How a Stone from the Ryūkyū Kingdom Found a New Home
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1854, in a gesture of friendship, the Kingdom of Ryūkyū — known today as Okinawa — presented a “Loochoo Stone” (Ryūkyū Stone) to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the American naval officer credited with opening Japan to trade with the Western world. The stone was meant to be the Ryūkyūan people’s contribution to the Washington Monument honoring President George Washington and was presented to Perry during one of his four visits to the kingdom.
But the stone never made it into the monument. In 1983, Robert Oeschle, an American living in Okinawa, visited the Washington Monument, excited to see the Ryūkyū Stone. Much to his dismay, however, the stone was not in the monument, despite documentation in U.S. Department of the Interior records of its inclusion. The original stone, whose whereabouts remain unknown, was never embedded into the walls of the Washington Monument. The 555-foot-tall marble obelisk that today towers over the nation’s capital was finally completed in 1884 and opened in 1888.
In 1984, the Ryūkyū-America Historical Research Society had been formed in Okinawa to track down and retrieve historical and cultural artifacts that were believed to have been removed from Okinawa without permission during the Battle of Okinawa and in the postwar years.
The first artifact that RAHRS successfully repatriated to Okinawa was the Gokoku-ji bell, which Commodore Perry brought from Ryūkyū in 1853. He had hoped to have it installed at the top of the Washington Monument, but his wishes were rejected by the monument committee, which, instead, donated the bell to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in Maryland. An April 1991 New York Times article noted that it was tradition for the bell to be sounded whenever Navy won the rival Army-Navy football game. The original bell was returned to Okinawa and is now in the Okinawa Prefectural Museum’s artifact collection. A replica bell was created and sent to Annapolis as a replacement.
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert L. Day, who was a young corporal and squad leader during the Battle of Okinawa, was interviewed for the Times article. Day played a key role in returning the Gokoku-ji bell to Okinawa. He recalled the devastation on Okinawa island in the aftermath of the battle. “Now they’re trying to rebuild their culture, and it seems only right that the people involved with the destruction should try to help now,” he told the Times.
During a postwar stint in Okinawa, this time as commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps bases in the Far East, Day said he learned that not many Okinawan cultural artifacts had survived the war. After retiring from the military in 1987, he got involved with the Sixth Marine Division Association, a veterans’ organization, and began trying to locate objects that American soldiers had taken home after the war and return them to their rightful Okinawan owners.
The Ryūkyū Stone was RAHRS’ second major project. Upon returning from his U.S. visit in 1983, Robert Oeschle informed the group’s leaders that the Ryūkyū Stone was not in the Washington Monument. In the process of trying to determine what had happened to the Ryūkyū Stone, they learned that the Interior Department had made an exception in 1982, allowing for the embedding of a “Pope Stone” from the Vatican, a sovereign country since 1929. Citing the case of the Vatican as precedent, the Ryūkyū-America Historical Research Society appealed to the Department of the Interior to allow them to embed a replacement Ryūkyū Stone in the Washington Monument.
In January of 1989, the Interior Department informed RAHRS official Shizuo Kishaba that the organization’s request had been approved. Work began on engraving a 2-foot tall by 4-foot wide stone cut from limestone from Tamagusuku. At a blessing ceremony in Okinawa prior to its departure for Washington, pebbles from 53 towns and villages in Okinawa were inserted into a hole at the top of the stone.
A few months later, Shizuo Kishaba contacted Dennis Asato, president of the Okinawa Kai of Washington, D.C. — Washington’s Okinawan club — who had learned about the project at a conference. Asato, who was born and raised in Pä‘ia, Maui, and lived in the Washington, D.C., area, offered the Okinawa Kai’s assistance. Kishaba also reached out to then-United Okinawan Association of Hawaii president (1989-’90) John Tasato, who accepted Kishaba’s invitation to serve as an honorary member of RAHRS.
The Ryūkyū-America Historical Research Society had agreed to cover all expenses relating to the creation and installation of the new Ryūkyū Stone and was busy fundraising in Okinawa. The group secured in-kind support from Northwest Airlines, Okinawa Sekizai stone quarry in Tamagusuku, and Okinawa’s print and broadcast media.
With just months to go before the August ceremony, the Okinawa Kai got to work assisting the Ryūkyū-America Historical Research Society. The Okinawa Kai was a relatively young organization, having been established only six years earlier, in 1983, by Jesse Shima, who had immigrated to Hawai‘i from Okinawa before settling in Washington, D.C.
Okinawa Kai members rolled out the red carpet for the Ryūkyū Stone delegation, which consisted of six adult representatives and 10 junior high school students from throughout Okinawa. They opened their homes to the visitors from Okinawa and organized a memorable homestay experience. According to Tasato, the students were selected because they represented the promise for a future of continued friendship between the United States and Okinawa.
On the afternoon of Aug. 4, 1989, the Washington Monument was closed to the public for four hours to hold the presentation ceremony. The program began with Kazuko Chibana-Sensei and seven Aharen Ryu Okinawan dance students, some dressed in Ryūkyūan court kimono and others in colorful bingata kimono, performing the auspicious “Kajadefu” at the base of the Washington Monument. James Ridenour, director of the National Parks Service, formally accepted the Ryūkyū Stone and delivered remarks on behalf of President George H.W. Bush and Interior Secretary Manual Lujan. Speeches were also delivered by Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga, representing the Government of Japan; Yukiko Koja, a student from Okinawa; and Dennis Asato of the Okinawa Kai.
The Ryūkyū Stone was unveiled by Ambassador Matsunaga, National Parks Service director Ridenour, and students Ryo Ashimine from Urasoe and Nodoka Tome from Gushikawa. Its inscription read:
“This ‘Ryūkyū Stone’ is presented in friendship and admiration to the people of the United States of America and dedicated to the memory of George Washington. May his peaceful ideals and statesmanship be long remembered and upheld. From the people of Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. August 4, 1989.”
“You have reaffirmed the intent of your ancestors,” Ridenour told the group.
Next August will mark 35 years since the fulfilling of a mission of friendship represented by the Ryūkyū Stone, which was mounted at the Washington Monument’s 310-foot landing. It was embedded along with 192 stones from eight foreign countries, states, civic organizations and individual American citizens. Japan is the only foreign country with two stones in the Washington Monument — the Ryūkyū Stone from Okinawa and the Shimoda Stone from Izu.
There was more to the students’ educational experience than their involvement in the Ryūkyū Stone ceremonies. With Okinawa Kai members as their hosts and sometimes as tour leaders, they gained insight into American history during visits to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial, the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Embassy of Japan. They also visited the Commodore Perry exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Additionally, they had an audience with Vice President Dan Quayle and Japan’s Ambassador to the U.S., Nobuo Matsunaga. To cap off their visit, the Okinawa Kai treated the entire group to “America’s favorite pastime” — a Baltimore Orioles baseball game.
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.”