Local dialect showing signs of comeback in Okinawa

NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) — At the Naha city office, officials have taken up a new mission since April. In place of the standard Japanese greeting of “konnichiwa” for “good day,” the Okinawan language equivalent of “haisai” reverberates through the halls.

“Arigato” for “thank you” has also been replaced by “nihedebiru” in exchanges, for instance, between clerks and visiting local citizens at counters in the office.

“Some staff members are still a little uncomfortable greeting visitors in the local dialect, worrying that it might be impolite,” said Mayor Takeshi Onaga. To make them feel more at ease, Onaga himself walks around the office before the workday begins shouting “Haisai!” to his staff.

The islands of Okinawa, once a small independent nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom, have an abundant culture of their own with substantial differences from other regions of Japan — including language.

But especially with the rapid influx of influences from the Japanese mainland in the 40 years since the islands reverted to Japan from U.S. postwar administration, the Okinawan language and a few other languages in the prefecture are now rarely used by residents in daily life and have been listed by UNESCO as among the world’s endangered languages.

Even in a survey among people involved in Ryukyu traditional arts performed in the indigenous tongue, only 55 percent of the 605 interviewees could speak the language. By age, the figure drops to a mere 5 percent among those in their 10s and 20s.

“If (the performers) cannot understand the meaning of the language, then the culture will become superficial and eventually fade away,” said Masahide Ishihara, a 53-year-old professor at the University of the Ryukyus who conducted the survey.

At the city office, what prompted Mayor Onaga to launch the greeting campaign was in fact a small episode at a gathering last October of emigrants who have moved abroad from Okinawa.

At the occasion, a participant currently residing in South America said disappointedly, “How come you don’t greet us in our dialect?”

While the dialect remains ingrained in daily conversations among the emigrants where they have settled, especially for the older generation, the language is dying out back home in Okinawa.

Ever since the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in the second half of the 19th century, the use of the Okinawan language has constantly been suppressed.

From the early 20th century through the 1960s, elementary and junior high school students were punished if they used the dialect on campus by being made to wear a “dialect tag” around their neck.

During the Battle of Okinawa between Japanese and U.S. troops in 1945, residents who spoke the local language were treated by the Imperial Japanese Army as spies.

Fortunately, despite such adversities, many Okinawa residents still hold an appreciation for the native language.

At Radio Okinawa, an afternoon local news program spoken in the local language on weekdays has remained on air since the station was launched in 1960.

Zenjin Onaha, 86, has been an announcer for the program since 1982. “In order to hand down Okinawa’s culture to future generations, we must cherish the language that supports it,” he said.

In recent years, some forms of Okinawa accent have become commonly used even in other parts of Japan thanks partly to the popularity of celebrities from Okinawa, which has produced a number of singers such as Namie Amuro as well as comedians and other TV personalities.

With the increasing mix of the Okinawa and mainland Japanese languages as well as new words created by the younger generation, Onaha said, “Some people may raise their eyebrows, but I think this is fine. After all, the world evolves and changes over time.”

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