ate on our first anniversary.
We left to change into our third outfit for the reception: the Western tuxedo and dress. The outfits are all included in the wedding ceremony and reception package so Keiko had chosen the color and style of her dress, but I chose to wear my “mess dress,” the Air Force’s formal uniform for social events, because my military assignment to Kadena AB is how I met Keiko.
After we entered the ballroom again, we recited our thank you speeches to our parents and gave them a bouquet of flowers that is also part of the hotel package and program. Some couples present their parents with teddy bears that weigh their birthweight for memories. After I gave our thank you speech to everyone and the event ended, Keiko and I exited and lined up with some family members to thank everyone by passing out okaeshi gifts as they left. My brother commented that he never bowed and repeated, Dömo arigatö gozaimashita! so many times before.
Keiko experienced a little bit of culture shock when we traveled to Hawai‘i to hold a reception at Dot’s Restaurant in my hometown of Wahiawä in June 1997 with almost 400 guests, most of whom were my mom’s elementary school coworkers and people from around the community versus my friends.
To celebrate our 25th anniversary, Keiko made lunch buffet reservations at the Okinawa Marriott Resort and Spa in Onna-son. I bought a couple toy silver medals at the Daiso (100-yen store) as a gag and had our son, Aki, present them to us. Although the Olympics may not coincide with our 50th anniversary, we’re shooting for the gold next!
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.