Dance master promotes Okinawan culture in the Bay Area

CUTTING A RUG — Noriyoshi Arakaki demonstrates Okinawan dance moves with student Joann Nishihara Kujaski. photos by Ayako Mie/ Nichi Bei Weekly

Noriyoshi Arakaki has been going back to his birthplace of Okinawa almost every year for the last 32 years since he moved to Hayward, Calif., where he owns a gardening business. This time, his visit had a special meaning.

“I saw a banner in the National Theater Okinawa in Naha” — Okinawa’s capital — “that Kumi Odori has become a cultural heritage. It made me very proud of what I do,” said Arakaki. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated Kumi Odori, a type of Okinawan traditional dance, as an “intangible cultural heritage” in early November.

Arakaki is the highest-ranking master in the U.S. of Okinawan dance in the Miyagi Honryu style. He works as a gardener from Monday to Saturday, but on Sunday he takes off his gardening clothes and slips into kimono to teach Okinawan dance. To commemorate Kumi Odori’s designation as a cultural heritage, University of the Ryukyus invited him to Okinawa to talk about his efforts to preserve Okinawan cultural tradition in the U.S. at a symposium entitled “Human Migration and the 21st Century Global Society Project” at the end of November.

“Okinawan dance is my life. It is my mission to introduce the dance to the American people,” said the 66-year-old dancer, who grew up dancing because his father and uncle were distinguished dancers and singers in the community.

Arakaki was born in 1944, just before the battle of Okinawa devastated the island at the end of World War II. He said his sister used to tell him that she had to abandon him on the road, because he was too heavy for her to carry while she and her family were running away from the American attacks. Arakaki is not even certain of his birthday because his birth certificate was burned in the warfare.

After the war, he grew up in Ryukyu, or today’s Okinawa, under the United States’ administration.

The U.S. allowed Okinawans to maintain their culture and languages, while the Okinawan people had been discriminated against and called barbarians by the Japanese government and people ever since the forceful annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom following the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Before World War II, the Japanese government banned Uchina-guchi, a unique language spoken by Okinawans, at school. UNESCO designated Yaeyama-go, a dialect of Uchina-guchi, as one of the endangered languages in the world in 2009.

U.S.-Okinawa relations have long been tenuous. Arakaki’s niece, Shigeko, was strangled to death by an American soldier when she was 18 years old. In 1969, three years before Okinawa’s return to Japan, 24 U.S. military staff members were exposed to poison gas leaked from the Chibana ammunition depot. This incident upset Okinawans because the local residents were not told about the weapons or the incident. Arakaki, who was a police officer at that time, escorted an American convoy to transport the chemical weapons.

“The neighboring area was evacuated. American soldiers had masks to protect them from possible poisoning, but we were not given masks by the American military,” said Arakaki.

These incidents never made him feel bitter toward the U.S., however.

“The American soldiers had everything. When I was little, we were so poor and hungry. I had no rice, just potatoes, but the American soldiers threw away lots of food. So, I thought America was a land of promise and prosperity,” said Arakaki, who added that Okinawa was so destroyed that its restoration took longer than the rest of Japan.

His longing for a life in a “prosperous land” made him give up his career as a police officer when he was 33 years old. His family moved to Hayward where Arakaki and his wife Mineko started a gardening business 32 years ago. Arakaki remembered how he and Mineko made posters to advertise their new business, but nobody called them.

“I was really scared when the first customer called, because I knew I had to speak in English. I was happy but also really nervous,” said Arakaki, whose customers, unable to pronounce his name, call him Tony.

After 10 years of hard work, he felt something was missing.

“America is a melting pot. You have to have a strong identity to survive in this country,” said Arakaki, who said he was once told by an American to go back to Japan because he could not speak fluent English. “My identity is hard for Americans to understand when I verbally explained to them. Okinawan dance makes it easier to express myself.”

Arakaki started the Okinawan dance studio Ohtoki Kinsen-Kai in Hayward 20 years ago. Over the years, the number of its members fluctuated, but Arakaki’s 20 apprentices performed at various festivals and personal gatherings. The City of Santa Cruz designated Sept. 29, 2002 as the day of Okinawan dance, when they performed in the city.

For Arakaki’s apprentices, his studio provides them a personal connection to cultural traditions in danger of being lost.

Joann Nishihara Kujaski joined the class four years ago.

“I feel like there is somewhere to go where people understand me without me having to explain who I am,” said Kujaski, the daughter of an American soldier and an Okinawan mother. The nurse in her 50s said she had experienced an identity crisis when her beloved Okinawan mother died a few years ago. She started coming to the class to explore who she is. “We all eat similar food, and we all share the dance. The dancing class has really completed me.”

Mineko says she would have never appreciated Okinawan dance if she had not come to the U.S.

“When our group danced at the birthday party of an old Okinawan lady a few years ago, she started to cry because the dancing evoked her memory of Okinawa,” said the 61-year-old. “This is when I realized that we have to keep doing this because there are many people of Okinawan descent who are too old to visit Okinawa,” she said. Mineko was initially opposed to her husband’s dancing career in Okinawa because he had little time to spend with his family because he practiced intensively after work.

Grand Master Noho Miyagi, the founder of the Miyagi Honryu style and one of Japan’s national treasures, appreciates Arakaki’s effort to promote Okinawan dance in the U.S.

“I was not expecting Master Arakaki would be so active in teaching and performing in the U.S., because he is busy with his gardening business. I am very proud of him,” said the 72-year-old dancing master, who has been teaching Arakaki since 1970 when he opened a dance studio in Okinawa. Arakaki was one of his first students.

Arakaki is even more inspired, now that Kumi Odori has been elevated to a cultural heritage by UNESCO.

“Okinawa used to be looked down on by many Japanese people. But now it has been recognized as an important cultural heritage globally. I will keep dancing until I die to introduce my culture in this county,” said Arakaki.

***

Correction: Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Dec. 16-22, 2010 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Dance master promotes Okinawan culture in the Bay Area” erroneously stated that Noriyoshi Arakaki demonstrates and promotes Kumi Odori, a type of Okinawan traditional dance. We also reported that Arakaki’s niece, Shigeko, was 12 years old when she died. She was 18. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the errors.

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