Outsider of sorts champions his, Okinawa’s cultural roots

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

When observing the history of Okinawa, one can’t ignore the fact that since before World War II it has produced more emigrants than any other prefecture except Hiroshima.

People of Okinawan origin currently account for more than 10 percent of the 2.7 million Japanese immigrants and their descendants overseas.

Even on foreign soil, however, immigrants from Okinawa have been discriminated against by their fellow Japanese immigrants, resulting in them keeping to tightly knit communities to maintain their Okinawan identity.

They have continued to call themselves Uchinanchu, which means Okinawan, as opposed to Naicha, or Japanese from the mainland, in the Uchinaguchi language spoken on the southern half of the main island of Okinawa. As such, the love for their motherland is strong.

Some Uchinanchu abroad are frustrated when they see Okinawans losing their unique languages. In recent years, they have increasingly become a positive force in helping Okinawa’s current residents realize the need to preserve their culture.

Akira Uema, 28, is one such Uchinanchu who has maintained his attachment with the culture of his ancestors. The third-generation Brazilian of Okinawan descent was fascinated since childhood by the culture of Okinawa, which has always been the land of his dreams. Brazil has almost 50 percent of the 400,000 overseas Uchinanchu immigrants and their descendants.

Born in Brasilia, Uema grew up happily exposed to various aspects of Okinawan culture, including Uchinanchu festivals, and he took Eisa “taiko” (drum) lessons to keep the culture alive.

Yet he found Brasilia lacking in Okinawan culture and languages compared with Sao Paulo, which has Brazil’s largest Okinawan community and where classes are taught on Uchinaguchi in an effort to boost the shrinking Uchinaguchi-speaking population in the community.

Uema wanted to learn more about his grandfather, who moved to Brazil in 1934 and died before he was born, so he reached out to many Uchinanchu in Sao Paulo and started learning the language on his own in 2005. He ordered an Uchinaguchi textbook via Amazon.com and spent four hours studying the grammar every day. Three years later, when he was able to conjugate all the verbs, he felt he was ready to go to Okinawa.

“I wanted to learn more practical and conversational Uchinaguchi, which books can’t teach,” he said.

Uema’s admiration of the prefecture peaked when he finally went to Okinawa to study Uchinaguchi at Meio University in Nago. But it didn’t take long before his expectations were dashed.

“I thought everybody in Okinawa could speak Uchinaguchi,” Uema said. “But my friends thought I was speaking Portuguese when I greeted them in Uchinaguchi.”

He was angered that the Uchinaguchi language, which had connected him with his grandfather, was dying out. Initially, his disappointment was directed at the Okinawans who couldn’t keep the language alive.

“I could not understand why Okinawans aren’t keen on saving such a beautiful language,” said Uema. “After all, I am a Brazilian. It’s not my responsibility to preserve Uchinaguchi. I thought I should let the Okinawans preserve the language, not me.”

Yet his disappointment could not beat his love for the language. Instead of feeling negative toward Okinawans, Uema decided to promote the language himself. In 2010 he launched a Uchinaguchi-speaking circle at the University of the Ryukyus with a fellow Brazilian exchange student. Every Tuesday night, Uema and his friend taught Uchinaguchi grammar to locals while taking private lessons from Uchinaguchi teachers to bush up his own proficiency in the unique language.

Like Uema, many Uchinanchu emigrants feel more strongly about the distinctiveness of the Okinawan culture and language than the people who still live there. According to a 2011 survey by the University of the Ryukyus, 83.9 percent of Uchinanchu abroad believe the Okinawan culture is distinctive from the rest of Japan, while only 35.9 percent of current Okinawans see themselves as different from other Japanese. The survey polled more than 7,000 people in and outside of Okinawa.

Uema, who now lives in the city of Ginowan, where he works as an engineer for the American Engineering Corp., said many Uchinanchu immigrants who visited Okinawa for the Fifth Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival last October seemed disappointed when they found out that many locals didn’t even understand basic greetings in Uchinaguchi. Ironically, Okinawa hosts the event every five years to allow Uchinanchu abroad to return to the islands to reconnect with their heritage.

As it turns out, it is outside pressure from Uchinanchu abroad that is stimulating locals to recalibrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga is among those who were inspired and started his own effort.

Since April, city staff under Onaga’s leadership began making greetings in Uchinaguchi. Dubbed the Haisai Campaign, municipal officials greet locals by saying “haisai” and “nifei debiru,” which mean “hi” and “thank you.”

“I felt sorry (toward the Okinawans overseas) that some of us could not even offer some greeting words in Uchinaguchi,” Onaga said. “That’s why I came up with the Haisai Campaign.”

The mayor said he hopes the campaign will spread to companies in Okinawa to raise awareness of the language.

Journalist Tsuyoshi Arakaki acknowledges the positive influence of overseas Uchinanchu. Partly influenced by the reactions from abroad, Arakaki, a reporter for the Ryukyu Shimpo, said his newspaper decided as of last year not to treat Uchinaguchi as a dialect of the Japanese language and recognized it as one of the unique languages of Okinawa.

“The third- and fourth-generation Uchinanchu last year taught us a lesson that we should cherish our own language,” Arakaki said.

Uema’s Uchinaguchi circle is temporary closed as his job has grown more demanding. Still, his passion for promoting the Okinawa language persists. He now has a new goal, which is to become a researcher and activist to revive the language.

“Okinawa is part of my ‘Brazilianess.’ I came to the conclusion that it’s my right to protect my own culture and the language,” he said.