By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
Four students from Ryukyu University in Okinawa joined the Uchinaguchi (Okinawan language) class held at Okinawa Association of America (OAA) in Gardena last Wednesday.
UNESCO has recognized Uchinaguchi an “endangered language” since 2009. To keep the cultural heritage through language, the OAA Uchinaguchi class has been held once a month since 2002 under the instruction of Chogi Higa.
The visiting students were: Sayako Ohshiro (20), Kiriko Chinen (20), Fuuko Uyechi (19), and Tomomasa Wakugawa (24). Wakugawa is a medical student and the rest of the girls are education majors.
“Hai sai gusuyo (Hello, everyone), hajimethi yatai (how do you do)?” When the students started introducing themselves in Uchinaguchi, the members of the language classes said “wow” and applause filled the air.
As the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival will be held Oct. 12-16 in Okinawa, the lessons were focused on conversation to get around in Okinawa.
“When my grandparents speak the language, I am able to understand the main idea but I cannot understand the details. It is amazing to see that this language class is held in the United States,” said Chinen.
“I have learned new terms today. It will be helpful to communicate with the patients in the future,” said Wakugawa, who wishes to be a pediatrician.
Okinawa consists of 160 islands and each area has its own culture and language. Uchinaguchi is also called Okinawan, Ryukyuan, or Luchuan and many linguists believe that the language still retains the original forms of Yamatokotoba (origin of the Japanese language); however, the language has a history of being oppressed. After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government enforced the use of standard Japanese, and after World War II the U.S. occupation forces also reinforced the use of the Tokyo language by the islanders.
A 19th-century scholar, Fuyu Iha, said, “The Tokyo language and Ryukyu languages are as different as English and Japanese.” During that time, Uchinaguchi was considered a Ryukyu dialect (hogen) and the students who spoke it were even punished by having to wear a hogenfuda (dialect tag) around their necks.
However, over the past 10 years, along with the rise of awareness of cultural identity in Okinawa, a movement to preserve the language has begun. Educators and linguists established non-profit organizations to preserve and pass on the language and the culture. Okinawa Prefecture established Sept. 18 as Shimakutuba no Hi (Day of the Okinawan Language).