Okinawa’s very own Aloha shirt wasn't always an island staple
“This is a bit too stylish. I am not sure if my boss would recognize it as a Kariyushi shirt,” said a young Okinawan businessman.
“That one with the karate design looks really cool,” a young girl said to her parents.
On a recent Saturday morning, the Nisshin Shokai building in Itoman City was flooded with local citizens, young and old, trying to check out the latest collection of Kariyushi shirts produced by the company.
Every spring, many Okinawans turn the page in their lives. Whether it’s starting a new academic year or being transferred to a new department within a company, spring is a season for many hellos and good-byes. For a fresh start, a lot of them treat themselves to a new Kariyushi shirt, the stylish Okinawa-originated garb which bears some similarity to the Hawaiian Aloha Shirt.
If you live in Okinawa, I am sure you have seen people in one of these colorful shirts. Many private companies encourage their employees to wear Kariyushi shirts. If you look at tourists on Kokusai Street or in American Village, you’ll spot many of them sporting this tropical attire.
In fact, you’ll find these shirts everywhere on the island. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it took years for this current island staple to be accepted by Okinawan government officials and the Okinawan people in general.
In the beginning
“It all started around 1970 with a product called Okinawa Shirt,” said Eiko Oshiro, the CEO of Nisshin Shokai, a company that makes the popular MAJUN brand of Kariyushi shirts. “Teizo Miyazato, the president of Okinawa Hotel who headed the union that oversaw all hotels on the island, went to Hawaii and came up with an idea for our own version of Aloha Shirt to help promote tourism on Okinawa.
“I was involved in that process. We made muumuu as well,” Oshiro recalled. “We asked the Okinawa prefectural government for support, but officials were very hesitant to help us … they said they didn’t like the design of Kariyshi shirts very much.”
This sounds a bit unbelievable now, given the fact that most of the Okinawan government employees wear the tropical shirt, including prefecture governors. But at the same time, I can imagine the struggle they went through. To be honest, when I was a kid, I was not a huge fan of the shirt. Nor were a lot of Okinawans.
According to Oshiro, the shirt got a big assist from U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit in 2000.
“Photos of leaders from other countries, including Clinton and Putin, dressed in Kariyushi wear drew the attention of the world … and our local government officials,” he said with a smile. “From that point on, the Okinawa prefectural government started to take the product more seriously.”
Indeed it did. Soon after, government officials starting donning Kariyushi wear for work. Private companies followed.
“That really gave the Kariyushi a boost,” Oshiro said.
If you turn on a Japanese television news channel June 1, you will likely see members of Japan’s cabinet dressed in Kariyushi wear. The idea is to publicize Cool Biz, a campaign to save costs of air conditioning by dressing “cool.”
Cool Biz was started by the Japanese government in the summer of 2005. Now it runs May 1 through Oct. 31 every year. You can put on almost any kind of half-sleeve shirt to show your support for the campaign, although many prefer the Kariyushi.
Back to the future
Although Kariyushi wear has become very popular in Okinawa, MAJUN and other brands are looking at something bigger.
“The market has already reached a saturation point in Okinawa, so we need to look beyond the prefecture to seek more growth,” Oshiro said. “Selling products in Tokyo and Osaka is part of it. Web-based sales are doing well, which can be translated to success in the overseas market.”
Oshiro said the key is to keep the designs fresh.
“These days, products get outdated and people get bored really quickly,” he said. “In order to catch up with the latest fashion trend, we adopt various designs while still keeping with traditional Okinawan style.”
If you go to the website of MAJUN (http://www.majun-okinawa.jp/), you will see that the tropical shirt has evolved into many stylish types of clothing. Some clothes look perfect for casual business attire, while others are a perfect fit for a date night. There are even Kariyushi wedding clothes, which are very popular with folks from mainland Japan.
You will notice that many of the models on the site are from foreign countries. Although Kariyushi wear was launched to represent Okinawan culture, these models look really good in the local clothing. In fact, the word “Kariyushi” means “happy” and “MAJUN” means “together” in Okinawan dialect respectively. So maybe this is a good sign for Oshiro’s hope to bring the clothing to the overseas market.
So, if you’re looking to spruce up your wardrobe, or just want to look “cool,” go get yourself a Kariyushi shirt. Hey, I even wear them now. If they are good enough for Clinton and Putin, they are good enough for me.
Where to buy
Kariyushi wear is commonly available at local supermarkets like Sanei and Aeon, as well as souvenir shops. Or you can check on each brand at the following locations and websites.
Address: 1-7-11 Tsuboya, Naha, Okinawa 902-0065
Business hours:10:00 to 19:00
2. Mango House
Address: 3-4-6 Kumoji Naha, Okinawa 900-0015
Business hours:10:00 to 22:00
3. Coconut Juice
Address: 837-15 Onaga, Tomigusuku, Okinawa 901-0223
4. Gettou Monogatari
Address: (2F) 3-3-20 Kumoji, Naha, Okinawa 900-0015
Business hours:11:00 to 20:00