Discovering the Okinawan dialect

For the past year I’ve been researching, as a school project, the decline of the Shimakutuba dialect spoken in Okinawa. We even went on a trip to Okinawa for three nights and four days; one night was spent in home stays with host families.

Throughout the project, I not only learned about the causes of the rapid decline of users, but was also able to see, hear and grasp a bit of the heart-warming Okinawan culture and language that has been passed down for ages.

Up until a year ago, I never even knew of the existence of the true Okinawan dialect. Despite having visited Okinawa once as a child, I always thought that the only difference between the standard Japanese language and the Okinawan dialect was the addition of “sa” or “dakarayo” at the end of each sentence. Boy, was I wrong.

Shimakutuba is a language all its own. The grammar is different, the words are different, and there are ancient-yet-local, meaningful expressions or proverbs that are impossible to translate into another language word for word. One amazing thing I found is that the people of Okinawa harbor these words in their heart and keep them in mind in their daily lives.

In parting, our host-father told us, “Ichariba chode” — which means once we have met, even though by chance, we are brothers and sisters for life. Once Shimakutuba ceases to exist within the people, the beautiful culture will go with it.

An Okinawa prefectural official told us during our interview that we can help [preserve the dialect] just by spreading the word, and I hope to do just that. Shimakutuba is Okinawans’ identity and their pride, as well as a valuable asset to Japanese culture.

natsu kajiwara
tokyo

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.