The Language of Okinawa: A common misconception


“The people of Okinawa don’t speak true Japanese.”  That’s what people say when they want to throw out a fact that makes them feel superior. It’s usually proclaimed proudly by someone who doesn’t speak Japanese and/or someone who has not spent a lot of time here on the island. Statements like this trickle down creating a boat load of misconceptions. This post is my attempt to try and set some things straight.

Let’s start with present day. The people of Okinawa speak Japanese. It’s not some back woods encoded version of the Japanese language, just Japanese. It’s the same Japanese that you learn in Japanese language classes and the same type of Japanese that they speak in Tokyo. This means that when you go to Mc Donald’s they will speak Japanese. When you go to see a movie it’s in Japanese. And when you go to purchase a soda the can has on it’s label, you guessed it, Japanese. True, honest to goodness, Japanese.

So why would anyone think that the people of Okinawa speak anything other than Japanese? This is because at one point Okinawa had a language all it’s own. History happened and then around WWI the Japanese started pushing out Uchinaguchi and enforcing that Japanese be spoken instead. More history pressed on leading us to where we are today.

What can you expect in Okinawa today? Well, a lot of Japanese and in most parts English. That is not to say, however, that Uchinaguchi is completely gone because despite all things it’s not. In some small communities throughout Okinawa there are still some people, mostly elderly, who speak Uchinaguchi on a daily basis. Some of their children understand the language as well, at least to a certain limit. Unfortunately this does not by any means imply that you can go out and speak Uchinaguchi to your average Okinawan resident and be understood. In fact after learning how to introduce myself in Uchinaguchi I only crossed paths with one person with whom I could exercise that skill. She was 93 at the time.

Not everyone has the opportunity to communicate with someone who has been living on Okinawa for long enough to understand Uchinaguchi but the Okinawa Prefectural Government makes an effort to incorporate key phrases whenever they can. For example you may see a sign that says “mensore” rather then “youkoso”. You may also find yourself hearing “haisai” rather then “konnichiwa” from time to time. These novelty type words become part of our vocabulary to supplement but by no means replace the words which share their meaning.

When all is said and done Okinawa is must less unique then some people make it out to be, at least in the language department. You’re not going to need an Uchinaguchi Phrase Book to figure out what people are saying and no those resort attendants aren’t studying Japanese as a second language. Although the story loses a lot of it’s romanticism it’s just the way it really is.  

 

 

 

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