This is an account of a Thanksgiving attempted in Okinawa. It was my first Thanksgiving to celebrate in Okinawa, Japan, and I wasn’t sure that sharing in the holiday rituals would be appropriate. After all, my Okinawa family by marriage did not understand the significance of the North American celebration, and had never tasted turkey. The typical Uchinanchu (Okinawa people) home came equipped with a kitchen without an oven; a stovetop fitted with a tiny broiler, incapable of cooking a roast, or turkey was the common appliance. Still, the U.S. Military bases, one of which I worked on, offered precooked turkey dinners with all the fixings. It seemed to me, a novel surprise for my Uchinanchu relations would be to partake in a traditional Thanksgiving meal, so I placed an order.
Now, I like to think that I am nobody’s fool, so naturally I checked with my beautiful wife, before I made any plans. I made sure with Mitsuko, that hosting a turkey dinner for her relatives at the family house would be a safe thing to do, that no religious taboos were being violated. Upon her acceptance of the idea, I went ahead and reserved a twelve-pound turkey dinner from Camp Foster for a 4:00pm pick-up on Thanksgiving Day.
Mitsu and I lived in a studio apartment above the family house. The main house was no different than the traditional home found in Okinawa, single story, containing a kitchen and adjoining rear room with the first, second and third best rooms situated in front of these. The only room that provided chairs was the kitchen, while the three front rooms were fitted with tatami (strawboard) mats and low profile tables. The bathroom and shower were situated outside the main house in an auxiliary building, the typical arrangement for an Uchinanchu home. Mitsu’s father and older brother lived in the main house, while my wife and I occupied the studio apartment above the auxiliary building. We often took our suppers with her father and brother, sitting on the tatami and eating from the low profile table, as we watched Japanese programming on TV. Occasionally, Mitsu’s widowed sister-in-law, Chiemi and her four children would join us for dinner, which were times I looked forward to, since the kids were always a joy to be around.
That was it! I’d order the turkey dinner from Camp Foster and invite Chiemi and her children over for a Thanksgiving celebration, Japanese style. I pictured it in my head; Mitsu, her father, her brother, me, Chiemi and her four children, all seated on the tatami in the third best room, chowing down on turkey dinner with all the fixings. It looked great as I imagined it, like a Norman Rockwell painting gone Asian.
The precooked turkey dinner came with a 12-14 pound bird (large enough for 6-8 people), giblet stuffing, brown gravy, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, cranberry sauce, baked rolls, and a pumpkin pie. I could make it back from Camp Foster with my mini in approximately twenty minutes, which means I should be able to have dinner served between 4:30 and 5:00pm. Then the Norman Rockwell image with an Asian touch could come to life.
No one in Mitsu’s family, aside from Mitsu, spoke English, and I never learned to speak conversational Japanese, making communicating a bit difficult at times. However, having a good time in celebration of a feast was universally understood, or so I thought. Certainly, the pilgrims did not speak the same language as the Native Americans, when they sat down together for the first Thanksgiving. I did not expect my arranged celebration to be that different; I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Although Okinawa is a Prefecture of Japan, the Uchinanchu hardly resemble the character of the Japanese people. In many ways they are the complete opposite of each other. Because Okinawa is mostly a rural environment, with much of their land devoted to farming; Uchinanchu are much more laid back than the Japanese. The typical Japanese work ethic is; ‘Hurry up! This was due yesterday!’ Where as the attitude in Okinawa is; ‘Take your time, tomorrow is another day.’ Subsequently, the people of Okinawa are at least one-half hour late to any appointment. This statistic I did not consider for my Thanksgiving Day feast.
Things went well at first; I arrived at Camp Foster exactly at 4:00pm to pick up my turkey dinner, and raced home without having any accidents with bird, or car. With Mitsu’s help, I carried the dinner into the kitchen and began to carve up the bird. Five o’clock rolled around, so did six, and there was no sign of Chiemi and her children. The food was getting cold, really cold; except for the cranberry sauce, which was warming up nicely. Eventually, at 7:00pm, Chiemi showed up with her two daughters and two sons. I had arranged white meat from the turkey onto eight plates, along with all the side dishes, save the cranberry sauce.
Since, the food had grown too cold to be edible; I had no choice, but to nuke the plates before serving. The kitchen’s microwave was small, as were most appliances in the Japanese/Okinawa household. This allowed me to warm only one plate at a time, so Mitsu and I set up a little assembly line; heat, remove, load cranberry sauce and serve. We managed to effectively serve everyone seated in the third best room within ten to fifteen minutes. However, the tender turkey was so dried out from the microwave, that the brown gravy didn’t even make it appetizing to my Uchinanchu relations. Chiemi and her children picked at the parched poultry, nibbling like birds eating bird, but I could tell they were not enthusiastic about the strange meal. Mitsu’s father and brother, being much more conservative, didn’t even try the western food, but simply demanded servings of rice and tuna sashimi.
I suspect if the first Thanksgiving had achieved this dismal result, the Pilgrims might have never survived in their new world. ‘Norman Rockwell would have painted this scene laughingly,’ I thought, ‘if he was to paint it at all.’ Needless to say, I never attempted a Thanksgiving Day feast in Okinawa again. I guess, I was somebody’s fool after all, trying to celebrate a North American tradition outside of North America with a disastrous outcome.