Japan from the inside out

Okinawans not talking the talk

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 11, 2008

FURTHER EVIDENCE of the growing integration of Okinawa with the rest of Japan appeared in an article earlier this week in the Ryukyu Shimbun that highlights the declining use of the Okinawan dialect/language.

The newspaper reports that three graduate school students working for a master’s degree at the University of the Ryukyus conducted a questionnaire survey on the use of the Ryukyu language throughout the prefecture. They also sent questionnaires to the outlying islands, which have greater dialect variety.

The survey results prove once again the validity of the old dictum that actions speak louder than words. Here’s a look at the important numbers:

92.5%: The percentage of respondents who agreed that the support and development of Okinawa culture required the survival of the Okinawa dialect/language.
80.2%: The percentage of respondents who said they hoped the dialect would survive.
61.7%: The percentage of respondents who said they never used the dialect at home with their children or grandchildren.
66.3%: The percentage of respondents who said that they never used the dialect at home with their children and grandchildren, combined with those who said they seldom used it.

One mitigating factor might have been the low recovery rate for the questionnaires. The students selected 1,548 households at random and mailed two questionnaires to each. Only 442 households responded, and the recovery rate for the questionnaires was just 15%.

Then again, 78.1% of those responding were 50 or older. Could it be that younger people no longer care all that much? They didn’t bother to fill out and return the questionnaire, after all.

In response to the question of how often they used Ryukyan in a day, 44.2% of those who answered said from 10% to 30% of the time. Slightly less than half of the respondents said they never used it. The vast majority of those who said they used the dialect did so exclusively at home.

Not mentioned in the article, but also worth considering, is that people who say they are using the original language might really be speaking Japanese sprinkled with local terms and expressions.

The survey also uncovered further evidence of an increased willingness to abdicate personal responsibility for a task by leaving it to the government. That was indicated by the 82.3% of the respondents who said that the Okinawan language should be taught in school.

The educators’ response

The prefecture’s schools didn’t agree, however. The graduate students also sent questionnaires to all of the 460 primary, junior high, and high schools in Okinawa. They received replies from 258 schools, or 56%. Of these, 69.9% agreed that the dialect should be used in school. The newspaper report said they had a “negative response” to the idea that it should be taught as a separate course, but it didn’t reveal the percentages.

What the school response means is that teachers think it’s fine to use the language in classroom discussions or conversations with the students, but they’re not on board with the idea of separate instruction in the language itself.

The researchers were alarmed by the results. They believe the Okinanwan language will not survive unless it is taught in schools.

If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to discount the views of those people with Okinawan nationalist sentiments. It’s no problem at all keeping a language, a dialect—or anything—alive when there are benefits to its use. As we’ve seen before, younger Okinawans increasingly see themselves as Japanese, rather than strictly Okinawan. That would underlie a realization that standard Japanese is a requirement for functioning successfully in everyday society.

I know from personal experience with my wife’s family how easy it is to maintain a distinctive dialect if the older family members use it frequently, or in the case of my father- and mother-in-law, exclusively with their children and grandchildren. My brother-in-law and his wife live in the family home with his parents. They have two daughters in their early 20s and a son in high school. All three of their children can use the local dialect more comfortably than their peers, simply because they’ve used it every day with their parents and grandparents since they were born.

Now consider the results of the Okinawa survey. Most of the respondents were older than 50, and most of them seldom, if ever, used the dialect with their children or grandchildren. The conclusion must therefore be that the Ryukyu language is slowly but surely becoming a luxury in Okinawa.

If people won’t use it at home, where it’s easily learned and applied, there’s no point in teaching it at school. Sentimentality for a culture by itself isn’t enough—you have to walk the walk by talking the talk.


In this previous post about Okinawans creating special alphabetical characters for the Ryukyu language, one poster noted that I shouldn’t have called it a dialect because it is really a separate language. I’m sure he’s right, but I used both terms in this post because that’s what the Ryukyu Shimbun did. They called it both a dialect (hogen) and the Ryukyu language (Ryukyu-go).

One Response to “Okinawans not talking the talk”

  1. […] Okinawans not talking the talk « AMPONTAN. […]

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