Everywhere Okinawanness

This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.

During his vacation from New York to Southern California, Toshiki stops by Okinawa Association of America (OAA), a nonprofit corporation based in Gardena that serves the Okinawan community in the Los Angeles area. In the Charles M. and Yoshiko Kamiya Library, he sits down with Yuko Yamauchi, the Executive Director of OAA. Having had several different names since its founding in 1909, OAA originated as the Okinawa kenjinkai in LA and historically served as a social organization for Japanese immigrants from Okinawa Prefecture and a resource to help them assimilate to US laws and customs. Especially after World War II and Japanese incarceration, OAA evolved to accommodate shifting cultural values and now serves as an important community institution for preserving Okinawan culture through dance and music, as well as the Okinawan language, Uchinaaguchi. Yuko recounts her experience going to Okinawa on a Kempi Scholarship, and inspired by activists like Dick Jiro Kobashigawa, she returned to Los Angeles to pursue nonprofit work. Given that OAA does not take a position on political issues, such as the presence of the US military bases in Okinawa, Toshiki asks Yuko about what her personal views are regarding fostering spaces for political discussions.

After a brief tour of the OAA offices and activity room, Toshiki has lunch with OAA President Edward (Eddie) Kamiya and Co-Chair for the OAA 110th Anniversary Yoshihiro (Hiro) Tome at Kotohira, a Japanese restaurant located in Tozai Plaza in Gardena that also serves Okinawan food. Over goya champuru and soki soba, Toshiki asks about their Okinawa-related activities. The OAA Library is named after Eddie’s parents, and he reflects on how his family shaped his Okinawan identity and influenced his involvement in OAA. Tome-san discusses organizing the Uchinanchu Taikai and getting the famous Okinawan band BEGIN to perform at the upcoming OAA110th Anniversary in September. A central theme throughout this episode was about reconciling Okinawan culture and mainland Japanese culture, and Susan reflects on her identity, commenting that she doesn’t distinguish being either Okinawan or Japanese. She’s both Okinawan and Japanese.

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This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Lesley Chinen for organizing our interview recordings at the library of Okinawa Association of America and at Kotohira.


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Susan McCormac: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.


Toshiki Nakashige: Welcome to The Big Root.

SM: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. I’m Susan McCormac.

TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.

TN: I know I’m a couple weeks late, but how was your Fourth of July?

SM: It was a low-key time in New York, which was perfect for me.

TN: Chill.

SM: How was your vacation?

TN: It was good. I went to Dallas to visit my parents and then to Los Angeles to spend the actual 4th of July with my brother and his family. Ironically I watched the New York fireworks on TV while I was there. But yeah, while I was in the area, I visited the Okinawa Association of America in Gardena for The Big Root!

SM: Yes! I am looking forward to hearing about how that went.

TN: After a tearjerker of an episode that you did with Sarah LaFleur and The Noguchi Museum two weeks ago, I’m nervous that my interview with OAA won’t live up to that. But I think there are themes that will resonate with you because of your Okinawan heritage.

SM: Everywhere Okinawanness?

TN: Everywhere Okinawanness. Yeah, so a couple months ago, Lesley Chinen, the 2019 Marketing and PR Manager of Okinawa Association of America, found out about our podcast, apparently just searching for Japanese American podcasts, and she reached out to ask if there might be a way to collaborate with their organization and The Big Root. After a phone call with Lesley and figuring out what we might be able to do, we agreed that we could possibly interview people from OAA on the show. In particular, they are celebrating their 110th anniversary this year, and they want to promote their big concert event in September, featuring the Okinawan band BEGIN.

 SM: I love BEGIN!

“Shimanchu nu Takara” by BEGIN

SM: Such a great song.

TN: I’m off to a good start with this episode resonating with you! I didn’t know who they were before, but I now understand that they’re the most famous group to come out of Okinawa. You said that you didn’t know much about OAA before Lesley reached out to us, right?

SM: No, I didn’t. I was part of the Okinawa kenjinkai in New York called the Okinawa American Association of New York, which abbreviates to OAANY, but I wasn’t familiar with the OAA in Los Angeles.

TN: Right, so Okinawa Association of America. Although, based on its name, it sounds like a national organization, it actually originated as the kenjinkai based in Los Angeles. It’s a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation. I said that they’re celebrating their 110th anniversary, so if you do the math, the Los Angeles Okinawa kenjinkai began in 1909. I’ll go into the history of the organization in a bit, but just to introduce who you’ll hear during this episode, I interviewed three members of their leadership: Executive Director Yuko Yamauchi, President Edward or Eddie, Kamiya, and 110th Anniversary Co-Chair Yoshihiro, or Hiro, Tome.

As I mentioned earlier, I was in the LA area for July 4th, so that holiday weekend, Lesley arranged a time that I could visit their offices in Gardena, which is a city in the South Bay area of LA County. The OAA owns 3 buildings in Gardena. Their main one is a large glass building that has an activity room, a kitchen, a library, and in the back, there’s a large parking lot, where they occasionally hold outdoor events.

Paralleling our episode where you interviewed Julie Azuma in the library of Japanese American Association of New York, I first sat down with Yuko Yamauchi in the OAA library, which is named the Charles M. and Yoshiko Kamiya Library.

SM: I think, especially for nonprofit community organizations, libraries symbolize cultural knowledge and preservation.

TN: Yeah, like the JAA library, they have books and other resources in Japanese and English that members can check out. But in the LA kind of way, their library was much more sprawling compared to the JAA library in Midtown, with a room where they hold music classes and a small reading room with comfortable couches, which is where we conducted the interview.

Yuko Yamauchi has served as the Executive Director of OAA since 2006, and we began the interview talking about the history of the organization. The first thing I noticed walking into the reading room was a large wooden sign that read “Okinawa Club of America.” OAA wasn’t always named OAA, and Yuko told me that, as its mission evolved throughout the years, the name also changed.

YY: So at the turn of the century when people were emigrating from Japan, coming to the US whether it was for, you know, mostly for labor or reasons and whatnot, these prefectural associations sort of sprang up to support people from back home.

TN: As I mentioned, the organization started as a kenjinkai. When Japanese immigrants started coming to the US, people from different prefectures formed these prefectural organizations. They served as a means for Japanese immigrants to socialize and to obtain resources to help them acclimate to US laws and customs. The first settlement of people from Okinawa Prefecture in America was in the Bay Area in Northern California, and after the big 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, many Okinawans moved to Los Angeles. In 1909, those Okinawans together with others who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico formed the Nanka Okinawa Kenjinkai.

YY: And then as the generations evolved, or you know as future generations were born, the nature of what the kenjinkai was doing started to change.

TN: Yuko gave me a timeline of the different names the organization took on, but a notable change happened after World War II and after many of the Okinawans and Okinawan Americans were incarcerated. The OAA President Eddie Kamiya will speak about this more later in the episode, but OAA was originally run primarily in Japanese, which made sense for the generation of immigrants who utilized the kenjinkai. Because more Okinawan descendants were American born, there was a gradual push to incorporate English in the organization’s activities and business. I think, reflective of that and to assimilate more to American society, the organization took on an American name soon after the war and became Okinawa Club of America in 1954 until 1987, when it then was renamed Okinawa Association of America. The sign that I saw in the library with “Okinawa Club of America” was originally on the organization’s previous building, which was located more centrally in the city of Los Angeles, before they moved to Gardena in 1999.

SM: I joke that I’m involved in an alphabet soup of Japanese American organizations, but this is on another level. Anyway, I think I followed that.

TN: What’s important is that it’s now called Okinawa Association of America, and it serves a diverse group of people who identify as Okinawan.

YY: For OAA, for this area we have—we’re like a cross-section of the larger Okinawan diaspora around the world in that we have folks who came directly to LA, but we have a lot of folks who transplanted through Hawai’i, like maybe their family was in Hawai’i first and then came over. We also have people who went to South America and then came up to the LA area. We also have folks who came after the war, whether it was for, you know, to work and that sort of thing or. Also families related to the military-related families, you know, who then transplanted here, so. We’re kind of this cross-section of the community today around the world.

TN: I think it’s important to note here that the native people from Okinawa Prefecture, or the Ryukyu Islands, which includes Kagoshima Prefecture, are ethnically different from mainland Japanese people. Proportional to the total population, there are more people of Okinawan descent who live outside of Japan compared to the broader Japanese diaspora. As someone who’s not Okinawan myself, I’ll maybe defer to you to describe the history of Okinawa.

SM: So what makes up present day Okinawa Prefecture was called the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 15th to 19th century. The kingdom had a great trade relationship with China, and in 1609, the Satsuma feudal domain, which is now known as Kagoshima, invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom and forced them to pledge loyalty to the Satsuma daimyo, or feudal lord. This was done by turning over products received via trade with China, but without China’s knowledge. The Ryukyu Kingdom was fully annexed by Japan in 1879, and it was named Okinawa Prefecture. I think most people have heard about Okinawa because of the US military bases. Well, Okinawa’s unfortunate claim to fame is that it was the location of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 during World War II. It lasted three months, killing more than 150,000 Okinawans. The end of the war brought the American Occupation, and while most people know that the occupation on mainland Japan ended in 1952, I’m not sure many people that realize it continued on Okinawa an extra twenty years until 1972, a year after the Okinawa Reversion Agreement was signed.

TN: These international historical events also intersect with your family’s history.

SM: Yeah, the Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, which, coincidentally, was my mother’s eleventh birthday. My parents met on Okinawa in the mid-1960s. My father was a soldier stationed there, and my mother was a waitress at the Officers’ Club at Okuma Beach Rest Center, a U.S. military recreational facility not far from where my mother grew up.

TN: OAA didn’t have statistics related to their members’ backgrounds, but children of parents who were in the military seemed to be a demographic that they served. They also have Okinawans who originally migrated to South America and then settled in California. And a faction of their membership are people who want to get back in touch with their Okinawan roots.

YY: I feel like—and this is anecdotal; it’s not based on any data—that a lot of folks older like as their kids get older, or as their parents are getting older, that’s when they kind of come to me. And they want to know more, and they want to know how can they go and explore, how can they get in touch with relatives.

SM: I don’t want to be a broken record here, but it wasn’t until I was deep into adulthood that I returned to Okinawa with my mother to visit relatives. My mom always kept in touch with her siblings, especially her older sister, as well as a couple of my cousins, but when we visited in 2001, 30 years had passed.

TN: A significant part of their mission is to preserve, promote, and perpetuate Okinawan culture. Just to name a few things, the three-stringed instrument sanshin is Okinawan. There’s an Okinawan version of the koto, and karate or karate is originally from Okinawa. 

SM: People my age know karate from Mr. Miyagi and The Karate Kid. There is a distinct cuisine from Okinawa, as well. Orion Beer is brewed in Okinawa, and it’s served in many Japanese restaurants in New York. 

TN: OAA also has a program for preserving the indigenous language. There are 6 major Ryukyuan languages, and the Okinawan language is called Uchinaaguchi. Because Japanese became the official language of the Ryukyu Islands, these indigenous languages have become UNESCO endangered languages. In OAA, there are issei native speakers who teach the Uchinaaguchi classes.

SM: Beyond “Uchinanchu” and “mensore,” my knowledge of the Okinawan language is limited. When my mother was a child, the Japanese government stressed the importance of speaking Tokyo ben or dialect, to the extent of shaming people who spoke the Okinawan language. If caught speaking it, school children had to wear a sign around their necks, which was like the equivalent of a dunce cap. Because of that, my mom was afraid to speak Uchinaaguchi and forced it out of her memory.

TN: Oh wow. Well, we’ll get to the topic of the differences between Okinawan and mainland Japanese culture soon, but on the theme of OAA preserving the arts and culture, the organization also sponsors a scholarship program which provides the means for Okinawan Americans to visit Okinawa for study abroad.

TN: If I’m not mistaken you also attended or were participating in one of those . . .

YY: The scholarship? Yeah. Shorthand we call it the Kempi, The Kempi Scholarship Program, and yep, I was lucky enough to go. Supposed to be one year, but I ended up staying for six.

TN: Oh, wow.

YY: Yeah. It was, I was accepted to study Okinawan dance at the University of Arts, the Prefectural University of Arts in Okinawa. So yeah, I am a product of that, a recipient of that.  

TN: When was that?

YY: That was in 2000.

TN: For college? Was it post-grad?

YY: It was post, yeah, so I was already working, it was after college, and I was working, but the scholarship was something that I’d heard of, you know, maybe during college. And I thought that was an interesting opportunity. And my parents were like, no, you know, maybe, you know. They weren’t too keen on that I should go or that I wanted to go, especially because of the whole, you know, well, where is going to fit into your career path and “...”, but it was constantly there. And then at that time the upper age limit was 30, like you couldn’t be older than 29 entering the program or something to that effect, and so when I knew that was coming up, I was just like, I’m just going to throw my hat in the ring because I think I’ll regret it if I don’t at least try. So I left my job and went to study for a—meant to—I intended to study for a year. 

TN: Yuko ended up spending six years in Okinawa for the arts and to connect with her Okinawan roots, but as the Executive Director of a nonprofit organization for the past 13 years, she knew that she wanted to go into the nonprofit sector.

YY: Actually nonprofit, definitely was where I was going. I used to work—at the time I was working at the organization called Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, which is basically looking to register more Asian Pacific Islander bone marrow donors for the National Marrow Donor Registry. And so I knew I was going to do community work or, you know, in the nonprofit world. 

TN: Yuko described being inspired by activists like the late Dick Jiro Kobashigawa. Kobashigawa and other Okinawan American leaders helped establish Asian American community groups in the 1970s. His son Ben Kobashigawa was a scholar of Japanese American history and translated The History of the Okinawans in North America. This book was written in Japanese by members of OAA who understood the importance of cultural preservation.

SM: I actually own that book, but I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read it.

TN: Let’s add that to the required reading for The Big Root! Yuko was able to explore cultural activities through dance and sanshin, but her understanding of her Okinawan heritage was gradual.

YY: I think my parents probably would say it, but I didn’t know. I mean, it wasn’t anything—because I know my dad had said, you know, we’re Japanese. I’ve heard him say that. But then there would be the Okinawa part of it, and then they would always talk about the war, and I didn’t know what that meant either really growing up because I would hear these anecdotes. All of that, of course, fits into the puzzle so much later in life, but growing up I would hear these things, or like where even the words or that I understood that when my parents would start talking in the Okinawan language, other Japanese people wouldn’t understand them. I was going to Japanese school since I was little, but then suddenly they would break out into something and I’m like, ‘What? What? What?’ And they’re like, ‘Nevermind. This doesn’t concern you.’ And occasionally learning those words—like, I think one of the early words that I picked up, and I think a lot of young people picked up, is like, yanakagi, which means ‘ugly’ or ‘not so good looking,’ or chirakagi, which is like ‘good looking’ or ‘beautiful’ and other words like that where I knew it wasn’t Japanese, right? So, it was always kind of there without understanding, and whether I was aware, that probably didn’t really kick in until I want to say maybe end of junior high or high school, but not younger. I don’t think I have that. 

SM: I guess I can add yanakagi and chirakagi to my Okinawan vocabulary.

TN: Susan, you’re chirakagi.

SM: Awwww.

TN: Only after delving into Okinawan culture did I realize how privileged I am to be a descendent of mainland Japan. I don’t have to explain my heritage to people, but at the same time, although their shared history can be difficult to face, I’m a little jealous of the bond that Okinawans have with each other.

TN: Maybe I also come from a point of privilege that I’ve never had to justify, like, you know, my parents are from Gifu and Hiroshima, and like, I’ve never had to, like, explain, like, that my prefecture is special within Japan, but like for Okinawans, it’s like there’s also that like Ryukyu Kingdom history to it that like, it’s not as simple as you just saying, ‘I’m Japanese’ to Americans.  

YY: Because in that history being the language being prohibited from being spoken, basically the techniques of being colonized. Other kenjinkai will ask us, ‘Well, what’s your secret?’ And there’s no secret, right? It’s just, you, all the history of having been treated as ‘other.’ The history of the kingdom and annexation and invasion and all that. It informs the generations and then so the ones that then left Okinawa whether it’s several generations ago my parents came before reversion. 

TN: By Reversion, Yuko is referring to the agreement where the US would return Okinawa Prefecture to Japanese sovereignty.

Maybe you feel differently because you weren’t immersed in Japanese or Okinawan culture either way growing up, but are there situations where you distinguish between being Japanese and Okinawan?

SM: There was only one conversation about that that I had with my dad when I was in high school. I had brought up Japan, but I can’t remember specifically what we were talking about. But I do remember that my dad told me that my mom had never been to mainland Japan, except for the times she was changing planes at the airport in Tokyo. He never explained why, and I never asked. So fast forward to when my mom and I returned to Okinawa to visit her family in 2001. I was planning to go to Tokyo, Kyoto, and other cities with my then-husband, and I asked my mom if she wanted to go with us so that I could make the flight and hotel arrangements. She said quite matter-of-factly, “No, I don’t want to go to Japan.” And I thought to myself, “Well, you’re going to be in Japan,” but I just said aloud, “Okay, cool, I won’t get you a Rail Pass.” So we went to Okinawa for a few days, and my mom stayed with various family members while I went to mainland Japan for about ten days. When my aunt and uncle took us to the airport, they kept saying, “Have fun in Japan.” And after travelling around Japan, we returned to Okinawa, and our family had a huge party for us with all of my cousins and their families, and everyone kept asking us, “How was Japan? Did you enjoy Japan?” I was so confused at the time, but the more I read and study, the more I realize what they meant. And I have an understanding and love and respect for the difference between Okinawa and Japan.

TN: Oh wow.

SM: I also wanted to respond to Yuko’s point about her dad not explicitly describing how he felt or to tell her how she should feel about being Okinawan because I experienced the same thing with my mom. Earlier I mentioned that the Battle of Okinawa started on my mom’s eleventh birthday, right? Well, I didn’t know there was a Battle of Okinawa until I was 30 years old, and I found out by reading the “On This Date” column in the Boston Globe. The war is something my mom will not discuss with me. After I found out about the Battle of Okinawa, I started reading books and started asking my mom questions about what she had personally experienced. She’s given me a few minor details, but there is so much that I don’t know. The puzzle that Yuko referred to hasn’t quite fit together for me yet.

TN: To that point, there are a lot of sensitive political issues regarding Okinawa. Given the fact that events like the Battle of Okinawa forced people to leave, many issei Okinawan Americans harbor negative feelings about the presence of the American military in their homeland, and a sense of political activism has emerged from the community. However, OAA doesn’t take a stance on political issues.

YY: The OAA’s official, you know, response to vast, you know, what are our thoughts on what’s happening with the base issue in Okinawa today is to say that we’re not, you know, we don’t weigh in on that. It’s political and. Do we have members that are passionate about that? Yes. Definitely. And have we had activities that tried to bring awareness to that? Yes, we have. Sometimes people maybe feel nervous that we do do that or how we do that or how far we go or how do you, you know. But how do we address that is very carefully. The board is constantly weighing, you know. Like a request comes for a certain kind of film screening, or before I started working here, there was a women’s caravan, peace caravan that came through, and I wasn’t real active with the OAA, but I was involved with that, and I remember trying to reach out to OAA and kind of going, oh, I’m not getting a, you know, and didn’t know at the time that they weren’t going to be involved. 

TN: I probed Yuko a little further, not about her position about a specific political issue, but about her personal opinion on how to create meaningful and safe spaces for Okinawan Americans to gather and discuss their views.

YY: Personally, just as you said, I feel that it’s part of our community, so like to not talk about it is also strange. But if the concern is, ‘Oh well but if we come across as being pro or whatever, that, you know, there are consequences,’ which of course, there are. I just personally think that I’d like a space for that. And so if it can't be under OAA, then it doesn’t mean that, you know, like if I get information about either actions or something like that, yeah, I’m constantly thinking the personal versus okay, I’m, you know, a staff member. It takes—I think a lot of folks, what they do, is they will get involved, but they won’t say that they’re a part of—they’re not there as a representative or representing the OAA but they’re there as an individual who cares about the issue. And that’s, you know, right now that’s not a problem. I think people do become involved and engaged that way. There was a film screening that was being—there was a request, and then we discussed it in the board. And a very good question was, ‘Fine, you can call it education and awareness, but what do you do when someone says I want to do something about it? How is OAA going to respond to that?’ And is it really enough to just say, ‘Oh, we don’t know? Go find out on your own.’ You know? Or, ‘No, well, here, let me put you in touch…’ Doesn’t that show that we’re leaning towards that? And so, that’s you know, that’s what’s hard, I think. And still. We talk about it, but we don’t formally organize activities around it. 

TN: I know that, as the Executive Director, Yuko has to choose her words carefully, and I totally understand why OAA chooses not to get involved in political matters because the organization could easily ostracize a faction of their members. But at the same time, as someone from the outside looking in, I think an organization like OAA seems like a productive place to have political discussions because people share a common cultural value system.

TN: This is my perspective, like, you would be doing a disservice not making a space to talk about it, because if not here, where?

YY: Exactly, exactly.

TN: I fundamentally don’t know enough about the political issues that are happening in Okinawa to comment intelligently on it, but as an Okinawan person, do you have a strong opinion?

SM: I think the main issue is the relocation of a Marine base called Futenma Air Station to Henoko Bay, which is a gorgeous, natural environment that is home to all kinds of aquatic life. Talks of moving the base have been going on for decades, but it became a firm plan after three U.S. servicemen kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl in 1995. There was public outrage, naturally, and it finally paved the way for the relocation, albeit 20 years later. I think that Okinawa was strategically attractive to the U.S. during the Korean and Vietnam wars, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have so many bases and so many soldiers there now. It may sound strange for me to say this because I am a product of the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa—I wouldn’t exist if my dad hadn’t been stationed there, and several of my family members, including my mom, wouldn’t have had jobs—but I disagree with the way our soldiers behave and with the way our military seems to have no regard for the environment or the people who live there. As a member of OAANY, I met Hirokazu Nakaima, the former governor of Okinawa, and Susumu Inamine, the former mayor of Nago, the town where Henoko is located, on separate occasions. Although we talked about the bases during their visits, in general, politics and protests are off-limits to kenjinkai, primarily because they are supported by the Japanese prefectural governments. So I do understand that OAA is in a difficult position as the center of the community.

TN: Yeah, thanks for educating me on that and sharing your views. The Big Root supports and is supported by members of the Japanese American organizations around us, but I’m also glad that this podcast is a platform for us to discuss topics that don’t have a clear space in any specific organization.

SM: These conversations remind me of what Julie Azuma said in our episode about Japanese American Association of New York. With Japanese culture being hands off, and the World War II incarceration experience hindering an entire generation of Japanese Americans, Japanese Americans can be apprehensive about speaking up.

TN: I know that Yuko, especially as the Executive Director of OAA, was cautious about taking a political position one way or the other, so I appreciate that she was so candid about this issue for our recorded interview. I learned a lot, and there’s still more to educate myself on. And full disclosure, no political organization is supporting the podcast, and I asked Yuko these questions out of personal curiosity. 

On a lighter note, Yuko and I talked for a few more minutes about Okinawan dance and sanshin music before she had to take a meeting.

SM: We’re lucky to have such busy people take the time out of their schedules to be interviewed by us!

TN: Yes, definitely. Two other busy people I got to talk to that day were Eddie Kamiya and Hiro Tome. This is The Big Root, so we also love featuring Japanese activities as backdrops for the interviews. In LA, an obvious activity is eating.

SM: Yeah, wait, where’s the Hakkaisan snowmelt sake you promised me last time?

TN: Oh right. Uhh, we’ll have that once we got more advertisers. Speaking of which, I think it’s time to take a break.

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SM: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. JCNYC is a proud Community Partner of the 42nd Asian American International Film Festival. Make sure to see Demolition Girl, a film directed by Genta Matsugami and starring Aya Kitai as a teenager living in poverty in rural Japan. It screens on Monday, July 29 at 8:30 p.m. at the Regal Essex Crossing in the Lower East Side, Manhattan. Also of interest to the Japanese and Japanese American community are two documentary shorts, Fly to the Dream by Takahisa Shiraishi and PERIOD GIRL, a film by Jalena Keane-Lee that follows the story of Harvard student Nadya Okamoto. These will be screened on Wednesday July 31 at 6:00 p.m.  

Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.

TN: Ok, we’re back. So after my interview with Yuko Yamauchi, I had lunch with Eddie Kamiya and Hiro Tome at a Japanese restaurant nearby in Gardena called Kotohira. 

I mentioned that OAA moved from the city of Los Angeles to Gardena in 1999. Yuko said that OAA was trying to move to a more family-friendly neighborhood, and she told me a story about how there was a holdup during one of their meetings in their downtown location.

SM: Oh no!

TN: Yeah. And I don’t think moving to Gardena was just a coincidence. Based on demographic data, I saw that Gardena has the highest percentage of Japanese people in California at around 11% of the city’s population. Also in the South Bay of LA County is Torrance, which has the second highest percentage. To my understanding, Tozai Plaza initially had a majority of Japanese restaurants and reflected the desire from the community for restaurants that were more traditional. When I visited a couple weeks ago, there were other types of restaurants like Thai and hot pot, but I think it remains a pillar in the area for the Japanese community.

The restaurant we went to, Kotohira, is tucked in the corner of the plaza, and it has a pretty traditional yet casual Japanese storefront. There were signs for udon and soba and some string lights. The owner of Kotohira is a woman named Chigusa Noguchi, and although I didn’t get a chance to speak with her directly, Lesley got in touch with her son Tom. According to Tom, their family has been running the restaurant for about 25 years. His father was a gardner, and Mrs. Noguchi was a waitress. They eventually decided to start the restaurant because Mrs. Noguchi had experience in the food industry.

SM: Was Mrs. Noguchi Okinawan?

TN: No, actually, so they predominantly serve, like, regular Japanese food, mostly noodles, and Okinawan food is only a small part of the menu. The charming thing about it was that, according to Tom, Mrs. Noguchi’s dear friend was an Okinawan dance instructor who taught their family and their cooks different Okinawan dishes. At the beginning, Kotohira served only soki soba, but the Okinawan part of the menu expanded to include other dishes. Mrs. Noguchi’s friend eventually retired and moved back to Japan, but they continue to have this page in their menu for Okinawan food.

SM: Oh, that’s sweet.

TN: So yeah, we drove over to Kotohira from the OAA offices, which was about 10 minutes away, and we sat at a booth near the front. OAA President Eddie Kamiya and 110th Anniversary Co-Chair Hiro Tome sat across from me.

HT: Obviously, what I miss is what my mother used to cook, right?

TN: That’s Hiro Tome, or Tome-san.

HT: Goya champuru, and tofu champuru, like a soba. And the other one is—many people don’t know it—we call it nabera luffa. Luffa—you know what that luffa is? I guess you probably don’t know. That’s kind of cucumber family.

TN: Hiro Tome is an issei born and raised in Okinawa, so when we started talking about Okinawan food, he described his favorite dishes that his mom used to cook. Have you had nabera?

SM: No, I haven’t. Unless someone served it to me, and I ate it without knowing.

TN: Apparently, luffa is a type of gourd. I had to look it up later, but at the restaurant, I thought he was talking about a loofa, as in what you wash your body with.

SM: Doesn’t sound appetizing.

TN: Haha, no. But apparently when it’s mature and dried, the gourd looks like a sponge. Anyway, Tome-san ordered tofu champuru, Eddie Kamiya ordered goya champuru, and I ordered soki soba. I visited Okinawa last year, and although I actually don’t crave meat that often, soki soba hit the spot.

SM: Soki soba is the best, especially when the meat is so tender it slides off the bone! Soba noodles in Okinawa are made with flour and eggs, rather than buckwheat, which you might typically think of. And I love a good goya champuru, too.

TN: Eating lunch with Tome-san and Eddie was so humbling because of their breadth of knowledge and experience in the community. In the interest of time since, Susan, I know you’ll have a lot to bring to the table, so I’m going to distill my conversation with them into 5 topics. So first is the mission of OAA. Yuko earlier detailed some of the organization’s history and purpose, but Eddie also had a lot of insight.

If you remember, the library where I interviewed Yuko was named the Charles M. and Yoshiko Kamiya Library.

SM: I assume there’s a relation.

TN: Exactly. The library was named after Eddie’s parents. Charles Kamiya was a past president, and Yoshiko Kamiya was a past Fujinbu Women's Club chairperson.  Not only that, Eddie’s late brother, Ken, was a past president. So Eddie really has a lot of perspective.

As the Executive Director, Yuko is in charge of the day-to-day operations of OAA, but Eddie Kamiya’s role as the President and a member of the Board makes him think more about the big picture direction that OAA is moving.

EK: We are in a transitional period. We were a kenjinkai...

TN: Eddie works as an insurance agent and described that about half of the OAA board is made up of people who are generally more interested in the social and cultural aspects of the organization, like music instructors. And like him, the other half is made up of more business-leaning types, who have expertise in raising money for the organization.

EK: And then being able to get not only donations from members, but from businesses and other organizations. We realized that we had to become more businesslike.

TN: Having gotten involved in USJC for the past few years and now getting more involved in JAA, I’m starting to understand the challenges of sustaining a successful nonprofit organization, and what Eddie has to say about OAA echoes a lot of discussions I hear about from other nonprofits.

SM: It’s certainly a delicate balance of keeping longtime members and sparking the interest of new members, and of running a cultural organization as a viable business.

TN: From a more cultural perspective, sparking the interest in new members means making others feel welcome. For a multicultural organization like OAA, what language to conduct their daily operations in had a big impact on the overall spirit of the organization.

EK: We decided to make English our official language for business. Tofu champuru...

TN: Eddie’s tofu champuru arrived.

EK: And I think that was one of the major things of getting younger people involved. At least the middle generation and the more local people because when you can’t communicate it’s very hard to get people involved on a very strong basis if they don’t understand what’s going on. 

TN: Although he eventually learned Japanese in college as an Asian Studies major and speaks the language well now, Eddie is a sansei who didn’t grow up speaking Japanese, so I think he understood why it was necessary for OAA to shift to conducting business in English. I asked whether there was some resistance to that change.

EK: Naturally, because they were born and raised in Okinawa, so they came here. They’re considered Shin-Issei, or, you know, newly after the war, and also older Niseis who their main first language was Japanese. Anyway, so understandably it’s very difficult for them to transition, but I think everybody is on board that we do want to continue or to grow our younger members to be involved and also local members to be involved.  

SM: The shift to running meetings in English is parallel to what Julie described about JAA when she first joined.

TN: Yes, exactly. I even see the transition to a digital age as a parallel between OAA and JAA.

SM: Nonprofit organizations like JAA are lucky to have members who have served for decades, but yes, communications and modes of publicizing our activities have certainly changed. As someone who works on a podcast, though, I can say that some older people function just fine with technology, thank you very much!

TN: The second topic that came up was the Uchinanchu Taikai. You know what that is.

SM: Yes! In English it’s called the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, and it’s a spectacular four-day event that brings people of Okinawan descent from all over the world to Okinawa. We discussed the Okinawan diaspora, and events like the Battle of Okinawa caused many Okinawans to migrate. To foster the Okinawan spirit and to build what’s known as the “Uchina network,” the Okinawan Prefectural Government organized these big celebrations. It began in 1990, they had another one in 1995, and they have happened every 5 years since the third one in 2001. There are panel discussions that are usually focused on how to get younger people more involved in learning about Okinawan history and culture, as well as food tents and booths featuring products made by Okinawans from practically every country. But most important is that people can reconnect with their family members who never left Okinawa.

TN: Like you said, the first Taikai was in 1990, and Tome-san was actually involved in organizing it. At Kotohira, he described his role in making OAA a central resource for other Okinawa kenjinkais around the country.

HT: That time, my main concern was people from America side do not able to get the air ticket. So my concern somehow we gotta organize that. Then I told the Okinawa side, ‘Let the LA side organize all those rest of the area—people from Sacramento, Georgia, Atlanta, da da da, right? It was not as convenient as today. They don’t know how to get the airline ticket and this and whatnot. I request the governor, ‘Let the LA side organize that, all those, you know, people.’ So LA kenjinkai became one of the key information support centers to those people. We did help them, people from even Canada! I personally helped people from Vancouver and Toronto. I got the ticket for them, airline ticket. So that’s how it started involved in Uchina Taikai. I proposed several contents. 

TN: Influenced by his experiences in the US, he suggested a parade in Okinawa.

HT: One of the I requested to have the parade, just like in America. We learned that, right? All the celebration we got a big parade coming, right? Independence Day “...” So I thought have a parade let all the people visiting here go through the main street, Kokusai Street, you know, and then “...” It took them almost two months to decide that, and then they got the okay. 

TN: Hiro Tome is a giant in strengthening relations between the US and Okinawa, and notably, he has worked for the Okinawa Prefectural Government. In 1995, the OAA became a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation, and Tome-san was instrumental in making that happen. He then served as OAA President, and in 2000, he was involved in securing funding from the Okinawa government to establish the Gardena OAA buildings. Have you been to the Uchinanchu Taikai before?

SM: Oh yes! I’ve had the distinct pleasure of attending two of them, in 2001 and 2011, and I say this without any exaggeration that it’s the most spectacular event I’ve ever attended in my life, especially the one in 2011. We danced, sang, and met Okinawan people who grew up in Hawai’i, Brazil, and even Columbus, Ohio. And you and Tome-san talked about the parade. Well, in 2011 OAANY led the parade, and I was one of the members carrying our banner! We were all over the papers the next day.

TN: That’s so cool! Tome-san said that planning for the 7th Uchinanchu Taikai in 2021 hasn’t started yet, but it sounds like it’s going to be huge.

SM: Maybe a Big Root episode about Uchinanchu Taikai 2021?

TN: If JapanCulture-NYC supports my flight to Okinawa, let’s do it! ... Anyway, topic 3, family! One thing that stood out to me about Eddie’s and Tome-san’s experiences in OAA was that their involvement in the Okinawan community was a family affair. As I mentioned, Eddie Kamiya’s parents were involved in OAA, but according to Eddie, his father wasn’t always proud of his Okinawan heritage.

His father Charles Kamiya was kibei, which means that he was born in the US, in his case Hawai’i, returned to Japan for school, in his case Okinawa until he graduated high school, and then came back to the US. Charles Kamiya identified more strongly as Okinawan than American and got involved in the Okinawa kenjinkai in Hawai’i, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was arrested by the FBI and interrogated. Charles Kamiya spent 7 months in California under surveillance, and when he returned to Hawaii, shocked and afraid, he destroyed all of his family heirlooms and told the rest of the family not to identify as Japanese but as American, going as far as raising his kids as Baptists. In the 1950s, the Kamiyas moved to Southern California, where they were able to reconnect with the Japanese community and reclaim their Japaneseness.

Much like Yuko described in her experience, Eddie recalls that his parents didn’t distinguish being Japanese and Okinawan, and he didn’t really identify as an Okinawan American until the end of high school. He went to college to study modern Japanese history, Japanese politics, and the language.

Eddie had been familiar with OAA growing up. His parents were in leadership roles, so he attended the OAA picnics. Although he didn’t get involved early on, he described his siblings’ roles in the Okinawan community.

EK: My oldest sister, Helene, became involved because my mom invited her to start learning dance, Okinawan dance, so she started taking Okinawan dance. After she retired, she became involved with the women’s association and then became involved with the scholarship and everything, and then became a board member. And then my brother Kenny became involved probably 20 years ago, the same situation, and really was more he wanted to sing, and so he joined the karaoke club and stuff. I think he probably liked a lot of the Okinawan ladies fawning over him and paying attention to him because he had been divorced a long time. I’m sure that was part of it. Us Kamiya boys were notorious for that!

TN: As I mentioned, his brother Ken Kamiya was a past president of OAA. He passed away ten years ago as OAA was planning for the 100th Anniversary. Eddie reflected that he started taking on leadership roles in the organization in the past ten years.

EK: And then my son, out of the blue, he was always a rocker, he was a punk rocker during high school and college. 

TN: Eddie has a son, Joseph Kamiya.

EK: After college he decided that all of a sudden he needed a sanshin. So although my father had a lot sanshin, he didn’t pass them down to us, so he gave it to my cousins in Hawai’i, so I had to actually go out and buy a sanshin for him. And he started taking up lessons and then within a year or two he became pretty proficient at it. Plays it every single day, and then became not only just in sanshin—well, I’m sure the sanshin introduced him into the culture and the language and then the OAA itself. So he started taking Uchinaaguchi classes, he started becoming more involved in a lot of the committees, and then after he spent three years in Okinawa on Kempi’s scholarship and also studying how to make sanshin, when he came back, he wanted to work for the OAA. So now he works in the office with our Executive Director. 

SM: It really is a family affair!

TN: Has your involvement in the Japanese or Okinawan communities in New York helped you reconnect with your family?

SM: Actually, yes, and I’m so grateful for it. I’ve always been close to my mom, although I was a Daddy’s girl growing up, but learning a little bit of the language and especially the customs has brought us even closer. And getting to meet my Okinawan family members in 2001 after 30 years was truly a precious moment in my life.

TN: I’ve said this before, but in spite of your upbringing, I admire that your passion for Japanese culture came full circle. All right, the fourth topic. I mentioned this at the top of the show, but Tome-san told me about their big 110th Anniversary event coming up on September 1.

HT: You probably know that we’re going to bring in the most popular music group named BEGIN. It took me almost two years to have these people to come here to have the concert. 

TN: Given his experience organizing the Uchinanchu Taikai and getting funding for various things from the Okinawan government, my image of Tome-san is that he’s so well connected with Okinawan officials that he can get the most popular Okinawan band to show up to his event with just one phone call, but the two-year saga of booking BEGIN was actually pretty entertaining.

HT: So, I started asking my friends to see how much money I can raise. And some of my business partners, he said, ‘Well, how much you need?’ I told him I need a hundred thousand, and he told me, ‘Are you crazy?!’ So we talked, talked, talked, and he said, ‘Okay, I commited 50 thousand.’ And I said, ‘Hallelujah!’ So then I started negotiating with BEGIN group, ‘Hey, I already have some money secured.’ I told them, ‘What’s it going to cost us? Give me the budget!’ They thought LA could never host because Hawai’i, you’re talking about 50, 60 thousand Okinawan people, right? Talk about Brazil—it’s 150! And then compared to that, LA is more like, we’re known by, like, ten thousand at the most, right? So they said, ‘Yeah, you guys are not going to handle it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s not going to handle? LA is different from Hawai’i and Brazil. We do have a very strong Japanese community. I’m not focusing on Okinawan only. We are more in large community in that sense, we are much more progressed than Hawai’i and Brazil. Then BEGIN people started showing an interest. Right? Maybe LA could handle. Then finally he committed that he’s going to do it. First thing I said was to go to my friend, right, ‘Hey! We got this!’ you know? ‘Are you ready for this?’ I said. ‘What do you mean? It took two years! I used my budget for somebody else! I don’t have no more!’       

TN: Obviously, Tome-san was eventually able to secure the funding, but my six degrees of Japanese American separation is that the general manager at the company my brother and sister-in-law used to work at, Sanyo, actually helped fund the BEGIN concert!

HT: Sanyo Food is my buddy.

TN: Yeah, Nobu-san, right? 

HT: Oh, my goodness! What a small world!

TN: Tome-san predicted correctly that there would be an audience in Los Angeles for the band because, according to their Eventbrite page, the show is basically sold out. So they don’t need much more publicity, but to listeners of The Big Root in the LA area, the OAA 110th Anniversary featuring BEGIN will be held on September 1 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center in Redondo Beach, California. They have performed in Hawai’i before, but it’ll be the first time they perform in mainland US.

SM: I’m tempted to go!

TN: You should, but buy your tickets fast! The day before the concert, on August 31, there will be the 110th Anniversary Zenyasai, or reception, at the Ken Nakaoka Center in Gardena. Information to reserve tickets for that and the link to the BEGIN concert is on the OAA website oaamensore.org. Tome-san said that there will also be about 25 delegates from the Okinawa Prefectural Government attending the 110th Anniversary.

SM: That’s going to be a great concert!

TN: The final topic of my conversation with Eddie and Tome-san was whether they found any differences between Okinawan culture and mainland Japanese culture. I was curious about their experiences relating to this topic because, as a descendent of mainland Japanese people, I never really took the time to appreciate what it meant to be Okinawan American, an ethnic minority within an ethnic minority in the US.

Tome-san thinks that Okinawan culture is generally more welcoming than mainland Japanese culture. With the issei, nisei, sansei, yonsei, Japanese Americans are stratified, and the language and cultural values often separate these factions of Japanese people. Instead, Okinawans find the commonalities between each other and celebrate their differences. Tome-san praises this Okinawan bond.

SM: I definitely think that Okinawans are more laid-back than people from mainland Japan. I don’t think Okinawa is quite as homogeneous, either, nor does it care to be. The Uchinanchu Taikai shows that Okinawans celebrate their worldwide reach. 

TN: Eddie said that he didn’t identify a social difference between Okinawans and Japanese people, but his anecdote about andagi and omiyage I think encapsulates how his interactions with Japanese Americans around him strengthened his Okinawan American identity.

EK: The only thing that stands out to when me growing up was when going to school after New Year’s, and we would always have a ton of leftover food. And naturally, I would have to take it to school, and I was embarrassed because, you know. Anyway, I was eating andagi, you know, Okinawan dango, and my friends were asking, ‘What’s that?’ and my mom always told me it’s tempura. So I told them, ‘This is tempura.’ And my other Japanese friends were like, ‘This is not tempura!’ And so it was one of the first indications to me that, hey, we’re not, I’m not similar to these guys in a lot of aspects and stuff. Every time my parents would come back home from Okinawa, and I would have something of omiyage that they brought for me, and it was always something Okinawan, and it kind of looked more Chinese or Korean or something. So my friends would ask me, ‘What’s that?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, my parents brought it back from Japan.’ And they couldn’t, they never saw anything like that.   

SM: I didn’t have experiences like what Eddie described there growing up, but to me, it’s never really been about being either Okinawan or Japanese. I’m both Okinawan and Japanese.

TN: That’s a beautiful way to look at it.

SM: The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, a city on the southern tip of the main island of Okinawa, has the Cornerstone of Peace, granite slabs containing more than 240,000 names of people, military and civilian, who lost their lives during the Battle of Okinawa. And that’s not just the names of the Okinawans or the Japanese who died; it’s a memorial for everyone, regardless of nationality. So when you visit, you’ll see the names of Americans, North and South Koreans, Taiwanese, and British. This was something that the former governor of Okinawa, the late Ota Masahide, wanted because it was a battle in a world war, emphasis on “world.” That’s why the Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai is significant. It welcomes everyone home to Okinawa. And I know that Japan and Okinawa have had a difficult history, and I wish the base issue wasn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Okinawa. Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan, but the natural landscapes and the water are stunning, and its people are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet.  

TN: Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing about my visit to OAA.

SM: I did. Thank you for sharing.

TN: Thank you for listening. And thank you to Lesley Chinen for connecting The Big Root with Okinawa Association of America. And thank you to Yuko Yamauchi, Eddie Kamiya, and Hiro Tome for taking the time to talk with me. Lesley Chinen and Joey Kamiya also helped with some fact checking for the episode, so additional thanks for that!

SM: That was our first episode outside of New York. We’re bicoastal!

TN: It’s safe to say that we strive to cover Japaneseness across the country! And the world.

SM: To cover worldwide Japaneseness, we need financial support beyond JapanCulture-NYC.

TN: Yes, to get more supporters, that means we also need more listeners so that we can convince businesses to advertise with us. So if you’re currently listening, please share this podcast with a friend and review us on your podcasting app to help strangers find us, too!

SM: Sign up for The Big Root mailing list at thebigrootpodcast.com/subscribe.

TN: Little known fact. We also take the time to transcribe all of our episodes, so if you know someone who would be interested in the content of our podcast but is more of a reader than a podcast listener, you can send them a link to our website, thebigrootpodcast.com.

SM: Just as Lesley Chinen of OAA reached out to us, let us know if there’s anything in the community you’d like for us to feature on this podcast.

TN: You know, I hope the owner of an omakase sushi restaurant reaches out to us and asks us to interview them while they feed us, and it’ll  be a BYOB place so we can bring that Hakkaisan 3-year.


TN: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.

SM: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige.

TN: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.

SM: I’m Susan McCormac.

TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige. Thanks for listening.

Toshiki Nakashige