Uchinanchuu: The Okinawan Festival + OKP

Here on OKP, we occasionally discuss our namesake and Okinawan background, (most recently with a guest post from Hoshi highlighting a recipe for Haupia Beni Imo Pie), but the past few days have been an impetus for a much bigger post.

Every Labor Day weekend, the Hawaii United Okinawan Association hosts their annual Okinawan Festival in Honolulu. This year was their 33rd year of celebrating uchinanchu (native Okinawan) culture with food, exhibitions, dance, and other performances. It also marks the first time OKP has had a chance to discuss the festival and what it means to us (well, me).


Up until about high school, the only thing I associated with my Okinawan heritage was people poking fun at the fact that I had visibly thicker arm hair than most. I still don’t know what’s up with this association, but it probably has something to do with Othering indigenous Okinawans from mainland Japanese genetics. I got used to hiding my arms and legs. I let myself be drawn to the more easily accessible Japanese culture that belonged to so many of my other peers.

Part of this lay in the fact that I didn’t even know what Okinawan culture entailed. I ate certain foods, but I think that was par for the course. It wasn’t like the dolls my family put out for Girls’ Day, the koinobori carp flags Dad let fly from the roof for Boys’ Day, or the ozoni we ate for New Year’s, among so many other little Japanese traditions that were made so commonplace in my life.

L: Hina Matsuri or Girls' Day dolls and R: Koinobori, carp flags, flown for Children's Day (previously Boy's Day).
L: Hina Matsuri or Girls’ Day dolls and
R: Koinobori, carp flags, flown for Children’s Day (previously Boy’s Day).

In high school, however, everything changed when a group of my friends, including Chebk, volunteered to host exchange students from Okinawa for a few weeks. I befriended some of the students in this time and, the following year, I went on a return exchange trip to Okinawa where I was hosted by a family for two weeks and toured the island with the rest of the Hawaii group. Chebk also went and, though I’m not sure we technically bonded, she did help me carry things and turned up in enough of my pictures to make it look OKP would one day be a thing.

I have only begun attending the Okinawan Festival regularly for the past few years. I am always struck by how joyous everyone is to be sharing and celebrating the uchinanchu culture, in such contrast to all the years I spent ashamed of my hairy arms as my only link to Okinawa. There are always culture tents set up with booths to help people trace their genealogy, learn the Okinawan language, uchinaguchi, (which is very different from Japanese), and understand more about Okinawan dance, emigration to Hawaii, and their history with Japan and WWII.

The highlight is always the bon dance, the last of the season on Oahu, which takes place on the grass, accompanied by live musicians, taiko drummers, and the occasional shisa lion dance.

Pics by Cheri.L: Look how crowded it was!R: Bon dance at night.
Pics by Cheri.
L: Look how crowded it was!
R: Bon dance at night.

From the start, Chebk and I wanted our blog name to reflect our shared Okinawan heritage. It was something that set us apart and bonded us together, but also something I was personally still trying to explore and figure out, which I felt tied in really well to our focus on media representation. I grew up without much to model my Okinawan background on, whether at home or in any kind of media. While there is some overlap with Japanese culture — (Okinawa was a vassal state in the 1600s and formally annexed by the Japanese in the 1800s) — there is something about being able to know and interact with a tangible culture.

The Okinawan Festival has filled that role for me and, as the crowds there get bigger each year, I hope it fills that role for a lot more local children, Okinawan or not. I can’t say I knew what I was missing in my childhood. My parents worked weird hours so the festival wasn’t really a reliable option. But being at the festival now feels like a reconnection.

Whether people attend the festival to appreciate and learn about a new culture or to celebrate their traditions and history, the chance for these things to happen at altogether is very wonderful and I am very appreciative. There are all these cultures and traditions that exist that get pushed to the side (the visibility of my Japanese heritage over any Okinawan traditions in my home) or put into simplified stereotypes (hairy arms; I will never get over this). Mainstream culture gets put on repeat and we appreciate them in different ways, incorporating them into so many other facets of our lives.

I hope one day I can incorporate my Okinawan background into my writing as a reflection for myself and others. I don’t know whether I will be able to capture the weight of history behind the shiisa lions, the influence and balance of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture on uchinaa culture, or even the unforgettable taste of goya bittermelon. But dancing on a humid night with Chebk, Hoshi, and a crazy amount of people who came to celebrate Okinawan culture, definitely makes me want to try.

Cheri & Chebk at the Okinawan Festival.
Cheri & Chebk at the Okinawan Festival 2015.

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