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"Island Brothers" brings Okinawan artist's vision to reality

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-05-09

Surfing and keeping a strong sense of uchinanchu identity are two philosophies that Shuichi Tokunaga lives by. The 34 year old Okinawan has transferred his uchinanchu energy into a thriving business, and towards some positive messages for today's younger generation.

Working as a designer since the age of 20, he took over his father's "AD PRO" company ten years ago. From his office in Naha, Tokunaga worked on designs primarily for companies and for the Prefectural Government. He soon began to feel the urge to create original designs for a more broader customer base of individual consumers. He got the idea for starting an original T-shirt design shop, after having done T-shirt designs for the Okinawa Expo Park aquarium. The shirts sold quickly, and Tokunaga began to wonder about expanding his business into T-shirts.

However, it was on a business trip in Hawaii that the idea for his own shop was actually conceived. "I met many uchinanchu living in Hawaii, who had very strong uchinanchu pride. Although they could only speak English, their uchinanchu identity was very strong," explained Tokunaga. Meeting with other designers in Hawaii with Okinawan heritage, Tokunaga was fascinated by the strength in their designs in comparison to the simply "cute" characters mostly found in Japan. "Their images of the Okinawa shiisa were very powerful and strong. In Okinawa, most of the shiisa are always made to look cute. I always wondered why in Okinawa shiisa illustrations were always drawn that way. The shiisa is a guardian and should be strong," elaborated Tokunaga. He was inspired by the common feelings he shared with his distant "brothers" across the Pacific, and it was sitting over a meal that the name "Island Brothers" came to mind for a new design label.

The name his two meanings for its founder Tokunaga. "One meaning represents the connection between the uchinanchu here in Okinawa and in Hawaii. The other is from an Okinawan phrase "Ichariba chode". The phrase translated means "Once we have met, we are like brothers and sisters."

With this concept, Tokunaga opened his first "Island Brothers" shop on Kokusai street in 1995. The shop's logo, originally created by Tokunaga's father, shows Okinawa in the center of the globe, re-enforcing the uchinanchu pride notion. The shop sells original design T-shirts, surfboards with Island Brothers' designs, surf wear, and other accessories. His T-shirts are all done in English characters, and have a distinct personality, setting them apart from the typical tourist shirt found around Kokusai Street. Tokunaga's love for surfing also has a major influence on the kind of designs and styles he creates. "I try to use traditional concepts, but create new designs for a new generation," said Tokunaga. His shop is also a member of the Japan Surf rider Foundation, and individuals wishing to become members can pick up applications and information at the Island Brothers store.

On April 1, Tokunaga opened his second store in Ishigaki island, which is based on the same theme as the store in Naha. He hopes to eventually open shops in Hawaii, Bali, and Jamaica, but with designs that show the pride of those islands.

Tokunaga also hopes to influence the image of the "surfer" through his work and through various events. "I would like to find a "position" for surfers in society. I would like to help create a stronger image for surfers, of someone that is very knowledgeable about the ocean," explained Tokunaga. He already sponsors and plans one of the largest surfing tournaments on the island with his annual "Island Brothers Surfing Contest". Last year, the event had over 100 entrees, and this year the tournament expects even more.

"I would like to do more environmental messages, but not just for the beach," said Tokunaga about other future plans. "Balance is important. As my business gets bigger, I will do more events."

For now, the uchinanchu is enjoying a nice ride on a steady wave.

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