Sometimes you don’t know the story until you get there.
In that case, “there” was Okinawa.
Last week I tagged along with the crew of “Family Ingredients,” the locally produced, Emmy Award-winning genealogy travel show, to film a segment in Okinawa. I knew the storyline — you’ll have to wait to view it on PBS next year — but I didn’t expect this other story to emerge.
And this story might just be the best one I’ve come across in a long time.
Let’s start from the beginning: Months ago, I met with Dan Nakasone, co-producer of the show and proud third-generation Uchinanchu (Okinawan), to talk about my role on this trip. In the middle of eating soki soba at Utage Restaurant in Kalihi, he started sharing with me the story about his uncle, Junichi, who died in the Battle of Okinawa, a bloody 82-day assault on the island during World War II. He would have been just a teenager then.
The thing is, his family, longtime Wahiawā residents, never knew what happened to him.
The story goes like this: Junichi went back to Okinawa and attended high school there. Sometime during the war, he, along with dozens of others, got drafted. And then he died. His family back in Hawai‘i never knew how or when or what happened.
For months, Dan’s grandmother would pack bento lunches and take them to the POW camp in Wahiawā to ask prisoners there if they knew her son. And her other son, who served in the Military Intelligence Service for the U.S., would ask Japanese soldiers he had to interrogate if they knew anything, too.
Junichi was lost to them.
For 70 years, the Nakasone family had only wondered what happened to him. The only memories they had were locked in old photographs, some taken in the final months before he was drafted to fight in a war in a country foreign to him.
Dan, who had grown up listening to the stories and seeing his family’s grief, was determined to find answers.
So this week in Okinawa was more than just a business trip for him. It was a journey to find Junichi — and find closure in the process.
While researching the segment for “Family Ingredients,” Dan met a woman named Chizu Inoue, a local magazine editor and freelance writer. He gave her a copy of an old photo of Junichi in high school. Amazingly, she recognized the uniform in the photo and narrowed the search down to one school: Shuri High School.
Dozens of students here were forced to participate in a student corps and many of them — more than 60 — died during the war. The school itself was destroyed.
Today, the campus is rebuilt and, in 1950, a memorial stone was erected, honoring those students and teachers who were killed in the battle.
It turns out, Junichi was a student at Shuri High. And the school had published accounts of what had happened at the time — prepared for the families of the students who were killed. These 12-pound, bound books are there at the school, waiting for family members to come pick them up.
Family members like Dan.
When the school found out he was coming from Hawai‘i to pick up the book, it gathered five of Junichi’s classmates (above) — all in their 80s — to meet with him to share stories about the uncle he never met.
It was one of the most moving, most emotional experiences I’ve ever witnessed. In fact, just typing out this story brings tears to my eyes.
One classmate told Dan his uncle was very quiet and hardly talked. “He would put on an aloha shirt and shorts and it was so cool,” he said in Japanese. “I remember that.”
Another talked about how strong he was and how he was able to “hold a big gun” easily.
“I feel so sorry for you,” said another, in Japanese, to Dan, who was fighting back tears. “I feel so sorry for you and your family because I survived.”
That’s why this group — called the “20 Club” — decided to publish these books. “They feel it’s their responsibility to share information from generation to generation,” said Chizu Inoue, who interpreted for us.
Dan had shared with his uncle’s classmates photos he had brought with him of Junichi. They flipped through the album and smiled, pointing out the other people in the photos and sharing more about their time at Shuri High.
“I’m amazed to experience this,” Dan told the dozen Japanese media, including NHK, that showed up to document this meeting. “I’m almost speechless. I didn’t expect to find this much information. I’m very happy to be able to take this information home to my family. It’s almost like he’s coming home now.”
While the rest of the crew was filming the segment, which will be aired on PBS next year, I was here with Dan, tracing back his roots. I couldn’t help but think that this is what “Family Ingredients” is all about: this journey to discover who you are by understanding where you came from.
That, right there, made this trip so worthwhile.