||Issue Date: 11 / 2012
“Uchinanchu” Okinawa Homecoming!
As Americans, we are aware and proud of our familial roots, which were first planted abroad long ago, but have come to full fruition here in good American sod.
Uchinanchu delegate from Mexico
expresses her festive joy at
It was out of economic adversity and natural disaster that brought many of our ancestors here to America’s shores. Most memorable of these travails was the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s that landed more than a million Irish immigrants here from across the Atlantic. The most famous among this progeny rose to become a US president: John F. Kennedy.
Then, half a century after the Irish arrival, another series of migrations came ashore from the opposite direction: across the Pacific reaching Hawaii, the US West Coast and down even to South America. This influx originated from the shores of Okinawa, a tropical island chain of 140 islands of which only 47 are populated. The archipelago stretches from Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu 800 miles southward in the East China Sea.
Set amid luminous coral waters with white pristine beaches and lush tropical foliage, Okinawa is heralded as, “The Hawaii of Japan.” Blessed with a natural beauty and climate beyond that of the main Japanese islands, Okinawa has its own unique language, customs and culture that render it unique and especially fascinating to vacationing Japanese from modern cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
But the Okinawans, like the Irish before them, left their island homeland for precisely the same reason: to better their lives in times of trouble.
Today, four generations after their initial AD 1900 migration, nearly four in ten of Okinawan descent permanently reside overseas. But no matter where they live or what their nationality, according to Matt Matayoshi, past president of the San Francisco Okinawan Friendship Association, they proudly call themselves “Uchinanchu” or “Okinawans.”
Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, today has a population of 1.4 million. But now after multiple migrations, overseas Okinawans live on five continents and number nearly 400,000.
Brazil claims 190,000, Hawaii and the US mainland 100,000 and Peru 70,000. “Uchinanchu” are also dispersed around the globe from the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, throughout Europe and Africa to Australia and Southeast Asia.
Over the past several decades Okinawans from around the world are reunited every four years during colorful “Uchinanchu” Homecoming ceremonies held in the Okinawan capital city of Naha. The week-long calendar of events include sporting competitions, parades, cultural activities, and touring the islands of their ancestors.
I was able to attend the latest homecoming celebration held in September, 2011 with my wife, herself an “Uchinanchu.” As with the majority of the overseas attendees, we stayed well beyond the formal festival to visit relatives and tour both the main island of Okinawa as well as several other exotic neighbor islands of the archipelago.
In fact, my wife and I were able to celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary at a festive banquet hosted by our talented family who provided all the dancing and musical entertainment by themselves.
"Hip" California Uchinanchu
delegate poses for photo in
Okinawan court attire.
The festival itself kicked off at dusk down Naha’s main street “Kokusai-dori” (meaning “International Boulevard”) with a massive homecoming parade featuring “Uchinanchu” marchers and dancers from more than 30 nations. All were dressed in the garb of their native lands and bore their national flags to the accompaniment of marching bands and folk musicians.
The following morning, out of doors and under clear skies, the opening ceremonies began in the prefecture’s largest outdoor stadium featuring welcoming messages and classical Okinawan singing and dancing.
Also located within the stadium complex and open throughout the week was a standing exhibit enabling overseas Okinawans to discover “their roots” through an archive of historical documents, displays and photos.
Throughout the week the stadium also held a world bazaar featuring goods from the lands of the overseas “Uchinanchu” as well as a food market serving a variety of cuisines from the participants’ native countries.
At another downtown Naha venue, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, exhibits documented the lives of Okinawan emigrants world wide. I was especially drawn to a fascinating panel tracing “Uchinanchu” emigration history (including some of my wife’s own family) to Peru.
Next, our visit took us from modern downtown Naha to the most fascinating and exotic Okinawan venue of all: the ancient Shuri district set atop a hill overlooking the modern city below. Here, in AD 1470, King Sho Hashi united the nation’s three kingdoms and established a dynasty that launched Okinawa’s most prosperous age that endured for centuries.
Prior to the approaching the classic castle grounds, one must pass under the ceremonial “Shurei no Mon Gate.” The graceful structure is revered as the iconic symbol of Okinawa. It features a double tile roof first built nearly 500 years ago to display a tablet sent by the Chinese Emperor proclaiming Okinawa to be “The Land of Propriety.”
Beyond the gate we trekked onward and upward until we reached the castle entrance. Once inside the castle’s main courtyard we joined other privileged “Uchinanchu” overseas guests to witness classic performances by kimono-clad dancers.
Because of Okinawa’s long ties with its Southeast Asian neighbors and trading partners: China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, they wove many elements of these cultures into their own.
Next, we witnessed a martial arts demonstration by black-belt karate masters. Karate, meaning “Open Hand,” was born in Okinawa for self-defense at a time long ago when the populace was forbidden to carry weapons.
At last, the formal “Uchinanchu” homecoming celebration was coming to an end as we entered downtown Naha’s gigantic Cellular Stadium for the closing ceremonies as the tropical sun was beginning to set.
First and second generation “Uchinanchu” (Issei and Nisei) were reunited with their kin and long-time acquaintances once again. While the third and fourth generations (Sansei and Yonsei) were experiencing for the first time, the wonder of their beloved heritage in song and dance.
As the final stage performance ended, suddenly the whole sky above the stadium lit up with a bang as fireworks exploded overhead to the crowd’s delight.
Even after the last of the pyrotechnics were spent, the celestial display didn’t end. A full harvest moon slowly began to rise, enchanting the overseas “Uchinanchu” with the promise of another festive homecoming just four years hence.
Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has
traveled to more than ninety countries. Based in California, he
has been a contributor to The World & I since 1987.