Okinawa Study Tour Harkens Appreciation of Those Who Came Before Us

by John Wesley Nakao

Editor’s Note: Many HUOA members have traveled to Okinawa on the organization’s annual study; others haven’t yet made the journey. John Nakao, an Uchinanchu-at-Heart, wrote the following travelogue after returning from last year’s study tour and shared it with Uchinanchu. We thought you would enjoy reading his reflective memoirs of his trip to Okinawa.

There are great advantages to visiting a foreign country by joining a study tour, as we discovered during our visit to Okinawa last November. In my youth, I had worked in Okinawa as a potter for one of my three years in Japan. Still, our 10-day study tour gave me a much broader scope of the island’s culture and history than I had gotten while working there. Most importantly, the people we met — World War II veterans who had served in Okinawa and Europe, the relatives of those who had immigrated to Hawaii, and the friendly Okinawan people — added great personal insight and perspective on the history of the Issei and Nisei in Hawaii.

Japan’s high cost of living makes organized tours like our Hawaii United Okinawa Association Study Tour, organized by N & K Travel, the best and most economical way to travel. When I lived in Japan from 1973 to 1976, the exchange rate was 360 yen to one dollar. Today, the dollar has fallen in value to 110 yen. Save money, get value and peace of mind by taking a tour, especially if you do not speak the language or are a senior citizen. You’ll know what costs are in advance and you won’t have to worry about ordering, or the cost of your next meal or hotel. You’ll travel more informatively and stay in better places for less than you would traveling independently.

An Immigration Centennial

One hundred years after the first immigrants from Okinawa arrived in Hawaii to begin a new life as laborers at Ewa Plantation, our Hawaii group of 120 — mostly of Okinawan descent — boarded a flight to Okinawa to celebrate this centennial milestone. The purpose of this study tour was three-fold: to explore the heritage, immigrant history and cultural roots of Okinawans in Hawaii; to support the international debut of the Japanese American National Museum’s “From Bento to Mixed Plate” exhibit, which in excellent fashion chronicles the immigration of the Japanese and Okinawans to Hawaii; and finally, to meet my wife’s relatives for the first time.

On Nov. 3, Culture Day in Japan, our group was welcomed by Mayor Katsuhiro Yoshida and officials from Kin Village. A ceremony and reception was held near the statue of Kyuzo Toyama, a human rights advocate and the man referred often referred to as the “father of Okinawan immigration” because of his bold efforts to initiate immigration to Hawaii.

Northern Okinawa (Yambaru)

From Kin, our bus headed north to Nago, where we enjoyed a steaming bowl of Okinawa soba, a staple for residents and mandatory for visitors. If you’re a “chilihead,” be sure to sprinkle spicy togarashi — the Hawaii equivalent of chili pepper water — on your soba. It’s found on every restaurant table in Okinawa. The small chilies used in Hawaii are the same used in Okinawa, with a twist: they are soaked in potent awamori, the distilled rice liquor of Okinawa.

We visited the Nago Pineapple Park — a testament to Okinawan ingenuity and ability to make do with what is available. Probably everything that can be made with pineapple, except cattle feed, was sold there. There were abundant samples of fresh pineapple (not as tart or as crunchy as Hawaii’s), pineapple Castella cake, crusty pineapple pie, pineapple wine, pineapple that had been candied, dried, and even a pineapple freeze.

We also sampled another local staple: deep purple Okinawan sweet potato, which originated in China. We sampled potato-filled mochi and manju, and even a refreshing ice cream. Varieties of raw sugar candies are also sold as tourist items.

In Nago, away from the hustle and bustle of Naha, we were fortunate to stay at the luxurious Busena Terrace Beach Resort. Reminiscent of Hawaii’s Mauna Lani or Mauna Kea Beach resorts, the Busena Terrace is a large, well-appointed hotel set on a hillside overlooking a white crescent beach and the turquoise blue East China Sea. Next door is the Bankoku Conference Center, site of last July’s G-8 economic summit. It is a modern, yet traditionally crafted complex with white limestone walls, wood-paneled interiors, open-beam ceilings and traditional red terra-cotta tiled roofs. There are bungalows for dignitaries. The design is clean, beautiful and natural. The center is built atop a bluff overlooking seas breaking on the cliffs below.

John Nakao holds a jar of awamori containing a venomous habu, or viper. The venom serves as a tonic, invigorating the drinker.

Okinawa is a folk craft lover’s banquet, which is what enticed me to make pots there. The Yomitan Museum, located next to the remains of Zakimi Castle, is a must-see with its exhibits of traditional folk crafts. Somewhat more commercial but interesting as well is Ryukyu Park in Onna Village with its reconstructed village of centuries-old houses and displays of traditional indigo and colorful bingata stencil dyeing, pottery-making, lacquerware, and loom-weaving of different types of regionally distinct kasuri cloth.

There, we were treated to lively banjo-like sanshin music. Three elderly women, one with a bottle of awamori balanced on her head, bounced happily to the music, punctuated by the sharp whistles distinctive of Okinawan music. There was even a water buffalo, too wet to hug, tethered to an ancient stone sugar cane press once used to crush cane stalks for juice.

Sister Cities

Our group was officially welcomed to Okinawa by Katsuko Kinjo, Director-General of the Cultural and International Affairs Bureau, at the prefectural government building in Naha. HUOA’s 2000 President Albert “Doc” Miyasato shared words of appreciation for the mutual affinity shared between Hawaii and Okinawa. Naha and Honolulu are sister cities. Nago and Hilo also have a sister-city relationship, as do Miyako Island and Maui, and Ishigaki Island and Kauai. Older Okinawans, particularly, have a special appreciation for their Hawaiian cousins which dates back to immigration days. Consistently, the largest sums of money sent to Japan by laborers in Hawaii were sent to Okinawan relatives. By 1927 it accounted for 66 percent of all revenue in Okinawa. Hawaii Okinawans and other residents again showed their aloha in the years following World War II.

Naha and Southern Okinawa

Like a phoenix, Shuri Castle in Naha has been majestically resurrected from the ashes of World War II. The extensive reconstruction of the castle was finally completed in 1992. From 1406 to 1879, Shuri Castle served as the court, residence and center of power of the ruling Sho dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Massive stone walls fortress the Seiden, or main structure. The red-lacquered Seiden is magnificently pillared, with gold-leaf accents similar to Beijing’s Forbidden City. Take the requisite photo with your group at the Shurei no Mon (“Gate of Courtesy”), designated a cultural asset by the Okinawan government.

At Gyokusendo Park, our group was treated to a shiisa (lion) dance, followed by colorful and energetic eisa dances with student dancers carrying small- and medium-size drums which resounded to the music of two sanshin players singing lively folk songs. The prolonged dances and music were punctuated by sharp finger-in-the-mouth human whistles that complemented the liveliness and excitement of eisa music. Much of Okinawa is composed of limestone, which is evident at Gyokusendo. The site also features an extensive underground stalactite grotto that makes for a scenic and humid half-hour walk.

In Naha, we were fortunate to stay in hotels on and near Kokusai-dori in the shopping and tourist area of town. Our group enjoyed going to the various shops to view and buy tourist items designed largely for Japanese visitors who traditionally bring back omiyage for family and friends. Heiwa-dori was a delight with its multitude of shops selling clothing, sweets and snacks, sundries, food items and traditional crafts. The 100 yen store, Japan’s answer to our $1 stores, was popular with our group.

We also made our way to the Makishi Public Market and its interesting array of fresh food and culinary curiosities. In anticipation of business from the Hawaii group, one tsukemono vendor was especially generous, giving us samples of large, pleasantly salty and tart ume (plums), preserved apricots, shoyu-marinated konbu (seaweed), and small dried fish and cuttlefish mixed with seaweed. Many in our group bought a $25 box of about 25 plums — the best ume one could eat, we agreed.

Konbu, although not found in the warmer Okinawan waters, is a staple in Okinawan cuisine. The best konbu, gleaned from the frigid waters of Hokkaido, is imported and sold in the markets of Okinawa. Nearly all of the women in our group bought packages of the best quality konbu.

An interesting fish market in Makishi Public Market illustrated the amazing variety and bounty of seafood found in Okinawan waters. Large, brightly colored parrot fish, red spotted groupers and toxic puffer fish adorn trays of ice, along with ice-packed Styrofoam containers of mackerel, sardines and flying fish. There was an abundance of large mangrove crabs, known in Hawaii as Samoan crabs, and spiny lobsters for sale. I was surprised to see large fresh cuttlefish caught off Itoman in the East China Sea in south Okinawa just the night before. For $10 you can buy a medium-size lobster split in half, which they will cook in the restaurant area upstairs for $5. Trays of freshly cut maguro (tuna), octopus, cuttlefish or a variety of sashimi can also be taken upstairs and eaten with purchases at the restaurants, making for a deliciously memorable picnic.

On the second floor, several inexpensive restaurants compete aggressively for business. A woman in the restaurant just off the escalator was learning English and was friendly and kind to us; we ended up eating there three times during our stay. Yakisoba, tofu and goya (bittermelon) champuru, and various pork dishes, including slices of vinegared pig’s ears and pig’s feet are popular staples in Okinawa.

The Battle of Okinawa: “Typhoon of Steel”

The fiercest fighting of World War II took place in Japanese-fortified Okinawa which was successfully invaded by American GIs and their British allies at great cost to human lives. Over 122,000 Okinawans — the greatest civilian casualty count of World War II — perished in the three-month invasion and bombardment of southern Okinawa. Civilians, including students, were conscripted by the Japanese military to serve soldiers as aides or nurses. Toward the end of the fighting in 1945, defeated Japanese soldiers and fleeing civilians hid in caves. Because of Japanese military propaganda and death threats, many Okinawans, including school children, refused to surrender to American forces despite the entreaties of Japanese American translators who assured their safety and well-being. Visitors will not forget the film at the Prefectural Peace Museum of GIs neutralizing the caves with flame throwers and grenades in the necessity of war. Himeyuri No To, the Star Lilly Memorial, is a memorial with haunting pictures of the 219 high school girl students and teachers who served Japanese soldiers as nurses and who perished in the Battle of Okinawa.

Real-life Heroes

On our tour, we were honored to meet three heroes who distinguished themselves during World War II. The first two were on our tour. Hawaii-born Takejiro Higa grew up in Okinawa but returned to Hawaii to avoid conscription into the Japanese military. Mr. Higa joined the U.S. Army and served as a translator in Okinawa. He was responsible for persuading many civilians hiding in caves to surrender. His ability to speak Okinawan language engendered trust in those who feared being killed by Americans. During our tour, Mr. Higa was interviewed twice: by NHK Broadcasting and also by reporter Asami Nagai of Japan’s largest circulation newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the English-language Daily Yomiuri.

A Makishi Fish Market vendor in Naha. Large cuttlefish jigged the night before from the East China Sea make for a tasty sashimi meal.

Our second hero was named a recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan on Culture Day. Akira Sakima, a humble man, and others in Hawaii raised funds to buy and deliver milking goats to Okinawa. After the war, they also shipped clothing and other items from the people of Hawaii. Mr. Sakima’s leadership and actions saved infant lives by providing goat milk and meat to a war-devastated Okinawa.

We met our third hero at the opening of the “From Bento to Mixed Plate“ exhibition at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum in Naha. Despite being gravely wounded three times during a solo charge of a German machine gun nest in Italy, Lt. Daniel Inouye succeeded in destroying the unit that had pinned down his men. Shot in the abdomen and leg, Inouye also lost his right arm to a rifle grenade while saving his men in this battle. Earlier this year, Sen. Inouye was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery 57 years ago. We were honored to meet the warm and cordial Sen. Inouye again at our Aloha Party.

Honor, Courage and Loyalty

The Japanese have a traditional proverb which is used often locally: “Okage Sama de” (literally, “because of you”) means that we owe our privileges and better lifestyle to the hard work, courage and sacrifice of those who came before us. Our study tour to Okinawa uncovered a mosaic of stories of those who came before us, who endured uncertainty and sacrificed and went forth with a vision and perseverance so that those to come would know a better life. They were Okinawan and Japanese immigrants sailing as indentured sugar plantation workers to an unknown land, not knowing if they would ever return home. They were the thousands of young Hawaii Nisei — the lesser known heroes of our tour — who like my father and uncles rushed to enlist in the military that they might prove their loyalty to their country. Many of these young men never returned home alive.

Our study tour experiences served as a catalyst to quicken an awareness and appreciation of what has been given to us as citizens at a great cost by others. In this once war-torn land, we heard first-hand stories of civilian surrenders by interpreter Takejiro Higa and visited the Cornerstone of Peace memorial field — silent with long black marble walls on which are inscribed 300,000 names of Okinawan civilians and American, British and Japanese soldiers who died in the Battle of Okinawa. We celebrated the Japanese immigration exhibit and the incredible sacrifice our grandfathers and grandmothers made to begin a new life, and how their sons distinguished themselves as Nisei soldiers in World War II.

Landmark home in Tsuboya, the pottery district of Naha. The terra cotta roof tiles and protective lion (shiisa) are typical of traditional Okinawan homes.

Some of the people with whom we toured and those we met were part of an infrequently spoken history that gave us a perspective and an appreciation of what others have done for us. For the first time in my half-century of life, I became aware that we are indebted to these people who came before us for their bravery and commitment to us. The freedoms we take for granted in our country and the opportunities and prosperity we feel a birthright today did not come by accident but by their courage to serve us — their future children and grandchildren.


The day after we returned from our trip, we met one of our tour members, a young, pretty woman of Okinawan-Japanese descent. Happy to meet us so unexpectedly, she beamed with the enrichment of our tour: how she appreciated being given the opportunity by her aunts to meet her Okinawan relatives for the first time, how she was encouraged to learn Japanese, and how proud she was to be Okinawan. That really made our day. Our tour experience gave us a perspective of who we are and where we came from. Like those who came before us, we too — all of us — have a purpose and a calling beyond ourselves. To all of those who served and sacrificed for us with courage, perseverance and love, we say, “Okage Sama de.”

John Nakao is an investment representative with Edward Jones and a volunteer chaplain at Pali Momi Medical Center in Aiea.


One of the “heroes” John Nakao writes about — U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye — attended the tour group’s Aloha Party, along with Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. They are pictured here with study tour leader Betsy Miyahira (left) and HUOA member Helen Candilasa.