Fighting to Preserve the Okinawa Lanugage One Student at a Time

Recently, the good folks at the Japan Times posted an article about a man named Fija Byron (比嘉ばいろん), who was the son of an American and a Okinawan woman. He never met his father, and struggled with an identity crisis for much of youth, until he came to embrace his Okinawan heritage in song, dance and more importantly the language.

A little while back, I mentioned about the efforts of Koreans on Jeju Island to preserve their unique dialect. But another language that is at risk of dying out is Okinawan language or uchina-guchi (うちなーぐち). Both are island languages and both have a unique heritage. However, Okinawan language is not a dialect of Japanese. It is an independent language, and was the language used in the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, especially around Okinawa island itself.1

However, in the last century, Okinawan language was seen as inferior to Japanese language. During the time of the Japanese Empire, Japanese was the official language and it was encouraged in public use and in education in places like Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa and Micronesia, in some cases forcibly. Also, for people living in these countries looking for work, there was a considerable economic advantage to reading and speaking Japanese instead of the local language. Even after WW2, this remained true in Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands.

However, in recent years, Okinawan culture has had a small revival and is now “hip”. A lot of celebrities and comedians come from Okinawa, for example. Also, there’s a historical drama on NHK right now about the ancient Ryukyu kingdom starring my favorite Japanese actress Nakama Yukie (who is also from Okinawa).2

However, most native Okinawan speakers are elderly, and the younger generation only understand it somewhat and often use it incorrectly. So, Fija Bryon has made a big effort to keep Okinawan language strong, and to help shake off it’s culturally “inferior” status in Japan. This is a translated interview of him talking about his background and so on.

Here’s Mr. Fija in action playing the shamisen and teaching his students (Japanese only, sorry):

Pretty interesting.

Fija Byron also has a website with four introductory lessons on Okinawan respectful speech. I am not sure why some parts are dubbed, and why some parts have subtitles, but Mr. Fija is pretty interesting and a hard-working teacher. If you can’t see the website (requires a plugin that crashed my browser), you can see them on Youtube: lessons one two three and four. The folks at BBTV also have an interesting video showing a story told in Okinawan language.

I admire Mr. Fija for his energy and enthusiasm. He is not just helpful in teaching Okinawan language, but also helping to improve its image, and remind Okinawans of their noble past. I hope this will help revive the language for generations to come.

御無礼さびら
guburi-sabira (goodbye!)

1 Researchers believe that Okinawan language and Japanese have common ancestry, but Japanese imported a lot of Chinese loan-words and diverged. If you watch Fija Byron’s videos and you know some Japanese, Okinawan words frequently sound like Japanese kun-yomi (non-Chinese words) such as mono (thing), hi (fire) and hajimeti (first, start) but with pronunciation and sounds that definitely don’t exist in Japanese.

2 I like her because she’s not just a pretty face. She’s pretty intelligent and a good actress.

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
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2 Responses to Fighting to Preserve the Okinawa Lanugage One Student at a Time

  1. johnl says:

    I am a fan of Okinawa and its culture. Unfortunately, tourists from abroad rarely make it to Okinawa AFAIK. More Japanese have started going there, but it is usually to a beach resort. I have gone to Naha a few times, mainly for cultural events with students of traditional Ryukyu music. One interesting fact: the Ryukyu people transmitted the shamisen (known as sanshin in Okinawa) from the Asian mainland to the ‘Yamato’ main culture of Japan. Mr. Fija does not like the term ‘hogen’ or dialect because of the implication of a superior/inferior relationship. I am fine with that, but it is certainly true that there are lots of similarities between the two languages. Once I bought a CD of a female singing group, the Nenes, just before I boarded a transpacific flight. I listened to the CD while reading the lyric sheet–the usage and pronunciation of kanji was striking. My eyes actually got a bit misty in the darkness of the plane. Ryukyu/Okinawa culture and music are definitely worth a look.

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi John,

    That’s interesting about the sanshin / shamisen. I always suspected the cultural exchange was not entirely uni-directional.

    Yeah I understand Mr. Fija’s concern about hogen. Okinawa language clearly is not a dialect of Japanese but share a common origin.

    Anyhow, I would to visit the sites of Okinawa especially Shuri castle, but from Tokyo it’s quite far and getting to Japan yearly is already costly. Still, one of these days I will go…

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