Colin Y. Sewake
Special to The Hawai’i Herald
It’s been almost six years since I started to write for The Hawai‘i Herald at the request of former editor-in-chief, Karleen Chinen. I really don’t know how many people have read my articles since August 2017, but I love sharing stories from my home in Okinawa of 28 years with especially those who are of Uchinānchu (Okinawan) descent.
The Momohara family from Kaua‘i have been longtime subscribers and among the readers who have been following my writings. Daniel, the oldest son, reached out last October to editor-in-chief, Kristen Nemoto Jay, in an attempt to make contact with me. His mother, Doris, visited Japan and Okinawa once 26 years ago but succumbed to a stroke that left her paralyzed after the trip. According to Dan, she always wanted to return so my articles were her primary contact between Japan and Okinawa. Unfortunately, Doris passed away last year, and her wishes were to be entombed with other Okinawa family members in the haka (tomb) located on Torii Station in Sobe, Yomitan.
During Dan’s first visit to Okinawa in 2004, his Uncle Sōsuke Furugen took him to the original haka that was a cave dug into a limestone hill because he wanted Dan to inspect the burial chamber, which was deteriorating and falling on the ikotsutsubo (ceramic urns). The family of the adjacent haka told Uncle Sōsuke that they had built a new haka in front of the cave and moved the ikotsutsubo into it. Dan took a lot of photos and videos to show his father, the last senior male Momohara in both Hawai‘i and Okinawa, about the dire situation. Dan’s father funded the project and Uncle Sōsuke Furugen, a Japanese civil engineer who worked for the U.S. Army, hired contractors to clear the area in front of the cave and construct a new haka in 2005.
With Japan lifting travel restrictions that were imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan started to plan a trip to Okinawa with other family members this June to place a portion of his mom’s ashes in the haka and a portion of his late World War II veteran father whose remains are in the Kaua‘i Veterans Cemetary in Hanapēpē. Dan wanted to see if I was interested in covering his family’s story so that it could be shared with others. He thought perhaps there are other overseas Uchinānchu who might one day experience the same situation where a family member would like to return to their ancestral homeland’s family haka upon passing.
I was deeply moved as I read Dan’s email while on a weekend trip to mainland Japan and replied several hours later that I was not only willing to write an article about his family’s story but that I could also possibly assist. Torii Station is located in Yomitan, where I live and have base access as a retired U.S. military member. Several individuals who would need to be in the coordination loop, such as the Torii Station Community Relations Office and Tōru Uechi, kuchō (chief) of the Sobe Kōminkan (community center) also knew who I was and could help. We corresponded over the weekend and upon returning to Okinawa, I easily located the haka across the scuba locker the next day from Dan’s descriptive emails. He could see the overgrown trees and vegetation in the pictures I texted him as no Okinawan family member had performed any maintenance of the site since the haka was reconstructed.
I told Dan that I would be traveling to Hawai‘i for a few months to spend the holidays there and he mentioned that he had plans to visit O‘ahu. We then arranged to link up and meet face to face in February over some ‘ono local food at Zippy’s in Wahiawā. I had meant to ask questions and discuss the details of the June trip and Dan and his younger brother, Melvin’s, March preparation visit but, in local Hawai‘i-boy fashion, we talked story about everything else instead. We also discovered we’re distantly related. In the spirit of ichariba chōdē (once we meet, we become family), Dan started referring to us as family.
Barely four weeks later, I was picking up the Momohara brothers from the Royal Hotel across the street from Torii Station’s main gate and escorting them on base to survey the haka condition and work that I coordinated with Marty McBride, a disabled veteran and Okinawan resident of 38 years married to an Uchinānchu, to cut back the overgrown foliage and pressure wash the haka and concrete surfaces. Dan was happy to see the progress from the pictures I had texted him several months earlier and had the opportunity to speak with Marty and his suggested improvements and plans for recurring maintenance.
Visiting Okinawa was also important for meeting several key individuals ahead of the June trip. After surveying the haka, I took Dan and Mel to the community relations office where we did a quick aisatsu (introduction) with community relations specialist Yumiko Uchima before heading to lunch at Havana’s Restaurant and running into Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Gladding, garrison commander of Torii Station, who graciously offered any support necessary to make the June trip a success.
As Dan and Mel continued filling themselves up with the Mexican buffet, I called fellow Yomitan resident and former Okinawa Hawai‘i Kyōkai director, Masaji Matsuda, to see if he was available to meet since he has been so instrumental in bridging the Hawai‘i-Okinawa community together. The Momohara brothers’ first day continued as we drove off to Masaji’s house in Takashiho where we met him on the steps covered by his hisuikazura (jade vines) that were starting to bloom its greenish blue flowers. During our yuntaku session in the living room with Masaji and his wife, Etsuko, I explained about the Momohara haka and the reason for Dan and Mel’s visit. I asked if he could call the Sobe Kuchō to schedule an aisatsu with him, and Masaji’s quick action landed us an appointment just a short while later that afternoon. Once again we hurried off to head for the Sobe Kōminkan were we met Tōru Uechi, who was another key individual as Torii Station is located in Sobe and base access for those families with haka on the U.S. Army base are coordinated through the Sobe Kuchō. The picture became clearer to the Momohara brothers about how different individuals are intricately connected with each other in the community.
Marty continued his clean up work of the haka the next day so Dan, Mel and I planned on visiting the site again. We were pleasantly surprised that Uncle Sōsuke showed up at the Royal Hotel unannounced before I arrived to see his Kaua‘i nephews. The timing was perfect since I could also escort him on base to check out the haka, which he hadn’t seen in years. Dan had explained to me family discussions between Hawai‘i and Okinawa about the transfer of title of the haka to the Momohara brothers. Aunty Sueko Teruya in Zakimi, Yomitan had ownership of the haka and the kenrisho (certificate of title) so I asked Uncle Sōsuke if he could set up a meeting with her. Before it was even lunchtime, we were on Aunty Sueko’s doorstep and then back at the Sobe Kōminkan meeting with Tōru Uechi for another aisatsu to connect more dots.
It’s a good thing we were able to meet with Aunty Sueko, who’s been wanting to hand over the title of the haka to the Momohara brothers, because we made several visits to an office in Yomitan that handles such property transfers. It was quite a learning curve for me as well since it was the first time for me to help facilitate something like this. While Uncle Sōsuke worked with Aunty Sueko over the next several weeks regarding documents that she needed to submit, I acted as the go-between for Dan and Mel for the documents that they needed to submit, which included copies of photo identification and powers of attorney.
Not everything was business. I was able to get the Momohara brothers around Yomitan to Okashigoten in Uza for omiyage shopping, the Yomitan Dentō Kōgei Sōgō Center (traditional crafts center) in Zakimi, and my late Okinawan brother’s kōbō (studio) in Yachimun No Sato Pottery Village. Dan and Mel were also able to experience some local flavors including seafood at Toya Gyokō (fishing port), Okinawa soba at Kinchichi Soba in Kina and the menu at Izakaya Suishin in Sobe.
The 11-day trip went by quickly, but I remained in contact with the Momohara brothers as the meigi henkō (name change) on the kenrisho and English translations were completed as well as painting and concrete repair work to the haka. Everything was set for the family’s June trip.
On Sunday, June 11, Dan and Mel returned with eight family members who were on their first visit to Okinawa. I picked up the two brothers the next morning so that they could inspect the haka site once again and make sure the door could be opened. It was a good thing we did as a tropical storm that recently passed had left the haka covered with leaves and small debris. After that, we visited the Yomitan office that handles gunyōchi (U.S. military property) matters and the Sobe Kōminkan for a final coordination meeting with Uechi Kuchō.
We returned the next day to wash down the haka with the assistance of the heavy rains that finally came during this dry tsuyu rainy season. The hot bowls of ramen for lunch before taking them back to Naha helped us to warm up our soaking wet bodies.
The big day finally came. I headed down to Naha with the Sobe Kōminkan bus driver to pick up the eager family of 10 members. When we made our way back to Torii Station, Uncle Sōsuke and Aunty Sueko were waiting for us and boarded the bus. We arrived at the site, set up the pop up canopy that Marty loaned us, which came in handy because of the continued heavy rains and worked on opening the heavy door. Uechi Kuchō arrived a short while later. Once opened, Mel placed the urns with partial ashes of their father and mother on the shelves along with other Okinawa Momohara relatives. While the haka was still open, each family took turns taking a peek inside before closing the door, decorating the vases with flowers and lighting senkō incense sticks. Dan’s youngest son, Nathan, offered a Christian prayer in accordance with his grandparents’ spiritual faith to close the event.
Our group boarded the bus and headed to lunch at Club Havana’s on base where lieutenant colonel Gladding, Yumiko and Yoshua Andersson also from the community relations office, and my wife, Keiko, joined us. Dan recognized and thanked Lieutenant Colonel Gladding, Yumiko, Yoshua and Uechi Kuchō for the outstanding support provided to complete his parents’ wishes.
From there we headed to the Yomitan Sonyakuba (village office) for an aisatsu greeting with Mayor Denjitsu Ishimine. My brain worked to process information in both Japanese and English as I translated for both sides while media representatives from the Okinawa Times, Ryūkyū Shimpo newspapers and FM Yomitan attentively listened in. Mayor Ishimine emphasized the importance of the connection between Yomitan and descendants of Hawai‘i and worldwide Okinawan immigrants and chimugukuru, the Okinawan version of the Hawaiian aloha spirit.
Dan also had similar comments. “We carried our parents’ ashes back to Okinawa because we hold and keep the Okinawa spirit in our hearts. For us being Sansei, this spirit is still very strong, and it binds us back to Okinawa. We were not taught this or lectured by our parents or grandparents. It is in our DNA, and this connects our mind, heart and body to carry on those traditions of compassion, kindness, goodness and gratitude that make us so unique in the way we live our lives no matter how distant we are from Okinawa or how distant we have grown in our generations.”
Mission accomplished. Welcome home to your ancestral homeland, Mom and Dad.
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.