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Welcome home, Okinawa

In December 1899, more than two dozen migrants left Okinawa for Hawaii, starting a mass exodus that, for more than a century, has profoundly shaped the communities of those who departed and those who stayed behind. The upcoming sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival offers thousands of Okinawans living overseas a chance to return to their roots

by

Special To The Japan Times

Under the slogan “Let the whole world move to the Uchina beat,” Okinawa will host the prefecture’s largest international event, the sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival from Thursday, Oct. 27, to Sunday, Oct. 30. (Uchina means Okinawa in the island’s language, while Uchinanchu means an Okinawan person). Festivities will include a mass sanshin music recital, traditional eisa dances and a karate drill that, organizers hope, will be large enough to win a mention in Guinness World Records.

The festival is held every five years and Okinawa prefectural officials expect this one to attract around 350,000 participants, more than 7,000 of whom will come from overseas. For the majority of these international visitors, the festival will represent a homecoming of sorts or a return to roots. Most are members of one of Japan’s largest diasporas, the mass exodus from Okinawa that, for more than a century, has profoundly shaped the personal identities and the communities of those who departed and those who stayed behind.

The current population of Okinawa Prefecture is 1.4 million, with an estimated 300,000 Okinawans living in mainland Japan. According to the latest prefectural data, a further 415,000 Okinawa-ken keijin (first and following generations of Okinawan migrants) live overseas, the majority in Brazil, the United States and Peru.

These patterns of migration are proportionally far higher than those of Japan as a whole. The total number of Japanese living overseas, for example, stands at around 1.3 million of the nation’s population of 126 million. Moreover, experts contend that migration of mainland Japanese has often been on a temporary basis, contrasting with the Okinawan model in which many islanders have moved abroad for good.

To understand the reasons why so many Okinawans leave their island, the clock must be wound back to 1879. In that year, Okinawa, which had for centuries been the independent kingdom of the Ryukyus, was seized by the Japanese government to incorporate it as a prefecture into the state. In the following years, the Japanese authorities waged a campaign of forced assimilation that attempted to eradicate local languages and customs such as female tattooing and shamanism.

This discrimination triggered Okinawa’s first wave of overseas migration. Kyuzo Toyama, an educator born in 1868 in the town of Kin, decided that migration offered his fellow islanders a way to escape Japanese oppression and achieve self-determination. While the government had encouraged the large-scale overseas migration of mainland Japanese starting in 1885, Okinawans had not yet been granted the privilege. Toyama persuaded the authorities to extend its policies and, in 1899, he helped to organize the first wave of Okinawan overseas migrants. In January 1900, 26 Okinawans arrived in Hawaii, followed three years later by a further 40, including Toyama himself. Today, he is known as the father of Okinawa migration and Hawaii has at least 50,000 Okinawan-descended residents.

This initial vanguard of migrants paved the way for wider relocations. In 1906, the first Okinawans moved to Peru, today home to an estimated 69,000 Okinawan descendants, followed the next year by Brazil, currently host to 187,000.

Life for most of these first overseas migrants was harsh. Many labored beneath abusive overseers on sugar cane and coffee plantations in the midst of malaria-infested jungles. Worsening their problems was discrimination from some of the Japanese migrants who had arrived before them and had time to establish tight-knit communities; some perceived Okinawans as racially, culturally and linguistically inferior to mainland Japanese people.

Back on Okinawa, living conditions continued to deteriorate. The Japanese government burdened the prefecture with inequitable taxes totaling double its investment in the island. In 1921, the price of sugar cane, Okinawa’s key cash crop, plummeted, triggering a mass famine known today as the sotetsu hell after the toxic palm that many residents were reduced to eating.

Such appalling circumstances made a new life overseas appear increasingly attractive, if not downright necessary, to more and more Okinawans. With migration to the U.S. discouraged and then finally banned under the 1924 Immigration Act, Okinawans migrated to central and south America and to Japan’s rapidly-expanding empire in Taiwan, Manchuria and Pacific islands such as Saipan and Tinian. In many of these places, Okinawans endured harsh working conditions and discrimination with the goal of supporting family members left at home. According to prefectural data, in 1929, for example, remittances sent from overseas migrants made up 66 percent of Okinawa’s entire revenue.

During the six decades between the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the outbreak of World War II, many Okinawans also migrated to mainland Japan, particularly the industrial areas of Kansai and Yokohama or Kawasaki. In many ways, life for these domestic migrants felt as foreign as those who moved to more distant destinations overseas.

Steve Rabson, professor emeritus of East Asian Studies at Brown University, describes the experiences of these migrants in his 2012 book, “The Okinawan Diaspora in Japan.” Rabson explains how life for all arrivals plunged into Japan’s new industrial economy was hard. But unlike migrants from rural areas such as Kyushu or Tohoku, Okinawans faced the additional problem of racist bosses who paid wages lower than those given to mainland Japanese workers, and employers and landlords who posted signs warning “No Koreans or Ryukyuans.”

“To avoid prejudice and discrimination, many Okinawans minimized or concealed their Okinawan identity by endeavoring to ‘pass’ as mainland Japanese,” Rabson says. “This might require losing their Okinawan accent and changing their distinctive Okinawan names to mainland alternatives. Some even changed their domicile registrations to other prefectures when facing barriers to employment or marriage.”

Liberty Osaka, Japan’s only human rights museum, dedicates a large section of its displays to the discrimination faced by Okinawan migrants to mainland Japan. It also shows how they retained a sense of pride in their identities by preserving their language, forming eisa troupes and playing Okinawan music, much of it recorded by the famous mainland Okinawa music label, Marufuku Records.

Tensions between assimilation and preservation played out via the kenjinkai, Okinawan associations that simultaneously aided new arrivals in their search for employment and accommodation but also — at times — spearheaded campaigns to clean up habits frowned upon by some mainlanders such as eating pork and speaking Okinawan.

World War II wrought devastation on the lives of Okinawans wherever they were. In the Americas, they fell victim to anti-Japanese ordinances that closed schools and businesses and interned more than 100,000 innocent Japanese in camps. On the Pacific islands, approximately 12,000 Okinawan civilians died during Allied invasions. Those who had migrated to mainland Japan were killed during aerial bombardments of the nation’s industrial belts.

Worst was the suffering experienced on the home islands during the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. More than one quarter of the total Okinawan population — 149,000 — were slaughtered, many forced from their shelters by Japanese soldiers or executed as “spies” for speaking Okinawan.

During the battle, expat Okinawans employed by the U.S. military saved the lives of countless local residents by convincing them not to commit suicide as mandated by Japanese military ordinances but instead to give themselves up.

Following the battle, overseas Okinawans rallied to help their devastated homeland by sending much-needed relief supplies. In the most famous such case, Hawaiian-Okinawans shipped 550 pigs to the island in 1948, an act of kindness memorialized by a statue unveiled in the city of Uruma in March.

The 1952 Treaty of San Francisco placed Okinawa under U.S. military rule and in the following years, forcible seizures of land to construct and consolidate bases drove 250,000 residents from their homes. Such treatment, combined with slow economic recovery from the war, contributed to escalated migration to Japan and overseas, particularly to the Americas, the destination of more than 14,000 Okinawan migrants.

Researcher Kozy Amemiya has uncovered one of the darkest moments in the history of Okinawa migration, which occurred in 1954. Worrying that Okinawans made landless by the new bases might become attracted to communism, the U.S. authorities co-opted an already existing civilian program to relocate large numbers of Okinawans to Uruma Colony, Bolivia. Amemiya calls the plan “emigration as a safety valve.”

However, when the first 400 migrants arrived, they quickly realized the land they’d been allocated suffered from poor soil, lacked potable water and was located deep in a jungle far from the main roads. Seventeen members died from disease within the first half year and later more than three quarters of the original settlers left the colony.

On mainland Japan in this postwar period, there was a marked decline in discrimination among employees and landlords. However, Osaka’s human rights museum chronicles the ongoing exploitative work practices and low wages experienced by young Okinawans brought to mainland factories in so-called group-hirings in the 1960s and ’70s. A widespread sense of alienation triggered suicides among young migrants, culminating in 1972 in the killing of a factory owner’s wife by a young Okinawan who felt aggrieved by his treatment; the migrant hanged himself in his jail cell during the trial.

By the 21st century, most Okinawans and their descendants living overseas and on mainland Japan had overcome earlier problems of poverty and discrimination. Today, the kenjinkai continue to help expat Okinawans preserve and promote the prefecture’s culture. Overseas kenjinkai number 92, with branches as far afield as New Caledonia, Zambia and Norway. In 2014, Hawaii elected David Ige, the grandson of migrants from the town of Nishihara, as the state’s first governor with Okinawan roots.

Tom Yamamoto, president of the 40,000-member Hawaii United Okinawa Association, is among those ensuring migrants and their descendants retain pride in their origins. The group’s activities include a long-running Hawaii/Okinawa High School Student Exchange Program and an annual festival featuring Okinawan music and dance.

Yamamoto describes how his own ancestors overcame poverty and discrimination upon their arrival in the United States.

“Together (their) vision of making a better life for their families is a flourishing reality today,” Yamamoto says.

Yamamoto will participate in this week’s sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, marching in Wednesday’s pre-opening parade along with more than 1,000 fellow association members all wearing matching aloha shirts. Hawaii Gov. Ige is also expected to participate.

Also in attendance will be Miwa Tonaki, chair of the U.K.-Okinawa association. One of the smaller international groups — with around 30 members — the association organizes an annual festival in London, introducing people to the island’s culture.

Tonaki locates her own Okinawan identity firmly within its geo-historical context and perceives it as distinct from that of mainland Japanese migrants.

“My nationality may change in the future but the fact of ‘being Okinawan’ will never alter. It is my unique identity,” Tonaki explains. “We, Okinawans, used to have nationality as Ryukyuan, then Japanese, then as a territory of the U.S., then back to Japanese. Our concept of nationality is not set in stone, but ‘being Okinawan’ is.”

The Okinawa to which Yamamoto, Tonaki and the thousands of other international visitors return this week is, at first appearances, very different to the famine and war-ravaged island from which older generations of Okinawans departed. Tourism and Tokyo-backed public works projects have boosted its economy, and many parts of the island, particularly the capital, Naha, resemble mainland Japan.

Scratch a little beneath the surface, however, and Okinawa continues to experience many of the economic and discrimination difficulties that, for decades, drove residents overseas.

Today, Okinawa remains one of the nation’s poorest places. Thirty percent of children, for instance, live in poverty — 80 percent higher than the national average. Many residents, including the governor, also argue that discrimination still festers as Tokyo and Washington impose a disproportionate burden of military bases on the island, their dangers highlighted by environmental damage, a recent spate of military-related crimes and the crash of a U.S. Marine Corps jet last month.

Against the backdrop of these problems, the festival provides an opportunity to focus on the island’s plethora of positive points.

“We hope the festival will show the wonder of Okinawa to everyone who participates — visitors with Okinawan roots, current residents and those with no family connection to Okinawa,” says Mutsuko Kawakami, director general of the festival’s executive committee.

As well as the traditional culture events, there will be opportunities for business networking, youth exchanges and a speech contest in Okinawan.

No festival in Japan would be complete without a mascot: Kasamaru is a shisa guardian dog sporting a globe in its belly and is named after the Kasato Maru, a famous migrant-carrying ship.

Kawakami hopes that visitors to the festival will appreciate the distinct character of Okinawans, a personality that, she says, is best summed up by three sayings: “Ichariba cho-de” (“After meeting once, we will be friends”), “Yuimaru” (“The spirit of cooperation”) and “Chi-mu gukuru” (“The Okinawan soul that respects the ancestors without whom the current generation would not be here today.”)

For more information on the sixth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, visit wuf2016.com/jp. Information is available in Japanese, English, Spanish and Portuguese.