LITTLE OKINAWA: Southern isles and south-of-the-border converge in Yokohama

LITTLE OKINAWA: Southern isles and south-of-the-border converge in Yokohama

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

There is no towering Ryukyu gate. There are no ‘shisa’ lion statutes standing guard. Just a few Okinawan restaurants and grocers scattered amid small car-repair and sheet-metal shops.

Look – or better yet, listen – a little closer, however, and you may soon see and hear why they call this quaint residential neighborhood 15 miles south of central Tokyo “Little Okinawa.”

“Although this may not look like an Okinawan community,” says Yuta Shimozato, “while walking down the street you can hear people speaking the Okinawan dialect or playing the ‘sanshin’ (Okinawan banjo).”

At more than 20,000 strong, this is Japan’s largest Okinawan community outside of Okinawa, surpassing its well-known counterpart in Osaka by several thousand, according to Shimozato. The grocer represents the Okinawan community here as chairman of the Nakadori Shops Association.

“If it were summertime, you would be able to see a lot of houses planting ‘goya’ (bitter melon, a favorite southern-island food staple) in the garden and training the vines and leaves to shade their homes, just like in the Ryukyu Islands.”

In fact, it was not in Okinawa, but in Tsurumi, that Shimozato says he actually learned to speak the Okinawan dialect after moving here 15 years ago at the age of 18.

“I was born and raised in Naha City where few people speak the Okinawan dialect today,” he says. “Ironically, I could not speak the dialect until I came here where I needed to learn it to talk with other Okinawans.”

Shimozato says it was his father, Hidetoshi Shimozato, who has run an Okinawan grocery store here for 30 years and chairs the local Okinawan community association, that named the district Little Okinawa.

“He thought the Okinawan community here needed its own name, just like Chinese and Korean communities are called Chinatown and Koreatown,” Shimozato said.

Okinawans began flocking to Tsurumi to work in factories in the 1920s when the area was developed as a part of the Keihin (Tokyo-Yokohama) industrial belt, the nation’s largest industrial area, according to Koji Kiriu of Tsurumi Ward Office.

While laborers came from all over Japan, Okinawans remained after the boom. Today, most work in the civil and electrical engineering industry or run restaurants or bars, according to Shimozato. But Japan’s southern islands are not the only cultural influences you’ll find in Tsurumi. You’ll also find some from south of the U.S. boarder.

Stroll down the streets of Little Okinawa and you may notice that while there are many Okinawan restaurants – many of these eateries have Portuguese or Spanish names, such as Girasol and El Bosque. Closer examination will reveal that along with traditionally Okinawan delicacies such as goya “champuru,” empanadas and their Bolivian equivalent, “saltenas,” are also being served up inside.

According to Kiriu, that is because, “A lot of immigrants from South America in this district have Okinawan origins.”

During Japan’s great migration to the area, the government also encouraged Japanese to immigrate to South America to escape and alleviate the social chaos after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 1927 Showa Financial Crisis. As a result, Kiriu says, many Okinawans in Tsurumi immigrated to countries such as Brazil and Peru.

“Beginning in the 1980s” he adds, “their children and grandchildren came back here to join their relatives.”

After nearly a century of cultural influences from both hear and far, however, Tsurumi retains its identity as a distinctly Okinawan community.

“The bond between Okinawan community members here is very strong,” says Kiriu.

Even Okinawans that do not live in the district are known to frequent its restaurants and grocery stores like Shimozato’s for a taste of home on a daily bases, according to Shimozato.

“We have a deep connection to Okinawa, our home,” he says. “So, we never forget that we are Okinawans. The dialect is a good example. We never fail to use it whenever we talk with one another in our community.”

And while this neighborhood may be seem quaint and unassuming, Okinawan heritage and cultural pride is on full display during special events.

“Besides celebrating Respect for the Aged Day and year-end parties, we host Eisa (Okinawan Bon Odori) in August, Okinawan sumo competitions in July and athletic meets in October,” says Shimozato. 

“I think Little Okinawa is gradually becoming better known,” he adds. “As a representative of the community, I plan to promote it more and more with a homepage or on Facebook.”

The proud Okinawan has bigger aspirations, too. Perhaps someday when you enter this neighborhood you’ll be as sure of where you are when pass through the regal gate fronting the Shuri neighborhood of Naha – Okinawa’s capital.

“I would like to build a Shurreimon Gate at the edge of town in the near future,” Shimozato says, “as a symbol of Little Okinawa.”


Get a little taste of Okinawa

Okinawa Bussan Center
This grocery store carries about 1,000 items of Okinawan foods, handicrafts and others. The most popular item is hot and freshly sataandagi (Okinawan donuts) for 80 yen ($0.70). This sweet in hot and fresh is rare to see even in Okinawa, as most of them are available at convenience stores. Okinawa noodle is another popular item at the store. The noodle is homemade at its own factory next to the store and sold not only to locals but they are exported to Okinawa, too.

Hours: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. daily
Address: 3-74-14, Nakadori, Tsurumi-ku,
Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture (7 minute walk from JR Bentenbashi Station)
For more information, call 045-504-7816.

Yajiguwa restaurant
Open since 1955, Yajiguwa is the oldest Okinawan restaurant in the district. Its popular Okinawa soba noodles go for 500 yen ($4.50) and contain sliced bacon, fish cake and spring onion. The white broth is flavored with pork and fish, and goes well with homemade soft and chewy noodles. According to owner Hideto Yukiyama, the restaurant has used its original recipe for more than 60 years. The restaurant also offers its popular goya set and tofu champuru. Takeout is also available.

Hours: Wednesday - Monday,
11 a.m. – 3 p.m., 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Address: 3-72-2, Nakadori, Tsurumi-ku
For more information, call 045-506-5754.

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