Japan from the inside out

On beyond zebra in Okinawa?

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 2, 2008

ALL JAPANESE ARE BILINGUAL, as a Japanese man I knew used to say, and he hit the linguistic nail on the head. Every Japanese is fluent both in hyojungo, the standard language used nationwide for the broadcast and print media and school textbooks, and in the local dialect that people use to varying degrees in their everyday life in the community. The less formal a situation, the more likely dialect, or elements of dialect, will be used.

<em>Uchinaguchi</em> in print

Uchinaguchi in print

People from other parts of the country find many of these dialects impenetrable, and the impenetrability increases the further one goes from Tokyo. For example, the dialect in Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture in Kyushu, is notoriously difficult for outsiders to understand. Even other Kyushu residents have trouble with it, and they have the built-in advantage of being able to recognize elements common to all the Kyushu dialects.

Imagine then how much the dialect of the Okinawan islands, an hour’s flight to the south of Kyushu, differs from standard Japanese and the mini-languages spoken everywhere else. Scholars say that it weighed anchor and sailed away from the main Japanese language about 1,500 years ago and never looked back. Everyone else in Japan finds it incomprehensible; CDs of Okinawan music sold with the lyrics printed in the booklet require translations into standard Japanese.

Modern living, mass media, and travel opportunities, however, have sharply reduced the use of the Okinawan dialect, and some in the islands are concerned that it might become extinct. Preserving what is locally known as Uchinaguchi has been the inspiration for some linguistic activists to keep it alive.

But a formidable obstacle had to be overcome: The dialect of the Ryukyus has 27 sounds beyond the 50 of hyojungo. It is not possible to express these sounds in written form using standard Japanese orthography. (One characteristic of Japanese is that there are no exceptions for the pronunciation of alphabetical characters. What you see is what you say.)

Here’s an example. The word omae is one of the rough-and-ready equivalents of the pronoun “you” in English. If the Okinawan equivalent were to be written in phonetic Japanese and then converted into the Roman alphabet it would look something like this: yYaa.

An Okinawan Alphabet

How the heck are you supposed to pronounce that? Well, you can’t. To ensure that the proper pronunciation of Uchinaguchi can be conveyed to younger people who might not have grown up with it in the home, Meisei University professor Funatsu Yoshiaki devised an extra Okinawan alphabet in 1986 to create symbols for these sounds. His technique was to combine two letters of the hiragana alphabet in different sizes to express them in one symbol. He also employed the older symbols of ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we), which are no longer used in modern Japanese.

Dr. Funatsu worked with another Okinawan native, Kanagawa architect Kuniyoshi Shinsei, to establish the Tokyo-based Society for Speaking the Okinawa Dialect. They used commercially available software that allowed the incorporation of end-user defined characters to create new word processing software capable of handling the 27 additional characters in Dr. Funatsu’s Okinawan alphabet.

Now, Oyafuso Keiko, a teacher at Okinawa Christian Junior College, is using the software in her classes to conduct research into teaching methods. She says that studying the characters with a PC stimulates all five senses, which makes them very easy to remember.

She told an interviewer:

I want young people to study Uchinaguchi thinking it is the language with the most immediacy for them. A person’s identity is fully formed for the first time by speaking their mother tongue. I want to create many opportunities for more people to speak it.

I realize that any negativity about this type of feel-good story is like telling the next-door neighbor that her children aren’t cute, but I think Ms. Oyafuso is going a bit overboard here.

It is a stretch in the modern era of standard Japanese to claim that the Okinawa dialect is the mother tongue of today’s islanders. To insist otherwise perhaps identifies her as belonging to the camp of those seeking greater autonomy (and in some cases independence) for Okinawa.

As this post from more than a year ago shows, however, she’s trying to swim upstream if she wants to reverse the linguistic and cultural trends in the region. Young Okinawans are less interested in autonomy and independence than their elders, and they are more likely to consider themselves Japanese.

I would also argue that a person’s true identity transcends their native language, but that opens up a philosophical/religious discussion beyond the scope of this website.

Nevertheless, the Okinawan alphabet and the software that employs it are bound to be useful for linguistic scholars and those with an interest in the dialect. Assuming that the additional Okinawan alphabetical characters are easy to learn and honestly represent the currently unrepresentable, I hope that its use grows. To expect it to be anything more than that, however, is a bit like saving Confederate money in the hope that the South is going to rise again.

Afterwords: Here’s another older post on the use of dialect in Japan.

5 Responses to “On beyond zebra in Okinawa?”

  1. toranosuke said

    Wow. Posts on Okinawa seem surprisingly sparse on WordPress (and thus, perhaps, in general), judging from my tag surfer. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Marxy said

    Interesting. Although technically-speaking, Okinawan is not a “dialect,” but a distinct language in the Japonic group.

  3. Paul said

    Maybe the symbols will make their way into standard Japanese, so the language will have more than fifty measly sounds in it. At the very least, foreign names and places will be easier to convey accurately in Japanese.

    I wish that picture with the symbols was bigger though, so I could actually see it.

  4. Hi!
    My name is Oyafuso Jorge and I discovered this site because of the word “Oyafuso”.

    I’m from Brazil, and I’m grandson of japanese. My grandparents are Oyafuso Kamato (or Kama) and Oyafuso Kami.

    I have family from Brazil that living in Oyama, but I don’t know anyone person japanese from Okinawa, origin of my family.

    I would like to contact with Oyafuso Keiko, or someone with Oyafuso in the second name.

    Please, send me a e-mail!

  5. correction: I would like to contact with Oyafuso Keiko, or someone with second name “Oyafuso”.

    My english is very bad, sorry. 🙂

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