Reflections

A look towards tomorrow

An interview with yonsei Allison Yanagi: Thoughts on preserving the past, taking hold of the present and preparing for the future …

In an effort to gain a young person’s perspective on Okinawan identity; Okinawa, the ancestral homeland; and the future of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, the HUOA’s 50th anniversary video committee interviewed yonsei Allison Yanagi. A portion of this interview was included in the video, "Fifty Years of Hearts Together," which was shown at the HUOA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in September. HUOA thanks Allison for sharing her thought-provoking views with HUOA members. Interviewer Karleen Chinen.

Allison is the daughter of Carl and Sandy Yanagi. Carl Yanagi’s family roots are in Kumamoto, Sandy’s in Okinawa. Allison’s maternal grandparents, Haruko and the late Bokuzen Kaneshiro, were born in Hawaii but spent their formative years in Okinawa: Bokuzen in the Kadena area of Chatan, and Haruko in Onaha, Nishihara.

Allison, who is 27, graduated from Punahou School and went on to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Asian Studies, specializing in Okinawan studies.

HOW DID YOU GET INTERESTED IN THINGS OKINAWAN?

"Ever since I was a child I can remember going with my grandmother to concerts and dance performances at Farrington High School. And, at her house, the radio would always be on the Okinawan station. Every once in a while, she would take out her sanshin and practice."

"I don’t know exactly why I understood that I was Okinawan, but ever since I was a child, I always knew that I was Okinawan for some reason. I attribute a lot of that knowledge, or that consciousness, to my grandparents, especially my grandmother."

"My grandmother always encouraged me to pursue my interest in performing arts and was very supportive when I first went to Okinawa. She just continued to support me and to push me and I guess that’s why now I feel so strongly about being Okinawan and that’s why I have such a strong Okinawan identity."

HOW DID THE TIME YOU SPENT IN OKINAWA COME ABOUT?

"The first time I went to Okinawa was during a one-month summer program at UH. It was an exchange program between the University of the Ryukyus and the University of Hawaii. That one-month experience really enticed me to learn more and to find out more about the differences between Okinawa and Hawaii and the rest of mainland Japan."

"My first real opportunity to live there for an extended period of time was with the Kempei scholarship. I attended Geidai for one year and I studied dance and music. Through that opportunity, I was able to extend my stay so that I was there for a year and eight months."

"It was one of the most influential experiences in my entire life, because the people I met there, the experiences I had really affected me in a way that I never thought I could be affected. I always knew that going to Okinawa would be a really special experience, but the people that I met there became like my own family, even though the mainstay of my family is here in Hawaii."

"Everytime I entered my teachers’ music studio or dance studio, I always felt welcomed by the people who were there. Everybody kept on saying things like, ‘Oh, it’s so fantastic that you’re a foreigner and you’re here to study and you’re trying so hard.’ But I was more amazed at how the people treated me, how they embraced me as well as other foreign students who had this passion for learning. If it weren’t for those people and the friends that I met there and I still maintain a relationship with, I don’t think the experience to Okinawa would have been so influential. But because Okinawa, for me, has so much meaning and so many emotional ties, I really don’t see how I can stay away, and I know that for the rest of my life I will constantly be traveling back and forth in order to maintain those relationships and the ties that I have with the islands and the people there, the land there, the feelings that I have there."

WHAT DID THIS INTRODUCTION TO THE CULTURE INITIALLY LEAD TO?

"Because of my grandmother, I was introduced to the music and the dance. As a child, I really had no interest whatsoever. If anything, I thought it was really irritating and boring and just something that old people liked. But as I grew older and I saw that people my age had an interest in it, I became curious as to what the attraction was."

"I decided that once I entered college, I would try something. So during my sophomore year in college, that’s when I started dance. And I enjoyed dance so much that it led to sanshin and kuucho — just one thing led to another."

"I became so involved with the performing arts aspect of it that I wanted to know more about just Okinawa, in general: the history, the religion, the politics . . . everything — because I knew Okinawa wasn’t just Okinawa. Even though Okinawa is just a prefecture of Japan, it’s very obvious that Okinawa is not anything like the rest of Japan — and I wanted to know what those differences were and why they were there."

"At UH, I looked for classes and except for Dr. Sakihara’s class, there really wasn’t anything. Most of the books there were written during the ’50s and ’60s — during the occupation period — and nothing that those books told me felt as though it was something that I could embrace. Even to this day, when I read books by George Kerr and Dr. Lebra — even though I know that these books are a treasure-trove of information — I often wonder if the Okinawan people would agree to the things that these scholars have said. And, of course, because I was an Asian Studies major, most of my professors were not Asian — most of them were of European descent. Perhaps some people don’t think that that should make a difference. It did bother me, because how they viewed things was very different from how I viewed things. Things that I learned from them were very different from the things that my grandparents taught me. And because there was such a chasm between what was going on in scholarship and what was going on in my own family, I felt that there was a need to bridge these two sides."

"If I had this interest, I assumed that there must be at least one other person who had a similar interest as I did. And I guess that’s why it became somewhat of a personal crusade to pursue Okinawa as a scholarly field and to want to find out about the religion, the history, political aspects, the military situation there. I’m sure there are people who are like me who want to know more, but there really isn’t anything out there, at least nothing contemporary that relates to people here now directly."

AT SOME POINT, THERE WILL BE NO MORE ISSEI; AT SOME POINT THERE WILL BE NO MORE NISEI — AND SO MANY OF THE EXPERIENCES OF IMMIGRATION AND WHAT THE ISSEI EXPERIENCED IN OKINAWA, WHAT THEY BROUGHT WITH THEM, HOW THEY RAISED THEIR CHILDREN — SOMEWHERE DOWN THE LINE, IT’S NOT GOING TO BE THERE ANY MORE. SO, WHAT’S GOING TO KEEP AN EIGHTH GENERATION OKINAWAN CONNECTED?

"First of all, I think it’s very important to invest time and energy in personal oral history."

"Last year, before for I left for Okinawa, I spent about a week just videotaping my grandmother. I did it with the intention of saving something for me, but also perhaps of leaving something for my own children or my grandchildren to see."

"Even though my grandmother is a Kibei-Nisei (second generation Japanese American who grew up or was educated in Japan/Okinawa), in many respects, she is still very Issei, because she identifies, I think, probably more with Okinawa than she ever did with the United States. And I want my family to remember that. My grandfather, who passed away — I never got the chance to videotape him. But when I was in high school, I wrote one of my papers about him. He told me stories about what it was like to live on the plantation."

"I guess the biggest lesson I took from everything that my grandparents told me was that they suffered so much so that I could have everything that I have now. But their happiness is that I’m so successful. And I want everybody to realize that if it weren’t for all the suffering and all the tribulations that the Issei went through, none of us would be here now. I think it’s spectacular how successful the third and fourth generation Okinawans are, but if it weren’t for the Issei instilling in us a certain pride, a tremendous work ethic, this idea of unity, none of us would be where we are. We wouldn’t have the kaikan (Hawaii Okinawa Center), we wouldn’t have the HUOA. And I think the one thing I would like people to remember is that Okinawans did it because they were a group. It was a bunch of individuals who worked as a group. It wasn’t just one person; it wasn’t just a group of people. It was everybody contributing."

"I’m sure the HUOA, now, is an organization that’s completely different from anything that our forefathers had envisioned. And, although we have done a lot of wonderful things, I think there’s a lot more to do — and I cannot wholeheartedly say that our forefathers would be totally happy with everything that has occurred. I think what’s necessary is to go back to why the Issei started this."

"I think we all need to ask ourselves why is it important to be Okinawan — and not just for the sake of remembering the Issei, and not just for the sake of preserving the culture for the future generations. But, why it’s really important for all of us, individually, to have this Okinawan pride that we have. What sets us apart from other ethnic groups that are here in Hawaii? What kinds of problems did our forefathers encounter in the sugarcane fields? What kind of problems did our forefathers encounter in Okinawa that made them decide to move to this little island in the middle of the Pacific?"

"Ever since the late 1800s, Okinawans have experienced so many trials and tribulations that nowadays our prosperity and our success has allowed most of us to forget about those things, and history has a terrible way of moving in a cyclical direction, and I think if we forget those things, it will happen all over again — maybe not to us but perhaps there’s a possibility of us committing those same crimes to other people. And I think it’s extremely necessary to remember those things, to remember those lessons that history has taught us, so that we don’t commit them over again."

"I think that necessitates us as individuals to learn the language, the history, the politics, about the present situation in Okinawa. I think it’s necessary for people here in Hawaii to actually go to Okinawa — and not just do the touristy things, like visit Shuri Castle and the Expo Park. I think it’s important to actually do your own personal research so that you feel tied to the land, and to the people, and to the culture that still exists there."

"While I was in Okinawa, the one thing that really depressed me and worried me about the future of not only Okinawa but Japan in general is that people my age and younger are so mesmerized by what’s going on in Tokyo. That worries me, because even though I think Tokyo has it’s own special culture, that culture is so different from anything that Okinawa has ever experienced."

"People my age don’t speak hoogen (Okinawan language). People my age have little interest in the music or the dance. A lot of people don’t know how to cook traditional foods. A lot of people don’t keep up the same religious customs. And just like in Hawaii, there’s such a tremendous brain drain that it worries me to think what’s going to happen with Okinawa."

"People like me who go there and have this tremendous pride and interest and knowledge in Okinawa — people marvel at that because their own children don’t have that. When people my age see that, I think it serves as an impetus to make them wonder, ‘Why is this foreigner interested in my island, my home, in the language that my grandparents speak?’ I hope that our example will serve as some sort of instigator to make people my age be interested in their own land, their culture, their own families."

"I don’t think, by any means, that what I am doing is something out of the ordinary, but I think it is necessary to continue to realize that humans are a social animal and we need to live as a group and to learn from each other. That’s something we all have to remember. Historically speaking, we always have to look back in order to move forward. I think that’s something we all need to remember, not only as Okinawans, but as people in general."

DO YOU THINK, GENERATIONS DOWN THE ROAD, THAT IT WILL BE ENOUGH TO JUST KNOW HOW TO PLAY SANSHIN OR TAIKO?

"I think those things are very important. I think performing arts is an integral part of being Okinawan. But then again, it is only one part. There are many people, who, I think, crave some sort of connection with Okinawa, but not necessarily through a performing arts avenue. I think up until now there’s been a tremendous push for the younger generations to participate in performing arts, and I think that’s wonderful. But, for the others who don’t have a personal interest in performing arts, there’s been very little else. I think what needs to happen now is more avenues need to be explored — not just performing arts or cultural avenues, but perhaps scholarly avenues, or economic avenues, or political avenues."

"There are so many facets to being Okinawan in terms of identity, in terms of culture. Identity itself is a very political thing. I don’t think a person is Okinawan just because of the blood that runs through their veins. Being Okinawan is a mindset, it’s a belief system, it’s a way of life. I think everybody who calls him or herself "Okinawan" has to look inside themselves and maybe question why they feel this way. And once they come to some sort of answer I think it’s necessary at that point for them to pass these ideas on to their own children."

"I think being Okinawan isn’t just one thing; there are multiple meanings to being Okinawan — and for each person it’s different. But, I think there is something about being Okinawan that unifies all of us who consider ourselves to be Okinawan. A lot of that has to do with how we live, how we relate to people, how we relate to our families. I think all of these things need to be explored, not just performing arts."

"I think performing arts is one catalyst, or just one tangible aspect that everybody can relate to. But, being Okinawan has so many facets that, I think, all of us, individually, need to explore it on our own terms in terms of what’s important to us and what we want to keep and protect for the future — not only our own futures but for our children."

"At least for myself, being Okinawan is very heavily tied with performing arts. I think being Okinawan has become one of the reasons why I have chosen my area of study. I hope other people can find a similar passion for themselves that will allow them to explore their own Okinawan-ness or what it means to be Okinawan."

WHAT ROLE SHOULD HUOA PLAY IN ADVANCING THIS?

"I think up until now, HUOA has been pivotal in preserving things — preserving what our Issei wanted for us, preserving the importance of performing arts. Also, preserving the way the organization itself has been run. I think the HUOA, as an entity, is extremely important for the Okinawan community. But, because the Okinawan community, as well as Hawaii and the world in general, is changing, I think it’s necessary for the organization, as well, to change, and I think one of the best ways for the change to occur is to allow new ideas, new people in. That’s probably one of the scariest things to do, because when you allow new ideas and new people in, you’re going to get a lot of new ideas. And, you’re going to be faced with a lot of changes. But, instead of being afraid of these changes, I think they should be embraced, because it’s change and it’s evolution that will eventually make the organization much stronger."

"I think one of the biggest problems with HUOA now is that there are very few fourth, fifth generation people who are active in the clubs. Most of the people who are still active are the second and third generations, and even though I think it’s terrific that the second and third generations are still so active, in 10, 20, maybe 30 years, if the fourth and fifth generations are not included in the various activities, or they are not enticed by what the organization is doing, eventually the HUOA will find themselves at a dead-end."

"I think a lot more can be done to encourage younger people to join. Part of that is to embrace whatever ideas they have, new ideas — things that have never been tried before — not only continue with the performing arts and the social clubs and the athletic clubs, but also other activities that have yet to be discovered. Perhaps research activities, or perhaps start some sort of oral history project that’s spearheaded by the HUOA and connected in some part with UH or a different organization."

"I think that in order for the HUOA to stay young and in touch with its people, they have to listen to the people and listen to what the people want. It’s a very scary thing; change is always scary. But at the same time, if you don’t change, nothing’s going to change. And if you can’t change with the times, then the times will keep on going even if the organization doesn’t."