Colin Y. Sewake
Special to The Hawai’i Herald
Many Hawai‘i Uchinānchu (Okinawan persons) have visited their ancestral homeland, but relatively few are fortunate to stay for an extended period of time to experience more that it has to offer. One such person is Hawai‘i born Yonsei (4th generation), Erica Kunihisa. Born and raised in Honolulu, Kunihisa graduated from Mililani High School in 2008 and then received her bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 2012.
She didn’t pay much attention to her Uchinānchu identity while growing up in Hawai‘i, but after relocating to Portland, Oregon, in 2017 the curiosity began to kindle. From 2020, Kunihisa developed an interest in discovering that identity and her Uchinā (Okinawa) roots. In 2021, she started Shimanchü (Okinawa Islander) Pen Pals, which aims to develop and maintain the network of friends of Okinawa descent in America through traditional postal mail. She also was one of several individuals to create the Ichariba Chödē podcast to educate listeners about a wide variety of topics related to Okinawa.
The research she started in 2020 about opportunities to experience Okinawa, such as the Kenpi Scholarship and Kenshüsei programs, took deeper root in 2022 as she started to seriously contemplate applying for last year’s Kenpi Scholarship program. Sponsored by the Okinawa Prefectural Government, the Kenpi Scholarship program educates and trains overseas Uchinānchu descendants at universities, businesses and institutions for learning traditional arts in Okinawa. Students are provided with opportunities to understand Okinawan history, culture and customs, gain work experience at local businesses and promote exchange with local people. The aim of the program is to cultivate human resources capable of serving as a bridge between students’ home countries and Okinawa, foster the preservation of the Uchinā network for the next generation and contribute to international exchange with Okinawa Prefecture. Scholars study academics at a local university or the traditional or performing arts such as bingata (fabric dyeing), yachimun (pottery), sanshin (three-stringed instrument) or buyö (dance).
Some of the eligibility requirements include being a high school graduate, being under the age of 35, meeting Japanese Language Proficiency Test requirements, being able to financially bear any expenses that exceed the scholarship amount and securing a guarantor for the duration of the program.
For Kunihisa, the biggest challenge in applying was to find a guarantor, a person who resides in Japan and makes a promise to the head of the embassy or consulate to the effect that the visa applicant will stay legally in Japan, as she didn’t know of and have contact with Okinawa relatives. It was a long shot, but in late February she reached out to the public via Instagram to see if anyone would be willing to fill the role. My fellow Leilehua Mighty Mule friend, who also has Uchinā roots and follows Kunihisa’s page, shared the post with me. We haven’t seen each other since graduating over three decades ago, but we keep in touch via social media. She remarked she didn’t know Kunihisa but alerted me to the request and said it may be something I might want to consider.
Through the grapevine, I found out that my niece knew Kunihisa so I contacted her to find out more about her background. My niece worked and had high regards for her, and asked me to support her so I contacted Kunihisa and told her that I would be willing to serve as her guarantor. She was thrilled, and the next few weeks were spent scrambling to complete various documents and requirements to meet the mid-March application deadline. I communicated regularly with Kunihisa via e-mail and Facetime video chats and rushed to mail the guarantor form with my contact info and inkan signature stamp in red ink.
After anxiously waiting for the results, Kunihisa received word in June that she was accepted to the program! From there, she made preparations to temporarily leave Oregon for her ancestral homeland and was nervous because she didn’t know anyone nor what to expect. Although she minored in Japanese language in college, she hadn’t used it since graduating.
Late at night on Sept. 26, 2022, Kunihisa set foot in Okinawa for the first time. I, along with Uchinā Network Concierge staff members who were entrusted with the implementation of the 2022 program, greeted her as she came through the baggage claim exit at Naha International Airport. After a bunch of hugs and pictures, Kunihisa and I headed to Yomitan where my house would be her home for the first two nights. The next day was a light one; we visited the cliffs and lighthouse at Zanpa Misaki (Cape Zanpa) as well as the giant shïsā (guardian lion) at the nearby park. Kunihisa even made friends with my neighbor’s hïjā (goats) by feeding them carrots. At night, my family celebrated Kunihisa’s acceptance to the program and first visit to Okinawa by having dinner at an izakaya-style restaurant, which included her first Orion draft beer on Okinawa soil and a karï toast. Her first impression of Okinawa reminded her of Hawai‘i – the environment, the people and their kindness and some of the food.
After her stay with us we headed to the Kohala Hotel in Izumizaki, Naha, where I introduced her to owner and Hawai‘i Uchinānchu, Ann Fujichaku Toyama, and her husband. We ate lunch across the street, and then the couple walked with us to the nearby Naha Shiyakusho (city office) to help Kunihisa complete some residential registration requirements. Once the registration requirements were complete, I escorted the three of them over to the Okinawa Prefectural Library and introduced them to librarian Hiroaki Hara who gave a presentation on their genealogical reference service and tour of the facilities and resources that Kunihisa would later take advantage of. At the end of the day, I dropped off Kunihisa at her apartment in Shuritöbarucho that was arranged for by the UNC staff and would be her home for the next six months.
For Kunihisa, the morning hours during the first three months of the program were spent studying Japanese language while afternoons were spent in her assigned field of study at Shiroma Bingata Köbö (studio) in Naha. Both nervous and excited to work at the studio, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
Kunihisa entered the doors and studied under Eiichi Shiroma, a 16th generation descendant of the original Shiroma who started the studio over 300 years ago, and the generous assistance of her co-workers. His grandfather, 14th generation Eiki Shiroma, was among several artists who helped revive bingata again after World War II. A lot of the stencils and materials were destroyed during the war, and Eiki went to mainland Japan to collect stencils that were taken by Japanese soldiers and collectors. Kunihisa’s experience turned out to be a wonderful one. “Everyone was super nice and helpful. They really took care of me and treated me like family. I learned everything I know from everyone that worked there, and some have worked there for 50 years!”
Besides her daytime studies, Kunihisa also learned Shitöryü karate together with fellow kenpi scholar, Cesar, from Peru. According to her, “Oura Sensei was very passionate about sharing the history of true Ryükyü karati versus modern sports karate.” Kunihisa was fortunate to be in Okinawa for the 7th Worldwide Uchinānchu Festival. She was also able to see the Ryükyü Golden Kings hit the hoops at a basketball game, view the sakura blooming in Nago, visit the sacred site Sëfa Utaki, in Nanjo-shi, pick strawberries in the same city, and add to her hajichi traditional tattoos. “Seeing the different gusuku castles and just getting to understand the complicated history of Okinawa was interesting.”
One thing I always emphasize to overseas Uchinānchu is to seek out and meet with relatives. Although she didn’t meet any during her stay here, an OPL volunteer escorted Kunihisa the day before she left Okinawa to her great grandmother’s town of Yaese where she visited the last address her great grandfather used before he returned to Hawai‘i and may have been the location where their house was. Perhaps Kunihisa even walked in the footsteps of her ancestors!
After spending an incredible six months here, Kunihisa departed the ancestral homeland on Monday, March 20. The kenpi experience was just the start of her Uchinānchu journey. “Now that I’m back in the states, I hope to continue doing bingata and eventually host workshops. Not many people know what bingata is or even get to experience it, so I would love to have more exposure to this beautiful traditional craft. I also hope to keep in contact with the other kenpi scholars as well as people I met in Okinawa to strengthen our ties to our homeland.”
I’m sure I’ll see Kunihisa here to experience Okinawa again one day as she expressed, “There’s still so much more that I want to experience, but for this being my first time in Okinawa it left a great impression on me and I am so thankful for this experience.”
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.