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JET Programme Voices / Ishigaki Island’s Gift

Courtesy of Stephanie Toriumi

Stephanie Toriumi, second row third from left, takes a pose with Ishigaki city government staff

By Stephanie Toriumi / Special to The Japan Newsアロハ! 米ホノルル(ハワイ州)出身のステファニー・トリウミです。2010年から12年まで、沖縄県石垣市で国際交流員(CIR)を務めました。翻訳・通訳を担当したり、 英語を教えたり、交流イベントを企画したりと、充実した2年間を過ごしました。私が執筆した「島人の生き方 in ハワイ & 沖縄」(Kindle版)をぜひお読みください。Speech

I was born in Honolulu and raised there by my parents, who had emigrated from Hokkaido. I remember when I was little, my grandma in Hokkaido gave me a present she brought back from Okinawa — a tiny bottle of star sand. In Hawaii, we have black and green sand, but I had never seen white sand shaped like stars, and I dreamed of going to the beach in Okinawa one day. Little did I know at that time that my dream would come true and I would end up living there.

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  • Courtesy of Stephanie Toriumi

I used to wonder why Okinawans in Hawaii distinguish themselves from the Japanese. But after living on Ishigaki Island for two years and learning about Okinawa’s unique history and culture, I began to understand how it was different from the rest of Japan. I found it similar to the way that Hawaii’s history and culture are different from the U.S. mainland. We both differentiate ourselves because we share pride in our own culture, our own identity.

Ishigaki Island reminded me a lot of Hawaii with back roads lined by fields of pineapple and sugarcane. Yet even with my Japanese background, there were still moments of culture shock for me. I was surprised to see huge stone memorials in the middle of empty fields, and intrigued when I saw families spreading their picnic mats to eat at the memorials on Juurukunichi, a special day in Okinawa to honor the deceased.

Whenever I visited my grandma’s home in Hokkaido, I always went to visit my grandpa’s and other relatives’ graves. However, we had to take home the sekihan and corn we brought to keep it from being eaten by the crows. It was shocking to see the families sit at the grave and laugh all day with their lost loved ones. You can see how the people of Okinawa truly respect their ancestors and connect with their roots.

I also reminisce about parading through the town with Ishanagira community group for the Angama festival during Obon. We dressed from head to toe as “fa-ma” or children from the other world. It was an out-of-this-world experience, dancing to the strum of the sanshin through the night and offering pork belly, konnyaku and kunpen (traditional Okinawan sweets) at the altar of each house we visited.

Living on Ishigaki Island taught me the importance of cultural traditions. Seeing how the Okinawan people treasure their family relations made me realize that I should also know more about my own ancestors.

I will forever cherish the wonderful memories. Ishigaki Island, thank you for sharing with me your beautiful nature, culture, and most importantly, your kind people.

Shikaito Nifaiyu! (“Thank you” in Ishigaki dialect)

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