If you were at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center anytime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, you likely heard the word numerous times, or perhaps saw it on signs, T-shirts and flyers. In Uchinaguchi, the Okinawan language, it means “Do your best!” “Go for it!” or “Don’t give up!” Chibariyo! was the theme of last Saturday’s Maui Okinawa Festival at QKC.
Organized by the Maui Okinawa Kenjin Kai, a nonprofit group dedicated to perpetuating Okinawan heritage, culture and arts, the annual festival celebrates all things Okinawan. Like the MOKK itself, participation in the festival is open to anyone, whether Okinawan by blood or Okinawan at heart.
I think I qualify for both criteria. My father’s parents came to Hawaii from Okinawa and my mother’s parents were from Japan. But I’ve always felt drawn to Okinawan culture and arts, so much so that my dad used to remark that, somehow, I ended up with more Okinawan blood than he had.
My father’s parents’ history is a bit of a mystery to me, because they didn’t share very much about their background stories, not even with their children.
Matsuzo Yogi was actually my grandmother’s second husband. Umeto Nakasone came to Hawaii as a young bride for a man whose last name was the same as hers. She gave birth to a son, then a daughter, before her husband took the children and returned to Okinawa without her. She never saw her first-born son again, as he was killed in World War II. In the 1960s, she did get reacquainted with her daughter and met her eldest granddaughter when they visited Hawaii. The relationship was tenuous, though, as Obaban never forgave her first husband, and Auntie Yoshie couldn’t bear listening to her mother bad-mouth her father.
No one in my family knows the details of my grandparents’ courtship, though we speculate that Matsuzo took pity on Umeto, who was, most likely, barely out of her teens when she was abandoned here. He was eight years older than her, but this was his first marriage. They had five children and enjoyed at least 30 years together before he died in 1961 at the age of 64. I was barely 4 years old, so I have only a few vague memories of a gentle, quiet man who held my hand and walked me to the outhouse in the backyard of our Haiku home.
On Saturday, armed with only a name and birth year, I spent a few minutes with members of the Okinawan Genealogy Society of Hawaii, who came from Waipahu to participate in our Maui festival. I learned that my grandfather was 16 when he left his village of Nakagusuku and boarded a ship bound for Hawaii. He was the third son in his family and was apparently summoned here by his father, who had come in an earlier wave of immigrants. The genealogy volunteers encouraged me to visit their Oahu office for a more thorough review of their immigration database, which currently covers the years between 1904 and 1925.
As much as I enjoyed the cultural entertainment and traditional foods, obtaining those little scraps of information was the highlight of the festival for me, and it inspired me to continue searching for my Okinawan roots.
A few days earlier, I got in touch with the other half of my heritage, as one of my favorite annual gigs, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s volunteer appreciation dinner, celebrated Modern Japan as this year’s theme. I put on a schoolgirl uniform, heavy manga makeup, and the trademark Hello Kitty hair bow to emcee the event as Hello Katty. That is, until I climbed into an inflatable sumo costume and squared off with AkeVento, aka MACC CEO Art Vento.
This weekend, I have the honor of emceeing the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui’s 50th Anniversary Gala at the King Kamehameha Golf Club. I considered wearing my Okinawan kimono, to represent both sides of my bloodline. But that was before I tried on the blow-up sumo suit.
Reason prevailed, however, and I’ve decided to wear a tasteful semi-formal dress with a Japanese motif. Because I learned from experience, when you show up at a buffet as a sumotori, they make you go to the end of the line.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.