Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Okaerinasai” or “welcome home!” in Uchinanchu (Okinawan immigrants and their descendants) were joyously recited throughout the 7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai’s Festival Eve parade held in the city of Naha on Sunday, Oct. 30, and filled me with so many emotions. The parade crowds were smaller than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the warm welcome and the feeling of aloha was amazing.
This was my first trip to Okinawa and my first experience at a Taikai Festival. As someone who married into an Okinawan family, I’ve always felt a little out of place at Okinawan events. Even though I was wearing the Hawai‘i contingent’s parade uniform of an electric-green shirt with orange lei, I still feared that I might stand out, a conspicuous outsider marching down the street among a crowd of “real” Okinawans.
However, the warmth of the local people attending the parade completely changed my perspective. Thousands of Okinawan residents – people in their 80s and 90s, middle-aged adults and families with young children – cheered joyfully for parade participants like me. Tears filled my eyes as I saw the faces of these people – the elderly, the young and all ages in between – smile, wave, flash “shaka” and warmly welcome me and so many others. “Aloha!” “Okaerinasai!!” My heart was home.
History of Taikai
The Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai has been held every five years since 1990, with two exceptions: 2000’s festival was delayed to 2001 because of the 2000 G8 Summit, which was held in Nago, Okinawa, and 2021’s festival was delayed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At every Taikai, Uchinanchu from all over the world – including Brazil, Peru, Argentina, New Caledonia, Germany, France, Oregon, Northern California, Southern California, Utah, Chicago, St. Louis and many other locations – join with fellow descendants in a joyful mass reunion. This year, Hawai‘i’s contingent was the largest (nearly 800 people total) and was granted the first position in the parade, creating an electric-green sea of humanity. Drake Miyasato of Pearl City was overwhelmed by the amazing support of the Okinawan people. “People from around the world gathering together and the local people welcoming us with such warmth brought tears to my eyes,” said Miyasato.
The parade was only one of several planned Taikai events. There was an opening ceremony (downsized to “invited guests only” due to that day’s inclement weather), several free cultural shows, hometown parties for descendants of various villages and a rousing closing ceremony, which opened with acts including rapper Rude-α and closed with the Okinawan bands Diamantes and Begin.
The closing ceremony itself was a highlight for many people. The theme of many of the night’s speeches was to encourage younger generations to keep connections with their homeland and to learn about Okinawan culture. The crowd politely applauded all these important talking points, but once the Taikai itself was deemed closed, the musical performances started and the real fun began! The younger people especially liked Diamantes and Begin, who created a standing-room concert feel with non-stop energy pulsing through the crowd. The performers brought the people to their feet, clapping and jumping up into spontaneous kachäshï (Okinawan folk dance). What this year’s closing ceremony lacked in crowd size, it made up for in unbridled energy.
Uniting and Finding Roots
The 2022 Hawai‘i Taikai contingent included Uchinanchu of all ages who brought family and friends of all backgrounds, and their experiences at the festival were diverse. Though the participants visited cultural sites and learned about Okinawan history, the most enduring memories came from the Okinawan people themselves.
For Linda (Higa) Kunihisa, a Sansei (third generation Japanese American), this trip was a true homecoming. She lived in Okinawa during her pre-teen and teenage years and got to know her Okinawan relatives well. She was excited to meet them again on this trip. “It was really fun to reconnect with my cousins,” said Kunihisa.
Joyce (Ishikawa) Itokazu and her daughter JamieLyn Itokazu, traveled with several other family members. Their plans included ohakamairi (visit to the family grave) and seeing their Okinawan relatives. JamieLyn especially enjoyed the Nago village tour and is inspired to return home to Hawai‘i and become more involved in the Haneji village club, helping to share this rich experience with future generations.
Finding her roots was a highlight for Sansei Jan (Miyashiro) Hashizume of Lïhu‘e. At the closing ceremony’s vendor area, she approached a “free genealogy research” booth with little hopes of finding an ancestor. Her Okinawan grandfather’s immigration records were well-known, but an extensive internet search did not reveal similar data for her grandmother. After unsuccessfully searching the Japanese database using the Miyashiro surname, a volunteer at the booth noted that “Miyashiro” was sometimes written as “Miyagi” and this surname switch could possibly have been the problem. Bingo! With this new lead, they gathered Jan’s grandmother’s information from a ship’s manifest and printed it for her. The volunteers were so tickled at this success story, they took a photo with Jan. “May we post it to Instagram?” they asked excitedly.
Also discovering family connections was 33-year-old Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American), Chelsie Sato of Honolulu. One uncle, her mom’s second cousin, had lived on Okinawa his whole life, never meeting his Hawai‘i relatives and thinking that none of them cared to find him. It was an emotional moment during this trip when they finally connected with him and he learned that the Hawai‘i relatives had been looking for him all along. Chelsie received an additional bonus from the trip, getting so inspired to play sanshin (Okinawan three-stringed musical instrument) that she purchased one for future lessons back home.
Nineteen members strong, the multi-generational Oshiro clan made special plans to visit elderly relatives in Kitanakagusuku, with Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei (fifth generation Japanese Americans) all represented. Members of the youngest generation brought their homework with them, but the education they received while traveling within their ancestral homeland was arguably more valuable than their book studies.
The younger family members spent a lot of time getting to know their Okinawan cousins. The language barrier didn’t seem to be a problem, as they shared games together and bonded through the common language of play. The Hawai‘i cousins said they look forward to seeing their Okinawan family members on future trips and hope to keep these connections alive in future years. The cousins are already close, gathering weekly on O‘ahu, but they all felt that they became much closer by experiencing Okinawa together.
Passing the Torch
The perpetuation of the culture is in good hands with the Oshiro clan – Yonsei Mindy Oumi studies sanshin with Sensei Grant “Masanduu” Murata as a member of Ryukyu Koten Afuso-Ryu Ongaku Kenkyu Choichi Kai and 16-year-old Gosei Mari Miyasato takes lessons in Okinawan dance with the Hooge Ryu Hana Nuuzi no Kai Nakasone Dance Academy. It was refreshing to know that the cultural education of the next generations, as emphasized in the closing ceremony speeches, has already commenced.
Grandparents Jeri and Jimmy Oshiro of Pearl City, both Sansei, remember their first multigenerational Okinawa family trip with Jimmy’s parents in 1999, which emphasized the importance of teaching the next generations to respect and learn the culture and history of their ancestors. It was a dream come true for them to be able to experience the same feelings on this trip with their Oshiro family children and grandchildren. On the last day of their trip, the entire clan gathered with the Okinawan relatives who dressed them in costumes and taught them a special dance, with words written by Eishin Oshiro, an elderly uncle and poet. There were many special memories made that day and Jeri emphasized the “beautiful feeling” experienced when lifetime cultural lessons are shared together as a family.
The Taikai also inspired brand-new interest in Okinawan culture. Herman Kua of Lïhu‘e, who is “half-Hawaiian, half-everything-else,” said he had heard the sanshin before, but really became inspired to learn to play while attending this year’s Taikai. By a stroke of luck, Masanduu-sensei led an excursion to the workshop of master sanshin craftsman Isaku Unten, which became an informal class on the background and construction of the sanshin. During the class, Masanduu-sensei shared his vast knowledge of the sanshin, from the Okinawan ebony used in carving the sanshin’s sao (neck), to its snakeskin-covered chiigaa (sound box) and many other details. Needing little convincing, Kua bought a sanshin and will start classes upon his return to Kaua‘i. Though his wife Lynn is Okinawan and he is not, Herman said being Okinawan is “not about the blood, but about the heart.”
The Taikai experience touched its 800 Hawai‘i participants in 800 different ways. From the returning former residents, to the Gosei youth, their parents and grandparents, to the “Uchinanchu-at-heart” like Herman Kua and me, there was one unmistakable feeling that will bring us back to the next Taikai in 2027: the warmth of the people in Okinawa and their willingness to share their beautiful island with the world. Their open arms, open hearts and aloha spirit will surely beckon us “home” again.
“Okaerinasai!” Welcome home, indeed.
Carolyn (Kubota) Morinishi resides in Kapa‘a with her husband Ron and her mother, Marian Kurasaki Kubota. They live together on the site where Marian was raised. Morinishi, a former software engineer, and Marian are the talents behind the Herald’s monthly Culture4Kids! column. Morinishi is also involved in Japanese cultural arts. In addition to her academic degrees, she holds natori (master) and shihan (master instructor) degrees in Nihon buyō at the Azuma School in Tōkyō, and was given the dance name Kikusue Azuma. She continues to teach dance in Kaua‘i and in Los Angeles.