Colin Y. Sewake
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In November 2021 I was fortunate to be able to help Hawai‘i Uchinānchu Gail Shon, with Nishihara roots, connect with her Yonamine relatives on her first trip to Okinawa. During the 7th Worldwide Uchinānchu Festival, held from Sunday, Oct. 30 to Thursday, Nov. 3, I was once again blessed with the opportunity to assist another Hawai‘i Uchinānchu David Kaneshiro meet his Okinawa relatives for the first time. His adventure to connect with them started after finding out about the Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawai‘i prior to the 5th WUF in 2011 and also attending the 6th WUF in 2016.
I first met David in August this year at an OGSH monthly meeting at the Hawai‘i Okinawa Center. Founded in 1992, the Hawai‘i United Okinawa Association club aims to promote, preserve, and perpetuate the Okinawa family heritage through education, research and networking. After the formal part of the meeting adjourned, I stayed around to yuntaku (talk story) with members since it was three-and-a-half years since my last visit to Hawai‘i. While sipping on my coffee at a table near the refreshments, David started to tell me about his quest to learn more about his roots and find his relatives on both sides of the family – his Kinjo relatives in Yaese-cho (town) on his grandfather’s side and his Arakaki relatives in Nanjo-shi (city) on his grandmother’s side. (Note that the Japanese kanji for his grandfather’s side is pronounced “Kinjo” in Okinawa but can also be pronounced as “Kaneshiro,” which it was changed to after immigrating to Hawai‘i)
The Okinawa Prefectural Library in Naha provides first-generation immigration genealogical reference services where overseas Uchinānchu can submit an application form online in English, Japanese, Spanish or Portuguese to find out information such as passport number, date of passport approval, company that processed immigration paperwork, date traveled, residential address and map before immigrating, photos of relatives, etc. I told him not to wait until the 7th WUF to submit his application to OPL so he didn’t, and shortly thereafter the library responded with their findings to include having called the kökiminkan (community center) in both hometowns who made positive contact with relatives who wanted to meet David!
After returning home to Okinawa, I offered to accompany and translate when meeting relatives so David and I chatted via video call several weeks before his arrival to go over a few details. We met again at Naha Airport when I greeted his tour group that arrived via charter flight from Honolulu on Saturday, Oct. 29. The excitement of meeting his relatives continued to build up.
After his group’s tour for Tuesday, Nov. 1 ended, David returned to his hotel and turned around to head out with family documents and photos in hand to the Hokama Köminkan in Yaese to meet his Kinjo relatives followed by NHK media crew who covered his story. I arrived ahead of David to introduce myself to the kuchö (community center chief), who was one of his relatives and other family members. The light rain didn’t dampen David’s spirits as he arrived, entered the köminkan, and met his grandfather’s side relatives. After sitting around some low tables on the tatami mat and going through light introductions and family connections, we headed over to the haka (tomb) a short distance away. The haka is located behind residential property so we parked our cars on the side of the road and walked between two houses. I could see the expression on David’s face as he accomplished what he set out to do – meet relatives and visit the haka, both of which he had only seen photos of up until now. As a relative prepared senkö (incense sticks), awamori (distilled Okinawan liquor) and fruits for offering, other relatives explained the history of the family haka.
The day with Kinjo relatives continued as David was escorted to a nearby piece of property. Although the house is new and not the original one, he was able to set foot on the property where his grandfather was born and raised and once walked. Relatives gathered in the tatami room where further discussions were held about the Kinjo family history and members as I did my best to translate accurately for David. An actual point couldn’t be identified to show the solid connection between David and his Okinawa relatives, but they did mention that all Kinjos from the Hokama azaku (ward) of Yaese are related to each other.
With that, David followed his relatives down the street and around the corner to a family member’s house where a welcome dinner was held not only for him but also two other overseas Uchinānchu attending the 7th WUF. As I conducted initial introductions in Japanese, I didn’t know that the two ladies who were sitting on the couch were the ones from America. It turns out that the two from Hawai‘i and California who have always been in touch with each other were also related to David. What a surprise for the three of them and another heartwarming story from the 7th WUF!
After talking and laughing with relatives while eating sushi, andagï and a variety of other foods, I asked the Kinjo relatives to gather by individual families at one end of the tatami room. They introduced themselves to David and the two newly connected visitors, then a family member welcomed the three of them by dancing to Kagiyadefū, which is customarily performed to open celebratory events to celebrate longevity and happiness. The evening ended with smiles, hugs and well wishes, and I took David back to his hotel to get rest to enjoy more of the 7th WUF and Okinawa while preparing for the next meeting with Okinawa relatives.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, I picked up David from his hotel and headed to Nanjo in Southern Okinawa to meet his Arakaki relatives on his grandmother’s side. After parking the car a few houses down at a nearby park, we got out and walked to the house. What an awesome scene it was to once again see him greet more Okinawa relatives, for the first time, with a handshake and hug! After the excitement and initial introductions, we went into his cousin’s house where more discussions took place to pinpoint the exact connection between Hawai’i and Okinawa relatives.
We took a break from the conversation about family as it was lunchtime and headed to the Arakaki haka before enjoying hījājiru (goat soup) for lunch. After returning home, talks resumed to include sharing stories about relatives on each side while a 95-year-old aunty urged David to eat sätä andagï (Okinawan doughnuts). Extensive discussions revealed that both sides only knew about some of the Arakaki siblings from their grandparents’ generation. The complete picture of the four Arakaki siblings came to light after David and his relatives sat around the table and shared their individual knowledge of the keizu (family tree). Through that process, David and his cousins could make the connection of their relationship.
The afternoon flew by and it was time for dinner so one of David’s cousins and his son took us to his friend’s steak restaurant in Naha. The surprises continued as one of the younger employees came to our table and David’s cousin introduced her as another Arakaki relative! After enjoying more yuntaku time and laughs, the cousin took David to a store on Kokusai Döri so he could pick out some omiyage (souvenirs) to take back to Hawai‘i before returning to the house in Nanjo where everyone exchanged departing words and hugs.
The effort in coordinating details and translating for families on both sides seems so miniscule when seeing the expressions on the faces of relatives who meet for the first time once the dots are connected.
The Okinawa Prefectural Library in Naha provides first generation immigration genealogical reference services. To research your Uchinānchu roots, go to library.pref.okinawa.jp/about-okinawa/cat1/post-12.html.
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘āina from Wahiawā, 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.