Voices from Okinawa: Featuring Three Plays by Jon Shirota

Summer 2009 (vol. 21, no. 1) • 224 pages, illustrated
Edited by Frank Stewart and Katsunori Yamazato


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from History and Okinawans by Mitsugu Sakihara

Located geographically in the periphery of the Japanese sphere, Okinawa has been in and out of the Japanese state throughout its history. As the long history of the Okinawa-Japan relationship is scanned, there seems to be a certain pattern. Okinawa may be likened to an offshore reef, which would be submerged and lose its own separate identity in high tide, but which would, in low tide, appear above water to form an independent entity. Whenever the central government in Japan was firm and strong, its influence would be extended to remote border regions, and Okinawa would be included within its borders. However, when that authority was on the wane, Japan’s sphere of political influence would shrink, and the peripheral areas of the Japanese archipelago, such as Okinawa, would become autonomous and independent.

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from An Okinawan Nisei in Hawaii by Philip K. Ige

“Mr. Yuen, I can talk to you?”

He took his cigarette out of his mouth. “Sure,” he said, looking at me with a smile. His forehead was wet with sweat.

“You think my father Japanese?” I said, suddenly feeling foolish for asking because the answer seemed so obvious. I thought he might laugh at me for asking such a stupid question, but he didn’t, and his answer surprised me.

“No. Your papa not Japanee. Him Okinawa. Japanee and Okinawa different,” he said. “Long time before, Okinawa no belong to Japan. Okinawa had king. King boss of Okinawa. Okinawa not called Okinawa long time before. Chinese call Okinawa Loo Choo. Chinese and Okinawa good friends for long time. They make business. Some Chinese stay in Okinawa, near castle town where king stay. And some Okinawan people stay in China.”

“Yeah? This true?” I said, amazed and delighted.

“Yeah. All this true,” he said. “Okinawa and China friends for long, long time. Maybe your papa get little bit Chinese blood. Him no more hair. Just like Chinese. Just like me. How come you get plenty hair?” he said, taking hold of my arm, rubbing it, and gently pulling the hair on it. “I think so your papa Chinese and you Okinawan,” he said, laughing and letting go of my arm.

A wooden toy boat with a flag made of chiyogami (handmade, printed Japanese paper). Woodblock print by Ozaki Seiji.

In honor of the publication of this landmark volume, we have created the blog Voices of Okinawa Online.

VOICES FROM OKINAWA features through literature the rich and remarkable culture of Japan’s southernmost islands. In this landmark publication—the first literary anthology showcasing Okinawan Americans—Okinawan voices are heard in plays, essays, and interviews. Through the beauty, humor, and heartbreak in Jon Shirota’s award-winning plays, readers will discover the exuberance and excellence of Okinawan American literature. And in personal essays and interviews, the compelling life stories are told of June Hiroko Arakawa, Philip K. Ige, Mitsugu Sakihara, and Seiyei Wakukawa. The distinctive cultural perspectives and literary excellence of VOICES FROM OKINAWA show that American literature is more inclusive, complex, and multilayered than we have imagined.

Guest editor Katsunori Yamazato is professor of American literature and culture at the University of the Ryukyus. He is also director of the American Studies Center of the University of the Ryukyus and director of the Pacific and North/South American Research Project “Human Migration and the Twenty-first Century Global Society.”

Artist Ozaki Seiji created the woodblock prints in this volume. The prints depict Okinawan dolls and toys and are reproduced from his book Ryukyu gangu zufu (Kasahara Shoni Hoken Kenkyujo, 1936), which is in the Sakamaki / Hawley Collection. Housed in Hamilton Library, of the University of Hawai‘i, this collection of Ryukyu/Okinawa materials contains numerous one-of-a kind items.

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from Grandfather to Grandson: Perspectives on a Life by Seiyei Wakukawa

I don't recall the Great Depression having changed my everyday life substantially. To begin with, I came from a poor immigrant family. Even before the Depression, the life my kind of people led was near the poverty line.

As for our own household, there were four of us boys living with our mother in a little three-bedroom cottage in the Japanese section of Honolulu. Our cottage was overcrowded with many uninvited guests. At one time there were more than twelve people living in a building with no more than five hundred square feet of floor space. Besides the five members of our family, there were old friends who had recently moved to Honolulu from neighboring islands and who deposited themselves with the understanding that this was to be a temporary arrangement until they found jobs. But jobs were not to be found. Moreover, those who found jobs would not move out for fear that they would lose their jobs at any time.

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from The Gift: An Interview with June Hiroko Arakawa by Kinuko Maehara Yamazato

For Hawai‘i, the war began on December 7, but in Japan, where I was now in school, the attack was on December 8, Monday. Our radio was broken, so I did not hear the news until I went to class that morning. My schoolmates at Ozuma Girls High School told me that war had erupted in the Pacific. Using the loudspeaker, the principal told us to assemble in the auditorium. She then read the proclamation by the Emperor, which told us of the war with Britain and America. When I heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, I was really worried about my family, who lived in Honolulu, not too far away. I thought the whole of Oahu was devastated. I couldn’t help the tears that rolled down my cheeks. All my classmates were happy to hear of the tremendous victory, and joyful shouts rang out among them. I was the only one crying. I think it was difficult for my classmates to understand my mixed feelings. It was especially difficult for my two siblings and me to live away from our parents in a foreign country under these circumstances.

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from Lucky Come Hawaii by Jon Shirota

Mensooree. Irasshai. Hele mai. Hele mai. Welcome. Welcome. Very glad you understand Okinawan-Japanese- Hawaiian-English. I come from Okinawa many years ago. Never go back, not once. Now, I go back. [Shows passport.] See. Passport. [Beat.] Oh, no, no. Not moving back; just visiting. Want to pay respect to anniversary of Grandfather’s death. Ah, Grandfather. Great thinker. Just before I come Hawaii, you know what he say to me? “Always remember, Gensuke…” That me, Ishi Gensuke. [Waves to audience.] Ha-ro… “Whenever meeting stranger,” Grandfather say to me, “find out right away if Okinawan or not Okinawan.” Very good advice. But Grandfather, he don’t know, sometimes don’t have to ask if Okinawan or not Okinawan. Especially if stranger have blue eyes and red hair. Yes. I come Hawaii many years ago. So many memories. Some sad, some happy; some want to forget, some want to remember; some, even if want to forget, will always remember.

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