At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Uchinaa-guuchi wakai miseemi?

Do you understand Okinawan language?  Yes, language...not dialect.

Most Okinawan people who live in Okinawa do not speak the indigenous languages of these islands.
Sadly, it is a part of their heritage that is passing from the present into history.  With the elderly population on the decline, the last generation of fluent Uchinaa-guuchi speakers will disappear.  There is a small percentage of people from the post-War generations (as well as those born after 1972 -- the year of Okinawa's reunification with Japan) who do speak it with their family members. But when I asked some of my students in the Yaeyama islands if they spoke Uchinaa-guuchi, they would laugh and act like that question was ridiculous.  When I have asked people older than that, people in their late 30s and 40s they have looked disdainful about that idea or have sort of brushed it away as silly.  Sometimes people feel sad about not knowing it, but they also think it's not useful in this era.  At a conference on Singlish (Singaporean-English and Multiculturalism) I attended at Okinawan Christian University last fall, a man in his late 50s/early 60s, made a comment about how when he uses Uchinaa-guuchi, he feels ashamed.  The language has been marked as inferior and second class for so long that it now is deeply ingrained in the people.   In the articles in the Japan Times that I've linked below, you can read about Meiji era policies towards Uchinaa-guuchi. There is so much to say about the legacy of these policies on Okinawa, but it's pretty much been thoroughly examined by others.

As a foreigner who is studying Japanese language but can't really speak it well (and who took only one semester of linguistics in undergrad), I have been reading some articles about the current push to embrace Okinawa's language before it becomes extinct.  You can find the most recent ones here:
Okinawans Push to Preserve Unique Language
Outsider..Champions his, Okinawa's Cultural Roots

You can also find an article by a fellow JET regarding his ideas on the language.
Let's Speak Uchinaaguuchi by Adam Nakama (page 13-16)

I am interested in Okinawa's history and its culture, its performing arts and its local festivals.  The performing arts such as Ryukyu Buyo, Sanshin or Kumiodori, by the way, are performed/sung in Uchinaaguuchi.  (It is the one area where the Okinawan language has been allowed to continue on and has been preserved).  Yet, the language issue is really not an issue that I can actively participate in, but I do understand why people are pushing for a revival of the languages.  I also understand that it can be tied to political movements.   I also see it as a sign of the times of Globalization, which is increasingly disconnecting people from their cultural identity and their history.  Perhaps the Okinawan people feel that this is the last chance to hang onto their identity.

When I've heard it spoken, there is a warmth to it that I don't get from Japanese language (which I also enjoy learning and listening to). I can't understand Uchinaa-guuchi though.  Most people cannot.  But sometimes someone who speaks it will teach you some words. There is a man who works at my school who is often trying to get me to use Uchinaa-guuchi.  He tries to teach it to me and he also tries to teach me about Okinawan culture.  It's really cool.   The sounds are so different and the way they are spoken is more intimate and friendly.  In the language itself, it seems that relations between people are much closer.  This encoded linguistic behavior is not something that can be translated from one language to another easily.  It certainly cannot be translated easily to Japanese, which is a language of formality and hierarchy, as well as distance.  This is why people are worried about its complete disappearance from these islands.  What will happen to the Okinawan culture after the language is completely gone?

Language is at the heart of a culture.  When a group of people assimilate or are assimilated into another group, the first thing to disappear is the language.  It doesn't happen overnight though.  It takes at least a generation or two for the original language to become only vaguely understood and then eventually not at all.  After the language disappears, then the music and arts start to become less understood and less valued.

In Okinawa, the younger generation still use some Uchinaa-guuchi in their Japanese.  It's how they hang onto their Okinawan cultural identity, but it's a surface level of the language.  I've heard my students say Agaa! and when speaking Japanese they have a distinct lilt that marks them as from Okinawa. But they can also speak standard Yamato-nihongo as well.

Perhaps what the Okinawan people need is to find a way to feel not only proud of being Okinawan, but to let go of the prejudices against themselves that they have had to embrace in order to become Japanese.  As a minority group within Japan, they are in some ways outsiders too.  Finding ways to make Okinawan culture cool and interesting to the Okinawan people is very important.  I often try to emphasize how interesting and cool I think the language and the performing arts here are to my students.  Some of them listen, but most of them are tuned in to AKB48, the latest K-pop group, manga from mainland Japan or movies from Hollywood.  I think the problem is that the Okinawan cultural heritage is linked so much to the past and to the older generation, that it cannot be considered cool by the youth.  How can it be brought into the present and the future?  I am sure I am not the only one who is posing that question either.

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