Jonathan Okamura: Okinawans Use Music And Dance To Assert Their Distinct Identity - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Increasing integration into the Japanese community in Hawaii led Okinawan leaders to become concerned about the viability of their heritage.

Many Okinawans in Hawaii consider themselves to be Japanese, and many Japanese in the islands agree because the social boundaries between the two groups are very open and have allowed for Okinawans to assimilate to Japanese identity. However, historically that was not the case.

When Okinawans began immigrating to Hawaii to work on plantations in 1900, they had their own language, cultural practices and beliefs, and their own home prefecture, 400 miles south of mainland Japan.

Until 1879, they also had their own Ryukyu kingdom — Okinawa is the name of the largest island — which was abolished and annexed by the Japanese empire that year. 

As a result, Japanese laborers, who began arriving in Hawaii just six years later, did not regard Okinawans as fully Japanese like themselves. To emphasize this difference, the term “Naichi” was used to distinguish Japanese from the mainland from Okinawans. The latter eventually began to refer to themselves individually and collectively as “Uchinanchu” in the indigenous Uchinaaguchi language of Okinawa to assert their ethnic identity.

Not surprisingly, relations between the two groups were quite strained, primarily because Naichi discriminated against and looked down on Uchinanchu as culturally inferior.

Widespread Naichi stereotypes of Okinawans represented them as shorter, hairier and darker than themselves — phenotypic characteristics that underscored how Uchinanchu were viewed as a separate racial group. Intermarriage, including between members of the second generation, was quite uncommon.

Fortunately, relations and attitudes between Okinawans and Naichi improved markedly after World War II. This development resulted from the second-generation nisei attending school and later working with one another, young men serving together in the military during the war and the lesser influence of first-generation Naichi in the Japanese community.

Eric Wada Norman Kaneshiro Ukwanshin Kabudan Okinawan music Jonathan Okamura column
Eric Wada, left, and Norman Kaneshiro of Ukwanshin Kabudan perform together. Kaneshiro plays the sanshin, the Okinawan three-stringed lute. (Courtesy: Ukwanshin Kabudan)

Over time, the ethnic boundary between Uchinanchu and Naichi became quite porous and easily crossed with greater acceptance of the former group and its assimilation to Japanese identity. Intermarriage became much more prevalent starting with the third-generation sansei of baby boomers born after WWII.

Okinawans were invited to join and were elected as president and other officers in Japanese community organizations, such as the Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce. In the mid-1970s, the first Uchinanchu woman was chosen as Cherry Blossom Queen, who serves as a cultural symbol of the Japanese community, since the pageant began in 1953.

Balancing Assimilation With Maintaining Unique Identity

This increasing integration into the Japanese community led Okinawan leaders to become concerned about the viability of their community and ethnic identity. In 1980, somewhat fortuitously, what can be described as the most significant event in recent Uchinanchu history in Hawaii occurred because it resulted in an unprecedented revitalization of their community and its identity and culture. 

In commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Hawaii, the Okinawa prefectural government sponsored a leadership and study tour for local Uchinanchu. From more than 200 applicants, 35 predominantly sansei were selected for this activity, which featured lectures on Okinawan culture, history and society.

Members of Hawaii Eisa Shinyuu Kai lead Bon Dancers at the Mo’ili’ili Summer Fest. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Upon their return to Hawaii, the tour participants assumed leadership positions in the Uchinanchu community, including serving as the next three presidents of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association and of other Okinawan community organizations. 

Through the HUOA, those who had been on the tour organized the first Okinawan Festival in 1982 and initiated a $9 million fundraising campaign for construction of the Hawaii Okinawa Center, which opened in 1990 in Waipio. 

This weekend, the 41st annual Okinawan Festival, which continues to be organized by the HUOA, will be held at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu.

The largest ethnic festival in the state featuring music, dance, food and exhibits, it attracts an estimated 50,000 attendees, not all of whom are Okinawan, over its two days. It is a significant means for Uchinanchu to express their distinct identity, especially from local Japanese.

“I remember thinking, ‘I am so proud to be Okinawan. This is my people.’ I wanted to have others in Hawaii experience that power and pride.”

Shari Tamashiro, the first female Eisa Ambassador

Since the cultural differences, with the exception of food, between Uchinanchu and Japanese have diminished over the generations, some Okinawans have focused on traditional folk and classical music and dance as expressive of Okinawan culture in Hawaii.

One of the most active of these organizations is Ukwanshin Kabudan, a performing arts troupe, started in 1999 by Norman Kaneshiro, its musical director, and Eric Wada, the artistic director. Kaneshiro plays the sanshin, the Okinawan three-stringed lute, while Wada performs Okinawan dance.

Both of them have studied their respective cultural art forms by living in Okinawa for about a year in the 1990s and have passed formal performance examinations that qualify them to be instructors. For years, they have shared their vast knowledge of traditional Okinawan music and dance by teaching others and performing together.

Ukwanshin Kabudan has played a major role in establishing and maintaining transnational ties between Uchinanchu in Hawaii and their ancestral homeland by performing there and hosting Okinawan music and dance troupes in Hawaii.

In addition, Ukwanshin Kabudan sponsors a very popular annual study tour of Okinawa that is much more educational in nature than a tourist trip. It features visits to important historical and cultural sites and lectures by cultural practitioners. At their community center at the Jikoen Hongwanji Buddhist temple in Kalihi, Ukwanshin Kabudan offers classes in the Uchinaaguchi language and Okinawan music. 

Takako Goya Okinawa Dance class Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center aging
Takako Goya participates in the Okinawa dance class earlier this year at the Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center in Honolulu. Many groups have education programs to promote Okinawan cultural art forms. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Many other groups are engaged in Okinawan cultural art forms, such as eisa drumming, shishimai lion dancing, and karate martial arts. In doing so, they also emphasize the cultural differences between Uchinanchu and Japanese.

Promoting Okinawan Culture

Shari Tamashiro, who was appointed the first woman Eisa Ambassador by the Worldwide Eisa Executive Committee, remarked on how attending an eisa drum festival in Brazil impacted her Uchinanchu identity.

“I got to witness over 100 drummers together at the finale of their Okinawan Festival. The ground shook, and I could feel the power of the drums reverberating. I remember thinking, ‘I am so proud to be Okinawan. This is my people.’ I wanted to have others in Hawaii experience that power and pride.” She hence has organized four eisa drum festivals locally.

The Hawaii United Okinawa Association, a statewide federation of 50 Okinawan organizations started in 1951, also engages in transnational activities with Okinawa, such as sponsoring student exchange programs and performances by Okinawan musicians and dancers at their annual festival. 

More significantly, HUOA (and Ukwanshin Kabudan) regularly participates in the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival or Taikai, which generally has been held every five years in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture. Last year’s festival attracted 8,500 attendees from throughout the Uchinanchu global diaspora, especially from South America and the U.S.

HUOA organizes the official registration of festival participants from Hawaii, who at more than 1,500 constitute the biggest delegation with Brazil second, although Brazil has the largest overseas Okinawan population. The Hawaii participants travel together on several chartered flights and march as a group behind the HUOA banner in the joyous parade that opens the festival.

In contrast, local Japanese do not maintain such collective connections to Japan. I’m not denying that many of them, young and old, visit Japan each year, but they go primarily as tourists to popular destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Sapporo. Unlike Uchinanchu, very few venture to the prefectures in southwestern Japan where their ancestors originated, such as Yamaguchi or Fukuoka, because there isn’t much to see in those locales.

Today at the Okinawan Festival is a great opportunity to learn more about how Okinawans differ from Japanese and how that difference is expressed culturally.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Ippei nifei debiru, Dr. Okamura for the great article. I passed it along for some of my relatives to read, and exhorted them to have Uchinanchu Pride. :-) I was at the Festival too and enjoyed it very much.

Tomodachi · 2 weeks ago

Hawaii and Okinawa have much in common: Both have a unique "Host Culture" , food, music/dance, and language; both share, of course, a tenuous relationship to the "Mainland" (US/Japan), and both have challenged public schools and universities (Okinawa launched a "global" science-based university as Okinawa, like Hawaii, has dreams of high tech jobs, but hotels and hospitality dominates the Okinawan economy – sound familiar?). Residents of both island states most concerned about achieving better economic status (and opportunities for their children) leave for Vegas or Tokyo or Brazil – in Liberdade, a Sao Paulo district, I met more speakers of Japanese and Okinawan than in Hawaii! Hawaii may be more inclusive: Denny Tamaki, the current Governor, is the son of a Okinawan mother and an American GI; he has published on his experiences as a victim of discrmmination by Okinawan children and sadly even today Naha voters accuse him as being not fully "Okinawan" .

FHSGrad · 2 weeks ago

I encourage those with roots in places like Yamaguchi to visit their ancestral homelands, especially if they are old enough to have spent time in the homes of their issei forebears. When I visited the town where my grandparents grew up, it explained a lot about why the plantation camp where they lived after emigrating looked like it did. There's also a Museum of Japanese Emigration to Hawaii in Yamaguchi that those with roots there might find interesting. There is also still a Yamaguchi Kenjinkai here, albeit nowhere near as active as it was when I was a kid.

Rob · 2 weeks ago

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