My parents were immigrants from Okinawa and led a hard life working in the sugar and pineapple plantations until they struck out on their own to become truck farmers. The latter was independence from the hard-driving plantation supervisors known in Hawaii as “lunas” but it did not guarantee a salary. So for many years they dreamed about going back for a visit to their homeland but stymied by poverty and a large family to support. Then World War II made it impossible to even contact the few relatives who had remained there.
Until WWII, Okinawa was an obscure island province of Japan, and few people had heard about it nor could place it on a map. Okinawa had once been an island kingdom and had their own culture and dialect different from the mainland Japanese, and often treated as second class citizens much as the native Hawaiians and American Indians have been. But the War made its strategic location very important to the United States and troops station there helped modernize it and become famous for karate and the longevity of its people.
After fifty years my parents were finally able to go for a visit. Their homeland had suffered severe destruction that left the relatives destitute, but eventually when the economy changed in Japan’s favor, Okinawa towns were modernized and my parents were awed by the tremendous changes to their home villages.
They were able to reassume contact with the few relatives who had survived the War, especially my mother’s sister and her family. They visited them often, as did some of my siblings, and I being a curious person and aware of my ancestry, desired to visit as well, but raising a family in faraway California and the high yen-dollar ration made it practically an impossible dream. Moreover, I could not find any agency other than those in Hawaii that led tours there and nearly gave up going for a visit. However, in November we had opportunity to go and figuratively ‘broke the bank’ to go with a stop over in Hawaii to visit my siblings.
Upon arriving in Naha, the capital city bustling with shops and modern buildings replacing those destroyed during the War, we began our hectic tour of eight days after a stay at a hotel as upscale as any five star’s in the U.S.
Our hotel room had amenities not found in American hotels we’d experienced , providing us with toothbrushes and tooth paste, razors,and hair brushes, as well as nightwear they call yukatas.
Each morning we enjoyed Japanese and American foods available at the buffet tables loaded with many choices; it was not a place for anyone on a diet! I loved being able to eat rice and miso soup,cooked vegetables and vegetable salads and grilled fish and pickles along with o.j. and coffee, while my husband stuck with familiar western foods.
Okinawa is a narrow island of three main sections and easily toured in a few days. The first journey took us to the southern section where much of the fierce Battle of Okinawa had taken place. There we saw caves where natives had hidden during the bombardments and several thousands had jumped into the sea rather than being captured, and some firebombed because they would not come out. There are monuments on Mabuni Hill to commemorate that ugly history and strands of origami cranes hung from them.
In the northern section we enjoyed touring their aquarium touted to be the second largest in the world. They have a whale shark and marine animals only found in the region of the Okinawan and Philipping Trenches. It is aptly named “Churaumi” or beautiful sea. After there, we went to the Orion beer brewery that is perhaps comparable to Sierra Nevada on a larger scale.
At the middle and central section where my parents were born and spent their childhood, we visited Shuri Castle, once the seat of government and home to their kings. It is as grand as any castle we’ve visited in Europe albeit smaller than most. One has to take off his/her shoes to walk thru the hallways and look at their exhibits of the former kingdom. Alas, we did not get to see their home villages that they said had radically changed owing to the War and the passage of time.
After visiting the main island, we flew to the offshore island of Ishigaki and then to Iriyama where the lifestyle is the “old Okinawa.” The natives appeared to enjoy an easy lifestyle and tourists can ride a water buffalo taxi on land as well as ferried thru a lagoon by the hard working animals. The guides sang native songs accompanying themselves on the samisen, a three stringed instrument perhaps comparable to the banjo. The weather in late November was tropical and beaches sandy altho not like Hawaii’s.
Back to Okinawa after two days in the smaller islands, we stayed at the same hotel as the first two days and luckily got to meet my maternal first cousin and his family of ten members for the first time! My mother had often spoken of them and it was a thrill to finally be in contact with relatives in a faraway land. One of his daughters had studied at the University of Massachusetts and translated for us, and although the language barrier made it difficult to converse much, I can state the cousins look as westernized as we. Perhaps some of his grandchildren will come to the U.S. to study.
We left Okinawa with full hearts that made the long and expensive trip a splendid experience. Anyone who desires to visit his/her ancestral homeland should be as lucky.