From the Hi-Life Section of the Honolulu Star Bulletin

Window to the past

A play and concert, “Danju Kariyushi” aims to reconnect Okinawans to their own history

By John Berger

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 28, 2010

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It’s happened to almost every American family whose roots extend back to another nation: The first generation arrives fluent in their ancestral language and steeped in their cultural heritage. Their children, born and raised in America, most likely grow up bilingual even if they speak only English outside the home. Jump forward a few more generations, and the family now speaks only English and is detached from all but the most basic elements of their ancestors’ culture.

Throw in a war or two in which the ancestral homeland is on the other side, and the cultural disconnect can become almost total — even in Hawaii.

Eric Wada, artistic director of the Ukwanshin Kabudan Okinawa Performing Arts Troupe, wants to change that. His group is partnering with the Hawaii Taiko Kai in presenting “Danju Kariyushi,” a combination stage play and concert, tomorrow at Leeward Community College. He hopes the production will pique the curiosity of fifth- and sixth-generation Okinawan-Americans about the experiences of the Okinawan people who first came to Hawaii more than a century ago and the culture they brought with them.

“You don’t hear of that anymore — about how hard the first generation had to work (in Hawaii). Family values and all of those things have changed, too, and the recognition of (cultural) identity has also changed,” Wada explained last Friday. And so, “Danju Kariyushi,” which combines theater with traditional Okinawan music and dance in telling the story of the Okinawan people from the Japanese invasion of 1609 through the establishment of the Okinawan-American community in Hawaii in the 20th century.

‘DANJU KARIYUSHI’

Presented by the Ukwanshin Kabudan Okinawa Performing Arts Troupe

» Where: LCC Theatre, 96-045 AlaIki St.

» When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

» Cost: $30

» Call: 497-4208

Among the subjects covered are Okinawa’s complicated relationships with China and the Tokugawa-era Satsuma-han, the changes that took place after the Meiji Restoration, and Japan’s annexation of Okinawa in the 1870s.

“(We’re also) working our way through the immigration (period) and the reasons why (Okinawans) emigrated out from Okinawa because of the high taxes … and not being able to go back because they couldn’t make (enough) money here,” Wada said.

Okinawans had a particularly difficult time preserving and passing on their culture, he continued, because from the time Japan officially annexed Okinawa in the 1870s it set in place policies that would be considered cultural genocide today.

“There was a huge attempt at cultural genocide by the Japanese where the language was banned and Okinawans had to adopt the Japanese pronunciation of their names,” he said, adding that many other aspects of Okinawan culture — clothing and hairstyles, for example — were also suppressed.

“It kind of parallels the Hawaiian experience (after 1893), actually. For people here who know about Hawaiian history, it is very easy to connect with Okinawan history after that, (but) we’re finding a lot of fifth- and sixth-generation people here who don’t even care about Hawaiian history.”

Those anti-Okinawan policies carried over to Hawaii, where Okinawans sometimes felt compelled to adopt Japanese ways of doing things to avoid conflicts with the larger Japanese community here.

With each passing generation, the disconnect grows.

“One of the Cherry Blossom contestants this year said that she went to school on the mainland, and she felt like she was really ignorant about her background as an Asian-American because the Asian-Americans in California knew more about their background than the young Asian-Americans here,” Wada said.

He explained that the title of tomorrow night’s production is taken from a folk song that expresses the wish that a departing loved one will have a safe journey and return home safely. The lyrics embody Okinawan traditions of resilience and optimism, and although the song and the show are specifically Okinawan, Wada hopes it will encourage everyone to learn more about their ancestral roots.

“A lot people think the Asians in Hawaii are very connected to their background, but when you talk to a lot of them, they’re not really connected anymore. … The second generation, who’s our window to the past, that generation is in their 80s and 90s now, and they’re going to be gone pretty soon, so our message out to the young ones is that if we don’t get that information or start getting connected (culturally), that window is going to be closed.”