by Karleen C. Chinen (Bito Doshi Kai)

I loved his song, “Mifayu” long before I ever knew that the composition, lyrics and voice belonged to the man who will headline the Okinawa talent at this year’s Okinawa Festival, set for Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1 and 2, at the Kapiolani Park bandstand.

Yaeyama native Mamoru Miyagi is making his musical mark on Okinawa and mainland Japan. According to Festival co-chair Gladys Tokunaga-Asao, Miyagi has committed to performing both days at this year’s festival (time yet to be announced). His Okinawan Festival appearance will mark the popular singer’s international debut.

Miyagi, who is in his late 30s, was born in Tonoshiro, Ishigaki City. After graduating from Yaeyama High School, he left Ishigaki to work as a “salaryman” in Naha City. In his spare time, Miyagi pursued his love for music, penning tunes in his native Yaeyama dialect and in Uchinaaguchi about his beloved island home, Yaeyama, and the parents and grandparents he left behind.

One of the tunes he recorded on his first CD — released in 1998 — was “Yaima,” which speaks longingly of missing the ocean and mountains of his homeland. The tune reached the ears of an Okinawan commuter airliner which wanted to use it in its commercials.

According to Restaurant Kariyushi owner and popular karaoke sensei Steve Yamada — who also was born in Yaeyama — Miyagi wrote “Yaima” eight years ago after his father became ill. With only his mother to care for him, Miyagi wrote and recorded “Yaima.” He sent her a tape of the song, apologizing for not being able to help her care for his father. He asked his mother to play the song for his father, who was taken by the tune. When Miyagi’s father died three years later, a recording of the song was placed in his casket.

Miyagi’s career has taken off. He quit his “salaryman” job to pursue a full-time musical career that got an added boost when popular Japanese singing star Sen Masao recorded two of his tunes, “Yaima” and “Mifayu.”

Also featured on the “Yaima” CD which he recorded with the group “Jaiman,” is a moving tune titled “Churamiyabi” which he wrote for his young daughter, expressing his hope that she will grow up to be a good person.

Miyagi now lives in Kin Cho with his wife, Sumiko — a piano teacher — and their daughter. Sumiko Miyagi plays piano on his “Yaima” CD, which features traditional Okinawan and western instruments. Miyagi recently released his second CD on the Tokuma Japan label. In his spare time, Miyagi visits schools, teaching children how to play sanshin.

So, you ask, how was HUOA able to connect with such an incredible talent as Mamoru Miyagi?

You may recall that in May of last year, NHK beamed one of its Nodojiman programs from Hawaii in celebration of the centennial of Okinawan immigration to Hawaii. One of the contestants was karaoke enthusiast Charles Asao (yes, Gladys’ husband), who sang the song, “Yaima.” When the Nodojiman program aired in Japan, Mamoru Miyagi’s mother happened to be watching the program in Ishigaki. The proud and excited mother called her son in Kin Cho. “Quick, turn on your TV; someone is singing ‘Yaima,’” she said. Well, something to that effect. Miyagi then called NHK to find out who the man was. NHK didn’t know off the bat, but promised to call their contact in Hawaii, Steve Yamada, to find out. The rest is history.

When HUOA President Jimmy Iha, 2000 president Albert Miyasato, Gladys Tokunaga-Asao and Dexter Teruya traveled to Okinawa earlier this year to thank the people of Okinawa for supporting our centennial, Mamoru Miyagi came to meet our HUOA team. When they returned, Gladys had locked up the Okinawa headliner for this year’s festival.

Mamoru and Sumiko Miyagi will be bringing a group of musicians to Hawaii for the Festival. You won’t want to miss this great talent.

For information on Mamoru Miyagi’s “Yaima” CD, call Gladys Tokunaga-Asao at 832-0823. Ippe nihei deebiru to Steve Yamada Sensei and Albert “Doc Al” Miyasato for their assistance in translating the Japanese language materials.