Connecting Okinawa and Hawaii through Astronomy
I currently work as an astronomer, and the reason I wanted to become one all started when I participated in a “space camp” held by NASA.
Space Camp was a training program organized by NASA for young boys and girls who wanted to become astronauts. At the time I couldn’t speak a word of English, but I was able to join the camp because a Japanese student who studied in the area and volunteers kindly helped me as interpreters.
Although it was only a week, the camp left a strong impression on me and made me think about becoming an astronomer in the future. After returning home, I pushed myself to study hard in science and physics and went on to study at the Tohoku University Department of Astronomy. I went to University of California Santa Cruz as an exchange student for a year, and then I got my master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which is well-known for its astronomy program. After graduating, I worked as a researcher in France, California, and Chicago; now I work as a public outreach specialist for the Subaru Telescope at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) Hawaii Observatory.
What is an Outreach Specialist?
I don’t think many people have heard the word “outreach” in Japan. Like the word implies, my job is to reach out and act as a link to astronomy and the general public. At my workplace we use the Japanese Subaru Telescope so many people from Japan, including high school and university students, come to visit. We hold lectures and classes for these visitors, as well as for local children and adults to learn more about astronomy.
Are there any stories about astronomy related to Okinawa?
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Okinawa's history of astronomy until I moved to Hawaii. I was studying contemporary astronomy such as cosmology and the theory of galaxy evolution up until then, so I had no idea how astronomy was used by Uchinanchu.
In Hawaii there is an institution called ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, where you can learn astronomy, navigation techniques, and Hawaiian culture. At this center I learned that people in Hawaii have long relied on the stars to live. This made me wonder about my homeland of Okinawa, so I began to study Okinawa's astronomy. As I made progress, I came across many Hoshimi stones (stones used as a tool to look for star locations) and star maps used in Okinawa in the past. To my surprise, the Milky Way galaxy and the Orion, Pleiades, and Cassiopeia constellations were properly drawn on those maps. People in Okinawa used Hoshimi stones from ancient times when no calendars existed, looking at the direction and height of climbing stars to understand the seasons. If you go to Shuri Castle there is a sundial, a tool that tells time from sunlight.
These made me realize that even in Okinawa, astronomy was directly linked to people’s lives. After realizing that Okinawa and astronomy had a very deep connection, I fell more in love with Okinawa and I felt that I was able to learn about my own identity through astronomy.
What are the good points of Okinawa you discovered by being away from Okinawa?
I realized there are many good parts of Okinawa by being away. I left Okinawa after graduating high school but I yearned for the warm Okinawa weather, not to mention the natural environment of the beautiful sea and fresh clear air. Being away reiterated how amazing Uchinanchus and Okinawan culture are. Okinawa is particularly very well-known when you live abroad!
First, karate is very famous in Europe. In fact, they are very enthusiastic about it! I didn’t really pay any attention to karate while I lived in Okinawa, but I started learning when I was in Paris because I wanted to do something related to Okinawa. I was taught by French teachers who were all black belts, and they loved karate more than the people of Okinawa do; they traveled to Okinawa every summer to participate in special training sessions. I felt embarrassed for not being a “proper” Uchinanchu, even though I was born as one.
Besides that, Okinawa is famous as an island of longevity. Thanks to a book called Okinawa Diet Program, when I mention I am from Okinawa, I get requests to teach people Okinawa cuisine rather than Japanese cuisine. I get asked a lot about cooking using goya (bitter melon), mozuku seaweed, and other vegetables and seaweeds. My pride as an Uchinanchu became increasingly stronger since I started living overseas.
How about interacting with other Uchinanchu abroad?
Of course! There is a big community for people from Okinawa in Hawaii called Hawaii United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I am a member of HUOA, and I also belong to a kenjinkai in my small town of Hilo. There are many branches of kenjinkais in Hawaii, and they are all very active and passionate. They cherish the sanshin, Okinawan dances, karate, and the Okinawan language; they strive to pass on Okinawan traditions and take pride in being Uchinanchu, moreso than the Uchinanchu who live in Okinawa. Through these organizations, I got to see even more good aspects of Uchinanchus.
What makes you proud to be Uchinanchu?
Every year in Hawaii, the Okinawa Festival is held under the organization of the HUOA. It is one of the biggest festivals in Hawaii, where more than 40,000 people come together to experience Okinawan food and enjoy Okinawa’s various performing arts on stage. During the festival, volunteers who are not Uchinanchu also help to spread the word about Okinawa. However, in 2016, a large hurricane came and the festival was canceled 4 days before the scheduled date.
A lot of food and ingredients were prepared beforehand, and everyone was scared they would go to waste; however Okinawan restaurants helped to buy out the food and ingredients, and Hawaiian Uchinanchus raised money for donations.
Although the festival was canceled, I still remember clearly seeing Uchinanchu teamwork and the spirit of yuimaaru, mutual assistance, from everyone who was there. They try to preserve Okinawan traditions with so much enthusiasm, and pass them on to the next generation. I am very happy and honored to be with them, and I will fully support them as long as there is something that I can offer.
A message to Uchinanchus who are spreading their wings to the world
I want everyone to carry a strong identity as an Uchinanchu, especially if you are heading out into the world. When you live abroad, there are times that you will encounter troubles or struggles against adversity. It is the spirit of yuimaaru that allows everyone to help and get along with one another. It is important to have a spirit that can overcome obstacles with vivaciousness, like dancing kachashii during hard times. I believe everyone from Okinawa has that spirit. Looking back at the history of Okinawa, Uchinanchus overcame a very difficult time during World War II; it was indispensable to have a positive attitude in order to weather painful times. For those who look towards the world, make sure you believe in your identity as an Uchinanchu, and exchange and interact with people of the world. Someday when you return to Okinawa, I hope you will share your story of what you have seen and learned to the people of next generation.