NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Byron Fija, who knows nothing about his American father and little about his Okinawan mother, now works to preserve Uchinaguchi, a native language in Okinawa, after having overcome an identity crisis.
“Uchinaguchi comprises my identity itself,” said Fija, 45, who refers to himself as an American-Uchinanchu (American-Okinawan) instead of American-Japanese.
“I want to preserve the language our ancestors have left us,” he said, explaining that few young people speak it today and it could become extinct if no efforts are made.
Fija was born in Naha, the prefectural capital, to an American father who was likely a U.S. soldier, and a mother who was native to Okinawa. But he was left with an uncle and aunt soon after birth.
When he was a child, Fija was often picked on by his classmates, who called him “America” because of his appearance.
Fija said it made him wonder who he really was.
He went to the United States, dreaming of becoming a rock star. He believed that everything would change if he left Japan.
But with little knowledge of English, Fija was often asked incredulously: “You can’t speak English? Are you kidding?” People in the United States apparently had no doubt that he would speak English as he did not look like a typical Asian.
At the age of 24, Fija went back to Okinawa and heard for the first time the sanshin, a traditional Okinawan musical instrument with three strings, along with Okinawan folk songs sung in Uchinaguchi.
Fija said he instinctively knew that “Okinawa’s music will be loved by anyone in the world.”
Since he believed he could never be a true Okinawan without knowing the language, he studied it by repeatedly listening to theatrical plays performed in the Okinawan language on a radio program.
Uchinaguchi is one of the Ryukyu languages spoken in the central and southern parts of Okinawa Island.
But Okinawans were prohibited from speaking any of the languages at schools under the central government’s assimilation policy and were even labeled as spies if they spoke them during the war.
Fija, who is now well known in Okinawa as he had his own show on local radio, has organized more than 300 workshops on Uchinaguchi in and outside the prefecture.
When he went to Hawaii in 2010 for a language workshop, he visited a school where children were taught all subjects in the local language.
Fija said comments made by a 17-year-old native Hawaiian student struck a chord with him. The student told Fija that when he speaks the minority language, he feels a bond with his ancestors and feels proud of what he is.