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A labor of love

A local Okinawan cleans moss from a tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Families come onto Kadena AB once a year to pay respect to their ancestors by offering traditional foods, beverages and incense at one of the many tombs within the area of the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

A local Okinawan cleans moss from a tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Families come onto Kadena AB once a year to pay respect to their ancestors by offering traditional foods, beverages and incense at one of the many tombs within the area of the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Local Okinawans finish clearing away the vegetation on ancestral tombs April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Families will visit the tombs at least once a year to maintain the tombs and pay their respects to their deceased family members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Local Okinawans finish clearing away the vegetation on ancestral tombs April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Families will visit the tombs at least once a year to maintain the tombs and pay their respects to their deceased family members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

The Yamauchi family sits together at their family tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Members of the family partook in traditional rituals meant to honor their ancestors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

The Yamauchi family sits together at their family tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Members of the family partook in traditional rituals meant to honor their ancestors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Airmen from the 18th Munitions Squadron escort local Okinawans to their ancestral tombs April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Every year, families make their way on base to clean their family tombs and pay their respects to their ancestors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Airmen from the 18th Munitions Squadron escort local Okinawans to their ancestral tombs April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Every year, families make their way on base to clean their family tombs and pay their respects to their ancestors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Local Okinawan men remove overgrown vegetation from a family tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Members of the communities across the island of Okinawa visit the tombs of their ancestors during the month of April. Airmen from the 18th Munitions Squadron serve as escorts for the families whose ancestral tombs are within the defined area of Kadena. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

Local Okinawan men remove overgrown vegetation from a family tomb April 9, 2017, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Members of the communities across the island of Okinawa visit the tombs of their ancestors during the month of April. Airmen from the 18th Munitions Squadron serve as escorts for the families whose ancestral tombs are within the defined area of Kadena. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quay Drawdy)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan --

Beams of light pierce the tightly woven canopy overhead just enough to illuminate the dense growth underfoot. The smell of old vegetation is thick and heavy; the faint smell of exhaust is unmistakable.

A constant droning sound is broken only by the occasional chirp of metal blades making contact with stone. The machinery suddenly stops and is slowly replaced with a trickle of laughter and conversation.

The 18th Munitions Squadron hosted more than 200 Okinawans on Kadena AB as part of the annual Shimi Festival season. The festival is a time for locals to visit their family tombs and pay respect to their ancestors through a celebration involving traditional foods and rituals.

“A few members will spend hours clearing away brush from the tombs before bringing in the rest of the family for the celebration,” said 2nd Lt. Alexander Tsang, 18th MUNS materiel flight commander. “Families will come out and pay their respects, offering food and other gifts to their ancestors.”

Members of the family each bring a different dish to the tomb depending on their position within the family. The type of food can vary widely, from being strictly traditional to being the favorite of one of their ancestors. Members will also burn incense and a special type of offering called “uchakabi,” which is a type of currency used in the afterlife.

The Yamauchi family was one of many to visit their ancestors. More than 30 members, from infants and school age children to great grandparents, played games and enjoyed a celebration of the lives of the deceased in their honor.

“My ancestors stay in the tomb,” said Masonory Yamauchi, Yamauchi family patriarch. “We visit to show respect and celebrate them. We have food and drink and burn uchakabi as an offering.”

The ceremonies are not intended to be in mourning and, instead, are joyful celebrations of the lives of the ancestors. The Airmen who participate in the escort play an important role in the annual festivities.

“I have family in Okinawa, so I can really appreciate what it means to the families to get to do this,” said Airman 1st Class Savanna Patterson, 18th MUNS stockpile technician. “Sponsoring the locals on-base for the festival means I get to help them do something they don’t always have access to doing and it really feels great seeing them celebrate that part of their culture.”