A Diasporic Dialogue

Ukwanshin Kabudan reconnects Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community with their homeland through music, dance, and cultural education.

A person wearing a pink kimono with square and floral patterns sitting indoors, with another individual in a dark kimono and patterned obi belt partially visible on the left.
Text by
Tina Grandinetti
Images by
IJfke Ridgley
A person wearing a traditional patterned kimono with folded arms in front of a dark backdrop featuring a large white dragon design.
Ukwanshin Kabudan uses dance and music to ignite conversations about Ryūkyūan sovereignty.

In Uchināguchi, one of the Indigenous languages of Okinawa, there is a saying: Ichariba chōdē. Once we meet, we are chōdē—brothers and sisters. For many in the diaspora, including myself, the saying reassures us that when we return to our homeland, we are welcomed as family. Yet, on a rainy winter night in Kalihi, my understanding of the saying is challenged by Eric Wada and Norman Kaneshiro, Hawai‘i-born Uchinānchu and co-founders of Ukwanshin Kabudan, a performing arts troupe dedicated to perpetuating Okinawan arts and culture in Hawai‘i.

“It’s a powerful phrase, right?” Kaneshiro says. “But if you’re coming from a take-take-take perspective—a colonizer perspective—what it means is that you’re entitled to everybody’s friendship and love without doing anything in return.”      

In January 1900, 26 Okinawan contract laborers arrived in Hawai‘i to work on the plantations, launching a wave of emigration that sent thousands of Okinawans into the diaspora. In the years since, Okinawans in the homeland have endured a brutal battle between two empires, fractured to this day by ongoing Japanese colonization and American military occupation. Meanwhile, those in diaspora have faced discrimination while making home in a foreign land. Today, roughly 100,000 Okinawans live in Hawai‘i. 

In this context, what does it mean to meet as chōdē who, though connected by family genealogies and ancestral villages, are also separated by five generations of emigration, an ocean, a language barrier, and vastly different experiences of war and colonization? 

When Wada and Kaneshiro founded Ukwanshin Kabudan in 2007, it was with the aim to nurture connections between Hawai‘i and Okinawa through traditional music and dance. More deeply, it was to instill in Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community a sense of reciprocal responsibility, both to the islands of our ancestors and the islands that raised us. 

“It’s a strong kuleana (responsibility),” Wada says as we sit on the floor of the dance studio he built in his Kalihi home. He wears a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Hawaiian adage, “ola i ka wai,” meaning “water is life.” Above him, portraits of masters of the Tamagusuku style of Okinawan classical arts hang in the manner of respected uyafāfuji, or ancestors. He continues, “In Uchināguchi we call it fichi-ukīn.” The verb pulls together two roots, fichun, to pull or inherit, and ukīn, to accept or embrace. Combined, it signifies our accountability to the responsibilities we inherit from our ancestors.

As young boys yearning for more of a connection to their Okinawan ancestry and Uchinānchu identities, Wada and Kaneshiro both took up dance and sanshin, an Okinawan stringed instrument. Kaneshiro was 16 when he met Wada, ten years his senior, but they quickly bonded over a shared passion for the arts, not just as a practice but also as a kind of compass on their journey to make sense of themselves. 

Person wearing a traditional blue kimono kneeling on wooden floor and folding a vibrant red and white patterned fabric with fan designs.

Together, they worked their way through the hierarchies of Okinawan classical arts, studying in Okinawa and deepening their commitment to cultural practice as a way of life. Wada reached the level of shihan, or grandmaster, in dance. Kaneshiro reached the same pinnacle in music. They learned both Japanese and Uchināguchi and became well-versed in cultural protocol. 

“In a five-minute song, there’s this whole history, this whole world behind it,” Kaneshiro marvels. As he and Wada explored those worlds, they increasingly understood cultural practice as a political act. “Even speaking your language is a form of activism,” Wada says.

Before it was annexed by Japan in 1879, Okinawa was an independent nation known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Much like in Hawai‘i, annexation brought the systematic suppression of language and culture, such that today, Okinawa’s Indigenous languages are considered severely endangered. Many cultural practices have been lost. The name that Wada and Kaneshiro gave their performance troupe, Ukwanshin Kabudan, is itself a reminder of this sovereign history, referring to the ukwanshin, or “crown ships,” that carried large envoys from China to Ryūkyū for the coronation of a monarch. Upon their arrival, elaborate music and dance programs known as ukwanshin udui (crown ship dances) were offered to entertain the Chinese delegation. These would become the foundation for Okinawan classical arts. 

Two individuals standing side by side wearing traditional Japanese kimono, one in a beige kimono with a black obi belt and the other in an ornate black kimono with a red and gold obi, holding hands in front of a room with Japanese decor.
The troupe aims to instill in Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community a sense of reciprocal responsibility, both to the islands of their ancestors and the islands that raised them.
A person wearing a traditional cream-colored patterned kimono with wide sleeves holds a Kendo Shinai bamboo sword with multicolored handle tape.
Japanese annexation brought the systematic suppression of Okinawa’s Indigenous languages and culture, an enduring loss felt by generations of Okinawans today.

Heavily influenced by the work of Hawaiian nationalists like Haunani-Kay Trask and Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, Ukwanshin Kabudan looked to dance and music as a way to ignite conversations about Ryūkyūan sovereignty and reclaim a culture and history that colonization and occupation tried to erase. In Hawai‘i, that meant not just performing for the Okinawan community, but also educating people about the rich history of Okinawa—and confronting the role of Okinawans as settlers on Hawaiian lands. “We started bringing up the words ‘colonized, assimilated, settler, discrimination,’ and especially the older generation didn’t take to it,” Wada recalls. “It was something they couldn’t talk about.” Gradually, the conversation changed, often by making connections between the desecration of sacred lands in both Okinawa and Hawai‘i—particularly by the United States military, which currently operates 32 bases in Okinawa.

In Okinawa, Wada and Kaneshiro found that their outside-insider identities—Uchinānchu born in Hawai‘i but also certified shihan—granted them a unique kinship with those in their homeland. As musicians, they could create intimate spaces for difficult conversations about Okinawa’s history.

And as visitors from the diaspora, they were slightly removed from the familial and intergenerational trauma that arose from those discussions. Eventually, they found themselves tending to wounds that had long been hidden. “We got to this other level where elders could talk to us,” Kaneshiro says. “Things they had a hard time sharing with their own children but wanted to tell us, because it needed to be passed down to the next generation.” This deep trust demonstrated for them the importance of a reciprocal relationship between Hawai‘i and Okinawa. Where once they looked to Okinawa for a sense of authenticity and authority, Wada and Kaneshiro saw an opportunity to reclaim and co-create an Indigenous identity with Okinawans in the homeland.

Two individuals wearing traditional Japanese kimonos standing in a room with cultural decorations, including hanging scrolls with Japanese writing, a wall calendar, and a red Chinese knot ornament. The room also features various ornamental objects and a peek into an adjacent area with a bamboo scroll painting.
Today roughly 100,000 Okinawans live in Hawai‘i, many of whom have faced discrimination while making home in a foreign land.

Over the years, Wada, Kaneshiro, and others at Ukwanshin Kabudan have expanded the organization’s activities dramatically, offering uta-sanshin classes from co-director Keith Nakaganeku, Uchināguchi language classes from board member Brandon Ing, monthly workshops on Okinawan culture and politics, and an annual LooChoo Identity Summit that invites Okinawans from around the world to Hawai‘i to spark dialogue about who we are as a people. 

It has also become increasingly focused on the kuleana that Okinawans have to Hawai‘i and Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians). In 2019, during the stand for Mauna Kea, members of Ukwanshin Kabudan led a delegation of Okinawans to offer ho‘okupu (gifts) in solidarity with those protecting the sacred mountain at Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu, and in the aftermath of the Red Hill jet fuel leak in 2021, Ukwanshin Kabudan hosted panel discussions to draw vital connections between the U.S. military’s contamination of both Hawai‘i and Okinawa’s aquifers. Most recently, the group has become involved with efforts to repatriate the remains of Okinawan ancestors and return them to their rightful resting places. 

Reflecting on the ways Ukwanshin Kabudan has grown over the years, Wada says, “Going back to fichi-ukīn, because that word is connected to so much—to who we are, and who we’re supposed to be—it just grows.” That is, perhaps, the burden and privilege of living in diaspora: You inherit responsibility for two different kinds of home. 

Kaneshiro adds, “Because when you’re family, you don’t just show up to the house to eat and drink. You clean up after, you take care of the house. You come back and show up for the hard times. That is what it means to be chōdē.”