My great grandfather, Pepo, was born in Okinawa just around the turn of the 20th century. It was about 20 years after the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom was overthrown by the Japanese government and the Ryukyus were fully incorporated in Japan as the prefecture of Okinawa. Contrary to most people’s belief, Okinawa has its own culture, people, and language distinct from Japan. Pepo left Okinawa in the 1920s to work as a farmer in Cuba. Since I’m interested in genealogy, I’ve tried for years to find out more about Pepo including his parents’ names and more, but out of all my great grandparents, he had eluded me. So when I was in Okinawa, I was determined to hunt more. I only imagined that I’d be able to see the general area Pepo was born in and maybe some details about Okinawan culture, but I was able to find so much more.
On the first day I arrived, as mentioned before, there was a traditional style Ryukyuan village including houses from the time around when Pepo was born. I walked around inside one from 1879 and took some pictures.
As I continued my time in Okinawa, I would mention my ancestry and how I wasn’t able to find much information about it to various people I met and finally one of my friends’ parents’ friends told me about his friend who worked for a booth at an Okinawan-American convention helping people find their ancestry. So he gave me the name of the friend who gave me the information of the Okinawan library where you can request emigration records about your relative. So I sent in my request right away but didn’t expect to hear back for a while, at least not before I left Okinawa.
The next day I was surprised to find an email in my inbox. The message gave me the date and vessel of when Pepo left Okinawa as well as that he was the first son of his father, T, who was the first son of his father, M. And they managed to give me the address he was living at in 1924! I couldn’t believe it. He lived on Sesoko Island, a small island just off of Okinawa proper. Today there’s a bridge connecting it to the main island. Of course I didn’t believe that the same house would be there all these years later, but I thought I might be able to find the general area and just see what the village was like.
Saturday morning I woke up while it was still dark and navigated through some back alley streets in the dark to a bus stop. I got some coffee from one of the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines and watched the sunrise from the bus stop. Then I caught the first bus and took it half way up the island for about an hour and a half to Nago. The buses on Okinawa were not very punctual in my experience, so I was getting worried as we approached the bus terminal right as my next bus was supposed to leave. But I arrived at 8:59:15 just in time to run across the terminal to hop on the bus at 9:00:00.
The bus driver seemed to be surprised as I hopped on. “This bus doesn’t go to the Aquarium,” he said. “Is it okay?”
“It’s okay,” I replied. I guess foreigners don’t tend to go this far up the island except for the Aquarium area. After another 45 minutes, I could see Sesoko Island out across the water. I hopped off at the bridge to the island. It’s a very beautiful and modern bridge. I wondered what it looked like 100 years ago. I walked over the bridge and saw one of the most beautiful beaches as I entered. Sesoko has some incredibly gorgeous white sand.
The bridge to Sesoko
A white sand beach on Sesoko
I walked into the town on the island. There was a big field of sugar cane on the side of the road, which made me excited since Pepo was a farmer. I walked through neighbourhood roads with many houses still built in the traditional Ryukyuan styles with red tile roofs and tatami floors and shisa sitting out front. I took a picture of the street, but I don’t like taking photos of people’s property without permission so I didn’t get any good shots of individual homes.
I decided to walk down to Sesoko beach which is well known according to travel sites. On the way I passed through large fields of sugar cane and I saw a couple probably in their sixties farming. I debated whether to approach them or not but I decided not to and continued to the beach.
I’d never really understood before when people made a big deal about how a beach is really good or why some beaches were tourist hotspots while others were ignored; I mean just give me soft sand and the ocean and I’m happy. But seriously this beach was one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to. Gorgeous white sand, that’s just the right amount of beach, beautiful sights to look at, interesting coastline, and there were only two other groups there (although it was before noon in January…). I walked all the way down the beach and just took some time to relax in how beautiful it was. After collecting some sand, I decided that I needed to do what I had come there for.
I marched back up the road and paused at some grave sites to see if I could recognize Pepo’s commonly Okinawan last name. Not finding anything, however, I marched back up the road to where the two farmers were. The woman smiled at me, so I walked over and said “Excuse me. I’m looking for my great grandfather’s house.” I had written down the names of my ancestors in Japanese as well as the address I got from the library. The woman took the note from me and looked at it and then started talking with the man. The man took the note and looked at it for a long time. I tried to explain in my broken Japanese that the names were my great grandpa and his father and his father’s father. The man took out his phone and called someone. I picked out the word “gaijin” (foreigner) and the names I gave him. Then he called someone else and repeated the conversation. He hung up and said to me “Let’s go!” And together we walked to his truck. He hopped in one side and I in the other and he drove me through some backstreets to a little house.
He honked his horn and we got out. There was another man sitting on the porch. I tried to introduce myself but he didn’t reply. My first man (I never learned any of their names so I guess I’ll call them A, B, C, etc.), A went over and talked to him and handed him the note. They talked for a while and then disappeared inside the house, another of the traditional homes with screen walls to let the airflow. I could hear them make some more phone calls. I looked around the man’s yard which had a lot of junk (reminded me of my other great grandfather’s!) and also was overflowing with cats. I’ve literally never seen so many cats in one place outside of a shelter.
After some time, they came back out and told me that B had the same surname as Pepo, but apparently he wasn’t directly related. Together the three of us walked next door to the next house which was bigger and more modern. We walked in and took off our shoes. Inside they showed me the shrine which is in most Japanese homes. It contains the names of each family member who has died. They pointed out my great great grandfather, T,’s name on the shrine! It was so indescribable seeing that. Just two days ago I had literally no idea anything about my great great grandfather and now here I was looking at proof he existed!
Pepo’s name wasn’t on it of course since he left Okinawa before he died, but neither was M. I’m not entirely sure who the other names on the shrine are. I tried to ask B whose house this was, but he just replied “No, no.” I’m not sure if I asked the question wrong or what, but I never found out whose house we were in. It seemed to me that whoever owned the house must be a relative since they had my family’s shrine, but I guess I won’t know.
B told me that he’s lived next door for his whole life but it was so long ago that my great great grandfather was around that he never met them. A made another call and then the three of us drove over to a different house. The owner of that house was also someone with the same surname. He looked over my note and had a long conversation with A and B. They also asked me a few questions about myself. I told them a white lie and said that my surname was also the same. But C apparently wasn’t related at all.
We got back in the truck and drove over the bridge back to the main Okinawa island and over to some sort of visitor centre. There we met a fourth man. He spoke some English so they had brought me to him as a translator. The four of us went into a little break room area and D translated the first question for me: “What are you doing here?”
I explained that my great grandfather was Okinawan and I was looking for his former home. They asked me some question about myself and how long I was in Okinawa. I told them that I was leaving the next day but that I absolutely loved Okinawa. They told me that I needed to learn Japanese fluently and come back again. A then drove me to a bus stop and told me I could get a bus back to where I was staying. I thanked him profusely for everything he did for me and asked for a picture before he left.
Alias: Man A
Since I had some time to kill, I stopped by Lawsons and bought some soba noodles and onigiri for lunch down on the pier and then got the bus back towards Ginowan. I decided to stop off at the American Village for some souvenirs and sightseeing and then got some ramen for dinner. Then I went down to the beach to relax for a little while longer before following the seawall back to the house I was staying in. This time no rain 🙂
It was hard leaving Okinawa behind but I got such an incredible story and I was able to connect with my family history in a way I never thought was even possible!