In Japan’s Okinawa, saving indigenous languages is about more than words
The Washington Post
Anna Fifield, Tokyo Bureau Chief
NISHIHARA, Japan — Rising in turn at their wooden desks, the students giggled, squirmed or shuffled as they introduced themselves, some practically in a whisper.
“Waa naamee ya — yaibiin . . . (My name is . . . ).” One by one, the classmates at Okinawa Christian University managed to get out their names, a few confidently, but most of them sheepishly.
Teacher Byron Fija waved his arms around, laughed and tried to encourage the class, which looked like a college group anywhere — some in hoodies, others in baseball caps and one guy with green hair.
But it was clear that the language — Okinawan — didn’t come naturally to most of them.
It’s the biggest of the six main indigenous languages spoken in this subtropical Japanese island chain, once the independent Ryukyu kingdom but now best known for hosting most of the American military bases in Japan…
…Fija is almost evangelical in his promotion of Okinawan, poetically called “uchi-naa-guchi” here.
In addition to teaching, Fija, 45, plays the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan banjo, and sings. For five years he hosted a radio show in Okinawan.
He sees the language as intrinsic to his identity. A product of the military occupation, he is the son of an Okinawan mother and an American father, a man he has never heard from.
Fija cites two experiences that motivated him to embrace the local language and culture.
First, he learned to play the sanshin.
“Someone told me that my playing was fine but my Okinawan sounded American, even though I don’t speak any English. Maybe it was because I don’t look Japanese or Okinawan,” Fija said after class, wearing a traditional Japanese outfit with an Okinawan pattern. His Okinawan pronunciation, he said, was the equivalent of a Japanese person singing in English “I rub you” instead of “I love you.”.
Then, in the 1990s, he spent a year or so in Los Angeles, hoping to make it as a rock star. But as he discovered how hard that was, he had an epiphany. Because of his Caucasian looks, he said, he had never really been accepted as Japanese. But with no knowledge of his father and little proficiency in English, he clearly wasn’t American, either…
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