June, 2001

 

Maui’s Okinawan Community

Displays Its Native Culture

 

By Wayne Smith

 

In keeping with Hawaii’s reputation of being the melting pot of the Pacific, Maui is the home of a remarkable array of Mauians whose lineage can be directly traced to islands and lands of the Pacific Rim. And often, though separated from their ancestral homes by both time and distance, the groups work hard to preserve and honor their heritage in some way.

 One such group is from Okinawa and they will be celebrating their heritage with a public Okinawan Cultural Festival on June 9 in Paia. The one-day festival, which is sponsored by the Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai (people’s club), will feature performance and demonstrations of the indigenous music, dance and crafts of their native island culture. More than 150 members, ranging from young children to elders of the organization, will participate in the festivities. Ceremonial and social dances, Taiko drumming and musical performance will be demonstrated. Ethnic foods of Okinawa will be prepared and offered for sale at the event. The group has invited the mayors of two major cities in Okinawa – Kin-cho and Hirara City - to attend the festivities who will be hosted by Maui’s Mayor James “Kimo” Apana. Maui County Council member Alan Arakawa, is the current president of Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai.

 Membership in the Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai is open to anyone who has an interest in the Okinawan culture. Its purpose is to promote fellowship and mutual understanding among its members and to promote and encourage an appreciation of Okinawan culture.

 

 A primary focus of the group is the Maui Okinawa Cultural Center (Bunka Kaikan) located at 688 Nukuwai Place in Waiehu. The Kaikan, which houses a museum with displays of pottery, textiles, lacquerware, bingata, calligraphy and other items, serves as a gathering place for the entire community interested in the Okinawan culture.

 

A bit of history

             Few outsiders know much about Okinawa except that it's Japan's southernmost island and was the site of major battles of WWII. But Okinawa is an island that wasn't always a part of Japan and to this day maintains a unique culture. Okinawans pride themselves on their distinctive music, language, and steadfast traditions, which began hundreds of years ago when Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom.

 From the late 1300s and for the next 400 years, Ryukyu was its own nation, ruled by royalty. It was a prosperous time when Okinawa was at the crossroads of a flourishing trade between China, Japan, Korea and the East Indies. But the kingdom was overtaken by the Japanese in the 1700s and became a prefecture of that county.

 The Mauians of Okinawan heritage, like most of the groups who form sizable segments of the islands’ population, came here one hundred years ago as laborers for the then-thriving sugar industry. They were recruited in their native land by labor contractors and sugar plantations and mills to provide the labor needs of the growing industry.

             Sugar was Hawaii’s leading cash generator from the mid-1800s until after World War II when tourism began to erode its dominance. (See articles about Maui’s sugar cane industry on our website at www.maui-style.com)

             King sugar's appetite for laborers was the impetus behind Hawaii's diverse population of Pacific Rim natives, although the industry's search for cheap labor was not limited to the Pacific region. The first contract laborers were a shipload of Chinese "coolies" who arrived in 1852 and were distributed among the planters. They were followed by waves of workers from Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Okinawa and other Pacific islands. While some returned to their native lands, many stayed to make Hawaii their new homes.

Today Maui’s melting pot bubbles with the input of many international ingredients and the outcome is a tasteful and often colorful mix of heritages. Each of the immigrant groups brought their cultural heritage to the island. While they were intentionally kept separate in the early days, often housed in plantation villages by nationality, they now add their rich cultural backgrounds to the tapestry that makes Maui no ka oi (the very best). REMS

The Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai can be contacted at 242-1560 for information about the Festival or activities of the organization.