Tuu nu yibee yunu take neeran
(One spirit, different parts)
- Okinawan proverb
According to the Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai, the proverb above is interpreted as "Ten fingers are different, but they work together as the hands to do the work." That was the theme of the cultural display at this year's Okinawan Festival, held last weekend at the Maui Mall. Organized by the nonprofit, the festival itself was themed "Celebrating Our Uchinanchu Spirit." Uchinanchu is the Okinawan word for people of Okinawan descent.
My father's parents came to Hawaii from Okinawa and my mother's parents were from Japan, so I'm only half Uchinanchu. But I've always felt more drawn to the Okinawan culture, so much so that my dad used to remark that, even though it was biologically impossible, I somehow ended up with more Okinawan blood than him.
Saturday's event was less about blood than spirit. The hundreds in attendance personified the cultural display's theme of diversity and unity. Whether Uchinanchu by birth or at heart, they enjoyed a day of immersion in Okinawan culture and arts.
The highlight of the cultural display was featured on the front page of Saturday's Maui News: the riveting stories of 10 women who survived World War II in Okinawa. All but one now live on Maui and are active members of the community. These are ladies I see line dancing and singing karaoke at Kaunoa Senior Center, working church bazaars and bon dances, shopping at Ah Fook's or Pukalani Superette. I was moved to tears by their recollections of wartime horrors, both sobering and inspiring.
Equally fascinating and enlightening was the timeline of events from the 13th century Ryukyu Islands, as the country was known, to present-day Okinawa. I was struck by the similarities between Okinawan and Hawaiian political history.
In 1429, Sho Hashi formed the Ryukyu Kingdom by conquest of all three principalities of Okinawa. Nearly 400 years later, Kamehameha I united the Kingdom of Hawaii in the same way. And by the end of the 19th century, both island kingdoms had been deposed by foreign governments.
The Satsuma invasion and takeover in 1609 was the beginning of Japanese control over Okinawa, but the Ryukyu Kingdom wasn't formally dissolved until 1879, when King Sho Tai was forced to abdicate. On March 30 of that year, thousands of Uchinanchu mournfully watched their king leave Shuri Castle for the last time. Sho Tai wrote a poem that has become a credo for the modern-day peace movement in Okinawa:
The time for wars is ending, and the time for peace is not far away. Do not despair. Life itself is a treasure.
Sixteen years later and an ocean away, Queen Lili'uokalani wrote "Ke Aloha O Ka Haku (The Queen's Prayer)" while under house arrest at 'Iolani Palace:
Behold not with malevolence the sins of man, but forgive and cleanse.
And so, o Lord, protect us beneath your wings, and let peace be our portion now and forevermore.
Post-annexation islanders faced similar challenges and heartaches. Japan enforced policies to eradicate the Okinawan language and dispose of Ryukyu culture, in the name of assimilation. 'Olelo Hawai'i, the Hawaiian language, was under similar assault during the same time.
Fortunately, the Okinawans and Hawaiians also share certain traits like quiet perseverance and pride. OK, hardheadedness. We also like to party hard, with lots of singing and dancing. Willie K and I have talked about the Uchinanchu-Kanaka connection many times. His wife, Debbie, has Okinawan blood and, therefore, so do his daughters. But, like me, the younger one apparently got an extra dose of Uchinanchu high-spiritedness. That's what her dad says, anyway, with the same look my father used to give me. Willie and I have an ongoing debate about who's more hardheaded, Okinawans or Kanaks; we're both too stubborn to concede.
Hawaiian pride and Uchinanchu spirit. Both are alive and thriving today, as are the cultures they represent. Who would have thought, even 50 years ago, that we would have Hawaiian immersion schools and Hogen (Okinawan dialect) classes on Maui? Or that a handful of kupuna and young Hawaiian rebels would take on the U.S. Navy and win through peaceful means? Or that a few quiet, unassuming Okinawan grandmothers would deliver such a powerful plea for peace through a simple oral history display?
I'm still feeling the impact of the ladies' words and the Ryukyu history lessons, still celebrating the Uchinanchu spirit in me. And also feeling Hawaiian at heart.
The fingers of our Maui community are of many different colors, but they make up a winning hand, don't you agree?
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.