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Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

• The Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 28 at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Schaumburg. To commemorate the special occasion, Okinawa Kenjinkai from North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, and Washington D.C. joined the Chicago group and performed Okinawa’s rich traditional dance and music.

• Paula Schmidling, President of Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai, reminded the attendees of the time of 1966 when the previous body of the Kenjinkai, “Okinawa Kyoyukai”, was formed. In Japan, Toyota Corolla was first introduced, meanwhile a gallon of gas was 32 cents, and a stamp was only five cents in the U.S.
• She said that the living circumstance has tremendously changed, and many groups have challenged to overcome it. “Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai is no exception. We have a language gap, cultural gap, generational gap, and technological gap. Yet here we are together, committed and strong,” Schmidling said.

• Linda Asato, former President, said, “It’s just amazing this organization has grown. We had a sanshin group, taiko group, dance group, and now we have a karate group. This is how to increase Kenjinkai membership, draw the number of people so that kenjinkai can continue in the near future. We are very confident,” and a big applause followed.

• As a special guest, Consul General Toshiyuki Iwado extended his congratulations to the Kenjinkai, saying, “You are bringing Okinawa not only to Chicagoans but also to Japanese nationals who are far away from home.” He also said, “Japan has welcomed President Obama and other G7 leaders. Our two nations are becoming even closer. Our two peoples are even better friends through cultural sharing, which we are doing today.”

• On the stage, the celebration started with traditional dance “Kajyadifu”. The piece was customarily performed as an opening number on festive occasions and had been only permitted in the Okinawan Imperial Court during the Ryukyu Kingdom era.

• One of the prime events was “Shishi Okoshi”.
• Shishi is a lion-like figure of saint doll and called as “shi-sa” in Okinawa. A pair of shi-sa is the protectorate god of Okinawans and often seen at the gate or roof of a house in Okinawa.
• Ikuko Nichols, Vice President and Goodwill Ambassador of Okinawa, brought a pair of shi-sa to Chicago in late 2014 to prepare the 50th anniversary with a great effort and help from Keiko Yonaha, who was a famous choreographer and dance teacher in Yomitan, Okinawa.
• This time, Yonaha brought a shi-sa from Yomitan, and the historical shi-sa of Yomitan breathed life into the pair in Chicago.

• The performance continued, and “Kai no Hatoma” was danced with sanshin music. The piece depicts the beauty of Hatoma Island and fisherman.
• Okinawa Karate Beikoku Shidoukan demonstrated its Naihanchi Shodan Kata and Tameshiwari.The Grand Master Seikichi Iha, who has the 10th dan, also demonstrated “Matsumura no Passai Kata”.
• The Chicago sanshin group invited players from Indiana and Michigan Kenjinkai and played pieces of gorgeous sanshin music. Sanshin is a three-string instrument similar to a banjo.

• Professional magician Bob Higa, an Okinawan descendant, amazed the audience with his magic and illusion show.
• The Kenjinkai’s matsuri daiko group marched on the stage and played “Kudaka and Nenjyu Kuduchi”, which described the progression of yearly cycle of traditional cultural events.

• The 50th anniversary was closed with “Kachashii”, and all the attendees participated in Kachashii dance.

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The History of Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai

• The history of Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai was presented by Linda Asato during the celebration event.
• She said, “In researching its past, it is interesting to see that the kenjinkai developed parallel with the growth of Chicago and the Japanese community.”

• According to Asato’s presentation, the very first Okinawan settler to Chicago was Kojun Aniya, a photographer, who came to the U.S. in 1902 and settled in Effingham, downstate of Chicago.
• The next pioneer was Tokujin Asato from Nakagusuku-son who arrived in San Francisco in 1906 at the age of 17. After the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, he came to Chicago, and then went to New York. After several years, he returned to Chicago and opened a small Japanese grocery store with his wife Nobuko.
• The couple made tofu for the Japanese Americans and earned the respect of the community. They hosted many overseas students from Okinawa.
• In May of 1966, Tokujin Asato along with five Okinawans founded the Okinawa Kyoyukai, which later became Kenjinkai. Kyoyukai had about 45 family memberships and started a sanshin and dance group.
• Around 1995, eisaa, the popular local festival, was gaining momentum with the music, dance, and matsuri daiko as Okinawan culture was revived. The Chicago group contacted other kenjinkai groups to learn the basic steps. Asato said, “Thus, membership increased even more as the younger members took interest.”
• The Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai has practiced their traditional performances at the Mitsuwa Marketplace every Saturday. The members also have performed in various places and occasions.


The celebration starts with traditional dance “Kajyadifu”.


Shishi is a lion-like figure of saint doll and called as “shi-sa” in Okinawa.


Paula Schmidling, President of Chicago Okinawa Kenjinkai


Ikuko Nicles (L) and Keiko Yonaha