On Growing Up Okinawan-Japanese

Months into our blog later, Cheri and I talked it over and have belatedly decided to finally explain our blog name to our viewers. OkPotato stands for Okinawan Potato which is that purple potato that we have posted everywhere. Cheri and I are both half Okinawan and half Japanese and live in Hawaii where culture plays a big part in everyone’s life; it’s how we know who we are and how other people perceive us so it is a point of pride for us to claim that we have two very rich heritages to draw from.


In Hawaii, we are very close to our cultural roots. We are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants who were brought to Hawaii to harvest the many sugar plantations on the islands. Within the plantation, often those of the same country were grouped together in housing and in work groups, but eventually the workers found a way to co-exist (or just exist) in the mixing pot that is our isolated islands.

I grew up immersed in the cultures of Okinawa and Japan (often perceived as being the same place, but I was raised with the definitive knowledge that these places are not the same; more on this later). The foods I ate were mainly Japanese because of my mother. Every year, there were village picnics for those who came from Okinawa where such gatherings are very important. We celebrated important birthdays according to the Japanese and Okinawan traditions. We also had spiritual celebrations, though no one believes in them explicitly, it’s more of a cultural event that was adhered to out of respect for our elders. Even the rules that we learned were influenced by traditional values and what our parents had thought.

okinawan dancers

Recently I’ve been revisiting the history of Okinawa, or the Ryukyu Kingdom, and in the process I’ve been running across a lot of information about Japan. Reading about their history, I felt betrayed.

A brief history of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s relationship with Japan: bad. Japan took over the Ryukyu Kingdom’s northernmost islands and deposed their King, then left them alone for awhile, then took them over again and told them that they needed to keep up their tribute state status with China to give Japan access to information and resources that their enemies (China), would not give to them. After letting this go on awhile, Japan then completely took over Okinawa and worked quickly and forcefully to erase their culture while engaging in a war that killed thousands and thousands of civilians. So, the story is similar to Japan’s narrative with a lot of Asian countries, but Okinawa was allowed to exist as their own kingdom for Japan’s benefit.

I rethought all those traditions that I thought were Okinawan and, with this new knowledge, was able to see the heavy influence that Japan had over the native culture. The pride that I had in being Japanese was tainted. And for some reason, the feeling of nationalistic pride at being Okinawan grew.


The feeling of betrayal was a sudden. I knew that Japan hadn’t been the best of neighbors, but I had somehow put the entire country on a pedestal because of the way that I had experienced it all my life. Again, in Hawaii where I grew up, I was part of the majority in that most of the people I was around, (went to school with, grew up with) were Asian and more commonly, at least part Japanese. The early history of Japan that I had learned was one that was definitely written by the victor.

But I was forced to face the bad side of a country that I had glorified because of the direct way it had violated another country I consider my own.

ryukyu kingdom
Ryukyu Kingdom

I thought about the anger that I felt against the Japanese and was confronted with the fact that a lot of Asian countries felt this way towards Japan. This was a startling revelation and made me gravitate closer to the culture that I saw as more passive. But as I kept reading about Okinawa, I learned that even they were not perfect. Their native culture was one of female shamans and villages and scholar-leaders, but with the influence of the philosophies of surrounding dominant cultures, they became much more patriarchal and the ruling system was established, with many peasants bearing the brunt of the failures from the decisions of a few. The native traditions and cultural values were wiped off the map. The people were forced to conform their language, stop many cultural practices, and local celebrations were eliminated.

With this new lens of learning, I have been able to see that neither of the cultures I come from are perfect, but I’ve come to appreciate all that I learn about where I’m from and feel that I now have a better understanding of where my family values and traditions come from, which is important to me.

smiling gma

So my conclusion is, there will be another post about what I learned about Ryukyu Kingdom and what I learned about their indigenous culture, but I learned a lot about myself and how biased I am when doing something that is supposed to be unbiased – like learning facts from history, and how history is truly written by the victors, and that it is important, in this new age of globalization, to view historical events in the scope of the world, not just focused in on what you want to see.


3 thoughts on “On Growing Up Okinawan-Japanese

  1. The Japanese dictatorship during World War II and the present-day government of Japan are two different political entities that have nothing to do with each other.

    The educational system in America keeps on focusing on WWII Japan without mentioning the fact that Japan has long since evolved into a democracy and that the Japanese are now allies with the U.S.

    A few of the Asian countries Imperial Japan invaded during WWII tend to bring up Japan’s dark history. The most notable is the government of communist China, which tends to bring up the Rape of Nanking a lot. The Japanese of course should be ashamed of this history, but then again if the lives of the mainland Chinese population was so important to the communist Chinese government then why did they starve to death several million Chinese peasants during the Great Leap Forward, and kill off Chinese students during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989? Japan has it’s problems, but then again countries like communist China are hypocritical and doesn’t have a current government that respects human rights.

    My deceased Okinawan mom grew up in Japan during the WWII era. Again, you have to understand that the government of Japan during the second world war was a dictatorship. The wrong people came into power in Japan and the Japanese people had no choice but to obey. My mom understood this and held no grudges against the people of mainland Japan.

    The rest of Asia would still hate the Japanese even if Imperial Japan did not invade them during WWII, because Asians of different ethnic groups have a long history of hating each other. Sad, but true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those are some great points and thank you for writing them all out. My Okinawan family had all come to terms with it as far as I could tell too and when I went to visit Okinawa, everyone said they were Japanese and didn’t understand the concept of being Okinawan vs. being Japanese.

    It is true that a lot of things are brought up that aren’t necessarily all true, but we have to understand that in the scope of history, a lot of bad happened and that’s just how it was. Great information and thank you again!



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