The Hawaii United Okinawa Association: Fifty Years of Chimugukuru!

By: Jon Itomura, Young Okinawans of Hawaii and Karleen Chinen, Bito Doshi Kai

The year 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association (HUOA). Throughout its 50-year history, the HUOA has continually changed with the times. With that change has come growth for the organization. What has remained constant throughout its history has been HUOA’s mission to perpetuate the Okinawan culture and heritage while preserving the legacy of those who courageously cleared the path for today’s Okinawan community.

Leading the way was no easy task. As early as 1907 - only seven years after the first Okinawan immigrants had arrived in Hawaii - numerous attempts were made to establish a formal organization of village clubs and groups. These early organizations were known by several names: Okinawa Kenjin Kai (Association of People from the Prefecture of Okinawa, 1907), Kyuyo Club (Club for Ryukyuan Pride, 1909-1913), Hawaii Okinawa Kenjin Doshikai (Association of Okinawans Sharing the Same Goals, 1917-1925), Okinawa Kaigai Kyokai (Association of Okinawans Abroad, 1925-1928). In many cases, however, disagreements among members or groups led to their dissolution after only a few years.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 plunged the world into war, presenting major obstacles to efforts to preserve the culture and heritage of Japanese and Okinawan immigrants. In a twist of irony, however, World War II provided the necessary impetus to bond Hawaii’s Okinawan community. Sheer determination and unrelenting efforts by a number of individuals and groups led to the organization of several post-war relief missions to Okinawa, which had been devastated during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater.

The various relief efforts spanned four years (1945-1949), during which time 150 tons of clothing, hundreds of small appliances, toys and sundry items were collected. But the relief efforts didn’t end there: Hawaii Uchinanchu and other compassionate individuals and organizations sent $20,000 in medicine and medical supplies, collected $50,000 to purchase and transport 550 pigs and 750 milking goats, and demonstrated their foresight by assisting in the effort to build the University of the Ryukyus. These relief missions revived efforts to establish a unified organization of Okinawan individuals, clubs and groups.

On September 21, 1951, in a room at the Nuuanu YMCA, the Hawaii Okinawa Kenjin Rengo Kai (Hawaii United Association of Okinawan People) was established. The 14 founding clubs were: Ginowan Sonjin Kai, Goeku Sonjin Kai, Gushichan Sonjin Kai, Gushikawa Sonjin Kai, Kailua Okinawa Kenjin Kai, Kaneohe Okinawa Doshi Kai, Kita-Nakagusuku Sonjin Kai, Nago Chojin Kai, Naha Shijin Kai, Onna Sonjin Kai, Osato Doshi Kai, Shuri Shijin Kai, Tamagusuku Sonjin Kai and Yomitan Sonjin Kai.

HUOA First Board of Directors - installed Sept 21, 1951
Standing l to r: Seiki Takasato, Seian Hokama, Shuko Chibana, Kenichi Higa, Dr James Tengan, Taketa Moromisato, Ansho Uyeshiro, Junkichi Higa.
Sitting l to r: Kiyoshi Shimabukuro, Chozen Kanetake, Dr Henry Gima, Kamesuke Nakamura, Sadao Asato.

According to Shinsuke Nakamine, who served as 1957-58 UOA president, the primary purpose of establishing the Hawaii Okinawa Kenjin Rengo Kai was to provide a central organizational contact for communications between Hawaii, Okinawa and the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR). Such cooperation paved the way for the U.S.-Okinawa Friendship Exchange Program.

The other important purpose of the Hawaii Okinawa Kenjin Rengo Kai was to encourage and maintain fellowship among the numerous Issei and Nisei Okinawans. In 1957, President Shinsuke Nakamine introduced the College Graduates Testimonial Dinner to honor the children of UOA members who had graduated from college, a major accomplishment at that time. 1961-62 UOA President Warren Higa recalls how much that banquet meant to the graduates’ parents.

"When they announce the name of the graduate, they call out the child and doko doko son. The parents were so proud and happy to be recognized. To me, that was our biggest contribution toward education."

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the primary purpose of the UOA transitioned from providing war relief to Okinawa to cultivating the Okinawan culture in Hawaii through programs like the Okinawan Jubilee, which featured Okinawan cultural exhibits at venues like the Ala Moana Hotel. The jubilees, which began in 1971, were organized by Hui O Laulima and co-sponsored by UOA. Music and dance performances were held at Farrington High School. Okinawa supported the effort by sending many of its top dance masters to Hawaii.

Hui O Laulima and the UOA continued their joint sponsorship of the cultural jubilee until 1982, when the desire to reach out to the broader local community and to involve more UOA clubs and their members resulted in the birth of the Okinawan Festival.

In 1982, with a new generation of young Sansei leaders at the helm, the sharing of the Okinawan culture went public in a major way.

All of this new energy was the result of a Leadership Tour to Okinawa, which some 38 Hawaii Sansei had participated in, at the invitation of Okinawa Governor Junji Nishime. The Sansei participants had an opportunity to experience Okinawan culture up close and personal. That experience set the tone for an energized and revitalized UOA and resulted in the birth of the Young Okinawans of Hawaii. Ken Kiyabu, one of the participants in the tour, was elected UOA president the following year - the UOA’s first Sansei president. He remembers the impact of the Leadership Tour:

"A lot of the members came back so motivated. They got involved in their own sonjinkais; they got involved in the UOA. I think this was really the start of the UOA blossoming. As we started with all this enthusiasm, they (Leadership Tour participants) got their friends involved, so we got more people involved and so I think the group . . . the circle got larger. This is why I think the UOA burst into the community. The Niseis worked hard and then I think things just kinda stayed status quo for a while. After this trip, we got rejuvenated and so things changed. Bringing in all this young, new blood, I think, really helped the organization."

Early officers of HUOA with Club Representatives.

One of the events they had participated in was the Naha Matsuri with its colorful and festive tsunahiki (tug-of-war). Moved by the energy of the event, 1982-83 President Roy Kaneshiro proposed a Hawaii festival that celebrated Okinawan culture. 1979-80 President Stanley Takamine was asked to chair the 1982 inaugural Okinawan Festival at McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Park.

The comment of one festival-goer stays with Roy Kaneshiro, nearly 20 years later.

"This elderly Issei — she came up to us and told us that at this point in her life, being kind of old and not in really good health, she knew she could never go back to Okinawa. So to see something like this in Hawaii, she was really happy. She was just thrilled with the idea that the Sanseis could do something like this. And for us, it was really an emotional moment."

By 1986, the festival had outgrown McCoy Pavilion and was moved to Thomas Square, where it was held for the next three years.

In 1989 the festival was put on hold for a year to plan for the 1990 Okinawan Celebration commemorating the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawaii. Part of the plan for 1990 was to move the festival to an even bigger site that would attract a larger, broader and more ethnically diverse audience. The site selected was the bandstand area of Kapiolani Park. A parade through Waikiki commemorating the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawaii preceded the 1990 festival.

The Okinawan Festival introduces Okinawan culture, cuisine and products to thousands of local residents and non-residents.

Change and growth soon spurred thoughts of an Okinawan Center to call "home". In addition to the Nuuanu YMCA, the Okinawa Memorial Hall at the Jikoen Hongwanji Temple had originally served as a gathering place for Hawaii’s Uchinanchu. But the community had dreams of building an Okinawan cultural center. The significance of this was that Hawaii was where the first Okinawan immigrants chose to settle. So in the early 1980s, Uchinanchu architect Maurice Yamasato met with several community leaders, among them Peter Iha, Albert Teruya and Stanley Takamine, to assess the community’s needs. From those discussions came Yamasato’s first plans for a center.

A suggestion by former Okinawa Governor Nishime that the HUOA should build a kaikan since the Okinawan community in South American had one encouraged a number of people in Hawaii. With the help of 1986-1987 UOA president, Edward Kuba, and others including Stanley Takamine, Gary Mijo and George Uyema, the planning of the center’s design and construction began and was highlighted on March 16, 1989, when the UOA broke ground on the 2.5-acre parcel in Waipio Gentry. On June 16, 1990, a Hawaiian blessing introduced the new home of the United Okinawan Association and Hawaii’s Okinawan community. Five thousand people - local Uchinanchu as well as supporters from Okinawa - came to help open the doors of their new home. Edward Kuba remembers the day.

"I walked on to the premises, hurrying to get to the grand opening, and I saw the four to five thousand people who had gathered to attend the facilities and I finally looked up at the center and said, ‘Where did this thing come from?’ The past 4 or 5 years before that, I was just too busy to really appreciate what we were doing. Seeing the center for the first time at the grand opening, I said, ‘Whoa, this is really beautiful.’ It was worthwhile. The challenge we had undertaken, we met."

For architect Maurice Yamasato, the moment was very special. In 1987, when the center was still a dream, his father, Toshio Yamasato, had picked out a special Okinawan pine tree, which he had nurtured at his home on Kauai. "This matsu is for the Hawaii Okinawa Center", he told Maurice. Toshio Yamasato passed on before his special matsu had the opportunity to take root at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. Maurice recalls that morning vividly:

"On the morning of the opening, I just came here by myself about 7 o’clock in the morning and I was looking at the pine tree and the Center, kinda teary-eyed because it looked so beautiful and to think that my dad donated the pine tree .... All of a sudden there was a butterfly that came fluttering around me. I couldn’t help but have tears in my eyes to think that, yeah, dad’s right here, sharing this moment with me."

Three years earlier, at his father’s funeral, the minister had told Maurice that anytime he saw a butterfly or a moth flying around, it symbolized his dad.

In 1995, the United Okinawan Association adopted its current name: the Hawaii United Okinawa Association. Currently, the HUOA consists of 50 member clubs and one affiliate member club (Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii) and spans the entire State of Hawaii. Fifty years of hard work and sacrifice have not been lost. As a constant reminder of days long gone but never forgotten, the HUOA regularly hosts educational and cultural events at the Hawaii Okinawa Center. The HUOA consistently strives to ensure that the memories of Okinawa and Hawaii’s first immigrants are not forgotten and the "CHIMU-GUKURU" (heart & soul) Okinawan Spirit will guide HUOA through the next fifty years.

Copy of UOA's petition for Charter for the United Okinawan
Foundation - April 7. 1966