Okinawan Performing Arts Exhibit at UH Manoa

I’ve been off radar for the past couple of months working feverishly on an exhibit at UHM entitled, “Mii-gusui, Mimi-gusui, Sustenance for the Eyes and Ears: Okinawan Performing Arts.” This exhibit was commissioned by the newly created Center for Okinawan Studies, which officially opened on July 1. The exhibit is located on the 1st floor “bridge gallery” of the Hamilton Library on UHM campus and runs until August 22, 2008. Of course, it is open to the public and you DO NOT need to be a UH faculty, staff, or student to enter the library. Please check with Hamilton Library for their regular business hours.

I know it’s a long title, but, like the exhibit, it barely scratches the surface on the things we can say about our culture, its context, and, of course, the music and dance. Probably the hardest thing in doing this exhibit was in trying to streamline everything into a coherent presentation that would be informative, yet not overwhelming. The committee I worked with on this project kept on reminding me of the importance of trying to streamline text and try to make things as graphical as possible. Though, I must say, it’s just really hard to talk about music without having any audio available! Still, it was a great challenge and an enormous learning experience.

The title was inspired by the words of the late Kay Adaniya, who would always remind me of what the issei said about the music and dance. For those of you who have been to Lanakila Multi-purpose Senior Center, you would have remembered Mrs. Adaniya as the leader of the Okinawa Nenchosha Club there (she served in that capacity for more than twenty years). Whenever we would finish a performance, she would say, “mii-gusui, mimi-gusui” which literally means “nourishment to my eyes, nourishment to my ears.” I vaguely remember hearing similar words from issei audience members back when you could still see them at events. As a teenage performer, I used to think that those words simply meant “good job” or “good performance.” As I learned more about the culture and the history of both Okinawa and the issei, however, I came to realize that those words go far beyond that. The music and the dance have always been important lifelines for the Okinawan people and their descendants overseas. In Okinawa, they have helped the people to preserve their stories, their voices, and their identity. In trying times, especially during and after World War II, the performing arts helped the people to be stronger and look to better times. Probably the most poignant reminder of this is the kankara sanshin, the “tin-can” sanshin. In the middle of the devastation, sickness, and starvation, Okinawans still found the spirit to rustle up materials to build instruments. According to Teruya Rinsuke, an entertainer who traveled to the worn-torn areas to console the villagers with his comical stories and songs, the music and dancing were “celebrations of life” to remind the people that though everything was lost, they still had their lives and their spirits.

In Hawai`i, the music and dance were precious to many of the issei because it was the only connection they had back to their homes. Though they came expecting roads paved in gold, they found long hours with little pay. Furthermore, they met with discrimination, even hostility, from the already-established naichi or mainland Japanese community. The discrimination was so bad that many families changed their names and tried to hide all traces of their “Okinawan-ness.” For those who could not forget their homeland, the music and dance provided comfort, even if for just a while. For those who refused to give in to discrimination, the music and dance provided a means of expression and a safe “space” to be Okinawans.

To the descendants of the issei, the performing arts has provided its own sustenance. For many, playing Okinawan music or dancing are really the only connections left to Okinawa. There are many born into the Okinawan community who have no tangible recollections of their baban or jiji from Okinawa, let alone the relatives far across the sea. For us in Hawai`i, the music and the dance remain important lifelines in constructing and re-constructing our identity, but also a means of sharing this identity with the rest of the community, even the world.

It seems very appropriate that I reflect on these things as we move closer to our O`ahu staging of “Loochoo nu Kwa.” When we perform in August (or any time for that matter), I hope that for those in the audience, even if they do not know the meaning of “mii-gusui, mimi-gusui,” that they will have that exact feeling in their hearts as they leave the theater and move on with their lives.