Okinawa Relief/Reconstruction Movement

At the end of WWII, the Ryukyu Islands were governed by the U.S. military under a separate jurisdiction from the rest of Japan. As a result, desperately needed relief goods and donations collected in Japanese American communities could not be distributed to Okinawa. Okinawans overseas found they had to organize separate relief movements. Nearly all Okinawan families had relatives who had suffered during the Battle of Okinawa in which about a quarter of the population died and 95% of the houses and buildings were destroyed. Extensive relief movements were mobilized not only in North America and Hawai'i, but in South America and mainland Japan as well.

Early Relief Efforts

The Hawaiian Okinawan relief effort was spearheaded by Thomas Taro Higa , a Nisei soldier in the 100th Battalion . After returning to Hawai'i from Europe, where he witnessed the devastation caused by the war, he re-enlisted and departed for Okinawa on April 20, 1945, with plans to organize relief aid for those who had survived. He sent back telegrams reporting on the horrific conditions there. After Japan's surrender, he returned to Hawai'i on September 13 and met with more than twenty Okinawan community leaders at the house of Sadao Asato to begin organizing the collection of relief aid. With the support of the U.S. Navy, a large-scale effort was mobilized to collect clothes under the auspices of the Honolulu Association of Christian Churches in time for the approaching winter. Ultimately, some 752 boxes of clothes, enough for 200,000 people, were collected and sent from towns and plantations throughout Hawai'i.

Meanwhile, a parallel relief movement emerged on the U.S. mainland, initiated by Paul Shinsei Kochi and Shingi Nakamura , two Issei leaders in the Southern California Okinawan community. They had served as translators on the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which surveyed the effects of the strategic bombing of the cities in Japan. They had an opportunity during this time to make contact with the Okinawan organizations on the Japanese mainland and to observe the plight of Okinawans repatriated from the Philippines who were stuck in refugee camps in Japan waiting until the American military was able to handle the influx in war-devastated Okinawa. From this, they saw the urgent need for an Okinawan relief movement back home in the U.S. On March 1, 1946, they published their "Report on the Condition of Okinawans in Japan Immediately After the War" in the Hokubei Shimpo , a Japanese vernacular newspaper in New York, with an appeal to all Okinawans overseas. After returning to the U.S., they met with other Okinawans in the New York area and established the New York Committee for Okinawan Relief on April 15. Then, accompanied by Takeshi Haga of the Japanese American Committee for Democracy (JACD) and with the help of Jesse Shima, an Okinawan Issei living in Washington, D.C. who had extensive contacts in the government, they visited the Navy Department and negotiated arrangements for the shipment of Okinawan relief goods and mail on navy ships. They were able subsequently to get Okinawa included under Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia (LARA), with distribution of relief managed through the Church World Service, one of its member organizations. Paul Kochi and Shingi Nakamura then began a cross-country tour on May 20 to urge Okinawan communities in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Central Valley in California to begin forming local relief committees.

The Movement Grows

The Okinawa Relief League of America (Zaibei Okinawa Kyuen Renmei) was established on March 1, 1947, with its first annual general meeting held in New York. Contacts were established with the overseas Okinawan communities outside the U.S. in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Hawai'i where parallel relief efforts were organized. At the second general meeting in Los Angeles in 1948, Shingi Nakamura reported that $13,600 in donations had been raised in the U.S. by the end of 1947 and about $59,000 worth of relief goods sent to Okinawa in the beginning of 1948. The following year, the focus changed to overseas aid in postwar reconstruction, and the Relief League's name was changed to the Okinawa Reconstruction League of America (Zaibei Okinawa Fukko Renmei) with the aim of helping to rebuild the "New Okinawa."

Meanwhile, Okinawans in Hawai'i had organized a massive relief effort. The most successful organizations that emerged were Lepta Kai, Okinawa Kyuen Kosei Kai (Okinawa Relief and Renewal Association), the Hawai'i Association for Okinawan Relief Kai, the Okinawan Medical Relief Association, and the Hawai'i Christian Society for Okinawan Recovery. Lepta Kai was established on July 19, 1946, by Okinawan mothers with support from the Salvation Army. In the first year, they raised $6,000 and sent one hundred boxes and seven sewing machines to Okinawa, where a sewing school was established. The Okinawa Kyuen Kosei Kai, whose chief organizer was Seiei Wakukawa, was incorporated on March 18, 1947 with the aim of aiding reconstruction through education. They raised funds toward helping to establish the first university in Okinawa and to provide scholarships for students to study in the U.S. The first group of five students arrived in 1949 to study on the U.S. mainland. The Hawai'i Association for Okinawan Relief Kai was organized on December 29, 1947, with the sole purpose of sending 550 pigs to Okinawa. Pigs were a mainstay of the Okinawan diet, but few survived the Battle of Okinawa. The response to Thomas Higa's report from Okinawa, "No Pigs in the Pig Sty," published in the June 14, 1945, issue of the Nippu Jiji , drew a wide response in Hawaii. The campaign raised $47,000 in six months, enough to send Yoshio Yamashiro, a veterinarian, to Omaha, Nebraska, to purchase pigs that could thrive in the Okinawan climate. The Okinawan Medical Relief Association consisted of medical doctors, dentists, and pharmacists, organized by Dr. Matsu Yamashiro in January 1948. They sent $10,000 worth of medical supplies in the first year and another $10,000 worth in 1949 and $150,000 in 1951. The aim of the Hawai'i Christian Society for Okinawan Recovery, established on October 26, 1948, was to bring Christianity and milk-goats to Okinawa. They raised $30,000, and five volunteers transported 600 milk-goats over a period of three months to Okinawa. Finally, in March 1950, a group of younger Okinawans started the Okinawa Relief Federation of Hawai'i to integrate all relief activities. Out of this emerged the present United Okinawa Association (UOA) the following year. The aim was to unite the whole Okinawan community in Hawai'i although, initially, only 14 of the 43 town and village locality clubs joined; however, this number rose to 36 by 1956.


In Noriko Shimada's (2012) assessment, the postwar relief and reconstruction efforts unified the Okinawan communities, strengthened their bonds with the homeland, and were a major factor in consolidating their distinct ethnic identity as Okinawans in Hawai'i. An Okinawan cultural renaissance in music and dance ensued, rooted in the postwar movement, with cultural exchanges with Okinawa beginning in 1951, the annual Okinawan Jubilee celebration in the 1970s, and the Okinawan Festival starting in 1982.

Similarly, on the mainland, the Okinawa Reconstruction League strengthened the ties with the homeland and there, too, the community experienced a cultural revival through the 1950s. It hosted a welcome reception in 1949 for the first group of students from Okinawa with scholarships from the Hawaiian Okinawa Relief and Reconstruction Association. In 1951, two delegations from Okinawa were welcomed, sponsored by a U.S. Army program to provide future Okinawan "national leaders" an opportunity to visit the U.S.

A 1950 letter from the newly elected Chief Executive Tatsuo Taira of the Okinawan civilian government under the American occupation provides one of many examples of appreciation that came from the homeland: "I humbly offer my warmest thanks to all the overseas Okinawans for their continual offer of material and cultural aid to Okinawa since the end of the war." Deep feelings of gratitude continue to exist among the Okinawan people and the prefectural government to this day.

Authored by Ben Kobashigawa , Emeritus, Asian American Studies, San Francisco State University

For More Information

Okinawa Club of America, comp. History of the Okinawans in North America . Translated by Ben Kobashigawa. Los Angeles: University of California and Okinawa Club of America, 1988.

Sakihara, Mitsugu. "Okinawans in Hawaii: An Overview of the Past 80 Years." In 'Ethnic Studies Oral History Project, United Okinawan Association of Hawaii. Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii . Honolulu: Ethnic Studies Program, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1981.

Shimada, Noriko. "The Emergence of Okinawan Ethnic Identity in Hawai'i: Wartime and Postwar Experiences." Japanese Journal of American Studies 23 (2012): 118-38.

Last updated Nov. 30, 2020, 8:56 a.m..