Okinawa’s Endangered Languages


Okinawa’s unique culture and languages are slowly disappearing. When we say “Okinawa,” it is important to keep in mind that Okinawa is one island in the diverse Ryukuan archipelago. The Ryukus is home to several islands and languages. After a century of Japanese rule Okinawa’s unique culture and language and that of its sister islands are in danger of being wiped out.

Below is a chart of the different Okinawan languages, their local names, and how they would say: “Thank You.” When we compare the local Okinawan expressions against mainland Japan’s “arigato gozaimasu,” we soon realize that we are talking about different languages, not dialects.

Below is a map showing the endangered languages in Japan.

Screen shot 2013-07-06 at 2.24.09 PM

The yellow tabs indicate “definitely endangered,” while the orange tabs indicate “severely endangered.”

Languages do not die overnight, but slowly and gradually. They are gradually pushed out of the schools and government offices, and confined to the privacy of the homes. After several generations knowledge of the culture and language begin to fade away, then disappear forever. A chart showing the stages of language degeneration can be found on

The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus published an article “Wanne Uchinanchu: I Am Okinawan” by Fija Bairon and Patrick Heinrich in 2007. The article is about the slow death of the Okinawan language and the attempts by some to revive the Okinawan language and culture. Fija and Heinrich noted:

The Ryukyuan languages are severely endangered today, because domains of Ryukyuan language uses have been continuously lost since the start of Japanese language spread in the 1880s. The expansion of one language always coincides with the contraction of another. Languages are thus not lost word by word but domain by domain. Once those domains in which the language is naturally transmitted are lost, the language is endangered in its survival. From that point on, languages are lost speaker by speaker. While Japanese was largely restricted to official domains until the 1940s, shift to Japanese in private domains such as the family and the neighbourhood meant that natural intergenerational language transmission was interrupted. Since the 1940s two predominantly Japanese monolingual generations have been raised in the Ryukyu Islands (Heinrich 2004). It now only takes knowledge about average life expectancy, Ryukyuan demographics and a little mathematics to calculate the future decline of the Ryukyuan languages in the event that no effective counter action is taken. I will refrain from doing such maths here since language shift can be reversed. – See more at:


The Okinawan language is dying in part because of Japan’s nationalistic policies. In its quest to become a modern nation-state the Japanese government sought to eliminate regional differences and impose national uniformity. Japan’s national bureaucracy sought and still seeks to impose linguistic uniformity throughout its territories. One vivid example of the attempts to impose linguistic standardization is the “hogen fuda” or “dialect tag.” It was the practice to shame students who spoke non-Japanese by hanging the “hogen fuda” around their neck. This was meant to be a badge of shame. Its purpose was to discourage students from speaking their native language and force them to adopt the new official language. Nowadays less visible means are used. The approval process for school textbooks by Japan’s Ministry of Education not only ensures the dissemination of the Japanese language, but also an “impartial” presentation of Japan’s history.

Philippa Fogarty of BBC News described the dramatic language shift in post-World War II Okinawa. Even as late as 1945 many Okinawans still spoke Uchinaaguchi. Then during the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the US military presence there was a push to become more Japanese. Parents stopped using Uchinaaguchi with their children thinking that by learning Japanese their children would have a better chance of getting jobs. Today Uchinaaguchi is spoken only among the elderly.

After more than a century of political hegemony, assimilation, and centralization, there is a need for an alternative discussion that focuses on the themes of autonomy, decentralization, cultural diversity, and indigeneity. Hawaii’s recent history contains valuable lessons that can stimulate discussion of alternative paths to the future.

How the Hogen Fuda was used.

How the Hogen Fuda was used.

Cultural Revival In Hawaii

Hawaiian was the dominant language until 1893 when the sugar planters with the aid of the US military overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom. Then in 1898 Hawaii became a US possession and English became the new official language. Hawaii’s political and social history in the twentieth century is the story of how Americans sought to assimilate Hawaii’s multi-cultural society into mainland haole culture. This involved the marginalization of Hawaiian, the language of the indigenous inhabitants, and the suppression of Pidgin, a creole that originated on Hawaii’s plantations and is spoken by about half of Hawaii’s residents today. See: “Language and Power in Hawaii.”

In recent years there has been a cultural revival in Hawaii. After decades of pressure to assimilate into mainland American culture, the tide has shifted and many people in Hawaii are looking into their family history and seeking to recover their cultural heritage. In the 1980s there was a growing interest among the Hawaiians in reviving the Hawaiian language. A similar interest began among the Locals to affirm Pidgin as an expression of Local identity.

The 1980s also saw the flourishing in Uchinanchu pride through the construction of the Hawaii Okinawan Center and the popularity of the Okinawan Festival. For more information on the Okinawan revival in Hawaii, see Wesley Ueunten’s doctoral dissertation: “The Okinawan revival in Hawai’i: Contextualizing culture and identity over diasporic time and space.”

This has led to greater interest in Uchinaaguchi (the Okinawan language). At present Uchinaaguchi is being taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (JPN 472) as well as in less formal settings in several locations in Hawaii. It has been said that the revival of Uchinanchu culture in Hawaii may one day bring about a similar revival in Okinawa.

Robert Arakaki

NYT Article: “In Okinawa, Talk of Break From Japan Turns Serious”


Chosuke Yara, leader of the Ryuku Independence Party.  Source: NYT 5 July 2013.

Chosuke Yara, leader of the Ryuku Independence Party. Source: NYT 5 July 2013.


On 5 July 2013, the New York Times published an article by Martin Fackler about the recent revival of the Okinawan independence movement.

Mr. Higa and other advocates admit that few islanders would actually seek independence for Okinawa, the southernmost Japanese island chain, which is home to 1.4 million residents and more than half of the 50,000 American troops and sailors based in Japan. But discontent with the heavy American presence and a growing perception that the central government is ignoring Okinawans’ pleas to reduce it have made an increasing number of islanders willing to at least flirt publicly with the idea of breaking apart in a way that local politicians and scholars say they have not seen in decades.

To read more click: Here.



U.S. and Japan Announce Plans for Okinawa Land Return

Okinawa Governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, meets Japan Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera

Okinawa Governor (L), Hirokazu Nakaima, meets Japan Defense Minister (R), Itsunori Onodera.  Source: Asahi Shimbun.

On 5 April 2013, the U.S. and Japan announced an agreement on a consolidation plan that involves a timetable for the return of some 2,500 acres of Okinawan land and the transfer of 2,700 US forces stationed in Okinawa to Hawaii and Guam.  The consolidation plan is not new but originated from an earlier agreement reached in 1996 that called for a detailed plan by late 2012.   The plan arose from the furor surrounding the gang rape of an Okinawan school girl by American servicemen.  Moreover, the announced plan pushes back the moving of Futenma base by 9 years to 2022.

The agreement strengthens ties between the two countries, but it is not clear what the local Okinawan opinion is.  The governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, told reporters:

I think it is extremely good that the government is buckling down to deal in concrete terms with the return of the bases.  But it is hard to evaluate the plan until I have had a chance to consult with mayors of the affected communities.  (in The New York Times; emphasis added)

The Asahi Shimbun reported that Governor Nakaima noted that the announced plan was vague about when Futenma land would be returned.  He pointed out that the land would be returned “fiscal 2022 or later” provided that certain conditions were met.  [Note: See pages 17, 19, and 27 of the plan.]  On the day of the announcement some 120 protestors confronted Japan Defense Minister Itsurnori Onodera calling for the unconditional return of land under Futenma air station.

While the agreement sets 2022 as the target date for the return of Futenma base, it is contingent on a replacement air base being operational in another part of Okinawa. In short, one base is closed while another is created within Okinawa.  The proposed replacement base in Henoko has been criticized as being situated in valuable ecological site.


The New York Times, 4 April 2013, “U.S. and Japan Agree on Returning Okinawa Land” by Martin Fackler.

Pacific Business News, 5 April 2013, “U.S., Japan announce plans to move Marines from Okinawa to Hawaii, Guam” by Mark Abramson.

Huffington Post, 6 April 2013, “Okinawa Land Return Deal Reached Between Japan, U.S.” by Lolita C. Baldor.

The Asahi Shimbun, 6 April 2013, Okinawans blast vague plan to return land used by U.S. military.”

Okinawa Protests Japan’s ‘Restoration of Sovereignty Day’

Note: This posting is the first of the “After UTS III” series.  We want to continue the conversation that began at Uchinanchu Talk Story III.  We hope to bring to people’s attention recent news and developments affecting the people of Okinawa and so provide a forum for discussing our common concerns.


Futenma Base in the middle of Ginowan city

Futenma Base in the middle of Ginowan city


The Okinawan prefectural assembly recently passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the Japan government’s decision to celebrate “Restoration of Sovereignty Day.”  The Ryuku Shimpo commissioned a poll that found that approximately 80 percent of the heads of municipalities within Okinawa prefecture oppose any such celebration.

Under the terms of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952, Japan received back its independence in exchange for Okinawa remaining under U.S. military rule.  Thus, for Okinawa the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco (April 28) is known as “Humiliation Day.”

The Japan government’s decision to go ahead with the celebration despite vehement objections in Okinawa has caused some to voice concern about whether Japan is a true democracy.  The Ryuku Shimpo wrote:

If Japan is a true democracy, and if it’s leaders wish to show they are willing to listen to the voice of Okinawans, their only choice is to forego holding this ceremony. The ceremony is also intended to commemorate the “60 year anniversary of Japan’s return to the international community.” But while the inequalities of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement are ignored, and servile diplomatic relations toward the United States continue, can Japan really puff itself up with pride at a “Restoration of Sovereignty?”

Read more at Moderate Voice: “Prime Minister Abe to Humiliate Okinawa with ‘Restoration of Sovereignty Day’ (Ryuku Shimpo Shimbun, Japan)”

See also Forbes Magazine: “As Japan Commemorates a Postwar Return to Sovereignty, Okinawans Lament a Day of Shame