Member Spotlights

Ambassador of the Month: Tomo Uehara & The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival

by Tomo Uehara
| Dec 08, 2016

IMG_7455It had been nearly three and a half years since I last visited my family in Okinawa, Japan. This time, I was feeling differently to be home than ever before.

I moved to the U.S. in 2008 with two suitcases, seeking new opportunities. I left everything behind to start a new life in the dream land, or at least that’s what I thought. However, the first few years of life in the US did not go as I planned. I struggled a lot to find my path, struggled financially, and lost my motivation. Even more, I started losing my identity. “Why am I here?” “Who am I?” “Who is this Tomo?” My optimistic personality helped me get me back on my feet, and things are going well now and I even became a U.S. citizen in June 2014, but I never could have imagined such difficult transition in my new life.

Now, fast forward to October 2016. Back to my homeland for 11 days. As always I had an amazing time with my family and friends. But this time was different and I was about to rediscover my heritage and identity.

Over 110 years ago, many Okinawans migrated to Hawaii and South America to look for a better life. They worked very hard in hopes of creating a better life for themselves – just as many other immigrants to the Americas did. Even as more than a century passed, these Okinawans passed their traditions and pride of being Okinawan onto succeeding generations.

Every five years, Okinawan government hosts its largest international event -- the Worldwide Uchinanchu (Okinawan) Festival -- offering thousands of overseas Okinawans an opportunity to return to their roots. Even though it was my first time attending, as the newly elected President of the Okinawa Kenjin Club of Washington State, I led a group of 150 PNW Okinawans to attend this event.

During this five-day event, I met so many Okinawans from different parts of the world speaking languages like Portuguese, Spanish, English, Chinese, German, and French. Most of them did not even speak Japanese, as they were in their second, third, or even fourth generation abroad. For some of them, it was their very first time visiting their ancestors’ homeland.

IMG_7461While I grew up on Okinawa myself, almost everything was a new experience to many of them. They were searching for their ancestors’ roots, meeting their long-lost relatives, and feeling the Okinawan breeze.  What amazed me was that these people born all around the world were so proud to be Okinawan. I almost felt ashamed that they felt more “Okinawan” than I did. These younger generations were filled with pride and a strong identity with a culture that they may never have been able to experience firsthand. I told myself that the hardships of my own migration were nothing compared to those who migrated over 100 years ago.

As I walked down Kokusai Street in Naha City with my fellow Washington Okinawans (in Seahawks colors!), tens of thousands of people cheered “Welcome home!” to all of us. I have never felt so overwhelmed, and being home was much more than just seeing my family and friends. I am so proud to be Okinawan! Now it is my turn to pass on these great assets to next generation!