Francis and Colin Share Their Uchinanchu Hearts with Community
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The genealogies of the late Francis “Smitty” Smith and Colin Sewake — both men, Hawai‘i-born and bred — would likely show no trace of Okinawan ancestry. But if you were to search their hearts, you would find two true-blue Uchinanchu who have derived so much happiness from participating in their respective Okinawan communities — Smitty in Hawai‘i and Colin in Okinawa.
FRANCIS “SMITTY” SMITH: “OKINAWAN IN A HAWAIIAN BODY”
“He was a Japanese/Okinawan in a Hawaiian body,” said April (Higa) Smith, remembering her late husband Francis Kuakini Smith’s involvement in the Okinawan community. “He was more Okinawan than all of us.”
When April and “Smitty,” as friends knew him, married in 1980, little did her uncles and aunties know that their niece’s friendly Native Hawaiian husband would derive so much joy from participating in their Kin Chojin Kai club and Okinawan activities, becoming “Uchinanchu at heart” in the process. When April’s Uncle Bob Kaneshiro asked Smitty to help him set up for the club’s summer picnic, Smitty was happy to help and continued however he could. Soon the congenial ‘Aiea High School graduate was making friends with other club members.
Smitty was working for McCully Catering when he and April began dating. He was a jack-of-all-trades there, taking catering orders and reservations, ordering supplies, and cooking and cleaning. He observed and learned about many Japanese cultural traditions and adopted them in his own life. “He was more ‘Japanese-y’ in that sense than I was, because he always wanted to buy kadomatsu (good-luck bamboo and pine door arrangement), mochi for New Year’s, whereas I didn’t follow that kind of stuff.” Although Smitty never studied Japanese or Okinawan culture, he was interested in certain aspects of the two cultures.
More than anything, though, he loved helping people, said April. He enjoyed volunteering at the Okinawan Festival and became a familiar face driving the golf cart around at the Kapi‘olani Park festivals, delivering supplies and food items to the various food booths. April said her husband enjoyed being involved in Okinawan community activities and meeting and working with other volunteers.
In 2000, the Okinawan centennial celebration year, Smitty was invited to serve as a chaperone for the second leg of the Kin Town “Voyage of Rediscovery.” His daughter Dawnne, a Dole Middle School student, had been selected as one of the Kin Chojin Kai students to visit Okinawa. April did not join them on the trip. “He wouldn’t have had fun if I went,” she said, laughing.
The Kin Town office had located April’s relatives and arranged for Smitty and Dawnne to visit with them when they arrived in Okinawa. At the conclusion of their visit, April’s relatives invited them to stay with them when they visited Okinawa again.
Smitty thoroughly enjoyed the trip, maybe even more than his daughter. While sailing to Okinawa on the Nippon Maru, which Kin Town Mayor Katsuhiro Yoshida had chartered for the voyage, Smitty learned to perform the shishimai, or lion dance. He also developed a close friendship with Mayor Yoshida. The two men never discussed international relations, but through broken English and Japanese and smiles, sharing a few beers and dancing kachashi, they advanced peace through friendship.
Smitty enjoyed his time in Okinawa, so when the opportunity to attend the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival in 2001, he was thrilled to go, staying with April’s relatives in Kin. On his free days, he explored the town on foot.
Although Smitty’s connections to Okinawa and Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu community were the result of his marriage to April, he embraced the culture and its people as his own. A smile filled his face as he proudly carried the Kin Chojin Kai banner through Waikïkï in the Pan-Pacific Festival. Kin club members cherish that memory, grateful for the good times they enjoyed with Smitty before he died unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving in 2010.
As April reflected on her 30-year marriage to Smitty and the joy he derived from her family and participating in their Okinawan activities, she concluded, “It was Smitty who was the real Okinawan in the family.”
COLIN SEWAKE: “SO COMFORTABLE HERE.”
Each December, Colin Sewake recalls his arrival in Okinawa on Dec. 12, 1994, on a U.S. Air Force flight from Los Angeles. He remembers exiting the Customs and Immigration Terminal and seeing the familiar sight of hibiscus blossoms dancing on their branches and feeling the cool winter breeze brush against his face. Colin shared those early memories of Okinawa in his Dec. 15, 2017, column in The Hawai‘i Herald.
The 18th Contracting Squadron at Kadena Air Base had been the first choice of the recent University of Hawai‘i ROTC graduate and newly minted second lieutenant. Elated that he would be stationed in Japan, he ran next door to share the news with his longtime Okinawan neighbors, Masao and Carol Teruya. “You’re going to come back married!” Mrs. Teruya predicted. No way, thought Colin. He planned to serve his two years in Okinawa and then follow Uncle Sam’s next orders for him.
A month later, he started dating a coworker, Keiko Yamakawa. Eighteen months later, just as Mrs. Teruya had predicted, Colin and Keiko were married in Okinawa, where Keiko was born and raised. “Home” for Colin is now nearly 4,000 miles from the islands of his birth. He and Keiko live in a home they built in the Nagahama district of Yomitan. In 2017, after 23 years in the U.S. Air Force, and then the Air Force Reserves, Colin retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The couple’s college-age children, daughter Mizuki and son Yoshiaki “Aki,” have visited their father’s family in Hawai‘i many times, but their identity is Japanese and Okinawan. Their fingers immediately form a pisu (peace sign) whenever they are photographed. Their father, on the other hand, flashes a shaka in every happy-occasion photo taken of him. Colin loves living Hawai‘i in Okinawa: He plays Hawaiian music with friends and never tires of listening to Hawai‘i’s legendary pop band, Kalapana. He wears aloha shirts and T-shirts and baseball caps with the colors and logos of his Hawai‘i alma maters, Leilehua High School and the University of Hawai‘i. And, he teaches his Okinawa friends how to shaka with gusto. He is a 24/7 ambassador of aloha in Okinawa.
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. To me, Okinawa is what Hawai‘i was like 20 years ago. I feel so comfortable here,” he said in an August 2017 interview in the Herald. He considers everyone he meets and remains in contact with as part of his extended ‘ohana, he said in a January 2018 column. The Sansei’s affable personality is at home in Okinawa: He enjoys stopping by the neighborhood park on his way home from a jog to yuntaku (talk story) with elders playing gateball. Okinawa’s küpuna are among the longest-lived people in the world. He learns about Okinawan history and culture and picks up Uchinaaguchi words and phrases from these people who have spoken the language all their lives.
In 2017, Colin accompanied a delegation of over 40 Okinawans to O‘ahu for a memorial service for 12 Okinawan men who died in prisoner of war camps in Hawai‘i from July 1945 to December 1946. Two men in the group who were former POWs hoped to learn what had become of the deceased prisoners’ remains. Colin used his bilingual skills to help coordinate plans for the event with the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
Total strangers hoping to locate old friends or long lost relatives in Okinawa often find a way — sometimes through the Herald — to seek out Colin’s help. His bilingual skills, resourcefulness and generous spirit and personality make him a valuable bridge between Okinawa and Hawai‘i.
Prior to leaving for Okinawa in 1994, Mrs. Teruya had also told him to “Go call Jimmy!” “Who’s Jimmy?” Colin wondered as he walked home. In Okinawa, he learned that “Jimmy” was Seiho “Jimmy” Inamine, founder and owner of the popular Jimmy’s Bakery and restaurants, and a friend to Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu community. During Okinawa’s postwar reconstruction years, experienced bakers like Mrs. Teruya’s husband, Masao, who owned and operated M’s Bakery in Wahiawä, and Robert Taira, founder of King’s Bakery, had taught Jimmy how to bake and cook, American style. Jimmy had asked Masao to teach him how to bake his popular chiffon cake. Colin never got to meet Jimmy, but he did become friends with Jimmy’s eldest son and current company president, Seiichiro, and his Hawai‘i-born wife, Naomi.
Colin’s final resting place will be with Keiko in the ohaka (burial tomb) they purchased next to her parents’ ohaka in Gushikawa. “I have no intentions of returning to Hawai‘i to live permanently again, so everyone here has become my ‘ohana and part of my incredible support network.”
Karleen Chinen is a former Hawai‘i Herald editor and writer. She is currently writing a book chronicling Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community from 1980 to 2000, titled “Born Again Uchinanchu: Hawai‘i’s Chibariyo! Story.”