NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Fumiko Ikari used to spend hours listening to Japanese radio, mimicking broadcasters’ inflections and trying to purge all traces of the Okinawa dialect from her speech.
“I used to be so ashamed of my accent and the Okinawan phrases I used as a girl,” Ikari said. “I wanted to be just like people in Tokyo.”
Luckily, Ikari was unable to rid herself of the language her parents had taught her. So in 1982, Radio Okinawa got its first female “dialect broadcaster.” Reporting news in dialect over the airwaves for Radio Okinawa, Ikari now fights to keep alive what she remembers of her heritage.
Most Japanese are able to switch effortlessly between standardized Japanese and the inflections of their birthplaces. But decades of standardized television, the education ministry’s scholastic curricula and an influx of foreign words are diluting local color and the countless dialects in Japan.
“It’s like losing the kind of warmth we associate with being held by our mothers,” Ikari said. “Forgetting the language of your childhood is just too lonesome.”
If Ikari were to forget her dialect, she would lose sayings that her grandmother learned from her own grandmother — phrases like “All five fingers on the hand grow differently,” and “What is mine is yours” — that saw her generation through war, disease and 27 years of U.S. rule over the island prefecture.
At the same time, she notes it would be futile and pointless to try to keep language fixed like a museum piece. Ikari’s aim is to pass on “a piece of our ancestors’ souls.”
“Words are alive,” said Ikari, who refuses to disclose her age but says she received her secondary education prior to World War II.
“They are constantly changing. At the same time, they need to be used in daily life to survive,” she said, adding that the decline of dialects could be halted in part by having some classes at school use dialect or by organizing dialect speech contests.
In Okinawa, interest in local dialects has grown in inverse proportion to their gradual disappearance, making dialect a kind of fad among younger Okinawans.
Ikari has taught courses in Ryukyuan dialect — one of the more popular of Okinawa’s existing 80 dialects — for 10 years on television, over the airwaves and at the Ryukyu Culture Center in Naha. She also continues to be a popular speaker with crowds hoping to learn some of the dialect.
Many of her students are in their 20s and 30s. “Some students go to Tokyo or Osaka to work, and then feel lonely and wish they had something more to remember Okinawa by,” she said.
Before the war, the education ministry aggressively pushed a policy of standardization in classrooms. They discouraged the use of dialect, which was perceived to hold students back.
“When I was growing up, if you couldn’t speak standardized Japanese, teachers assumed you were stupid or lazy,” she said.
Those efforts were redoubled while Okinawa was under U.S. control, with many teachers who were campaigning for Okinawa’s reversion to Japan punishing students publicly if they used dialect.
Ikari has her parents to blame — or thank — for passing their dialect on to her. As the youngest child and only daughter, Ikari remembers being prohibited from speaking anything other than the local dialect in the home so that she would grow up “to be a good daughter-in-law.”
“At the time, I resented it,” said Ikari, who fled her parents’ home to get a college degree in Tokyo and later married a man from a different island, Amami Oshima.
“Now, ‘uchinanchu’ (the Okinawan dialect) is my greatest treasure,” she said, recalling how an elderly man in a nursing home began crying when she started using the old dialect.
“Local dialects contain feelings of community and sharing,” Ikari said. “I mean to live to at least 200 to help pass that feeling on.”
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