OKINAWA WELCOMES “FROM BENTO TO MIXED PLATE”
by Karleen Chinen
When Hawaii yonsei Lynn Miyashiro and Allison Yanagi unpacked their suitcases and settled into their studies earlier this year in the land where their great-grandparents had once walked, they never expected to be sharing the story of their own lives in Hawaii — from emigrant to educated yonsei — with their Okinawan hosts. But the two young women from Hawaii had a chance to do just that last month when the Japanese American National Museum exhibit, “From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i,” made its international debut at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum.
Some 200 Uchinanchu and Uchinanchu-at-heart from Hawaii and Los Angles gathered at the museum on Nov. 10. About 120 had come on the HUOA’s study tour. Several other groups also made the journey to Okinawa to celebrate the exhibit’s opening. They were joined by an impressive list of Okinawan and American dignitaries that included Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, Lieutenant Governor Mazie Hirono, HUOA president Albert Miyasato, Japanese American National Museum president and executive director Irene Hirano, and George Takei, chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees.
“Bento” was an opportunity for Hawaii Uchinanchu to reconnect with relatives and old friends — and for Uchinanchu-at-heart to discover the essence of the Okinawan saying, “Ichariba chodee — Once we meet, we become brothers and sisters forever.”
The “Bento” exhibit examines how the Issei, Nisei, Sansei and even Yonsei generations have adapted to Hawaii’s various cultural influences — and how each generation has contributed to the evolution of the Japanese American ethnic identity over time. Its debut at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum was timely as OPM had also developed its own exhibition on Okinawan immigration worldwide.
“Looking at the pictures (in “Bento”) and reading about them gave me a sense of nostalgia for Hawaii, even if I’ve been here less than a year,” commented Lynn Miyashiro, currently attending the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts (Geidai) on a prefectural government scholarship. “Seeing the exhibit, especially the panels with the immigration and post-war photos, makes me all the more thankful for what my ancestors did. Taking such a risk to go to a foreign country — not knowing what the outcome will be is a brave thing to do,” said the 28-year-old Miyashiro.
“As I walked through the exhibit, I heard people from Okinawa comment about how amazing the story of immigration to Hawaii is — and they were surprised and moved by how much the immigrants suffered during their lives,” observed Allison Yanagi, 26, a UH-Manoa graduate student in Asian studies currently on an exchange program at the University of the Ryukyus.
“I thought the exhibit was especially important for the Okinawan people because many of them don't seem to be aware of the extent to which people really did suffer and struggle for a better life,” she said. “Also, because Okinawans have a long history of personal struggle themselves, I thought that they could really relate to the immigrant experience, and that connection of struggle made the bonds between Okinawa and Hawaii that much stronger.”
Miyashiro was drawn to a pair of slippers in the exhibit: Bulrush slippers her 88-year-old grandfather, Kosuke Miyashiro, had woven with his own hands at his home on Kauai. “When I saw his slippers on the shelf, I felt excitement and pride that something my grandfather made was part of such an important event,” she said. “As a child I took his slippers for granted, because all my relatives had them in their house for house slippers. Now I look at them as something special, because I know the labor that goes into them and because my grandfather doesn’t make them very often anymore. I look at it as a part of history that should be perpetuated.”
The original “Bento” exhibit debuted at the Bishop Museum in October 1997 and has been shown in Hawaii and on the continental U.S., including the Smithsonian Institution. Limited gallery space and the numerous venues the exhibit is expected to be shown in throughout Japan prompted JANM to redesign “Bento” as nine “modules.” The script was also edited and made bilingual for both Japanese- and English-reading audiences.
In addition, JANM retained Makoto Arakaki to serve as Okinawa project director. Arakaki, who is from Shuri, is completing work on his doctorate in international relations at the University of Tsukuba. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California.
Arakaki said he was glad to see people connect with “Bento” through life experiences — like the story told to him by a woman who had traveled with one of the tour groups. “When she saw the ‘Uchinanchu Hearts’ panel, she found her mother in the photo of the Wailuku war relief. She told me that she used to go to the center to help pack the clothes that were to be sent to Okinawa,” said Arakaki.
And then there’s the story of HUOA president Albert Miyasato’s family. Shiz Miyasato was taking her time, reading each exhibit panel, studying the photos and captions. When she came to the panel titled, “Uchinanchu Hearts,” a photograph of a man holding a piglet caught her eye — he looked so much like her father-in-law Heisho Miyasato.
In 1948 — three years after the devastating Battle of Okinawa — Heisho Miyasato and six other Uchinanchu men had sailed from Oregon to Okinawa with 550 pigs in an effort to provide sustaining nourishment for the people. The piglet in the photo was born during that turbulent voyage. The photo, which was taken by the late Shinyei Shimabukuro — also in the group — had been loaned to the exhibit by his grandson, Young Okinawans of Hawaii president Jon Itomura. Shimabukuro had not captioned the photos, so the identity of the man holding the piglet had remained unknown.
Shiz called over her husband and his sister, Joyce — and all three examined the photo closely, agreeing in the end that the man was indeed their father. “What a wonderful feeling to have seen Papa under such circumstances,” wrote Shiz in the Jikoen Hongwanji newsletter. “We were thrilled beyond words. Just seeing this picture was the highlight of our trip, we three agreed.”
The panel on the post-war relief that Hawaii Uchinanchu provided impacted young and old alike, said Arakaki. “Some kids came up to me and told me that they were moved to know about the post-war relief efforts.”
He said the three ‘Uchinanchu panels’ that were developed for “Bento’s” showing in Okinawa were “essential for local (Okinawa) Uchinanchu to understand what ‘aloha’ means.” “It helped them understand “Bento’s” message via something of their own,” he said.
“I think that the Okinawan panels added to the overall exhibit.” said Allison Yanagi, “Especially for the people here. They still remember the assistance they received from Hawaii after the war, and ties between family members are still strong, even though there may be language barriers and distance separating people,” She was moved by the panel titled, “Uchinanchu Aloha,” which highlighted the “bridge of Uchinanchu Aloha” that has connected the two communities of Okinawans for 100 years now.
The panel features a 1993 photo of former Young Okinawans president and former HUOA vice president Wesley Waniya with his father’s elderly cousin, Eitoku Yamashiro, during Wesley trip to Okinawa on the HUOA Leadership Tour. “Uncle Eitoku” insisted that Wesley stay at his home in Nakagusuku even if only for a few days. Over those few days, he told Wesley many times about how kind his father, Wallace, had been to him while stationed in mainland Japan with the U.S. Air Force immediately after the war. Whenever he had a furlough, Wallace would hitch a ride to Okinawa on a cargo plane to help Eitoku however he could. Uncle Eitoku never forgot that gift of Uchinanchu aloha.
Allison Yanagi said she has had similar experiences with her own relatives in Okinawa.
“From Bento to Mixed Plate” closed quietly a month after a “chickenskin” opening that had warmed hearts and reinforced the bonds of “Uchinanchu Aloha”that have been interwoven like a fragrant lei over the last 100 years.
“The special ties between Hawaii and Okinawa and Japan will never be broken,” Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono had told the opening day crowd. “As island homelands, we share a similar culture, and in that, we share an understanding — an understanding that shared differences only adds to the richness of our cultures, heritage and people. ‘Mixed plate’ is a bridging of nations, a true symbol of peace.”
Helen Asato was thrilled to see a photo of her parents “K.C.” Jiro and Agnes Asato and their family business, KC Drive Inn, in the exhibit.
Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine and HUOA Centennial Committee chair Dexter Teruya in front of an exhibit panel that features a photo of Dexter’s father Wallace and uncle, Albert — founders of Times Supermarket.
Former Young Okinawans president and HUOA vice president Wesley Waniya pictured with his father’s cousin, Eitoku Yamashiro, is featured in the panel titled, “Uchinanchu Aloha.”
You can’t take Hawaii out of them: Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono with Lynn Miyashiro, Alyce Nakama, and Sharon Oshiro - all studying in Okinawa.