Ukwanshin Shares At Umass Boston

On October 6th and 7th, I presented two lectures for the Asian American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston,  The first lecture was on the Establishment of Okinawan Communities in Hawaii and Okinawa, Dr.Peter Kiang’s class.  The second, was for John Tawa’s Japanese American Psychology class, and the topic was on Okinawan Identity Connected to Performing Arts.

I was surprised to see such a large population of Asians in the classes, Dr. Kiang’s class being almost all Asians.  What was also pleasantly surprising was that the department and almost all classes are taught by Asian lecturers and professors.  There was a sense of personal connection in the department, which made me feel very comfortable.  Another observation I had was that the Asians attending the classes showed an interest and concern for Okinawa which was quickly understood, unlike the very shallow and sometime lack of interest found in Hawaii.  I think this is due to the fact that Hawaii asians take much for granted, and asians make up a large part of the visual community that they don’t really understand or experience the minority issues of Asians that are put into a real minority situation like you see on the mainland.

Mr. John Tawa’s class started a thread of discussions in which many comments were posted about the presentation.  It was very interesting to see what the students posted.  Here are some comments…….

“When listening to the speaker from Hawaii, It made me realize how much
music plays a role not only in the Okinawa community but in other
communities as well. It seems that performing arts and music are of
high importance to this particular culture. The instrument called
Sanshin, really interested me because it is such a simple instrument
to make but has so much symbolism. This instrument called the Sanshin,
resembles Okinawan identity through the different parts and functions
of the instrument. While playing this instrument, others usually
gather in song and other instruments that go along with the Sanshin.
Even the specific parts on the instrument represent something in
itself, such as each string on the instrument represents a different
person singing or harmonizing in the group. While just one instrument
represents so much within a culture, it just shows me how much
stronger this particular culture is in correlation to American
Culture. To my knowledge, I understand that most African cultures and
tribes also gather in song and dance that play a big part of who they
are and also makes one realize how each culture has different values.
I just makes me think deeper as to what kind of things Americans value
that can be passed down from Generation to Generation that represents
so much and also can be learned from for future references about one’s
specific culture.”

“On the Sanshin, it is kind of a shame what it’s been reduced to. I
mean, it’s an instrument of great importance with a long history in
the Okinawa community, but under the capitalistic and commercialistic
views, it’s been reduced to just another souvenir. I couldn’t image
what that must feel like. I mean, I also see that in a way it’s kind
of spreading that part of the culture to other areas of the world, but
can that really justify reducing a symbol to that of a child’s play
thing? White promoting it, it’s at the same time spitting on the
culture itself.”

“I don’t even know where to start! First off I’m really glad we had

this opportunity, I found the lecture incredibly interesting and
thought inspiring.

For one, the way Okinawan culture promotes honoring those who have
passed touched me very much. I find in American culture people only
allow mourning or remembrance for a short period of time, whereas
Okinawan ancestors are brought back to life through song and dance,
honoring their existence on earth and incorporating their memory in
frequent ceremonies. I assume this has a lot to do with the concept of
some Asian cultures, of you and your family being a whole, unlike the
individualism and perhaps egocentrism of our fast paced consumerism
oriented country. I find this to be a very beautiful and admirable
aspect of Okinawan culture and I feel by losing these traditional
songs and dances, this very rich and loving way of thinking will be
lost as well.

On another note, I drew a lot of parallels with the Okinawan story and
the second world war. In terms of the military posts which still
exist, up until 2008 Germany still had a lot of military posts,
Germany has been independent for a long time and I always wondered why
the Americans still had military present, since they were not actively
functioning in the country. When I asked my parents they told me that
it simply a matter of strategic placement. Most military going to the
middle east actually stops in Germany in between. However finally a
bunch of these posts, if not almost all, were vacated around 2008, I
can personally think of at least 4 within a 45min driving distance
from where I grew up in Germany, mind you the second world war ended
in 1945. Just like in Germany, the posts in Okinawa serve no purpose
other then a strategically convenient location for the U.S.. It just
doesn’t seem right.
Also when we talked about how the older generation of Okinawan people
do not speak their native language, I immediately thought of older
generation Jewish people living in the U.S., specifically the ones who
lived in Germany before or during World War II. A German friend of
mine was on an exchange in Florida and ran into two old Jewish ladies
in a store, they were speaking English with each other but had a thick
German accent. So my friend said something to them in German, these
women completely understood her but responded in English, my friend
kept insisting on speaking German and they kept insisting on speaking
English. These women had tried all their life to shed their painful
German heritage and assimilate into American society, that they just
could not bring it over themselves to speak their native language.
Obviously this is for different reason’s as the Okinawan people but I
immediately thought of this because both these stories are related to
I guess what I would call cultural or war related trauma.”

2 thoughts on “Ukwanshin Shares At Umass Boston

  1. David J.

    That’s great you were able to spike a lot interest not only in Okinawan culture, but the importance of passing on the traditions of any culture. I liked the interesting comment from one of the students regarding American culture. I’m really going to have to think about this one…as Americans, what do we have as culture or tradition to pass on? I guess America is a little unique in that many different cultures mix in to one. Something to think about….

  2. Keith Shimabukuro

    First of all I commend you Eric Wada Sensei for traveling to Massachusetts to enlighten and to share and discuss our rich Ryukyuan heritage. Through all the years that I have known you personally and professionally I have watched and experience you evolve into this person who has taken Okinawan dance and music to a level beyond just performing on the stage but taken it to a living feeling aspect in your life and the sharing of our people and the importance of bringing back that identity and the realization that if we donot hold onto these tangible things it could be lost forever.

    I like the comment that there are other Asian instructors out there that can teach and share their knowledge of history and culture then others who just read it from a book and say they are knowledgeable to me there is a difference. I am sure that you Eric Sensei have also discussed the plight of the Hawaiian people to some individuals there who could relate to Hawaii’s position as a state and a Kingdom much like Okinawa was and it’s turbulent history with Japan. It is true that our Okinawan community takes it for granted that they see these performing arts, the instruments, the music etc. but at our last performance there was a standing ovation that just made me so happy. This is the feeling that you and our group does to convey our strong dedication to this treasure that we are grasping on so tightly.

    To me American culture is a mix of people from all parts of the world. All had their culture identity intact at one time with the first, second and third generations but during these changing times with two World Wars, political strifes, equal rights, technology and economic imbalances in our country and the world that we need to get back to the basics.

    Personally I feel if you learn about your own identitiy and your own history of your family and where you come from then you can share it with others. My Mother use to say charity starts at home first before you can go out and extend it. I think the mainland USA is such a large place that you can lose yourself to many things and different influences if you are not grounded you can get swallowed up. As for the Asian students I hope they have gained another perspective after listening to you because the ones that I have met and some cousins that live there in the mainland they didn’t even know what a hashi was? Personally it was sad that she chose to be Caucasian then her identity. Much continued success to Eric Sensei and to Norman Sensei who also has the vision to continue this journey. Ukwanshin Kabudan is truly the cruise ship of Ryukyu, Loo Choo & Okinawa to a changing world.

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