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Sugar Cane - Okinawa's way of life

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-03-14

You may have noticed lately that the once tall sugar cane fields are slowly being cut down, leaving behind barren farm fields. Every year between February and March, Okinawa's sugar cane growers begin their harvest of the tall cane, yielding another supply of sugar. Some of it will be processed into a sweet molasses, eventually becoming what is known locally as kuro sato (black sugar). The rest will be shipped to the mainland, where it will be consumed as refined sugar.

Sugar cane has played an important part in the Okinawan economy, and is still today a major agricultural crop for farmers. It is also a significant aspect of Okinawan culture and tradition, having created many rituals and customs surrounding the yearly harvest. It has helped to shape a way of life for generations of Okinawans, as well as providing a source of income on an island that is known to be very inhospitable for most types of agriculture.

The sweet kuro sato ,which sits on the table of almost every Okinawan house, has always accompanied a nice hot cup of ocha during a friendly conversation between friends and neighbors. We also now know today, that it has provided important nourishment for the hard working Okinawans, giving them the energy they needed to sustain long working hours under the hot sub-tropical sun.

Sugar cane was originally introduced to the Ryukyu islands from India, via trade with China. Different methods of manufacturing were also learned from China, which gave Okinawans a chance to turn the stalks into a sellable commodity. Although the manufacturing process today is done with machines, the traditional way was very tedious and labor intensive. Even today, the actual harvest of the cane is still done by hand in many places.

The kama (sickle) has been the main tool used by Okinawans in the sugar cane fields. It strips away the sides of the stalk, before the cane is cut at its base. After cutting the cane down, it is then stacked and tied into bundles, which can way up to 45 pounds. Strong legs and sturdy shoulders carry each bundle to one side of the field to be picked up, and taken away to a sugar manufacturing factory.

Traditionally, the harvest would include the cooperation of all the village residents, working together to cut down and process the sugar cane of each farmer living there. This unselfish group effort was known as yuimaru, and it brought the village together as one large family. Even farmers that were weak from illness could depend on their neighbors to help them, giving everyone a fair chance at survival. The village was usually split into two or three sections, depending on its size, and the residents of each section would gather at the village shrine to discuss the order in which the harvesting would take place.

Before giant manufacturing plants came along, the cane was processed into sugar within each village. A type of grinding machine called sata guruma, which was usually powered by either horse or water buffalo, was located in the center of each village. In villages that were located close to a river, the sata guruma was powered by running water. The giant cylinders in the middle were fed one or two cane stalks at a time, where they would be crushed and squeezed through the revolving wheels. The remaining juice was then boiled for about four hours until it became thick. It was then poured into several different pots, where it was allowed to cool. This method usually produced about 140 grams of sugar for every 1 kilogram of sugar cane, and a good working animal could sometimes power up to 800 kilograms of cane through a sata guruma in one day. The sugar that was made was then sold, and some was kept for cooking and self consumption.

Although the sata guruma is no longer used today, it can still be seen at "Ryukyu Mura", which is located in Yamada village off of Highway 58. The working village depicts traditional Okinawan life, and uses the sata guruma to produce its own kuro sato, which can be bought on the premises. Everyday until 4:30 pm, an Okinawan woman leads a water buffalo around in a large circle. The animal pulls a long pole that is connected to the center cylinders, which provide the torque necessary to spin the wheels. Two other women sit at the center, guiding the stalks in and out of the machine. Ryukyu Mura also has a working sata guruma that is powered by running water.

The actual kuro sato, or brown raw sugar as it is known in America, is high in calcium, iron, and vitamins. It is believed by many Okinawans that it helps them live a long and healthy life. Recently, it has become very popular, and is made in a variety of ways. You can find it in most supermarkets, and other small local stores.

New jobs and careers may be replacing the farmer in some areas, but for others, the cane fields are still a way of life.

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