[Interview] 2022 Kempi International student Jessica Akemi Yamada

Okinawa Prefectural Government will select exemplary individuals from descendants of Okinawan emigrants and Asian countries (hereinafter referred to as “international students”). The international students shall receive education and training at universities, businesses, and institutions for learning traditional arts in Okinawa Prefecture (hereinafter referred to as “universities and other institutions”). Students will be provided with opportunities to understand Okinawan history, culture, and customs, gain work experience at local businesses, and promote exchange with local people. The aim of the program is to cultivate human resources capable of serving as a bridge between students’ home countries and Okinawa, foster the preservation of the Uchinā Network for the next generation and contribute to international exchange with Okinawa Prefecture.

We interviewed Jessica Yamada, a 2022 Kempi international student.Please take a look at Jessica's thoughts on Okinawa and studying abroad etc...

1. Home country
Sao Paulo, Brazil

2. Occupation
I am a ceramic artist.
I create small custom-made pieces and participate in small fairs and various exhibitions including Urizun-kai cultural space.
*Urizun-kai: Okinawa Kempi international student and trainee alumni association

I work as an assistant in several ateliers. This year I started a ceramics class at Atelier Sueli Massuda, and from 2022 I am organizing workshops at Atelier Muriqui.

3. Ancestor's (Uyafaafuji's) birthplace
My mother's side is Uchinanchu. My grandma is from Yonabaru and my grandpa is from Urasoe.

4. What do you want to do or strive for during this study abroad?
I am currently taking a second semester course in ceramics at Okinawa University of Arts. Classes started in October, and I practice Monday through Friday. In class, students learn to make cups, makais (tea cup), and plates, respectively. We always make one basic mold and one free-form mold. Under the guidance of Professor Shimabukuro, we learned about the traditional Okinawan shape, bulbous, with the mouth slightly curved outward. After this explanation, I understood more about this pottery. 

This week we will be firing in a kiln called "Noborigama". The Noborigama kiln at the university is a very large wood-fired kiln, and because the university is an educational institution and because of the amount of smoke it produces, it is currently the only kiln available in Naha City. There are kilns of this type in Brazil, but I had never experienced one before, and this was my first time in Okinawa. I think it is very special to be able to have this experience in Okinawa. I'm also looking forward to the January class on Okinawan pottery, Yachimun.

I'm planning to visit more pottery on Tsuboya-dori in Naha and other pottery shops outside of Naha, especially in Yomitan Village. The Yomitan Village studio is a typical Yachimun studio.

In addition to ceramics, I was able to participate in college classes on karate and the history of Okinawan crafts at a technical college. I had never tried karate, but my uncle does it, so in a way I feel a kinship with it. And while I have looked at lacquerware in the history of Okinawan crafts, I'm interested in traditional garment weaving, cutting, and ceramics. But I would like to know more about the role of these artistic expressions, especially ceramics. In particular, I would like to know about non-tabletop ceramics, such as those used on altars and tombs, and what influences and historical background each art form had. 

5. Favorite Okinawa word
I really like the words "Tiburu" and "Gachimayaa."
"Tiburu" was the first word I learned when I was a little girl. I think I was explained the meaning of "chibul maji" (meaning "big head"), which my parents sometimes heard from my grandpa. I don't recall hearing the origin of the word, so I assumed it was Japanese. When I talked about it in class at school, no one understood me, which made me wonder, and I reflected a bit on whether what I had learned was true. 

Let me tell you about another favorite word of mine, "Gachimayaa". I don't remember the exact time, but since I was little, my father and I were "Gachimaya," big eaters, and I think we always talked about it. Then my grandpa also opened a restaurant called "Gachimayaa," so it took on even more meaning and the word became even stronger in my mind.

6. Have you ever participated in a Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival before?
I’ve never participated in that before!

7. How do you feel about participating in this year's 7th U Congress?

It was a very exciting and very happy coincidence. My exchange program was supposed to take place in 2020, but due to the coronavirus, it was postponed until this year. I didn't know much about the situation until halfway through, and I never imagined that the 7th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival would actually take place.

First, there was a parade for each country on Kokusai Street. I was impressed by the fact that this Festival is a very large event with many countries associated with Okinawa. Even though the number of participants was small this year, it was still a very large event, which is hard to imagine from previous events that I've participated in before.

The Brazilian parade was led by Ms. Midori, owner of Punga Ponga, a Brazilian restaurant located off Kokusai Dori. Ms. Midori, the band, and the dancers are all Okinawans who love Brazil. It is truly amazing that there are so many people from faraway lands who love our country and culture.

While waiting for their turn, countries gathered in a corner of the main street to rehearse and converse. One woman told me that her family living in Brazil could not make it to the reunion this year and she wanted to take a picture with them, and I was very happy and touched to see a Brazilian in attendance representing her family.

We Kempi students were behind the flags, jumping, screaming, and dancing right behind the band. We walked a lot, but to be honest, I wasn't prepared to be as physically active as I was. But while we were participating in the parade, people along the street, especially ladies, shouted "Okaeri," Welcome back home, and gave us souvenirs and good luck charms, which was very fun and exciting.

Due to heavy rain on opening day, the ceremony, which was supposed to take place at the Cellular baseball Stadium, was restricted to limited admission. So, most of us Kempi students gathered at the JICA Okinawa Center and watched the speeches on online. It was fun to meet and get to know other Kempi students from other countries.

On the first day of the Festival, we Kempi students participated in the "Uchina Goodwill Ambassadors of Overseas Okinawa Kenjinkai" event. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with important Okinawan people in Brazil and other countries around the world. We started with a group of Brazilians and then interacted with a representative from New Caledonia.

The woman representing New Caledonia explained that "your country has many cultures, including Okinawa, that still need to be strengthened, which is why we come to the conference looking for solutions, creating and encouraging events that will make our descendants want to know more."

On the second day of the festival the Okinawa prefectures welcomed their descendants.

I attended the event in Urasoe and it was very nostalgic to see again the building and the people in the prefecture that I used to frequent and socialize with a lot during the Municipal Study Abroad in seven years ago. I was already in Okinawa for a month.

At the welcome reception, I was the only participant from Central and South America, and I also had to give a short speech as the Brazilian representative, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was able to meet again two former Brazilian trainees who accompanied me from Urasoe, and one of them became a Kempi student with me, so I felt special. Furthermore, other former Kempi students and people from the Kyoyukai in Urasoe joined us online from early in the morning and we were able to interact with them.

One of the online exchange meetings was at the Ryukyuan dance practice hall that I attended when I was studying abroad, and I was very happy to see that the teachers are still teaching and dancing with great energy.

Another thing that touched me that day was when Mr. Nishihara from Hawaii, upon learning that I was Brazilian, asked me if I knew someone named Shigeyuki. It took me a while to understand and I was still confused when I confirmed his last name, but I found out that he was my grandpa. He was very worried and asked me if everything was okay since he only had a chance to see my grandpa at this Festival, because there was no phone call or letter, and his grandpa had not come offshore. I was touched by the look of relief on his face when he found out that there was nothing wrong with my grandpa. We did not speak each other's language, so we could only communicate through gestures. Nevertheless, he attended the Uchinanchu convention in order to find his friend, my grandpa in Brazil.

The weather recovered for the closing ceremony and we were able to hold a powerful ceremony. It is very nice to hear speeches and live music with so many people, which is not usual. It was even more wonderful because it was my first time at the cellular stadium, which was packed to capacity and ended with the sunset and wonderful fireworks display. The Okinawan community is so large and strong that it is exciting to think that people from all over the world who share the same culture and history are coming together for a great reunion of this Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival.

8. How do you like living in Okinawa?
My life in Okinawa is very fulfilling and happy. I have received a lot of help from my relatives, UNC staff, and friends I have made here, as well as support from my loved ones in Brazil for both major and minor issues in my daily life.I am very shy so I am happy to interact with others and practice my Japanese, English, and Spanish. It is very special and enriching to meet other Uchinanchu from all over the world, to hear about their experiences, and to realize that we have so much in common even though we are so far apart.

This was my first time participating in the World Youth Uchinanchu Festival, both online and face to face, and I found it fun and important to see that young Uchinanchu from around the world are eager to share and learn more about their cultural heritage. I am not so young anymore, but I wanted to be one of them. It is never too late to want to know who you are and where you come from.

On weekends, I clean the house, go out to new places with as many Kempi students as possible, or just get together and chat. On weekdays, when I am very tired or unable to be proactive, I eat snacks and rice balls, then go to the college to practice my pottery. There are not many undergraduate courses in ceramics in Brazil, so it was a wonderful experience to be able to participate here. I still remember how impressed I was on the first day of class when I saw the many electric lathes, electric, gas, and wood-fired kettles, storage and production areas, and individual work spaces that could be used throughout the semester - special machines rarely seen in Brazilian ateliers.

9. What you can do and what you will do to connect the Uchina network after you return home?
I am very happy to be here to tell you all about my experience. When I was in Brazil, I did not have many opportunities to hear from others about practical Okinawan ceramics, and I would like to talk about the characteristics of the ceramics I am learning. Through these conversations, I hope to meet more people who are in this environment and who appreciate this art, and also learn more from each other. I would like to continue to participate in and support events related to Okinawan culture where I live and in other states. Yachimun is my means of artistic expression and identity, so I would like to return home and continue to study about Yachimun and apply it to my creations as much as possible. I feel great because I'm even more motivated and more confident that I love what I am doing.

I think it is important to talk about the struggles we have experienced so that future Kempi students realize that although things may not go perfectly, they are not alone.

10. Similarities between my home country and Okinawa that you did not know before
When I first came to Okinawa, I discovered that buses arrived as late as in Sao Paulo and that there were bananas and sugar cane. I thought I already knew this, but I did not know that there are many papaya trees in this area. I guess I didn't remember seeing them here before, or maybe I didn't see them as important as they are now. However, when my grandpa was growing papayas in Brazil, I observed for a while that they did not grow very big. So, I started to get interested in papayas. Here in Naha, I live in a residential area and on my way to the university, I pass by a house that has papayas in the garden and in pots.

At the entrance to the faculty, there is a large, beautiful, lush tree, the largest I have ever seen. From the balcony of my apartment, I could see the tall trees of my neighbor's house. It was still hot then, and I watched the fruit ripen and be harvested or weren't every day. I still see them every day. But not only in Naha, there are papayas all over Okinawa.

In early October, at the beginning of classes, we had a welcome party for this semester's international students, and we received a nice Bento box with elements of Okinawan cuisine. In the Bento box, there was a small salad that appeared to be zucchini. While we were eating, the teacher noticed that most of us, students were wondering about the salad and explained that it was made of green papaya. I chewed slowly to understand that it was a papaya. I learned that here in Okinawa, green papaya is part of the cuisine, not as a fruit, but as a salad. I was very surprised and curious as to whether people pick green papayas or ripe ones.

11. What surprised you when you came to Okinawa
I was and am amazed at how inclusive and caring people are. I still remember how warmly my family, whom I had never met or talked to before, welcomed me when I first came to Okinawa as a municipal international student from Urasoe in 2015. And now, seven years later, they are even more welcoming. Not to mention the daily help I receive from my friends, the university, UNC staff, people I lived with in the municipality of Urasoe seven years ago, and people I barely know.

In 2015, a woman talked to me at the bus stop about the weather and asked where I was from because she realized my accent. After we got on the bus, we talked about bags and chit-chatted. I was a little worried that I would be scolded by the driver. When she got off the bus, she handed me a 1,000 yen and told me to have fun, work hard, and eat well. I spent this money, but kept it for a while as a "symbol of good luck and love".

Now a recent story, the place where I live is quite residential and there is no big market or convenience stores nearby, I was quite disappointed and sad, because I would have to walk a lot. But fortunately, while taking a walk, I noticed a small store called Chinen. This place was part of Kinjo-san's house, and Chinen was the maiden name of store owner. A table to separate the store from the house served as a cash register, and as I paid, I could see the small food items on that table ready to greet her friends and acquaintances. From the first time I went there, I have found it to be a very familiar and comfortable environment, with chairs in a small space, people sitting and chatting, and three cats roaming around in the middle of the store.

And I set one goal to talk with Kinjo-san and I achieved it. It was a very simple and short conversation, but I was very satisfied. There are many young international students in the region, and Kinjo-san said she was used to them and could easily strike up a conversation with them. When she finds out that I am an international student, she gives me lots of bananas, or last time I went to buy rice and there was no rice, she gave me onigiri (rice balls), and I get a little food every time I go there. Recently, I sometimes get ramen noodles with vegetables for dinner. I get excited every time I go out to eat it.

Even more exciting, the name Chinen is the same as my grandma's last name. Although we are not related by blood and it is a common last name, I would like to think that my grandma is also indebted to her.

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