At a 2009 concert, Seijin Noborikawa, the grand-daddy of Okinawan folk music, told the audience about where he felt most at home when he visited mainland Japan. He described a neighborhood where passersby chatted in uchinaaguchi language, where shops served pig-trotter noodles and island songs seeped like honey from tiny backstreet bars. Noborikawa was talking about Yokohama’s Tsurumi Ward, and in particular an area between the river and the docks that, due to its close ties to Japan’s southernmost islands, has led it to be christened Okitsuru — a synthesis of “Okinawa” and “Tsurumi.”

On my initial visit to the neighborhood, it was difficult to understand how Okitsuru had earned its nickname. A gritty factory zone of warehouses and cranking machinery, the only palm tree in sight was a faded poster on a workshop wall. However, it was precisely this proximity to the Keihin industrial belt that lured Okinawan migrants here in the first place. In the 1920s, a combination of disproportionate taxation and the collapse of the sugar-cane market devastated Okinawa’s economy, causing widespread famine. Thousands fled the islands to find work as far away as Bolivia and Brazil — others came to Honshu and settled mainly in Osaka’s Taisho Ward and here in Tsurumi.

At that time, barely 40 years had passed since Japan had annexed Okinawa and quashed its status as an independent kingdom. Many mainlanders regarded their new neighbors as bumpkins, at best; at worst, an inferior race. Factory owners fired workers who spoke in island languages and landlords turned away Okinawan tenants. The flood-prone area south of the Tsurumi river was one of the few places that Okinawans could rent accommodation so they settled here en masse and began to build a community.

The second wave of Okinawan migration was triggered by the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. During the fighting, a quarter of the islands’ inhabitants lost their lives, but the suffering of the survivors did not end with the ceasefire — throughout the 1950s, the U.S. military embarked upon a ruthless campaign of base construction, which drove countless farmers from their land. Once again, Okinawans were forced to flee their home islands and they followed in the footsteps of those a generation before — they went to South America, Osaka and Tsurumi.

Today, the precise numbers of Okinawans living in Tsurumi is hard to estimate. Local ward offices don’t keep track of domestic migration, nor does scouring the public registries for Okinawan- sounding households help since many islanders altered their names to avoid discrimination — Kinjo became Kaneshiro, Kabira was changed to Kawahira, Nagusuku to Miyagi. Yuta Shimozato, however, puts the current population of Tsurumi residents with Okinawan roots at 30,000 — or approximately 12 percent.

The number sounds high, but if anybody knows about this neighborhood, it’s Shimozato. Born in Naha, he is the current manager of Okitsuru Mart, a supermarket in the center of Okitsuru that, for over 25 years, has been selling Okinawan ingredients difficult to find elsewhere — pigs’ ears and sea grapes, green papaya and island shallots, Tulip-brand luncheon meat and gelatinous peanut tofu.

“Two thirds of our customers are Okinawans who live nearby,” explained Shimozato. “Our best-selling items are the Okinawan noodles we make here on the premises. And everyday, we fry up a batch of sata andagi doughnuts.”

While he was talking, an elderly female customer hoisted a bag of frozen meat onto the counter and berated Shimozato for having kept her waiting a week for this — the latest stock of goat meat. No sooner had she left than a harried salaryman came in to buy a hanko seal of his Okinawan surname to replace the one he’d lost this morning. Interactions such as these hint at Okitsuru’s deeper role in this community — more than just a supermarket, it’s an anchor and a heart. Elderly people sun themselves on the bench outside and offer tourists advice on the best of the area’s dozen Okinawan restaurants. Posters advertise sanshin banjo classes and performances by visiting island musicians. There are also schedules for Okitsuru’s annual festival and sign-up sheets for the Okinawan sumo tournament — a slimmed-down version of the mainland sport — which the neighborhood has staged since 1951.

The brightest manifestation of Okitsuru’s community is its eisa dance troupes — Okitsuru Eisa-kai and Tsurumi Eisa Usukaji. Eisa is a more upbeat variant of the summer Bon dances that welcome back the dead all over Japan. Okitsuru’s two groups are so popular, though, that they perform year-round at school open days and festivals throughout the country — including Kawasaki’s annual Haisai Festa, where one year previously, I’d first heard Seijin Noborikawa’s comments about Okitsuru.

I attended the 2010 Haisai Festa on a glorious spring day in May. Two dozen of Usukaji’s drummers staged an ear-splitting performance, which mesmerized even Kawasaki’s jaded soapland touts and African streetwear salesmen. Stomping their feet and twirling their bodies in a blur of gold and purple, the troupe ended its show by dismantling the crowd barriers and, to the security guards’ consternation, inviting the onlookers to dance with them. For close to 20 minutes, members of the public waved their hands and brandished Usukaji’s flags — rendering invisible the distinction between performer and spectator.

Back in Okitsuru on the night after the festival, I was surprised to find that the revelers hadn’t headed to one of the small Okinawan izakaya taverns, but instead to a brightly-lit restaurant called El Bosque. Inside, the Bolivian cantina was packed with families from the festival, elderly locals and a large table of South American beauties and their male-model handsome boyfriends. These were Okitsuru’s third wave of migrants — the nikkeijin descendants of those Okinawans who had fled to the other side of the world.

In the late 1980s, with the strong yen and government restrictions on Japanese-related migrants relaxed, they came to Yokohama to work in its factories. In spite of the current recession and the government’s controversial offer of ¥300,000 in exchange for a promise to leave Japan and never return, most of Okitsuru’s nikkeijin have decided to ride out the hard times. El Bosque’s menu reflected this new hybrid culture. Alongside Okinawan noodles there was fried yucca, Argentine beef met Ishigaki hot peppers in a dish of steaming salten~a pastries, Pacen~a beer flowed alongside Orion.

As the evening grew late, the Spanish pop videos went off and the karaoke came on. First on the stage was a pensioner from Miyako Island with an Okinawan drinking song, followed by a pair of Naha-born housewives singing a duet from Okinawa’s musical export, Orange Range. Next up was one of the chisel-jawed nikkeijin and his rendition of “La Vida Loca.” When he picked up the microphone and cleared his throat, I expected a voice to match his confident looks but what emerged was a timid whisper accompanied by out-of-sync foot taps. By the time he’d reached the second chorus, half the audience was biting its tongues and the rest was in good-natured stitches. When the song finally came to an end, though, everybody cheered as if it were Sen~or Martin himself stood before us, and his friends pulled him into a tight hug.

It was then that I finally understood what Seijin Noborikawa had been talking about — the elderly Miyako man, the Naha women, the south Americans, me — we were all a long, long way from home, but here in Okitsuru it was possible to find ourselves just a little bit of comfort.

Getting there: By train, take the Keikyu or JR Keihin-Tohoku Line to Tsurumi Station and walk 20 minutes east to Naka Dori, the heart of Okitsuru. Alternatively, at Tsurumi Station jump on a No. 27 bus, alighting at the Ushioda Jinja-mae stop, or a No. 15 or 16 to Mukai-cho 3-chome. For a detailed map of the area (including its Okinawan and South American businesses), visit www.kariyushi.net/tsurumi/ title3/image/okitsuru.pdf

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.