Born in Athens as the Battle of Okinawa raged, Leon Serafim studied Japanese language at U.S. universities including the University of Hawaiʻi. Linguistic interest in ancestral proto-Japanese language led him “in a merry chain of events” to focus on Ryukyuan language, and a visit to Okinawa on a research fellowship turned a strictly academic pursuit into something much more meaningful.
So it seems fitting that the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa associate professor was named inaugural director of the Center for Okinawan Studies when it opened in July 2008. It is the first center in the United States (indeed, the first outside of Japan) to focus on studies related to the southwestern Japanese islands known as the Ryukyus.
Japanese to the north know Okinawa as a friendly, warm place to vacation or retire. International researchers have noted the healthy diet and remarkable longevity of its residents. To many Americans, it remains primarily a World War II battleground and ongoing (if not uniformly welcome) overseas site for U.S. military bases.
In Hawaiʻi, locals savor andagi, pig’s feet soup, purple sweet potato and Okinawan soba and smile knowingly at comedian Frank De Lima’s stereotypical representation of delicate Japanese versus robust Okinawan physique and culture.
“We find ourselves in the position of being the preeminent non-Japanese center simply by proclaiming ourselves to be a center,” Serafim chuckles.
In reality, strong academic tradition as well as social climate prepared UH to take the lead.
The list of UH dissertations and theses with ties to Okinawa dates to 1946, when James Moran produced “A Critical Bibliography of the Ryukyu Islands and their People.” In 1955, Kiyoshi Ikeda, later a long-time member of the sociology faculty, compared mental illness differences among Okinawan and Naichi (or inner-lands) Japanese in Hawai’i.
Other early papers hinted at the breadth of disciplinary work to come, from Ryukyuan history and traditional narratives to modern international affairs and the lexical pitch patterns among Okinawan speakers.
“The University of Hawaiʻi has become a major center of Ryukyuan research,” the late Professor Robert Sakai declared in 1964. A WWII internee who volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service and earned a PhD from Harvard, Sakai was a historian specializing in the Tokugawa-era domain of Satsuma.
He was recruited by Shunzo Sakamaki, a professor of Japanese history and author of Ryukyu: A Bibliographic Guide to Okinawan Studies. With help from Hawaiʻi’s Okinawan community, Sakamaki secured and augmented the extensive collection compiled by English journalist Frank Hawley for a Hamilton Library collection highly valued because so many historical documents in Okinawa were destroyed during the war.
Other Mānoa Okinawan studies pioneers include
- Mitsugu Sakihara, a native of Okinawa who taught history and compiled the posthumously published dictionary Okinawan-English Wordbook (2006);
- Henry Nakasone, a scientist who surveyed Okinawa’s horticulture industry at the invitation of the government;
- William Lebra, who taught the first anthropology class to focus exclusively on Okinawan culture and published Okinawan Religion: Belief, Ritual and Social Structure in 1966;
- Longtime Leeward Community College colleague Ruth Adaniya, who co-chaired the 1990 Okinawan International Scholars Forum in Honolulu and helped compile its proceedings and edit the booklets “Of Andagi and Sanshin: Okinawan Culture in Hawaiʻi” and “Uchinaa: Okinawan History and Culture”;
- Dance sensei Cheryl Nakasone, who participated in the 1976 Okinawan-focused Summer Session;
- Hiroshi Yamauchi, who coordinated water resources research with University of the Ryukyus colleagues;
- William S. Richardson School of Law’s Spencer Kimura, who organizes tours for Okinawan faculty and law students;
- Honolulu Community College Instructor in Language Arts Charlene Gima, a student of Nakasone’s, who does research on performing arts and personal narratives of war experience. She hopes to develop an introductory Okinawan studies course to complement Mānoa’s upper division offering.
The John A. Burns School of Medicine has conducted postgraduate education in Okinawa since 1967, and UH established a student exchange program with the University of the Ryukyus in 1988.
Graduate student scholarship continues in diverse disciplines, from music and culture to meteorological forecasting and ethnic identity.
The Center for Okinawan Studies builds on this legacy.
“It was first a glimmer in the eyes of Center for Japanese Studies Associate Director Gay Satsuma about 2000,” says Serafim.
Satsuma and Director Robert Huey sought the university’s blessing and legislative funding. They established an ad-hoc steering committee (recruiting Mānoa Professor of American Studies Mari Yoshihara and UH West Oʻahu Professor of Sociology Joyce Chinen) and secured a three-year start-up grant from the Japan Foundation.
UH faculty were polled for work related to Okinawa and an executive committee formed. There are more than two dozen member faculty in fields ranging from conservation biology to social work; Lynette Teruya serves as program coordinator.
The center hosted an international conference in March 2009 to assess the direction of Okinawan studies.
“Wherever there is Asian American studies, you’re starting to see interest in Okinawa,” observes conference co-chair Chinen, both excited and cautious, lest Okinawan studies turn out to be the academic flavor of the month.
Little chance of that in Hawaiʻi, where the center’s to-do list includes
- reprinting the Center for Oral History’s 1982 Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaiʻi (a book launch is plannd Nov. 11, 2009) and planning a second volume on the second generation and post–Pacific War immigrants;
- web-publishing a workbook developed for the Okinawan language and culture course;
- translating a textbook on Okinawan history from Japanese to English;
- supporting research projects, library acquisitions and relationships with University of the Ryukyus scholars and Okinawan communities in South America.
“One of the main things we need to do is develop courses,” says Serafim. First up: an Asian studies course on Okinawa and an anthropology course on its diaspora.
Chinen is particularly interested in the dispersion of Okinawans—an estimated 300,000 emigrants live in Pacific and American communities, compared to the home population of 1.3 million. She developed the West Oʻahu course Okinawans Locally and Globally with a complementary diasporic communities study tour.
Struck by accounts that the first Hawaiʻi-bound group laid over in Yokohama to go see their deposed king in Tokyo, she wonders how loss of kingdom affected their emigration experience.
Okinawa History Highlights
605 First mention of Ryukyu appears in the annals of Chinese history
1372 First tribute paid to China’s Ming emperor
1429 Shō Hashi unifies three principalities to establish the Kingdom of Ryukyu
1477 Shō Shin becomes third king of the second Shō dynasty, ushering in the kingdom’s golden age
1609 Kyushu’s Satsuma clan conquers Ryukyu, the king becomes a Japanese vassal
1711 A dictionary of Ryukyuan language is compiled
1844 A British Christian missionary arrives and establishes a hospital
1853 U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry calls at Naha
1879 Japan annexes Ryukyu as Okinawa Prefecture; as arbitrator, former U.S. President Grant, rejects China’s protest
1900 First Okinawans arrive in Hawaiʻi; 25,000 eventually immigrate
1919 Okinawans vote in national election for first time
1922 Japanese Ministry of Education invites the Okinawan “father of modern karate” to demonstrate his art in Tokyo
1945 U.S. forces invade; as many as one in three civilians dies of fighting or fear-induced suicide
1950 The University of the Ryukyus is established
1972 U.S. returns control of Okinawa to Japan
1995 Ryukyu Independence Movement protests reversal of decision to remove U.S. troops
2000 Okinawa hosts the G-8 summit
2009 U.S.–Japan pact reaffirms commitment to relocate 8,000 U.S. Marines on Okinawa to Guam
“The parallels between Okinawa and Hawaiʻi are incredible,” Chinen says. Both saw chiefdoms consolidated into a kingdom that was later overthrown. Both have known a kind of colonization and experienced military law and occupation. Both are celebrating a resurgence of culture and language.
Linguist Serafim also looks to South America, where pockets of Okinawan speakers might serve as a sort of Noah’s Ark for preservation of the language.
Historians are interested in Okinawa’s ties to China and trade with southeast Asia, he adds, and political scientists, in the complex relationship between Okinawa, Japan and the United States.
Research requires support, and the center is grateful to find it in Hawaiʻi’s Okinawan community.
In the spirit of moai, the Okinawan custom of a mutual assistance network, the Worldwide Uchinanchu Business Association in Hawaiʻi created an endowment fund for center activities.
Serafim credits senior advisors, WUB founder Robert Nakasone and former UH Regent Edward Kuba, with fostering the town-gown relationship. WUB President Lloyd Arakaki serves as fundraising coordinator for the center.
This year, the center plans to publish a website, continue research efforts and hold monthly seminars on academic course development, says Professor of Japanese Kyoko Hijirida, director for year two.
Born in northern Okinawa to bilingual parents but prohibited from speaking Okinawan in school, Hijirida attended Indiana University on a U.S. scholarship program and earned her MA and EdD from UH Mānoa.
Affiliated with UH language and education faculties since 1970, she has taught an Okinawan language and culture course since 2004. She touches on oral histories, songs, foods, games and traditional proverbs. (A favorite is Ichariba choodee, literally “Once we make an encounter, we can become like brothers and sisters,” which reflects Okinawans’ friendly, welcoming nature.)
Hijirida plans to incorporate Okinawan American writing by authors such as Maui-born Jon Shirota. His play, Voices from Okinawa, is being performed by Kumu Kahua Theater Nov. 5–Dec. 6, 2009. He will speak at UH West Oʻahu at 5 p.m. Nov. 9.
Published on the 400th anniversary of Japan’s seizure of the Ryukyu kingdom, it constitutes the first collection of Okinawan American literature.
Mānoa Editor Frank Stewart says the idea came from co-editor and former UH classmate Katsunori Yamazato, who is director of the University of the Ryukyus American Studies Center.
Yamazato is eager to uncover more writing by the descendents of Okinawans who came to America,” says Stewart. “He wants to make the world more aware of the complex cultural identity of Okinawans.”
Which, after all, is also a goal of UH’s Center for Okinawan Studies.