Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan, is probably best known for its unfortunate role in hosting the Battle of Okinawa during World War II and for the US military presence occupying the chain of islands ever since. The poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Okinawa relies heavily on its tourism industry. With pristine beaches and world-class scuba diving, Okinawa is a popular vacation/wedding/honeymoon destination for mainland Japanese.
When Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima visited New York on June 4, his purpose was not to discuss his prefecture’s decades-long issue with the US military or the recent decision to continue with plans to relocate Futenma Marine Corps base to Henoko, Okinawa, instead of moving it off Okinawa altogether. Instead, he was here to stump for the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, held on Okinawa’s main island every five years. It’s a celebration of Okinawa’s rich history and culture, which was heavily influenced by China, dating back to the days when Okinawa -then known as the Ryukyu Kingdom – had a robust trade relationship with the Chinese.
During his stay in New York, Governor Nakaima, who was re-elected to a second term in November 2010, attended a meeting of the Okinawa American Association of New York (OAANY). The non-profit organization is comprised of native Okinawans and people of Okinawan descent living in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
At the meeting, Governor Nakaima personally shook the hands of each person in attendance (roughly fifty in all), and his delegation, casually attired in traditional Okinawan Kariyushi shirts, appealed to OAANY members to join fellow Okinawans from around the world and visit their ancestral homeland this October for five days of ceremonies, parades, tours of the island, educational outreach, and camaraderie. A promotional video from the most recent festival, in 2006, showed the wide range of activities that the homecoming offers. Traditional eisa and dance performances, karate demonstrations, and the chance to meet and mingle with Okinawans from other countries are a few of the highlights.
But the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival isn’t simply about parades and dancing. Festival attendees have the sobering opportunity to visit World War II battle sites and other historic landmarks such as the World Peace Park in Itoman. Exhibits trace the history of the Okinawan diaspora, which stretches worldwide, especially in North and South America.
The governor’s associates also treated the OAANY members to a live performance. Led by Daiichi Hirata, Director General of the Department of Culture, Tourism and Sports, the delegation gave a rousing rendition of a traditional Okinawan eisa dance.
OAANY members joined president Teiko Yonaha Tursi for a couple of numbers of their own, accompanied by sanshin and taiko drums, for their distinguished guests.
The evening ended with Sonoko Niswander, OAANY treasurer, presenting Governor Nakaima with a check for ¥1,274,086 (almost $16,000). In response to the disastrous events of March 11, OAANY held three fundraisers, and the donations collected are earmarked to help Fukushima evacuees who relocated to Okinawa.
There was no talk of military bases, but there was plenty of Uchinanchu spirit and goodwill to go around.
To learn more about the OAANY, go to http://www.oaany.org/.
For more information about the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, go to www.wuf5th.com.