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Lynn MiyahiraLynn Miyahira

Okinawan Dream: Willamette student's ethnic heritage becomes her passion

Most of us remember something our parents made us do that we hated. Maybe it was piano lessons, religion classes, or etiquette training. For Lynn Miyahira, fourth generation Hawaiian and daughter of a long line of proud Okinawans, it was Okinawan dance lessons. That once dreaded cultural obligation has become a passion that's shaping her future.

"From the time I was six years old, my parents force fed me Okinawan culture," says Miyahira, a senior politics major at Willamette University. "While other kids were out playing soccer or going to parties on Saturday, I was squeezing into a kimono and learning Okinawan dance. It definitely wasn't the cool thing to do."

Miyahira's family lives in Kanehoe, Hawaii, about 20 minutes from Honolulu. They're part of the islands' 40,000-member Okinawan community. Her father, a leader in the Okinawan community, felt it was important for his daughter to embrace her ethnic and cultural heritage. As a senior in high school, Miyahira traveled with her family to Okinawa to meet her relatives and experience Okinawan culture first-hand. Her father's strategy worked.

"By the time I came to Willamette, I knew my Okinawan culture had given me a unique gift," says Miyahira. "I have something few people have."

While Miyahira was intimately familiar with Okinawan dance, music, drumming, food, she knew little about the country's history or its politics. A class at Willamette University in Asian and International Systems changed all that. She learned that since World War II, 20 percent of Okinawa, a prefecture or state of mainland Japan, is covered by U.S. military bases. Miles of the lush island is fenced off with chain link and is strictly off-limits to most Okinawans. In Ginowan City, where Miyahira's relatives live, the center of the densely populated city is dominated by Futenma Marine Corps Air Base. All hours of the day, military planes and jets scream across the skies. Its not surprising that many Okinawans resent the U.S.'s military presence. Others, however, can't imagine the island without it.

Miyahira became fascinated by the idea of a divided Okinawa. "I wanted to find out what the dynamics are between the U.S. military bases and the Okinawan people," she says. "I wanted to explore the conflicting attitudes and get a grasp of the tension that exists."

To fund her studies, Miyahira applied for and won a Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, a prestigious $2,500 stipend that enables Willamette University students to study a subject not covered in a classroom setting. She spent four and a half months in Okinawa, braving two typhoons during her first two weeks on the island, and she interviewed 60 Okinawan residents about how they feel about the U.S. bases. To ensure she interviewed a broad section of the population, she conducted person-in-the-street interviews, randomly talking with people she met in stores, cafes, on street corners, even in taxicabs. Some she found reticent to express contrary opinions, a trait she says is common in Asian cultures. Others, especially young people, had little awareness or opinions about the issues. However, about half of those she spoke with had very definite views.

"I was surprised to find that civilian Okinawans who worked on the U.S. bases were almost unanimously in favor of fewer bases," she says. "These are people who depend on the bases for their livelihood. They don't want the bases to disappear entirely, but they want the bases to be scaled back."

She was also surprised that U.S. bases account for only about 5 percent of the Okinawan economy, including rental payments the military makes to private landowners for base sites. Because the bases are self-contained communities that have everything base personnel need, including stores, there's little incentive for military families to spend money off base.

A number of Okinawans, including a cab driver Miyahira spoke with, feel that the presence of U.S. military bases puts the Okinawan people in harms way. "Many people said, even if we don't do anything, we are a target because the bases are here," she says. "After September 11, the bases went on high alert, entire roads were blocked off with cement blockades and it was very tense on the island."

During World War II, Okinawa was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific. More than 150,000 civilian Okinawans were killed. Perhaps because of their first-hand experience with war, the most common theme Miyahira's interviewees expressed is that war isn't the answer. "Okinawans of all ages are the first to say that war doesn't work," she says. "They are very anti-war."

The other common theme was that most Okinawans dream of a future free of the presence of U.S. military bases on their island. Few believe it will happen, but, in a perfect world, that's what they'd like to see.

Miyahira recently gave a talk and slide show about her research to a packed house at Willamette University's Hatfield Library. She's been pleasantly surprised at the interest in her work. "I can't believe how many people are interested in how the Okinawan people feel about these issues," she says. "It's bringing Okinawan culture to many people who didn't know anything about it."

Her experiences in Okinawa have honed Miyahira's Japanese language skills and made her feel more confident about travelling and working abroad. Perhaps the most lasting part of her research project is that it's given her focus for the future and made her want to use her Okinawan heritage in her work. "I want to continue studying about Okinawa and I'd like to work with these issues in an embassy or maybe in public relations acting as a liaison between the U.S. military and the Okinawan people."

No one has to force Lynn Miyahira to embrace her culture anymore. She's taking karate lessons and taiko drumming. Her father was right - her Okinawan heritage is a precious gift.