The Year's First Sunrise

Happy New Year!

It’s a tradition among the young and the hardy in Japan to celebrate New Year’s Day by watching the first sunrise of the year. Okinawa is as far south and west as you can get and still be in Japan. This means that their sun rises a little later than in the rest of Japan.

Lucky! Not only can people in Okinawa take their time getting to a beach-side vantage point, but they can also feel a little warmer as they watch the sun rise.

Japan’s earliest sunrise is in Hokkaido, the most northeasterly territory in Japan. The weather forecast says northeast Hokkaido can expect some sunshine on New Year’s Day and a high of 0 degrees centigrade, but Okinawa will be getting their sunshine warmed to 19 degrees C.

Warm or cold, the first sunrise of the year is a special time of new beginnings. Here’s wishing you all a happy day!


Not always a paradise

When I did my research for Japan's Road to Popular Empowerment, I was surprised by the number of civilians in Okinawa who have to die because of accidents caused by the US military.

The Pacific War, in which one third (I put that it words so no one would think I mistyped the number 1/3) of the population of Okinawa was killed, ended in 1945. The official US occupation of this Japanese prefecture ended in 1972. One Okinawa city (Ginowan) still has to host five US military installations. There are more throughout the prefecture, including a deep water harbor off Katsuren----the site of my novel.

I have been to Katsuren many times, and never noticed the US base because it is farther out along the peninsula, some distance from Katsuren Castle. I probably never would have been aware of its presence, until it made the papers.

A US military vehicle--without so much as an "excuse me can we use your property for a sec"-- drove through the playground of a school for the handicapped in Katsuren. Luckily, no one was hurt. No one was hurt, either, when a US helicopter fell out of the sky and crashed and burned against the wall of an Okinawa university building, either.

Luck! Sometimes it works.

It didn't work for the nine year old girl who died in the garden of her family's home when a jeep that was being airlifted went astray and fell on her.

There's more, so much more.

More than five US bases in a single, peaceful foreign city sounds like a very expensive proposition. I certainly wouldn't spend any of my own money on such a project, would you?

Meanwhile, in researching the Koza riots of 1970--triggered when US military police fired guns on the crowd that gathered when an Okinawa civilian was run down and killed by a military vehicle--I found the following position paper by a US reporter who once upon a time was stationed in Okinawa. Interesting point of view.



Okinawa Sanshin Photo

This is it, my beautiful sanshin. It has three nylon strings stretched over a tiny bamboo bridge. Snakeskin is stretched over the body, and the rough edges are concealed with a decorative brocade band. It is played with a finger pick made from water buffalo horn, just visible in the lower left corner.
It is propped up in the place of honor (tokonoma, in Japanese) and is ready to be played any time.
The flowers are hibiscus. They bloom all year round in Okinawa. Tokyo is a little too cold for them to bloom outdoors in December, so they have been brought inside where they can keep the sanshin company.


Sanshin, One Last Word

One more word about Okinawan music

Like the guitar, the sanshin is an acoustic instrument. As with the guitar, some performers use electrically amplified sanshin. The sound of a single sanshin cannot by itself fill a hall with music. That’s another, practical reason why performers need to learn the songs perfectly: the music should sound like one voice and one instrument, a very powerful one.

There is also a spiritual interpretation to the unity of voices and instruments.

The music produced by a group is cooperation made visible, or should I say audible. One of the beauties of Okinawan society that is also a factor in the people’s longevity is strong social ties. People work together and live together, leaning on each other’s strengths.

At first I thought the idea behind becoming a group with one voice was to hide your own individuality, to hold yourself back and not draw attention to yourself. But when people hold back, the result is no sound. Silence. It turned out that sanshin is about playing and singing as powerfully as possible. The stronger and more assertive the sound, the better the music. In a word, it’s about life: what the world needs is people who have honed their abilities and who are willing and able to contribute.


The Sanshin Concours

I won! I got my medal!!

Well, that takes the suspense out of hearing about the contest, doesn't it? Here are the details, though, just for the record.

There are several schools of various styles of sanshin playing. For instance, the Nomura school is the oldest and the one that concentrates on traditional songs played in a formal manner--especially for ceremonies such as weddings. At the other end of the scale is the Noborikawa school, which specializes in entertaining with the sanshin.

I'm in the Noborikawa school.

To keep your listeners entertained, first you have to be able to look at them and smile while you play, so you can't use sheet music. That means every song in your repertoire has to be memorized. Second, it throws off the entertainment if you flub the rhythm or mess up the words, so you have to learn the songs perfectly, without looking as if you are trying too hard.

Those are the basic rules, and there are lots more tiny details which I will not go into.

At the first level of the licensing process, you have to perform two songs of the judges' choice. Because it's entertainment, you have to perform them in full costume. Kimono! And for the ladies, kimono-appropriate hair style and make up. For a contest starting at 1PM, we ladies began the dressing process at 7 AM. Yes, it does take that long.

I ended up having to shorten my kimono by 9 centimeters at the last minute. When my grandmother sewed in a hurry, she said she did it with a burning needle and flaming thread. I now know exactly how she felt.

Once you're dressed and ready, you wait for your call. At my level, we play in groups of four. Judging is based on appearance, stage presence, courtesies such as bowing at the proper time, memorization, voice, and instrumental playing. To earn every possible point, I went so far as to spray-dye my hair black, to match the beanie-like hair piece that is part of the official wardrobe.

Somehow, I passed. I have become an official "newcomer" [shin-jin-sho] to the world of sanshin playing.

It was time consuming, expensive--paid for in sweat and tears, and labor-intensive. It was worth every minute to stand on the stage after the judging and join the winners in an official concert in front of a packed auditorium.


A Butterfly for a Pet

Keeping monarch butterflies (in pupa form) until they hatch and then releasing them is a popular science project in US schools or as an individual avocation. To witness the unfolding of a lovely butterfly, see it spread its wings, then watch it soar into the skies is a moving experience. Since the idea behind these projects is to help the species propagate, releasing the hatched butterflies is a given.

What if they couldn’t be released? How would you keep a butterfly alive in your house?

That was exactly my problem when I became the custodian of several Okinawan “oh-go-madara” butterflies (Lady of the South Seas/Tree Nymph) in pupa form. They were meant to illustrate a lecture, and when the lecture was over, I hung them from the Benjamin tree in my office, as if they were Christmas tree ornaments. Five days later, I had three enormous butterflies as house guests.

It was winter in Tokyo. It wouldn’t have been kind to release them to a flower-free, frozen landscape. Besides, these butterflies—distant cousins to the monarch--contain a mild poison. If a bird or cat happened to swallow one, sayonara!

The butterflies looked adorable, perching on my houseplants. They looked comical, flapping awkwardly in aimless flight patterns around the computer and over the desk. At night, when the lights were turned off, they attached themselves to the ceiling and dangled like tired bat-children fast asleep. In the daytime, they lived dangerously, pausing to rest weightlessly on the back of my sweater as I hunched over the keyboard. What if I chose that moment to lean back and rest?

They also lived long. The record setter stayed alive and healthy for 52 days on a diet of honey and water.

These black and white butterflies are as big as an adult’s hand. They have little fear of human beings and tend to be the crowd pleasers in insectariums because of their size and friendliness to human beings. Their range is limited to areas where the temperature stays above 15 degrees C year round, so in Japan, Okinawa is where to find them.


Okinawa Longevity (3)

Do you ever get the feeling life is flapping by on blurred wings?

Here's a statement so strong I am just going to print it verbatim, then give it some quiet thought.

"If Americans lived more like the Okinawans, 80% of the nation's coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down."

................................................................From The Okinawa Program, Random House, 2001


On the Light Side


Sanshin: The Costume

Eek! I’m gonna stand on stage in a purple kimono with my blondish hair dyed black and try to play my sanshin in front of an audience and ten judges. Eek! There is more to this concours stuff than meets the eye at first glance, and some of it is scary.

First, there is the song. The words have a beautiful meaning, but you have to sing them in Okinawan dialect. That means, every time you get to an “oh” sound, you change it to “ooh” (rhymes with “you”). When you get to an “ay”, you have to say “ee” (as in “see”). So, not only do you memorize the lyrics, but you also make mental notes about the pronunciation.

Then, there is the music. If you play a sanshin sitting down, you can rest it in your lap. It’s easy. But for a concert, you have to play standing up. It doesn’t hang from your shoulders by a strap, the way a guitar does. You cuddle it in one arm, like a baby, and pray you don’t drop it. Of course, you are not just holding it. You are running one hand up and down the fingerboard and plucking strings with the other hand. Gravity is not your friend.

Finally, there’s the costume. Kimono are lovely, flowing garments with very long and gracefully dangling sleeves. But… What is the left sleeve doing while your left hand is running up and down the fingerboard? What is the right sleeve doing while your right hand is trying to find the proper string to pluck? My guess is that both sleeves are flowing over the instrument and blinding you to where your fingers need to be.

To be really authentic, there is also an official Okinawa hairstyle. Women traditionally wear their long black hair twisted on top of their heads and held in place by a wicked-looking metal spike. The muffin-shaped piece topping the hairstyle might be your own hair, if it is long enough to twirl into a bun, or an artificial enhancement known as a “kam-pu” if it is not. Mine is not.

Kam-pu come in one color only, jet black. On me, it looked as if I were wearing a black beanie. I was tempted to spike the hairpiece in place with a little propeller and go with the retro beanie concept. But only for one devilish moment. Authenticity prevailed. So that is why, in honor of the concours on December 1, I will be spraying my hair black, donning a purple kimono, and trying to play the sanshin standing up.



Who am I? (3) The Sanshin Player

Part of my personal Okinawa addiction includes learning to play the three-stringed instrument known as --surprise!--“three strings”, or sanshin (literally: three flavors). I am taking a qualifying exam in sanshin playing next month. One of the required songs is called Yutaka Bushi, or Prosperity Song, and it was composed by the sanshin master Seijin Noborikawa.

What does it take to be, or at least feel, prosperous? Part of the answer is laughter. As the song goes, “When we manage to laugh both morning and evening, we draw good fortune to ourselves.” Next comes gratitude. “The habit of giving thanks is the basis for making our wishes come true.” The chorus urges us, “So, dance and be joyful! People and their doings can be so beautiful.”

The song puts me in a Thanksgiving holiday mood. One of the things I’m especially grateful for is last summer’s Okinawa holiday. Another is the chance to enjoy my fill of sanshin music, both as a listener and as a player. Although it is still too early to defrost the turkey, it is not too early to think back over this year’s magic moments—the ones that make us want to dance and be joyful.

Here's wishing you all a joyful lead-up to a magical holiday of thanksgiving!


Okinawa Longevity (2)

Jofuku’s Gift to the Immortals of Okinawa

This story fascinates me. It is told by Dr. Masaaki Kimura in one of his books (Okinawa Kaitei Iseki no Nazo, from Daisan Bunmeisha, 2000, in Japanese).

Jofuku is an envoy sent from China to find the secret of immortality, believed to be practiced by an island nation. He sets out with many ships and several hundred passengers, eventually arriving at an island very much like Okinawa. There he is received by the Goddess who rules the land. He gives her the presents he has prepared and asks about immortality.

She assures him that they do, indeed, imbibe a plant that encourages longevity. However, she refuses to give it to him. Why? Because the gifts he has brought are grand, but in no way equal to the prize of immortality. Nothing is more precious than life. If Jofuku gives her people something on the same scale of value, then she will gladly share their secret of immortality.

So, Jofuku goes back to China to find a suitable gift. Something on the same scale of value as life itself, something without which life might very well be impossible… What could it be?

Think about it. In the West, bread is the staff of life. But in the East, people live on rice. Thus Jofuku of China is credited with introducing rice plants and rice culture to Okinawa.

His gift was rice, but what did the Goddess give him? That is a very good question. I thought it might be a kind of citrus fruit such as tankan or shiquasa, but Dr. Kimura has a better suggestion. China already had fruit. What is special about his favorite Okinawan island, Yonaguni, is a wild plant called yomogi.

Yomogi is usually translated as mugwort, but I think it’s a little different from English mugwort. The herb that was traditionally used to flavor mugs of ale in Ye Olde England stands tall and stiff, but the mugwort that grows on Yonaguni is a tender green plant that tends to hug the ground. It is used to flavor food and is a popular additive to tea. Even today, tea containing Yonaguni yomogi is called Long Life Tea.


Okinawa Longevity

Japanese people have what is probably the world’s longest natural life span. On average, someone born and raised in Japan will live to 82. This compares well to, say, the US average longevity of 77. Moreover, the people in Japan with the greatest probability for long and healthy lives live in Okinawa.

How cool is that?

One conjecture is that island life is so much fun that Okinawans don’t want to leave. They have family. They have friends. They let the good times roll. Another is that they get lots of exercise. They walk and do their errands on foot. They raise their own vegetables and work in their gardens.

I know of at least one Okinawan great-grandmother who offered her visiting family a fruit called tan-kan, which is a little like a tangerine. One guest offered to go into the kitchen and bring the tan-kan out for her. Great Granny, in her 90s, insisted on getting it herself. But the fruit wasn’t in the kitchen. It was still on the tree in her backyard. She climbed the tree and picked a dozen tankan while the family cheered her on.

The Okinawan diet, too, gets a lot of credit for the people’s longevity. There is a longevity story that I am very curious about, and it concerns an expedition from China made in ancient days to “The Land of the Immortals” to acquire “the fruit of eternal life”. No one knows for sure where that land was, or what the fruit was, but I often think it was Okinawa and the fruit was something like a tan-kan.



"Nothing is good or bad in and of itself. It is through the working of the mind that a thing becomes good or bad." Michel de Montaigne

These words were written in French many hundreds of years ago, but they apply to a tiny but much-loved corner of Okinawa today. The question is, is noise good or bad?

I personally love the drums, the music, and the shouting of the Eisa festival dances. My mind tells me, "This is good noise. It rouses the life in the people who hear it."

However, the Okinawa Marine Culture NPO I support is headquartered near a very noisy electricity generator. It's meant to supply electricity in times of emergency. I hear a whisper that "Having electricity in an emergency is good." But, the generator is so darn noisy that it drives people crazy every day---and that is every day of its existence so far---that there isn't an electrical emergency.

This is not good.

The obstacle standing between the people who live near the generator and the solution to the noise pollution problem is this: the generator is a military installation. So the question becomes, how noisy do the people have to become before the military can hear them pleading, "Stop killing us while you're trying to help us."


In Okinawan Words (2): Eisa


In Okinawan Words (2): Eisa

Shall we dance?

Like most Japanese folk dances, the quintessential Okinawan dance known as Eisa is danced in a circle, by singles, never by pairs. In some villages, only women dance. In others, only men perform. Of course, there are also groups in which both men and women participate. The most dynamic dances—such as the ones performed by the Senda and Ryukyu Koku troupes—put young people in the spotlight.

Eisa has spiritual roots. The Eisa tradition began with rites for ancestors performed in mid-summer. In ancient times, dancers visited and performed from house to house. The dance was a celebration of deceased family members. Some of the costumes flaunt their spiritual roots with subdued colors and others chase the evil spirits away through brilliantly flamboyant designs. Katsuren is somber; Okinawa City is kaleidoscopic.

Noise is an important part of the celebration, and so there are always drums to set the rhythm. Whether they are the small ones known as paranku or the large, barrel-shaped drums, drums are required. The three-stringed sanshin is optional, depending on the tradition. Some dances feature characters whose faces are painted with clay and whose noise is made by putting two fingers against strong white teeth and whistling.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can see typical Eisa dances at various sites. The following url includes an English narration. In Okinawa itself, July is when most of the serious Eisa dances take place. However, public performances can be seen year round at places like Ryukyu Mura and Gyokusendo.




Okinawa Sanshin Music


Here is a short list of some of the sanshin songs I like best. You can find free samples of most of them on the Internet.

Agarizachi, by Shokichi Kina (pop folk, about Yonaguni)
Asadoya Yunta (traditional, with many variations, dating from 300 years ago)
Shima Uta, by The Boom (pop hit, sounds like a love song, but it's about love of life)
Nada Soso, written by Ryoko Moriyama, sung by Rimi Natsukawa (sweet, sad memory)
Hohnen Ondo (traditional kachashi folk dance, a wish for a prosperous new year)
Musume Jintoyo (a sweet standard about the little things that make life good)
Ashibinaa, by Shuken Maekawa (playful standard suitable for the kachashi folk dance)

Among the famous traditional artists are the master Seijin Noborikawa and the Kina family. Fitting between tradition and pop are singer songwriters like Ryoko Moriyama and Toru Yonaha. On the pop side are groups such as The Boom and Begin. There are more--this is a short list, remember.

One of the nicest things about Okinawan music is this: there are no vocal gymnastics required, just a good sense of rhythm and the will to sing from the heart. Have fun exploring the sanshin world!



In Okinawan Words: Sanshin

In Okinawan Words: Sanshin

What bagpipes are to Scotland, the sanshin is to Okinawa. It’s the signature sound of Okinawan music. The instrument is basically a bowl-shaped sounding board to which a long neck is fastened and strung with three strings. It’s a little like a violin in that there are no frets to mark the notes of the scale, and it’s a bit like a banjo because a sanshin’s main function is to produce rhythm rather than melody. You might say it is also like a guitar because the strings are plucked with a pick.

In my novel, Katsuren, one of the characters plays a sanshin. There is a popular belief in Okinawa that anyone under the age of 60 who messes around with a sanshin will come to a bad end. The reason is, it’s a lot of fun to play and most people can get a tune out of it the first time they pick it up. However, to play it well enough for the folks around you to enjoy it, too, takes at least three years of daily practice. If you are practicing the sanshin everyday, are you goofing off when you should be tilling your sugar cane field? Probably. That’s why I made the sanshin player in my story an old man who drives a taxi and plays his sanshin while waiting for fare-paying customers. He's old enough to be allowed.


Okinawa Quiz: True or False?


What is true, what is false? Look in the comments section for the answers.

1. Okinawa is a part of Japan.
2. Okinawa is a US protectorate.
3. The island chain of Okinawa includes many uninhabited islands and atolls.
4. The climate of Okinawa is subtropical.
5. There is snow on the mountaintops of Okinawa.
6. Major Okinawan cities include Naha, Hong Kong and Singapore.
7. Japan’s westernmost point is in Okinawa.
8. Islanders live in grass huts because the climate is so mild.
9. The highest point on Okinawa is the top of an active volcano.
10. Okinawa’s biggest industry is tourism.



Okinawa Looks Like This

Wish you were here?

This is the one-month anniversary of chura-chura.blogspot and visitors have passed the 100 mark.

Thank you for your support!


Seeing Okinawa

If you have a favorite place, then you surely have a collection of magic moments etched in your mind—pictures that you forever associate with that special locale. Here are some of the special sights that say “Okinawa” to me:

* A seaside sunset, with an adan tree silhouetted against the sky
* Giant blue and white manta rays “flying” through the ocean
* Sunlight sparkling on turquoise, amethyst and emerald-colored wavelets
* Deigo trees loaded with crimson flowers
* A show room full of pop-art Okinawan glass flowers
* The red lacquered drums and flowing costumes of an eisa parade
* Butterflies fluttering over bougainvillea blossoms
* Orchids, orchids everywhere
* The stone archway at Nakijin gusuku when the cherry blossoms are in bloom
* Red clay shisha dogs grinning from tiled rooftops


Katsuren, the Okinawa novel: A Word from the Characters (3)


In this excerpt from my novel Katsuren, Yu Ganaha’s idol Kichiro appears. Kichiro is a charter boat captain from Yonaguni Island. He’s just taken Yu out on the boat to take a look at the submerged rock formation that Yonaguni is famous for.

“Kichiro,” I asked as we were wiping down the deck. “What’s your best guess? Are those walls from an ancient shrine or from a castle like the gusuku at Katsuren? Or are they just an accident of nature that happens to look man-made?”

“You’ll have to ask someone smarter than me. Maybe that Tomori fellow from the research outfit. He’s got ideas and the know-how to check them out.”

There was something about the way he said Tomori. Did Kichiro smell a rival there?

“I met him the other day. He showed me some photos he had. Pretty convincing, I thought.”

“A man’s only as good as his information.” Kichiro gave me a smug grin.

I wondered if I could goad him into saying any more.

“But if you had to guess…” I pressed, certain he was holding back some important piece of information, either about Tomori or about the site.

“I think,” said Kichiro, “that a thousand or so years ago, some guy just like me looked at what nature handed him and said to himself, ‘I can make it better’. I think he hacked out some steps to make it easier to get down to his boat. Probably sea level was different then. I think he hauled buckets of dirt from the wet side of the hills and packed it in the chuckholes so his wife could plant a tree to shade their front door and maybe a few tomatoes.”

Kichiro wasn’t done. “And I think he was smart enough to remember his roots as a creature who lives on the land but was born from the sea.”

I saw Kichiro reach behind him for the daypack with my camera safely stowed inside.

“Check it out. I think I got a good one of that ancient guy’s idol.” Kichiro handed the camera back to me.

“You mean the turtle statue that was on TV with you?” I asked while I clicked the digital display button.

“Yep. Plus one more.” Kichiro grinned like a cat with canary feathers in his teeth. “What’s a turtle without his mate?”

I whistled. I hadn’t heard even a whisper about a pair of statues down there. Seeing them recorded in my camera, I knew I was one up, even on the great Dr. Tomori. Next story I filed, I was going to call the site Kichiro’s Rock. A man is only as good as his information, and it seemed to me Kichiro was the heart and soul of the Yonaguni story. In my book, he’d earned naming rights.



The Real Yonaguni

A few scenes from my novel, Katsuren, are set on the island of Yonaguni. Yonaguni is part of Okinawa Prefecture, an island in the Ryukyu island chain, and the westernmost point in Japan. It has several other claims to fame.

For starters, there are the wild horses indigenous to Yonaguni. They are tiny. One theory is that their small size is ecology in action. There isn’t a lot for them to eat, and there’s no reason why they have to be big in order to survive.

Next, Yonaguni does not have poisonous snakes, as do the rest of the Okinawa islands. The lack of deadly habu is, as far as I am concerned, a charm point for Yonaguni. The other thing Yonaguni does not have is pretty lagoons such as the one I called Sanzan Beach in my Katsuren novel.

These are three reasons to believe that Yonaguni’s geological history is also different from the rest of Okinawa’s. The differences raise many questions. Did Yonaguni become an island during a different time period, when sea temperature did not favor the formation of coral reefs? Was it originally attached to another part of the world where poisonous snakes were not part of the environmental package? Did it once have habu and then drown them by submerging when the sea level changed?

For interesting speculations about Yonaguni’s past, be sure to check out the article on Yonaguni’s submerged ruins in National Geographic online. (link in previous entry)


We're in National Geographic Magazine online!

Okinawa's history goes back so far, the beginnings are lost in the mists of legend. If you are ever in the capital city Naha, check out the museum across the street from the lovely Shuri Castle Park. You will see a stone tablet just inside the entrance with mysterious symbols inscribed on it. The symbols are in a language that no one alive today reads or speaks.

One interpretation is that the symbols are telling of a disaster that caused a beloved homeland to sink beneath the sea.

A team of explorers from The University of the Ryukyus, led by Dr. Masaaki Kimura, has been surveying an underwater site that may be the remains of that sunken homeland. The NPO that supports their research is my pride and joy.

Now, National Geographic Magazine (online news, dateline September 19) reports on what they have found.

You can see the article by following this link:



Who am I? (2) The Tree Analogy

If I were a tree, no question about it, I'd want to be an adan tree.

Look where they get to stand--right at the fringe of the beach! Imagine the spectacular sunsets or sunrises they witness every single day of their lives! Their Okinawa beach location alone is a reason to want to be an adan tree.

They are short and squat compared to palm trees. So am I. That's one more reason to identify with adan trees.

Their profiles are spectacular. They have an abundance of uplifted branches, twisty and curvy. A profusion of floaty and slightly frowzy leaves sprouts from the tips of their branches. Silhouetted against an Okinawa sunset, they are so dramatic they take your breath away. One popular Okinawa song has a line it, "How beautiful the adan, welcoming the fisherman home from the sea."

Living on beaches, flouting a frowzy but dramatic appearance--does that make the adan the beach bum of trees? I don't think so.

They have a history of usefulness. Also known (in English) as breadfruit trees, their pineapple-look-alike fruit is the source of a fiber (sennit) that once was a major construction material. Sennit is what holds a little grass shack together. Sennit is what holds traditional Polynesian double-hulled canoes together. The adan has a romantic history.

Right! Sign me up as an adan if I have to be reincarnated as a tree.

However, since I am a writer in real life and not a tree, let me at least take a page from the adan's book. Let me write stories with twisty, dramatic plots that hold together as if they were tied with sennit and characters with fascinating profiles. And if I'm allowed a second page, may I ask for another chance to visit my favorite adan tree beside the sea at Onna-son, Okinawa.


A Word from the Characters (2)


Our heroine is being driven back to her hotel after her first visit to the archeological site at Katsuren Castle, Okinawa.

We hadn't gone more than a block when my driver broke the cozy silence.

"You couldn't live here."

Like an ice cube dropped down the back of my neck, Mr. Shiroma's sudden remark made me sit up and pay attention. It was from the man who smiled benignly at all my remarks earlier in the day about how I would love to live in whatever picturesque place we had been passing through.

He listened when I raved about cozy neighborhoods a-tumble with houses roofed in red tile. He chuckled over my enthusiasm for hot pink bougainvillea capering over whitewashed walls while the sea glittered in the background. When I rattled on about how, if I lived in Okinawa, I would insist on a vine covered cottage with a red-tiled roof he gave me a thumbs up. If I chattered about wanting hibiscus flowers flanking my doorway and rooms painted in shimmering, silky shades of emerald and amethyst--just like the colors of the lagoon--he beamed a paternal smile at my ramblings.

So, why was he saying I couldn't live here?

I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror and asked him point blank, "Is this about Katsuren or about me?"


Want to Leave a Comment? Here's how.

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Please don't be intimidated by the Japanese script. It's just a sign that I'm writing from Tokyo.

Look for the name Chura at the bottom of the post, and next to it you will see a time (ex. 10:01). To the right of the time is a number and a Japanese word (four letters, don't worry about it) in pale blue letters. That says "comment" in Japanese, and that's where you click to add your comment.

See? Now you, too, can read Japanese.


Bulwer-esque (Practice Makes Perfect)

:) :) :)

All right, I admit that I’m square, maybe even dry, but there I was, expecting a little buttering up when I asked my sweetie what am I to you—and, OK, maybe it was too early in the morning for coy, flirtatious questions—but was that any reason for the only man I’ve ever spent breakfast with to turn my hopes to crumbs by telling me, “You are toast!”

(I'm warming up for next year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.)

:) :) :)


Your Kanji Question Answered with an Online Japanese Dictionary Link


Thank you for your question about the name of a character in Katsuren.

Here is an online dictionary you can use to see Yu's name in Japanese kanji.
In the search box, write in the English word "gentle". It will take you to the character "yu".




What Can Fiction Do?

One Japanese writer whom I deeply respect is Ms. Toyoko Yamazaki. When she spoke at Yomiuri Hall in Japan, I was lucky enough to be in the audience.

One of the topics in the news at the time was a tragic plane crash. OK, every plane crash is tragic, but the bizarre aspect of this particular crash of a jumbo jet was that everyone on the plane knew it would crash, as did people watching the news--and that includes those whose loved ones were on that plane. But it took over 30 minutes of emotional agony before the jet slammed into the mountain that ended the flight. There were, as I recall, only two survivors.

This tragedy inspired Ms. Yamazaki to write a doorstopper of a book that hit the bestseller list.

What I remember most from Ms. Yamazaki's lecture was this: official documentation of the crash used enough paper to fill up an entire room from floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Her novel, however, filled a little more than a thousand pages. She asked us which bundle of paper and ink aroused the most passion? Which of them ignited the flames of rage against bureaucratic greed, stupidity and irresponsibility? Which one exposed the truth of the tragedy?


Nothing can reach out and move people's hearts and minds the way the hand of a novelist can.


A Word from the Characters (1)


Katsuren is a novel set in Okinawa, Japan. One of the characters is a man named Yu Ganaha. Here is one of his scenes, in which a young American woman asks him about his name.

"Which Yu are you?" I asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Yu said.

"I mean, how do you write your name in Japanese? Are you the Yu that means friendly, the one that means brave, or the Yu that stands for kind and gentle?"

"All of the above," he answered with a smug grin. "But if you really want to know which character I use to write my name, it's this one."

He took my hand and spelled out the strokes for warm, loving and tender with the tip of his finger. I blushed. And then I remembered. This was Okinawa. A man was expected to show his tender side. Yu wasn't setting me up; what he wrote in the palm of my hand was simply the truth.


Who am I? (1) The Crayon Analogy

If I were a crayon I’d be a sunny yellow one because I see myself as a cheerful optimist, a comedienne, the life of the party. People I’ve worked with, however, have said that in the office, I’m more like a soothing shade of blue. That may be why they pronounce my name “serene” instead of Celine.

Which color is the real me? I want to be both of them, of course.

In real life, my palette may be limited to a couple of crayons, but in writing fiction I get to be every color in the pack. I am the pale white of a character in a walk-on role, the thrilling orange of a crucial scene, passionately purple, cool green or sweet chocolate brown. I could even be a villain in a jet black hat. I love being the hand that writes the characters that paint the story.


Winning: Why it Counts

Winning something--anything--is fun, for a fact. I thoroughly enjoyed the recognition and my moment in the sun, but more than that, I took the Bulwer-Lytton prize as a vote of confidence.

"Celine," it said to me, "you've still got it, after all those years in Japan. You can still make people laugh in your native language."

That's it! That's it exactly. I want my words to touch heads and hearts and get a reaction.

If I can do it with a single sentence, then I can do it with a novel filled with sentences. This bit of encouragement is a vote of confidence that, someday when my novel is finished and read by total strangers, they will be right there on the page with me, not just reading the words but also feeling them.

"They can because they think they can."
Virgil, in the Aeneid

Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

It's fun time. My silly sentence actually won first place in the fantasy category. Here is the link so you can enjoy all the goodies that were created for the 2007 contest.


Mine is the one about Lady Guinevere and the horse race.