A little tale about Okinawa’s pigs from the sea

A little tale about Okinawa’s pigs from the sea

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

Today, the destruction of war and the struggles of immigrants may not be something people can relate to with the sense of reality. But on Okinawa, the memories of the difficult times live on.


On Nov. 17, people from local governments, schools, communities, and the U.S. military gathered at White Beach Naval Port Facility. They were there to commemorate “Pigs from the Sea”, a relief effort conducted by seven Okinawan immigrants in Hawaii with the cooperation of the U.S. military, which took place on the facility 70 years ago.


Capt. Robert Mathewson, Commanding Officer of Fleet Activities Okinawa, who hosted the ceremony, stated, “This was an effort between the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and an organization of Okinawan descendants in Hawaii, to replenish a major source of food which were the pigs.”


Mathewson quoted the word “yuimaaru” as the theme of this relief effort. This Okinawan word refers to the mentality of helping and sharing each other, and is often used to describe the gentle personality of Okinawans. But, it was also the source of strength for those who risked their lives to rescue the island from starvation.


It was on August 31, 1948 that the seven volunteers joined the ship’s skipper, crew, and 550 pigs on the USS Owen and departed Portland, Oregon. Prior to that, $47,196 had been raised for the voyage according to records.


Along the 6,069 mile trek, the ship was struck by several severe storms.


“The storms literally obliterated the storage they had built on ship,” said Jon Itomura, whose grandfather Shinyei Shimabukuro was aboard the ship, in an interview with the Hawaii Public Radio.


High waves and mines left from the war added more challenges, forcing the ship to take a detour and prolong the difficult voyage. By the time the ship reached Okinawa, water and food supplies for the crew and pigs were nearly gone.


After 28 days of the desperate navigation, the ship finally made it to White Beach. Along with the passengers, 536 of the 550 pigs were offloaded. Some had gone overboard during the storms.


This event had a significant importance to Okinawa. According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, there were more than 100,000 pigs in the prefecture before the war. But the number was down to 7,731 when it ended. In addition to being a food source, they were important for farming as their manure was used as fertilizer.


Thanks to the 536 pigs coming to Okinawa by sea, the number went back up to 100,000 in four years. 


Okinawan immigrants 

This historic event became widely recognized in Okinawa and Hawaii. A musical based on it was played in Hawaii in 2004 and in Los Angeles in 2005. In 2016, a monument was erected in Uruma City to commemorate the effort. And, in 2018, Governor David Ige of Hawaii proclaimed September 27 as “Pigs from the Sea Day.”


The story of “Pigs from the Sea” achieved a milestone in itself. But, it can also be put in a context of a larger story that dates back long before 1948.


About half a century prior to the mission, immigration from Okinawa to Hawaii started when 26 Okinawans landed on Hawaii in 1900. More people followed and pushed the number of Okinawans in Hawaii to 8,500 by 1907, according to “Okinawa Migrants to Hawaii”, a report by Y. Scott Matsumoto.


Okinawa’s scant natural resources, damage to farms from typhoons, and a lack of food with an increasing population were quoted by Matsumoto as the reasons why many people immigrated to Hawaii. But more difficult days awaited them.


The early groups of Okinawans were sent to plantations where they were forced to work from early morning without rest under the scorching Hawaiian sun. And they were constantly monitored by observers called “luna”, who whipped the immigrants and put pressure on the labor. And, there was a segregation between Okinawan immigrants and those from other parts of Japan. 


“Okinawa ken ken buta kau kau” was a derogatory phrase known to be thrown at Okinawans. “Buta” means “pig” and “kau” means “keep (animals).” “kau kau” also means “eat” in Hawaiian. So this means “People of Okinawa keep and eat pigs.” Matsumoto noted that this phrase reflected a view shared by immigrants from mainland Japan that that pig raising was low in social status.


But, the Okinawan immigrants stuck it out. What kept them going was yuimaaru.


Okinawans from the same towns or villages formed associations, and some held money pools known as “tanomoshi” to help each other as they went through hardships.


Another key role for their uphill battle was played by pigs.


While laboring on the Hawaii plantations, many Okinawan families established a side business of raising a few pigs, according to Matsumoto. Although raising pigs by collecting garbage and feeding it to them was regarded by other Japanese as a filthy job and probably fueled the discrimination, it also set the stage for future success. After working several years for the plantations, some Okinawans started other small business such as raising chickens or selling tofu. And “yuirmaaru” came into play.


Matsumoto noted that the Okinawan immigrants’ ability to organize and work in groups with a strong sense of social solidarity was a key to the success of their businesses. 

Today, many Okinawans are known to be socially successful, as represented by Governor Ige, whose ancestors were originally from Okinawa. 


Pass it on

While yuimaaru led to the success of Okinawan immigrants, it was also the driving force of the “Pigs from the Sea.” Now, the spirit of overcoming struggles by sharing and helping each other is passed down to future generations.


On Nov. 17, students from Okinawa International University and other young folks were among the attendees of the ceremony. Many of them volunteered to set up 2,000 candles to light up the special day.


Kazuki Oshiro, a sophomore from the University of the Ryukyus, took the stage and narrated the “Pigs from the Sea” story. During the presentation, he touched upon the diverse impact this achievement had on Okinawa.


“During this time, Okinawans in Hawaii also started a campaign to establish a university in Okinawa,” Oshiro said. “This university came to be known as the University of the Ryukyus - the university that I go to today.”


Laverne Toyo Higa, who represented the Hawaii United Okinawa Association as a president in 2006, was happy to see young people of various backgrounds coming out.


“It is wonderful that the younger generation are able to understand what was happening,” Higa said. “It’s very important. It happened 70 years ago, but it’s still quite important to understand what our relatives have gone through.


“This is probably the most famous story, but there were a lot of other stories, other people who also contributed to the efforts after the war. That story also needs to be told.”


For many who live on Okinawa, stories of starvation or war devastation may belong to the past. But the spirit of yuirmaaru continues to be an inspiration.

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