Last week was an absolute whirlwind. And as much as I tried to get this blog post down as immediately as I could after the festival was over, now, nearly a week later, the whole thing is mostly a blur – but still an extremely positive experience that I am sure will stay with me for a long time to come. I am so lucky that the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which happens only once every five years, happened to come around while I am here studying in Okinawa. Some 6000 people of Okinawan descent (=Uchinanchu) came from all around the world for a massive reunion party unlike any I have ever seen. The week included so many events it made my head spin – music and dance performances, talks & lectures, eisa, sumo, food booths, cultural lessons/workshops, all across the island (and on some of the other islands too) – but I think for most people the main thing was simply coming here with family and friends, and meeting up with other family and friends, visiting the ancestral homeland to explore or deepen one’s connections to one’s roots, but also to just go out and have a great vacation, with food and drink and partying..
A one-sheet extra edition, compiled and printed super fast, and handed out at the end of Wednesday’s participants’ parade, before the parade was even over!
For my part, both because I’m living here (and was therefore not quite in full-on mental vacation mode) and because I didn’t really have all that many people to hang out with, I’m not sure I had quite the full experience. But, still, I attended so many events, and had a really great time hanging out with the people I did know.
As of a few months ago, my friend Shari with the Hawaiʻi contingent thought it might be difficult for tiny Hawaiʻi to beat the 1100 or so registered attendees from the huge country of Brazil, but in the end, Hawaiʻi sent over 1800 people to the Taikai – and big thanks to Shari for helping me to be one of them. Groups from Peru and Argentina were big, too, and numerous groups from all different parts across the mainland US, of course. Germany, the UK, France, Australia. China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawan associations from different parts of mainland Japan, as well, of course. I think one of the surprising ones for me was New Caledonia – it makes sense, I suppose, that there’d be a lot of Okinawans there, just like in Hawaiʻi and Guam, but, still, it was a huge contingent. All of these Uchinanchu from all around the world coming together, not only were there some 6000 additional people visiting the island for the last week, but it was a majorly prominent big event, with newspapers putting out special editions reporting on the Festival, and a great many shops hanging signs and so forth. Everyone knew it was going on. It made for a really nice atmosphere – I didn’t end up talking to too many people who I just ran into on the street, but, having so many people here who you know are in a similar situation to yourself (well, not quite to myself, but I sort of adopted the identity of an Uchinanchu returning for the Festival) really creates such a wonderful open, friendly, sort of feeling.
Gov. Onaga of Okinawa, with the flags of some of the many countries & regions represented, welcoming everyone back home. I wish I had taken more photos of just generally seeing people on the street, or photos of small parties with friends. Drat.
And I think that was one of the main things that really struck me about the whole thing. It’s corny, but it’s real, that all of these people from all around the world, have come together in friendship – and more than that, really, as family – to celebrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Of course, with any such group so large, you’re going to have people acting like strangers – like the strangers they are – to a large extent; but, at the same time, while I generally try to avoid making generalizations about a whole people, I really do feel that the Okinawans are the most welcoming and inclusive people I know. Meeting fellow Uchinanchu, they share in that like they’re family. And with someone like myself, who is not Okinawan (and never can be), Okinawans here in Okinawa have been friendly as could be, and diaspora Okinawans have been just so welcoming, so accepting, inviting me into their group to go out for drinks, or whatever… Months ago, when I was first hearing about the Taikai, Shari was on Hawaiʻi Public Radio telling people about the Taikai, and about registering through the Hawaiʻi United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I sent her a message saying, basically, I’m not Okinawan, and I haven’t lived in Hawaiʻi in quite a few years, but should I register through HUOA? Is there a way to register just as a loner? And I am so glad to have registered with HUOA. Somehow, I didn’t get that same feeling this weekend as I did a few months ago in LA of feeling like I was back in Hawaiʻi, but still, it’s really something to feel a part of a community, a part of a group – to feel some connection to Hawaiian community, to Hawaiʻi as a cultural space. And I really can’t wait to go spend time in Hawaiʻi again, to maintain those connections.
My point is, attending the opening ceremonies at Onoyama Park Cellular Stadium, seeing thousands of Okinawans celebrating together, showing their pride in their individual cities or countries, but also in being Okinawan, and seeing Gov. Onaga and the prefecture of Okinawa more broadly welcoming them home in this way, it’s just so touching. Reminds me of the Olympics, in a sense, just that cheesy but nevertheless genuine heartwarming feeling of people coming together, in friendship, from all around the world, which puts tears in your eyes. Even before the official opening ceremonies on Thursday, on the day before, there was a participants’ parade in which everyone, in their respective national or regional contingents, marched down Kokusai-dôri (the main street of Naha). As Hawaiʻi was one of the first groups to walk, I got to finish walking the parade, and then turn around and become a spectator to watch all the other groups pass by – and seeing Okinawans from Texas, from Guam, from Bolivia.. even from Zambia, was just incredible. Most people had matching shirts, really “representing” their various countries or regions, and they waved flags, blasted music, performed dances. And, both at the parade and all through the week, local Okinawans would stop people, and hold their hand, and say “welcome home” (o-kaeri-nasai), often with tears in their eyes. I’m getting a little bit teary just writing about it.
Some of my friends have better photos than this; some experienced it rather directly. I, too, was greeted similarly on a number of occasions. It’s a really incredible feeling, for strangers, just anyone, people you meet on the street, to treat you like family, to welcome you home like this.
There were times during the week that I felt I wished we could all have what the Okinawans have. I mean, it comes from pain, from suffering, and I certainly do not wish that upon anyone, that anyone should have to go through what the Okinawans have. Their independent kingdom, so culturally rich and vibrant, was unilaterally abolished and annexed, and the islands’ economy allowed to flounder and collapse, leading a great many to emigrate to Hawaiʻi, the US, South America, and elsewhere right around 1900. This was followed in 1945 by Japan allowing Okinawa to become a battlefield, for a last stand for Imperial Japan, a battle which ended in the deaths of roughly 1/4 of Okinawa’s civilian population, and the utter destruction of much of the island. And indeed, that suffering or oppression is ongoing, as roughly 1/5th of Okinawa’s land continues to be occupied by US military bases today, with both Tokyo and Washington agreeing to essentially use the entire island as a strategic military position, rather than truly seeing it as an equal part of Japan, with equal rights to not have to put up with all the many repercussions of that.
But, my feeling is that through all of this, the Okinawan people have such an appreciation for one another, and for their diasporic relatives, addressing one another not as strangers who happen to have some commonality or similarity, but addressing one another as long-lost distant family. They speak of the Okinawan diaspora as being true Uchinanchu just as much, and as doing great things for Okinawa, or in the name of the Okinawan people. They speak of being linked by one heart, one soul, of being inseparably tied to this place as the homeland. We heard stories from members of the older generation, who speak of having lived overseas (in diaspora) for fifty or sixty years, but that when they dream of home, it is Okinawa they dream of. We heard from members of the younger generation, who have come here to Okinawa as exchange students in order to explore their roots. We heard from Gov. Onaga and other top people in Okinawa, who welcomed these thousands of Okinawans home, speaking of how proud Okinawa is of all of them out there in the world. Speaking of the special spirit, the strength, the power, of Uchinanchu. And at both the opening and closing ceremonies, we saw some of the real all-stars of Okinawan pop/rock/whatever music performing, not as distant, untouchable, impersonal celebrities who might happen to share some common ethnic designation, but rather, as people excited and emotional to be involved in such an event, welcoming all these people home. I wish we all could have such a strong feeling of identity, of togetherness, of ties to the land, of appreciation for our ancestors, of love for our culture, and without anyone else seeing our pride and our togetherness as a dangerous or ugly form of nationalism, or as illegitimate or inappropriate in whatever way. Maybe it’s just my perspective based on who *I* am, my own ethnic/cultural background, my own family’s history, but to me, this all feels “pure” in a way. A pure and wholly positive feeling, and display, of pride of identity, without any of the negative connotations that prevent us from demonstrating our pride in the same way in being American, Japanese, German, Jewish, or any number of other identities. I wish I could wave the Hawaiian flag and feel it was my own. I wish I could wave the Israeli flag and have people see it in that same light – as a long-oppressed minority, an indigenous people, regaining our homeland after centuries of occupation.
Ukwanshin Kabudan, performing in their own short play about the history and experiences of Okinawan immigrants to Hawaiʻi. The group is now working with an NPO called Okinawa Hands-On to produce a documentary on the importance of maintaining the Okinawan language. If you might be interested in contributing to this effort, and to the production of more plays like the one from which this photo was taken, see the Okinawa Hands-On website.
Hanging out with diaspora Okinawans, and studying Okinawan history and culture, has really helped me think about and understand and appreciate my own background as well. It’s all too easy to study history or culture (arts) as objects to be studied – as bodies of knowledge to simply read about, learn about, know, and then share. Names, dates, events, facts. And I do love that stuff. And I do think it’s important. But the ways in which we live our very real lives, the ways in which every individual person, every individual family, has their story, their experiences, their particular relationships with their identity; the way we struggle, as individuals, as families, as local communities, and as a people as a whole (e.g. the Okinawan people), to know the past and to keep those lessons with us, to have appreciation for our ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be here today, to hold onto some notion of our heritage while still living the more immediate, if mundane, priorities of everyday modern life… has really gotten me to think about my own Jewish identity, my relationship with my grandparents and their story, their identity, the heritage that I have inherited, what sort of life I want to live and what lessons I should want to pass down to my own children. How do we embody our ethnic or cultural identities and make that truly a part of who we are? How do we honor who our ancestors would have wanted us to be? How do we maintain traditions, and not lose them, while at the same time not preserving them in a sterile unchanging way like in a glass jar? And how do we maintain them while also dealing with the demands of regular, everyday, modern life?
Some people I would love to get to know, and who I suspect would actually be quite friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike the air or impression that I think is not uncommon within New York or Tokyo of unapproachability. You know, it’s funny, for a post all about making friends and feelings of friendship and family, I still can’t believe (still as in as I continue to write this, from however many paragraphs earlier) that I took no photos at all of new or old friends, or of hanging out with people this whole week. That’s what the whole damn thing was about (partially)!
Another thing that comes up when hanging out with Hawaiʻi folks is the sense I get that in Hawaiʻi, and in Okinawa, it’s not so much about knowing your way around the city/island, knowing cool places, in an impersonal way, nor is it about “who you know” (personal networks) in a high-powered, self-important way, but rather that it’s very much about just being friendly and making friends, and that’s something I have really grown to love and enjoy. I know my way around New York and Tokyo to a certain extent – I have my favorite restaurants, etc.; I know certain short-cuts or certain back ways or whatever. And I’d long aspired to develop that more for those two cities, and for everywhere I went. But, being knowledgeable in that sort of way can be rather impersonal – knowing the best restaurants in the city, being up on the latest trends, doesn’t mean you actually know anyone, or that they know you. And, like at that party I happened to be invited to that one time at the apartment of a curator for the Guggenheim, New York can feel like it’s all about moving in important circles. Who you know, as in who you can name drop, who you can get favors from. But in Hawaiʻi, and I think maybe in Okinawa too, it’s not about that stuff. It’s about being real, genuine friends with people who just happen to be guesthouse operators, restaurant owners, magazine editors, archivists… It’s maybe a little hard to put into words, I guess, what the difference is that I sense. But it’s about the easy, friendly, accessibility of making friends with people in all sorts of circles. Introductions go a long way here, and people are friendly and open and welcoming. They aren’t necessarily looking for what they can get out of you, or looking skeptically at this stranger wondering why should we really be friends. And I think that’s something I struggle with within myself – wanting to be on good, friendly, terms with more or less everyone in my life, but at the same time I have a hard time really accepting that someone else sees me as a friend until we’ve hung out many times and I feel a genuine sense of closeness. Anyway, I’m getting a little too personal, or self-psychoanalyzing or something. The point is, I’ve been here for all of six weeks, and by virtue of friends’ introductions, I already have connections, if not outright friendships, with quite a few grad students and professors, plus a guesthouse owner or manager, the editor of a major local magazine, an archivist… and in Hawaiʻi, through one means or another, I think I have friends or at least acquaintances, connections of some sort, with at least a few bars and restaurants, with multiple people at the Honolulu Museum of Arts, many on campus of course, but also with HUOA, the Japanese Cultural Center, the synagogue, and so on and so forth, after only three years of living there, by virtue of friendliness, aloha spirit, introductions, and the fact that it’s all in all a relatively small place. By contrast, I’ve lived in New York more or less my whole life (when I wasn’t in London or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or Okinawa or California), and while I am fortunate to have a few friends in a few “high” places here and there, for the most part, I already feel more “connected” here in Okinawa, and in Hawaiʻi, than I ever have (and perhaps ever will) in New York – and not only in the professional networking “what can I get out of you” sort of way, but even in the sense of having social circles I feel I can rely upon to invite me out.
Here’s part of where the difference comes in: in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa, I never felt like I was walking with an elite crowd. I never felt like we were calling up a place to make a reservation and saying “do you know who I am?” “Oh, yes, of course, anything for you, Mr. so-and-so.” No. It was more like calling up and saying “Hey, [insert name]! How’s it going? Thanks again for such-and-such the other night. It was a really fun time. Listen, I have some friends coming into town. You think you have space?” “Oh, yeah, of course! It’s always great to see you! I can’t wait to meet your friends!” After the Taikai was over, just a few days ago, I went over to the guesthouse where one of my friends had been staying, to inquire about making a reservation myself. And, not only did the manager/owner immediately say,
“Travis! Yes, she told me you’d be coming. Great to meet you!”
and then talk to me excitedly about how wonderful that mutual friend is, a nice, fun, generous, warm, person, but then even in the middle of showing me around the guesthouse, she saw someone walking past on the street (a friend? a regular guest?) and called out to him “Oh! Takeo! I didn’t know you were back!” And then interrupted our little “tour” to go chat with him. I just love the idea of this kind of not-so-strictly-professional, friendly, attitude. Like I might also become not only a regular guest, but actually a friend, and might even get introduced to other friends, and, I dunno, just, feel happy and welcomed and feel a part of a real network of actual friends here, more so than just being an experienced, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, visitor.
This weekend was incredible. So much fun, so exciting, but also emotional at times, very moving. It’s also given me a lot to think about; it’s refreshed my feeling of membership in a Hawaiʻi community, for which I could not be more grateful; and it’s helped me make some new friends and contacts here in Okinawa, which is sure to be fruitful going forward.
The above is all just one version of one attempt at organizing my thoughts and feelings on all of this… I still barely know how I think about all of this. My identity, my relationship to all of these things, remain a work in progress. I may at some point come back and write more about the Taikai, specifically about some of the many events I attended over the course of the Festival, which I barely touched upon at all in this post. But, feeling already so far behind (posting this so many days after the Taikai ended), I’m not sure I will get around to it. In the meantime, for those interested, please do feel free to check out my documentation of my experience of the Taikai, on Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube.