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Byron Fija, 42, has an identity crisis.

Part of it is his looks. He’s Japanese, born to a white American father and an Okinawan mother, a couple who never married, and he seems to take more after his dad. But it’s when he speaks that people are really taken aback.

Fija is often asked why he speaks in Okinawa “hogen” (dialect), from people who assume he is a foreigner.

More disconcerting is that he is asked this by fellow Okinawans, who should recognize what he is saying. Most recently, this occurred when he was asked about the Okinawan language during the taping of a Naha TV program.

“I don’t speak a dialect (of Japanese),” Fija protested when an Okinawa-born comedian questioned him about the way he speaks. “I speak Uchinaguchi, which is an independent language.”

Fija actually teaches Uchinaguchi, the local language spoken on the southern half of the main island of Okinawa.

Uchinaguchi is for the most part completely unintelligible to most Japanese. Despite the distinctiveness of the language, even Okinawans who grew up speaking standard Japanese consider Uchnaguchi just a dialect, something subordinate to Japanese.

Worse still, 11 out of the 46 participants on the TV program, which commemorated this week’s 40th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese rule, say they expect the language to be extinct in a few decades.

“I don’t understand why the legitimacy of Uchinaguchi is denied even by Okinawans,” said Fija. He admits that his campaign to promote the language is somewhat personal as he reflects about the language discrimination, which is part of the identity crisis he had to deal with as a child born out of wedlock.

But the dire forecast that the language is in its dying days has pushed some Okinawans, including Fija, to make efforts to preserve and promote Uchinaguchi, which they feel is not only at the heart of Okinawa’s unique culture but also of their identity.

Since its reversion in 1972, Okinawa has tried hard to assimilate into mainstream Japanese society, including by discarding its own language, which many see as inferior. As a result, only a relatively small number of people, mainly the aged, can speak the Okinawan language fluently.

As an indicator that Uchinaguchi is more than a dialect, UNESCO in 2009 designated it as one of the six endangered languages spoken on the Okinawan and neighboring Amami islands. But as yet Okinawa Prefecture and the central government do not have any concrete measures in place to protect the language, and they have yet to establish that Uchinaguchi is really an independent language.

The concentration of U.S. military installations in the prefecture compared with other parts of Japan has long been perceived by Okinawans as a form of discrimination, one that the rest of Japan has almost no interest in. But stamping out the Uchinaguchi language should also be regarded as part of the wider history of discrimination, though Okinawans generally don’t see it that way.

Okinawa was once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled most of the southwest islands from Kyushu to Taiwan between the 15th and 19th centuries and prospered from trade with China and Southeast Asia.

When Japan annexed it by force in 1879, the government forced assimilation policies onto the local population and mandated that residents speak only Japanese in public. For decades, Okinawans were ridiculed and discriminated against by mainland Japanese because they spoke what was considered a barbaric language.

In schools, students who spoke Uchinaguchi were forced to wear “hogen fuda,” a kind of placard that focused attention on their “dialect.” With this hanging around their necks, they were subjected to all kinds of prejudice.

The 1945 Battle of Okinawa saw more than 30 percent of the Okinawan population perish, including Uchinaguchi-speaking people killed by Imperial army soldiers who regarded them as enemy spies.

During the time when Okinawa was under U.S. control, and even after the reversion, the practice of hogen fuda was continued by Okinawans who had been educated in teacher training schools outside of the prefecture. After leaving Okinawa to work in booming cities like Osaka or Tokyo, they faced discrimination in the big cities due to their origins — leading them to abandon their own language and dismiss Okinawan culture as second class.

Such negative perceptions are not seen in Okinawans born after 1972.

In recent years, the general image of Okinawa has been upgraded thanks to the success of Okinawa-born stars, including pop singer Namie Amuro’s rise in the 1990s and the popularity of female professional golfer Ai Miyazato, who topped the Women’s World Golf Ranking in 2010.

At the same time, the definition of Uchinaguchi among younger Okinawans has significantly changed.

Many speak Uchina-Yamatoguchi, a new way of expression that mixes some Uchinaguchi words with Japanese contexts. A 2011 survey conducted by the Naha-based Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper found that about 90 percent of people in their 20s and 30s could not speak or comprehend traditional Uchinaguchi.

This reality looms for the future of Okinawa’s traditional dance and theater, where Uchinaguchi is an indispensable part of the act.

According to a 2011 poll by Ryukyu University professor Masahide Ishihara, of the 605 people engaged in traditional Okinawan culture who were surveyed, only 5 percent under 30 years old said they could speak Uchinaguchi fluently.

Susumu Taira, an Okinawan actor, producer and scriptwriter, said this decline means Okinawa’s culture is slowly becoming indistinguishable from other cultures around the nation.

According to Taira, 78, the Okinawan theatrical performance known as Kumiodori traditionally does not have any script. Writers verbally feed actors with lines and the actors are free to improvise the conversation as long as it basically follows the story line. Unless the actors are fluent in Uchinaguchi, they cannot communicate the feeling well on stage and the entire play feels somewhat pretentious.

“I tell my actors that if their lines are spoken in Uchinaguchi, without embracing the language, their performance will have the same kind of feeling or quality as if it was a being performed by actors from Tokyo,” said Taira, who was designated in 1999 by Okinawa Prefecture as a Protector of Intangible Cultural Properties, Ryukyuan Song and Drama.

But such uniqueness is not welcomed when the audience does not understand the language being spoken on the stage. In fact, in order for audiences to appreciate the performances, subtitles are currently required for Kumiodori, which was designated by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011.

Taira said he was upset when prefectural officials asked him if he could translate lines from Uchinaguchi into Japanese to boost the popularity of the play.

“Performing arts should be understandable to everyone without changing the tradition,” Taira said.

Feeling threatened by the situation, Taira four years ago began teaching Uchinaguchi at community college in Okinawa. The class has attracted both locals and people from outside the prefecture who are interested in the Okinawan culture.

“There are some words that are unique to Uchinaguchi. I realized that after taking the classes,” said Keiko Shimoji, 35, an Okinawa resident.

However, such efforts by both locals who speak the language and others who come to learn it may not ensure Uchinaguchi’s survival, because those who speak and teach it are aging.

To preserve the language and raise its profile among the local population, experts say Uchinaguchi should be mandatory at schools, and they cited the successful case in Hawaii where the native language was introduced in schools in an attempt to save it. The state also designated Hawaiian as its official language.

As a step toward adding Uchinaguchi to the curriculum, Okinawa Prefecture in 2007 set up a commission to create a publication to help teach the language in public schools. But for the last five years the complexity and diverse nature of Uchinaguchi have kept scholars from deciding exactly how to codify the language and compile the publication.

Even within the language, there are several dialects spoken within the southern half of Okinawa Island. Such differences exist for all the six different languages — including forms spoken on Amami-Oshima, Yaeyama, Miyako and other islands in the southwest — designated as endangered by UNESCO. This is why experts say even linguists and government officials cannot determine which dialect of Uchinaguchi will be codified as the standard form.

“Once we decide on which Uchinaguchi dialect will be codified, it will be much easier to create a textbook,” said Shinsho Miyara, professor emeritus at the University of Ryukyus, who sat on the prefectural panel to create the learning aid.

Some critics also point out that the assimilation policies also hindered the standardization of Uchinaguchi. “Since the push under the Japanese colonial administration was for everyone to assimilate and learn Japanese, there was no governmental initiative to amalgamate and standardize Uchinaguchi into a language of official power,” said Ryan Yokota, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago and a specialist in postwar Okinawan issues.

Despite their efforts, Okinawa officials say mandating Uchinaguchi as a subject in public schools will probably not happen, because the central government does not even recognize it as a separate language.

But Uchinaguchi teacher Fija said it’s time for Okinawans to embrace the most fundamental source of their identity.

“As long as we keep labeling Uchinaguchi as a dialect or an inferior form of language, we are treating ourselves like second-class citizens,” he said.

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