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Camp rekindles pride in Okinawan heritage

Updated: 
June 29, 2014 - 12:05am

Shigeko Nakasone was just 13 years old when American forces landed on Okinawa.

To escape the fighting, she and many others fled into the woods to the north. While people around her died of hunger and exposure, Nakasone slept without shelter on the floor of forests so deep she could not see the sky.

When she came to West Hawaii in her early 20s to join her grandfather — a U.S. veteran of World War I — the journey was a rumbling 21-hour flight on a DC-6. That was 60 years ago.

Saturday, Nakasone sat quietly and watched children practice the arts, cooking and language of the land where she was born. It was part of a two-day camp at Konawaena High School designed to kindle appreciation for Okinawan culture.

“It makes me feel homesick,” she conceded. “We were so poor, but we were happy.”

Poverty was part of the early Japanese- and Okinawan-American experience in Hawaii, and participants in the Kona Okinawa Kenjinkai’s Children’s Day Camp played games from the plantation era honoring that hardscrabble heritage — games such as pogs, which was originally played with milk bottle caps. They also learned old arts rich in meaning, including taiko drums which they made out of five-gallon buckets, the dances that go with the drums, and the art of Okinawan karate.

“Our dream is that it will perpetuate in their brain, so when they get older, they will remember parts of their culture,” said Karen Kuba-Hori, state director of the day camps for the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.

Today, the students will roll the new skills into a single performance for their parents.

“The most important thing is that they learn to drum and the dance that goes with it so they don’t just put it in the corner and move on to the next thing,” said Doris Grace, a volunteer of the camp, now in its fourth year.

Thanks in part to funding from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, the camps are able to bring in teachers from around the state who are qualified to teach the old arts, Kuba-Hori said.

Sydney Bonsall, who will be a fifth-grader at Konawaena this year, never made anything quite like a drum before.

“This was fun,” she said after explaining how the instrument was put together.

Her classmate Nainoa Nakasone created a shisa mask, or “lion dog” out of clay, an oft-seen guardian in Okinawan households. Once it dried, she intended to hang it on a wall and put its traditional use into play.

“It chases away bad spirits at your house,” she said.

Shigeko Nakasone said her own children weren’t that curious about their Okinawan heritage when they were younger. Now, they ask her about it and are trying to piece together a genealogy, but the records were destroyed in the war and she doesn’t have much to give them.

“There’s nothing left,” she said.

The camp volunteers try to make sure more history isn’t lost, and some is regained.

“Culture gets lost along the way with all the modern things,” said Kathy Sasaki, a board member of the kenjinkai. “We want to teach them to appreciate some things other than iPads.”