Okinawa—The culture that has spread around the globe

Okinawa—The culture that has spread around the globe

[INTERVIEW]

Mr. Takeshi Onaga
Governor of Okinawa

JAPAN and the WORLD sat down with Mr. Takeshi Onaga, the Governor of Okinawa to find out more about Uchina community.


—The 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival will take place in October 2016. What is the meaning of the festival, and what are its objectives?

More people have emigrated from Okinawa than from any other area of Japan. The Uchinanchu, as the people of Okinawa are known, set out to build new lives overseas before and after World War II, working hard for more than a century to earn a place in their adopted countries while passing on Okinawan tradition and culture as they established unique Uchina communities. Currently, there are around 400,000 people of Okinawan descent living abroad, including the descendants of the emigrant generation. Brazil has the largest number of Uchinanchu at 187,000, followed by the United States at 97,000, and Peru at 70,000.

The first Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival in 1990 celebrated these adventurous Okinawans who dedicated themselves to winning acceptance in different countries, building networks, and passing down their valuable culture to the next generation. Held once every five years, 2016 marks the 6th World Uchinanchu Festival.

The objective of the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival 2016 is to see the continuous passing down and development of the Uchinanchu Network, to promote Okinawan soft power both in Japan and abroad, and use our island’s charms and possibilities to open up a path to the future.

The objective of the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival 2016 is to see the continuous passing down and development of the Uchinanchu Network, to promote Okinawan soft power both in Japan and abroad, and use our island’s charms and possibilities to open up a path to the future.

—Why is this festival important for the Uchinanchu and their descendants?

I know that travelling abroad more than a hundred years ago was a challenge. They sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope on their way to South America, an ocean journey that took two to three months. When they arrived at their destination, they faced the enormous task to realize the dream of economic success. Building a life in a place where the weather, climate, culture, and customs were so different from what they had known in Okinawa meant physical labor and perseverance. On top of this, they also faced discrimination due to the anti-Japanese movement that followed the previous war.

For the first generation emigrants, participating in the Uchinanchu festival, and thus returning back to Okinawa, signifies not only the opportunity to reunite with their relatives, but also the chance to admire the efforts and achievements of fellow Uchinanchu, and it simultaneously serves as an important place to socialize with and communicate their valuable experiences to many Okinawans.

The first Uchinanchu emigrants’ strong desire to return to Okinawa has been passed down along with Okinawan culture to the second, third, and future generations. For the generations born in the countries their ancestors adopted, visiting Okinawa and participating in this festival are extremely important opportunities to refresh and strengthen their roots and identity.

Participants interacting with local Okinawans at the Festival Eve Parade. / Credits: The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival Executive Committee.
Participants interacting with local Okinawans at the Festival Eve Parade. / Credits: The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival Executive Committee.

—How are preparations for the festival going?

To ensure a successful 6th World Uchinanchu Festival, we established an Executive Committee in June 2015 with more than 140 members from the local administration, mass media and economic, tourism and international exchange organizations in Okinawa.

We dispatched missions to five cities in four South American countries in February 2016, and four cities in two North American countries in May 2016 to hold meetings and invite Uchinanchu to participate in the festival.

The last festival had the highest number to date of participants from abroad with more than 5,300 Uchinanchu from 24 countries and 3 regions. We expect to have a similar number of participants at this year’s festival.

The last festival had the highest number to date of participants from abroad with more than 5,300 Uchinanchu from 24 countries and 3 regions. We expect to have a similar number of participants at this year’s festival.

—Can you tell us what Okinawan’s unique culture, customs and traditions are?

Okinawa Prefecture is surrounded by the sea, and it is made up of 160 islands of various sizes. Blessed with blue skies and seas, it is also widely known as the subtropical “Island of Coral Reefs.”

Back when Okinawa still formed the Ryukyu Kingdom, our ancestors sailed out to sea in order to strengthen their bond with other Asian countries. They created the so-called Era of Trade, importing admirable culture from foreign countries while valuing their own ties with China and Mainland Japan, and built up their own unique culture.

There are many traditional arts in Okinawa that were created in the Ryukyu Kingdom and passed on until today, such as Kumiodori, which was performed to entertain accredited Chinese envoys during the Ryukyu dynasty and is even a certified UNESCO Intangible Heritage, and the Ryukyuan dance, where the dancers wear vibrant costumes that use motifs such as flowers, birds, waves, and clouds, and the Ryukyuan classical music, a musical style performed using traditional Okinawan instruments such as the Sanshin.

Additionally, the Ryukyu Dynasty saw the creation of many aspects of current Okinawan culture. Some examples include the traditional fabrics characterized by their bright colors and use of Kasuri and Bingata dyeing methods, which are worn by Kumiodori and the Ryukyuan dancers, as well as the traditional cuisine that is served year-round on special occasions, and the traditional lacquer-ware that is used to serve the Ryukyuan cuisine. The lacquer-ware is made using various craft techniques, including Chinkin, Raden, and Tsuikin.

Apart from that, Okinawa has produced unique culture that has spread to the world as well as folk art that has been passed down and preserved within the community. Karate, which is now well-known and practiced around the world, originated in Okinawa as Ti, a martial art for the warrior class during the Ryukyu Dynasty. Eisa, a dance accompanied by music and performed by youths when they send their ancestors’ spirits that were visiting the present world back to the heavens during Bon festival, is another example of Okinawan culture.

The Grand Finale of the previous festival. / Credits: The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival Executive Committee.
The Grand Finale of the previous festival. / Credits: The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival Executive Committee.

—In Latin America, festivals have been held each year to highlight Japanese culture. These include such events as the Festival do Japão and Bon Festival in Brazil, and Matsuri AELU in Peru. Do you have any plans to promote mutual understanding and cultural bonds between Japan and other countries in Central and South America after the 2nd Afro-Latino Festival held in Okinawa?

The Afro-Latino Festival in Okinawa has attracted Latin music lovers with beach parties, live music, and workshops.

Okinawa Prefecture strives to develop as “an island of exchange and harmonious coexistence which is open to the world.” Thus, we welcome events that promote the understanding of different cultures to be organized by the private sector as well. Because Okinawa is one of the few prefectures that sends out the most immigrants, we host the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival once every five years. Due to this relationship with Okinawans from abroad, many South American ambassadors to Japan visit Okinawa during their term in Japan.

Okinawa is working towards maintaining their good relationship with South America, and strengthening the mutual understanding between Okinawa and South America by attending Okinawan community events that take place all over the world. In South America alone, the governor has visited several of Okinawa’s sister cities including South Matto Grosso in Brazil and Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

Additionally, Okinawa Prefecture certifies people of Okinawan descent that have been recommended by Okinawan Communities from all over the world, as “Uchina Goodwill Ambassadors” and works to promote the Okinawan culture.

Furthermore, Okinawa Prefecture encourages cultural exchange in the younger generation by inviting the children of Okinawan people living abroad to Okinawa and by dispatching adolescents in Okinawa to foreign countries. We would like to continue these efforts in the future as well.

—The JICA Okinawa International Cooperation and Exchange Festival at the Okinawa International Center in Urasoe City on November 7th and 8th, 2015 highlighted Latin American culture. How did visitors respond? Why do you think it is important to bring Latin American culture to Okinawa?

The Okinawa International Cooperation and Exchange Festival organized by the JICA Okinawa International Center each year is co-hosted by Okinawa Prefecture.

About 30 organizations have booths. Two of these feature Latin American culture. One is an exhibition put on by the Okinawa Fraternal Association of Peru, and the other is an exhibition put on by the St. Vincent Branch, Naha City International Exchange Association.

The festival in 2015 attracted more than 4,000 visitors. Many of them stated that the festival increased their interest about the world, international exchange, and volunteer work. I am confident that the festival helps to promote the understanding and participation of residents in Okinawa in international cooperation and exchange.


Related posts

Leave a Reply

The store is currently undergoing maintenance — no orders shall be fulfilled. Dismiss