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Japan's Endangered Languages Still Considered Mere Dialects

Map of Ryukyuan languages by Fija Byron (English translation in blue was added by Keiko Tanaka)

Map of Ryukyuan languages located in the southernmost islands of Japan. Image by (C) Fija Byron, used with permission (English translation in blue was added by Keiko Tanaka)

In 2009, eight languages spoken on the Japanese archipelago were listed among endangered languages in the UNESCO Atlas of the World, including Ainu, Amami, Hachijō, Kunigami, Miyako, Okinawan, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. This post looks at Okinawan, one of the endangered languages in the southern half of Okinawa island in the Ryukyu region, which now constitutes Japan's Okinawa prefecture. We interviewed Fija Byron, a lecturer and advocate of “Uchinaguchi”, an Okinawan language.

Japan is often referred as a small, “homogeneous” island, and its linguistic diversity often is under-represented or discounted overseas as well as among the Japanese themselves. Many Japanese are aware of different dialects in their country, but are not as clued in when it comes to the existence of these diverse native languages. 

The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs’ website [ja] lists all eight of the endangered languages recognized by UNESCO, but with an important difference: it adds in parenthesis “dialect” next to “language”, with the exception of Ainu, the language of indigenous people from the northern part of the Japanese archipelago. The government finally recognized them as indigenous people in 2008.

Fija Byron holding sanshin, Okinawan instrument (image used with permmisison)

Fija Byron holding a sanshin, an Okinawan instrument. Image used with permisison.

This shows that for Japan, these endangered languages are considered dialects. In Japan, language is considered as something that unites a nation state, and dialect is considered as something unsophisticated, a way of speaking in the countryside. In a country where the myth of Japan being a “one race nation” is widespread, people often feel compelled to conform to social norms instead of striving for diversity. Without being aware of doing so, minorities are pushed aside, both in terms of language and how people see each other.

Fija Byron, who was born to an American father and an Okinawan mother, describes himself as American Uchinanchu (American Okinawan). He has had to deal with people constantly asking him if he is a foreigner or if he spoke English because the way he looks.  

He teaches Uchinaguchi (Okinawan), one of the endangered languages in the southern half of Okinawa island, and was born and raised in Okinawa. In an interview with Global Voices, he said that cultural attitude toward languages is hurting minority languages in the country.

方言でなまっているからおかしい、教養がないというふうに考える傾向が、自分の文化や言語について自信をもつ障壁となってしまっているのです。

The idea that these languages are referred to as dialects in Japan and that they are corrupted and wrong and unsophisticated is hindering people in speaking their own language and making them shy away from their own culture and language.

Even linguists don't agree on how to classify language from dialect. One measurement they use is so-called “mutual intelligibility”. 

Here's how Byron introduces himself in Okinawan[Uchinaguchi]. If Okinawan is to be considered a dialect, consider this first: As a native Japanese speaker, I don't understand a word of what he's saying:

According to Byron, people 80 and up can speak perfect Okinawan in the region, but younger generations of Okinawans do not have an environment to practice their language. In fact, he did not grow up speaking it. He learned it from Kochu Makishi, a master of Okinawan theater play performer. Byron explains that Okinawan theater play (沖縄芝居:Okinawa shibai), a performing folk art in the Okinawan language, emerged in the late 1880s and derived from the Ryukyu kingdom, where performances like Kumi Odori was presented to entertain Chinese diplomats:

沖縄芝居は王府のあった首里の言葉と那覇語がまざった言葉で演じられる。これが一般的にうちなーぐちと呼ばれているもの。芝居の中には様々な登場人物―侍から百姓まで―が出てくるので表現が豊富。

Okinawan play is performed in a mixture of the language of Shuri, the capital of Ryukyu kingdom, and the language of Naha, where common people lived. This language is the so-called Uchinaguchi[Okinawan]. In Okinawan play, there are a variety of roles such as farmers and samurai, so it has a good variety of expression.

Ryukyu kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, and after Japan introduced standardized Japanese to Okinawa's elementary school education in 1897, the Okinawan language gradually faded from public places, especially in honorific expressions, parts of speech which show respect:

わたしのうちなーぐち講座に78歳の方が来るのです。78歳といったら、わたしの親の世代。教えることがあるのかと思うかもしれませんが、きちんとした敬語がわからないから習いたいということで来ているのです。なぜかというと、日本語小学校の設立で沖縄の独自の文化や言語を教えなくなり、同化政策が進んで行った世代だからです。当時、公的な場で沖縄語を使うことがよくないという風潮で、きちんとした表現などは日本語で話すようになっていきました。

There is a 78-year-old Okinawan student who is about my parent's age. But he comes to my class saying that he wants to learn appropriate honorific expressions. Because of the assimilation policy and school education they've been through, they didn't have an experience in speaking Okinawan in public because they were supposed to speak standard Japanese in public.

In general, standardized Japanese is often considered to be the heart of Japanese, the most sophisticated version. All other dialects with “provincial” accents are often considered to be beneath it or unsophisticated. Standardization does play an important role in forming a protocol, something agreeable for people to collaborate upon. On the other hand, conforming to a standard has sometimes become the opposite of empowerment.

Fija writes in a journal [ja] that if a language dies, its world will also vanish:

日本の少数言語である「アイヌ語」や「琉球諸語」が危機だというのは、この世から消滅するかもしれないということなのである。「アイヌ」も「琉球」も地球の一地域であり、その文化の根源である「言語」は日本にとって、また、人類にとっても「宝」なのである。その「宝」が今まさにこの世から失われようとしている。

The fact that Japan's minority languages, such as the Ainu language and Ryukyuan languages, are in danger means that these languages are on the verge of extinction. Both Ainu and Ryukyu are part of the earth, and their languages are the origin of their cultures – which means they are precious to Japan as well as to humankind. Such precious things are about to disappear from the world.  

Fija Byron teaching at university in Okinawa. Photo used with permission

Fija Byron teaching at a university in Okinawa. Photo used with permission

He is not optimistic, but the dim reality doesn't stop him from being enthusiastic about Okinawan. In an email asking him for the interview, he replied saying that he would be happy to do anything for the sake of Uchinaguchi. He actively appears in media and keeps his website updated about the state of Okinawa:

5年間、うちなーぐちで放送する番組をやっていました。今は新聞にも執筆していますが、[その言語での]放送局や新聞社があるわけではありません。

数年前、インターネット放送の番組に出演したところ、ブラジルやハワイ、アメリカからたくさんアクセスがあり、むしろ海外で反響が多くて驚きました。

I've done radio shows in the Okinawan language for five years and I write for local papers, but it's not like there are stations and papers where they publish or broadcast in Okinawan.

I did a show on the Internet a few years ago to lecture in the Okinawan language. Surprisingly, I noticed more response from overseas, people from Brazil, Hawaii, the US were watching the show on the Internet. 

Fija Byron teaches Uchinaguchi in Okinawa University as well as in various community centers. You can reach him in his website http://fijabyron.com/

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