In Hawaii, a revival of Okinawan language
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — In a classroom for preschoolers, a group of adults is trying to revive a language that is foreign to their ear but not to their heart.
The language is Okinawan, or "Uchinaaguchi," as it is pronounced in the language itself. The class at Jikoen Hongwanji Mission in Kalihi, as informal as it is, might just be the beginning of a cultural revival thousands of miles to the east of the source.
At least that is the hope of Eric Wada, one of the course instructors.
"For us, it's the importance of connecting (language) to identity," said Wada, who studied performing arts in Okinawa and is now the artistic director of an Okinawan performing arts group, Ukwanshin Kabudan. "Without the language, you really don't have identity as a people."
Okinawa is the name given to a prefecture of Japan, but it was originally the name of the main island of an archipelago known as the Ryukyu Islands that lies about midway between Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea.
For centuries, the Ryukyu kingdom maintained a degree of independence from other East Asian nations. As a result, distinctive cultural practices evolved, from graceful and meditative dance to the martial art called karate and the poetic language that sounds like a blend of Japanese and Korean.
The islands were officially annexed by Japan in 1879. The 20th century saw the World War II battle of Okinawa, which claimed more than a quarter of the island's population, the subsequent placement of U.S. military bases and the return of the islands to Japanese governance in 1972.
During that time, Japanese overwhelmed the local language. Top students were taken to Japan to be educated in Japanese with the intention of using them as teachers and government officials, said Wada, who wrote a paper about the situation while in Okinawa.
The use of Okinawan was actively discouraged, with youngsters at some schools forced to wear placards around their necks if they spoke it, said Shizue Afuso, who grew up in Okinawa and now is one of the senior teachers of Wada's class.
"My teachers were telling us to use Japanese — don't speak any Okinawan," said Afuso, who left Okinawa at age 13. Being part of the class, she said, "I realize I'm so fortunate that I can speak the Okinawan language, although it's not 100 percent. I feel very fortunate that I can speak Japanese and Okinawan and, of course, English."
Less than 5 percent of the current population of Okinawa speaks its indigenous language, and it is not taught in any capacity in public schools there, Wada said.
There are plenty of similarities, but also some major differences between Japanese and Okinawan. During a recent class, it was easy to discern what students meant when they said "sansei" or "yonsei." But other words can be drastically different, such as the common Japanese name "Miyashiro," which is "Nagushiku" in Okinawan.
"‘Anything with ‘shiro' in it is ‘gushiku' in Okinawan," Wada said, defining the meaning as "castle."
Wada's courses started about two years ago. Many of the students had studied Okinawan dancing and singing and felt the need to learn more.
Jeremy Keuma, who's been attending the classes for about four months, plays the sanshin, a banjo-like Okinawan instrument, but didn't grow up speaking Okinawan.
"I wanted to see what I was singing about," he said.
Other students were inspired by visits to the island chain. Connie Chun made the trip in November with other people in Wada's class.
"I'd been to Okinawa four times before but this trip was just life-changing," she said. "I totally grew up, so I say I'm a born-again Okinawan. I feel so connected to our mother country and identifying with it."
Another student, Marilyn Oshiro Sue, attended a special ceremony called the Uchinanchu Festival, held every five years for people of Okinawan descent.
"I got to meet a lot of people who live in Portugal, Brazil or even in Africa," she said. "They came home because there's this connection. It was amazing to talk to them and find out how much the culture was still alive in them."
The class has even attracted some interest from non-Okinawans. Joanna Mills, a Caucasian with some Native American ancestry, recently started attending because "I really love languages."
"I'm a really big advocate of keeping up with the language," she said. "Once the language dies, everything else kind of dies too."
Wada is concerned that the parts of Okinawan culture that remain popular in the islands, such as music and dancing, are becoming too commercialized. Without the language, the culture will not grow, he said.
He sees Hawaii's experience in reviving the Hawaiian language as an everyday form of communication and the resurgence of hula as an evolving cultural tradition as models for what Okinawans can do. He's brought Okinawan visitors to Hawaiian immersion schools.
In a kind of coals-to-Newcastle operation, one visitor was so enamored of the focus of the schools that he wrote a handbook on his own native language to try to teach it to Okinawans who speak only Japanese.
"We had a couple of professors from Okinawa come to our classes, and when they first said their language, they started crying because they finally had the freedom to talk," Wada said.
Wada admits the courses at Jikoen Hongwanji Mission are just a start. About 20 people attend regularly, and it's clearly a struggle for them to grasp the language. Still, the students were attentive as Wada explained some of the details about the tradition of ubun — Okinawan for obon. And everyone, even beginners, was happy to exchange a few words of Okinawan with an online instructor.
When it comes to saving the language, "We were told by kupuna here that as long as you say, ‘Let's do it,' it will stay alive," Wada said, "but if you hesitate, or just talk about it, it will die."