Campaigning to save the languages of Okinawa

Byron Fija is on a quest to rescue cultural distinctiveness from the brink of extinction

by Jon Mitchell

Two stops on Naha’s monorail from the tourist trinket shops of Kokusai-dori lies Sakaemachi, a tightly packed warren of tiny stalls and drinking dens. For outsiders like 40-year-old Byron Fija, it takes a measure of confidence to venture to this part of Okinawa, but as he passes the open-air tables of hard men sharing bottles of awamori spirits, they raise their glasses and greet him like a long lost friend.

When he enters a small restaurant, the owner’s welcome is just as warm, while the young waitress blushes and scuttles behind the counter from where she steals star-struck glances for the rest of the evening.

It’s not the kind of reaction you would expect for a language teacher. It’s more befitting a rock singer — which, if life had gone according to plan, is exactly what Fija would have become.

“When I was a kid growing up in Okinawa, I always used to listen to American music. I was surrounded by MTV and AFN (Armed Forces Network) radio. So when I was 22, I went to Los Angeles to try to gather some members for a rock band,” Fija says with a rueful smile. “That wasn’t the only thing I was searching for . . . I also went looking for my dad.”

Born in 1969 to an Okinawan mother and an American father, Fija was abandoned at an early age into the care of an aunt and uncle. He never met his father while throughout his childhood his mother hovered fleetingly on the outskirts of his life.

Those were difficult days. Fija was bullied because of his foreign looks, his adopted parents were poor and he had to work part-time to pay his school fees. After graduating from high school, Fija took blue-collar jobs and by the time he was 22 he had saved enough money to finance his journey to Los Angeles.

His mother opposed the trip, but Fija scoured the West Coast, pursuing every clue to his father’s identity that he had been able to wangle out of her. After two years, he had exhausted all his leads. His hunt for musicians for his rock band had proved equally unsuccessful and he returned to Okinawa.

Down on his luck and unsure what to do with the rest of his life, Fija accepted a friend’s invitation to go for a drink at an Okinawan folk music bar.

“I was going to turn down his offer. I used to think the sanshin (a three-stringed Okinawan instrument) was like a children’s toy. But that night when I heard the music, it was like a lightning strike.” He slaps his forehead to illustrate the power of the encounter. (The waitress giggles from her hiding place.) “It really woke me up to the true culture of Okinawa.”

From that moment, Fija dedicated himself to studying the folk music and the history of the island on which he was born. The more he learned, the angrier he became.

“I began to realize how little our teachers had taught us about Okinawa’s rich culture. In school, I hadn’t really heard about what happened in 1879.”

1879, the year in which the Meiji government annexed the independent Ryukyu Kingdom and turned it into a prefecture, is the point Fija identifies as the start of Okinawa’s decline.

In an attempt to impose a homogeneous identity on the nation, the Imperial authorities embarked on a policy of stamping out the Okinawa islands’ six indigenous languages. Schoolchildren who spoke them, for example, were forced to wear a humiliating “Dialect Plaque.” The denigration worsened during World War II, when an order was issued by the military that use of the Okinawa languages was banned and that speakers would be considered spies subject to punishment. Today, the only phrases most Okinawans know are the ones they learn from TV tourist campaigns.

“Nowadays, young people think the Okinawan languages are rural and backward,” Fija says. “But the most damaging legacy of the past 130 years is people’s belief that they are merely dialects of Japanese, not languages in their own right.”

For Fija, the distinction is critical. Whereas a dialect is often regarded as substandard and inferior, a language has a clear set of grammatical rules and vocabulary — not to mention, political and cultural clout. “Take for instance, Uchinaaguchi — the language of southern Okinawa Hontou which I speak. A cat is ‘mayaa,’ not (the Japanese) ‘neko.’ An orange isn’t ‘mikan,’ it’s ‘kunibu.’ We have a glottal stop unlike Japanese, and there’s no ‘e’ sound.”

To dispel any lingering doubts, Fija leans over to the adjacent table of mainland laborers and asks them in Uchinaaguchi for the time. They blink at him uncomprehendingly — he really is talking in a foreign language.

When Fija first started studying Uchinaaguchi, there were no classes for people wanting to learn the language, so he surrounded himself with elderly speakers and organized a small group of people who shared his interest. It took Fija 12 years to reach his current level of fluency and he’s determined to smooth the way for future students.

He teaches Uchinaaguchi at local culture schools, pens newspaper columns about the language and hosts short lessons on NHK. However, what has made Fija a household name are his islandwide sanshin performances combined with “Minyou no Hanataba,” a Sunday afternoon radio show where he chats with callers in a seamless banter of Japanese and Uchinaaguchi.

Recently, Fija has taken his message overseas. In 2007 he led Uchinaaguchi workshops in Germany and this November he will lecture on the islands’ languages at the University of Hawaii.

Ironically, it’s often easier to convince overseas audiences that Okinawa has its own languages. At home, the misconception that they are dialects is too deeply rooted.

“In 2009, UNESCO officially recognized Uchinaaguchi and five other Okinawan tongues as languages. The report warned that they were all in danger of becoming extinct by 2050. This should have been huge news here, but when I took the report to the Okinawan press, they gave the story a tiny amount of attention. They think their readers are only interested in sports events and festivals.”

Fija has a clear vision of how to save Uchinaaguchi from its predicted demise. “We need to train language teachers and support them from the time they graduate university to the day they retire. Uchinaaguchi needs to be made compulsory in Okinawan schools. Plus we need a TV station dedicated to the language. Countries such as Wales that have successfully revived their own languages could serve as a role model.”

Fija is well aware of the aphorism that for a dialect to be accepted as a language, it needs an army and a navy. However, perhaps because of Okinawa’s troubled military relations, he doesn’t advocate a return to an independent Okinawan kingdom.

“All I want is for people around the world to realize that we have a beautiful culture here. Most importantly I want Okinawans themselves to have pride in their identities and their language.”

Fija stands up to leave and the waitress summons the courage to ask him for his autograph. As he signs the back of her order pad, she shyly requests a favor. “Could you teach me how to say the word ‘head’? You know, in Okinawan dialect?”

To his credit, Fija doesn’t even grimace. “Chiburu,” he says gently, then prompts her to repeat it until she pronounces it correctly. Fija’s campaign may well be an uphill struggle — but it’s one he is conducting with patience and passion, one person at a time.