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Aman Nagamiyura: Uchinanchu Diaspora Blues

I was honored to be part of the panel discussion on “Okinawans and their Global Networks” at the Japanese American National Museum on March 1, 2008. The information provided by Professors Hiroyuki Kinjo, Naomi Noiri, and Kentar? Kuwatsuka from the University of the Ryukyus gave me a wider understanding of Okinawans around the world. The heartfelt presentation by my colleague and friend Yuko Yamauchi of the Okinawa Association of America about her experiences in Okinawa also inspired me. Participation on that panel got me thinking more deeply about the Uchinanchu diaspora. “Uchinaanchu” is the Okinawa word for “person of Okinawa,” while diaspora refers to “the scattering of seeds.” “Uchinaanchu diapora,” therefore, refers to the people who have spread out from Okinawa to the rest the world.

When referring to the Uchinanchu diaspora, however, the question that comes to mind is whether, as worldwide Uchinanchu, we are just floating in “post-modern” space. That is, if we are to talk about an Uchinanchu diaspora, we also need to seriously address the fundamental question of what, if anything, makes us more than just individuals scattered throughout the world.

When I was at the 2001 Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, I could not help but be frustrated that I was not able to talk to fellow Uchinanchu from other parts of the world because we were focused on the speeches, cultural performances, and symposiums and not on trying to explore whatever “yoko no tsunagari” (horizontal ties) there might have been between us. We were just too busy to acknowledge each other’s presence.

These yoko no tsunagari are important because of the sheer diversity across this category of “Uchinanchu.” Okinawa itself is a diverse place – just think of the multitude of dialects of Uchinaguchi, styles of music and dance, and ways to make saataa andagi. The matter is further complicated if we remember that the term Uchinanchu literally means “people of Okinawa.” Consequently, what about people from other parts of the Ryukyu archipelago, such as Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, Yoron, Yaeyama, and Miyako? Can they be part of the Uchinanchu category without giving up their own island identities?

Consider also how Okinawans have been migrating in large numbers to many different countries since 1900. We also have to think of more recent secondary and tertiary migrations such as those made by Nisei and Sansei Okinawans between Latin America and Japan.

Further, “mixed race” heritage is common in the Uchinanchu diaspora. In a recent trip to Cuba, I met 3rd and 4th generation Okinawans who had strong Uchinanchu identities despite the fact that in many cases only one of their grandparents was from Okinawa. However, more often than not, “mono-racial” Okinawans throughout the diaspora have not completely accepted mixed race Okinawans as Uchinanchu. Just as the word “haafu (half)” suggests, mixed race Okinawans may be seen as diluted Uchinanchu.

An important question, therefore, is if we “Uchinanchu” can embrace diversity. I am talking about not only the diversity within the category of Uchinanchu, but also diversity in general. In other words, there is the concern that by emphasizing our “Uchinanchu” identity, we might replicate the very ideologies that have victimized Okinawans such as Japanese nationalism or Anti-Asian racism. That is, how inclusive or exclusive are we being when we say “Ichariba choodee (When we meet, we are family)?”

I cannot offer conclusive answers to these questions and issues: these are things that need to be addressed through wider dialogue across the generational, national, and cultural divides of the diaspora. This ironically seems like a catch-22 situation: In order to create the horizontal ties across the Uchinanchu diaspora, we need to create dialogue, but in order to create dialogue, we need to create horizontal ties across the Uchinanchu diaspora.

I would argue, however, that the situation is a Catch-22 only if we let it be one. Let me step out of the stereotypical mode of the laid-back Okinawan and push my opinion forward: If we are to have an Uchinanchu diaspora or any kind of global network, it cannot be done without chimu.

Chimu is what could be called heart, but words do not do justice to its meaning. In fact, I am still a novice in understanding chimu. Every year that I get older and wiser, I find that I learn more and more about chimu. I would like to also point out that chimu is only the Okinawan word for something that exists beyond the borders of what is Okinawan. I constantly meet people who are not Uchinanchu, but are so filled with chimu that it is breathtaking.

Take for example, my sister-in-law (my wife’s older brother’s wife) from Michoacán, Mexico, who has lived on Ishigaki for the last 17 years. Soon after she came, she sat her (and my) Okinawan mother-in-law down one day and said in the few Japanese words she knew, “Watashi Okaasan, mekishiko ni iru. Tooi. Anata wa chikai. Ima anata wa watashi no okaasan. (My mother is in Mexico. Far. You are near. Now you are my mother).” I still get “chicken skin” when I remember her telling me the story later in fluent Japanese. I am also always touched deeply when I see how she and her (and my) mother-in-law are inseparable. That is what I call chimu.

I remember another relative in Okinawa, who lived past 100 years old, punctuating her sentences with “Aiyeenaa.” If she saw something sad or tragic on the news, she would say “Aiyeenaa, chimu gurisan (Aiyeenaa, it hurts the chimu)!” It was said with so much feeling – much in the way Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians say the word “auwe” as an expression of lament. In fact, I would say that “aloha” and chimu are eeka (family).

When I was a kid, my mother taught me about a song that her mother (my grandmother) taught her. Later on as a young adult trying to piece together my identity I memorized the song, Tinsagunu Hana, by heart. The first verse is:

Tinsagunu hana ya          Dye the tips of your fingernails

Chimisachi ni sumiti        using the petals of the tinsagu blossom

Uya nu yushi gutu ya       Dye the lessons of your parents

Chimu ni sumiri              on your heart

I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time with my grandmother, but we could only communicate in pidgin English and pidgin Japanese. She and my mother communicated in pidgin Japanese and not Okinawan because like many other Issei Okinawans she did not want her children to learn the language that was considered barbaric by other Japanese. Between my grandmother and I, therefore, were multiple language barriers and it is a miracle that Tinsagunu Hana was passed down to me.

But is it really a miracle? In my faded memory of my baban (the Hawaiian pidgin Japanese word for grandma), she is sitting calmly and quietly with her hands folded on her lap in a way that her Okinawan-style tattoos on her knuckles are not clearly visible. But I also see her rascal smile on her calm face, so mischievous or uumaku (Okinawan), kolohe (Hawaiian), and traviesa (Spanish).

I really think that she knew she had pulled one over on the rest of the world. Even though she and other Okinawans were not able to pass down much of their language and culture to the next generation because of oppression, discrimination, and racism, she had absolute faith that the lessons inscribed in her descendants’ chimu would be inscribed in the next generations in a line unbroken for generations.

Another person I remember was an old man from the island of Ishigaki in Yaeyama who lived in San Jose, California until he died a few years ago past the age of 100. He was a great singer of Tubaraama or songs from Yaeyama that require amazing skill in voice and breath control. He had learned songs from his mother who would take him as a young child into the forests with her to gather firewood. She sang constantly as a way to tell him, “I’m here nearby. Don’t worry.”

One day he sang this Tubaraama for me:

Umuti kayuraba          Going to see the one I love

Shinri ya ichiri            One thousand ri is only one ri

Awan muduraba          If I don’t see you there

Mutu nu shinri            It’s a thousand ri back home

I probably had a quizzical look on my face as he explained the song to me. His words from that day still ring in my ears and live in my heart: “You young people need to realize that physical distance and spiritual distance are not the same.”

My sanshin teacher, Nadoyama Ken’ichi sensei, left Okinawa alone and went to Kawasaki (near Tokyo) in the late 1960s in order to earn enough money to support his wife and four children. Separated from his family, his only comfort was playing sanshin and singing, but his neighbors complained that his music was “strange.” Not being able to play in his apartment, he had to go to the docks by the ocean where no one could hear him. Years later, when I was learning sanshin from him, sensei pointed out the irony of how the parents of his young Yamatunchu (Japanese) students may have been the very ones who told him that his music was strange.

There has been since the 1990s an “Okinawa boom” in Japan where Okinawan music, dance, food, language, and crafts are popular. Looking back, it is with much pain in my chimu that I notice that Okinawan culture is becoming increasingly commodified in much the same way that Hawaiian culture has been commodified in Hawaii. The words aloha and mahalo lose their meaning when they are used by the tourist industry to create an image of Hawai’i as a tropical paradise. The painful historical and contemporary reality of Native Hawaiians losing their land to outsiders is conveniently erased to create that image, much in the same way that much of Okinawa’s painful past and present is glossed over by shiny new airports, resorts, shopping centers, and signs with the Okinawan equivalent of Hawaii’s tourist industry’s aloha: “mensore (welcome).”

Out of some ironic twist of fate, the island of Ishigaki (the island where my wife was born and raised) and Kauai (the island where I was born and raised) share a sister-city relationship that was established when Okinawa was controlled by the U.S. from 1945-1972. It has been painful to go back to Kauai in recent years since much of the land has been bought by people from the U.S. mainland. The old trees, farmland, and houses that I remember from my youth have been leveled to create dream homes for the rich. Unfortunately, the same thing is happening in Ishigaki as the Okinawa boom has brought many affluent Japanese mainlanders there to buy a piece of paradise. In both places, people have to leave their place of birth because they can’t afford to buy a home there. So the scattering of people continues for Uchinanchu and other island people…

I write this on a night of a clear full moon (3/20/08) that prompts me to end with a question found in Hamachidori, a song that many Uchinanchu are familiar with. Nadoyama sensei explained to me that it was written after the 1879 annexation of Okinawa by Japan. The song reflected the realities of a new age when Okinawans found themselves politically, socially, and economically subordinated in their own land. Hamachidori expresses the feeling of a young man who is sold off to the Itoman fishermen to help bring his family out of debt. Separated from the rest of his family, the thought of his loved ones looking at the same moon is the only source of hope and comfort.

Tukee ya hijamitin    Though we may be separated by the sea

Tiru chichi ya hituchi  There is only one moon in the sky

Aman nagamiyura     Could you be looking at it

Kiyu nu sura ya        On this very night?


1. While males were sold to fishermen, females were often sold to the brothels in Naha.


© 2008 Wesley Ueunten