Language Loss and Revitalization in the Ryukyu Islands

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Mar 22 20:04:28 UTC 2009

Language Loss and Revitalization in the Ryukyu Islands

By Patrick Heinrich

Every two weeks one of the world's estimated 6,000 languages dies. It
appears inevitable to many that the number of languages spoken
throughout the world will have drastically diminished by the end of
the 21st century. Pessimistic estimations consider that as many as 80%
of the languages currently used will by then have vanished. The danger
of such loss does not go unnoticed. Many speakers of indigenous
minority languages around the world struggle to retain their mother
tongues. This holds also true for the Ryukyu Islands, located between
Kyushu and Taiwan. In the course of the nation building process since
the Meiji era, a language regime was established throughout Japan in
which the language of Tokyo came to serve as the means of
inter-regional communication throughout Japan, including the Ryukyu
Islands. The spread of Standard Japanese led to re-negotiations of the
language-identity nexus in the Ryukyu Islands. As a matter of fact, so
strong proved the idea of one unitary Japanese national language to be
in Japan that the Ryukyuan languages are seriously endangered today
and conscious efforts of language revitalization are necessary to
ensure their future use. This is an account of how the Ryukyuan
languages came to be endangered and of current efforts for their

Modernist language ideology and the language – dialect question

The boundaries of languages and language varieties – a term linguists
prefer to dialects since it does not connote the idea of a deviation
from a chosen standard – do not come into existence by themselves.
They reflect the interests of those responsible for drawing these
boundaries. The extension and the names of languages and language
varieties are, more often than not, influenced by nation imagining

The Ryukyuan languages, their classification and assessment are a case
in point. During the forced assimilation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into
the emerging Japanese nation state between 1872 and 1879, the various
language varieties of the Ryukyu Islands came to be designated as
Japanese dialects. The first such classification was made by a
bureaucrat. Matsuda Michiyuki, a high-ranking official in the Japanese
foreign ministry, was the first to stress linguistic correspondences
between Japan and the Ryukyu Islands in the early 1870s. He claimed
that the varieties spoken in the Ryukyu Islands were part of the
Japanese language.

The first study on the Ryukyuan languages by a trained linguist was
that of Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1895. It successfully established
evidences of a shared Ryukyuan-Japanese genealogy. That is to say,
Chamberlain proved that Japanese and the Ryukyuan language family
share the same ancestor language, similar to, say, French, Italian and
Spanish. Today we know that Japanese and the Ryukyuan languages must
have split not long before the first written evidences of Japanese
appeared, that is to say, at some point before the 7th century.
Chamberlain treated Ryukyuan as a set of languages distinct from

There are good reasons for doing so. The chain of mutual
intelligibility is interrupted several times in the Ryukyu Islands.
The concept of mutual intelligibility serves linguists as an etic
tool, in other words, as a politically and culturally disinterested
means for drawing linguistic boundaries. In Japan, for instance,
speakers of a Tohoku language variety and a Kyushu variety might
experience severe difficulties in understanding each other. However,
the chain of mutual intelligibility is nowhere interrupted in the
Japanese main islands as mutual intelligibility to the neighbouring
local variety is always possible.

On the basis of mutual unintelligibility, five different varieties of
the Ryukyuan language family can be ascertained. These are, from north
to south, the varieties spoken on Amami-Oshima, Okinawa, Miyako,
Yaeyama and Yonaguni. These varieties form the Ryukyu language family.
Needless to say, none of these varieties allows for mutual
intelligibility with any Japanese variety. Following the conventions
of comprehensive glossaries of world languages, rather than Japanese
national (identity) linguistics (kokugogaku), these varieties will be
treated as languages in the following. Since the Amami-Oshima island
group is part of Kagoshima prefecture, the term Ryukyu is preferred
over Okinawa.

The linguistic situation in the Ryukyu Islands is complex. The doyen
of Ryukyuan linguistics, Hokama Shuzen, proposes the following
division of Ryukyuan varieties (from south to north):


Sakijima Yaeyama Ishigaki
 Miyako Miyako

Amami-Okinawa North-Okinawa
 South Okinawa
 Okinoerabu East Okinoerabu
  West Okinoerabu
 Amami-Oshima North Amami-Oshima
  South Amami-Oshima

In contrast to the present paper, Hokama bases his classification on
language typology and not on the concept of mutual intelligibility.
Nonetheless, reference to his classification is helpful here because
it emphasizes the vast differences that exist even within the major
varieties spoken on Amami-Oshima, Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama. The
biggest typological differences are those between Yonaguni, Sakijima
and Amami-Okinawa. Typological differences with regard to phonology,
morphology and syntax between these three typological categories can
then be further subcategorized into the typological categories
Yaeyama, Miyako, North-Okinawa etc. Since Hokama treats the Ryukyuan
varieties within the concept of national language (kokugo), he lacks
the concept of languages. As a result, we find Yonaguni in the left
column but Yaeyama, Miyako and Amami-Oshima in the middle column.
Okinawa as a unified speech community is absent in his scheme,
reflecting, as it does, the fact that there exist marked differences
between Northern and Southern Okinawan as well as the fact that the
study of these two varieties has been conducted most comprehensively.
In other words, awareness of the differences between Northern Okinawan
and Southern Okinawan is most pronounced. Language variation in the
Ryukyu Islands does not stop at the types of langue varieties in
Hokama’s right column. All of the approximately 50 populated islands
have distinctive language varieties which very often allow for many
more subdivisions within them. It is worthy of note in this context
that the Okinawa Language Research Centre ( Okinawa gengo kenkyu
senta) has conducted phonological studies into some 800 different
local varieties.

The differences between the Ryukyuan varieties and Japanese are
extensive. Tokyo university professor Hattori Shiro demonstrated in
the 1950s that the percentage of shared cognates in the basic
vocabulary between Tokyo and Shuri (Okinawa) stands at 66% and at 59%
with regard to Miyako. The latter percentage is lower than that
between German and English. As an illustration of the differences in
the lexicon and morphology, consider the following sentence taken from
a contemporary version of the Momotaro tale:

Okinawa : Sigu kadi nndandi ici hoocaasi taacinkai sakandi sakutu,
naakakara uziraasigisaru ufuwikiganu nziti caabitan.

Standard Japanese: Sugu tabete miyo to itte hocho de futatsu ni sako
to shitara, naka kawairashii otoko no ko ga dete kimashita.

English: When he said that he wanted to eat it right away and was just
about to cut it into two pieces with his knife, a cute boy emerged
from within (the peach).

Mutual unintelligibility notwithstanding, Japanese linguists of the
Meiji period chose to rely on Matsuda Michiyuki's view according to
which the Ryukyuan varieties were part of the same language. They
included both the Japanese and the Ryukyuan varieties in the newly
created concept of national language (kokugo). In so doing, they
followed the model of most Western nation states which claimed that
all language varieties within the boundaries of the state were part of
one language, the national language. While dialectologists drew a
clear line between the Ryukyuan varieties and those of the main
islands, everyone else came to regard the Ryukyuan varieties simply as
yet another Japanese dialect group. Dialects, however, that deviated
very strongly from Standard Japanese. This deviance from Standard
Japanese led to the view that these varieties presented an obstacle
and should best be done away with. The Ryukyu Islands were thus
perceived to have a serious language problem and, consequently, the
view emerged that Ryukyuans had to be relieved of the ‘burden’ of
their languages. This specific view of language, or language ideology
as it is called in linguistics, was not limited to the Ryukyu Islands.
It became widespread across the world as an effect of the emergence of
modern nation states. Such nation-imagining language ideology is
responsible for the fact that bilingualism in nation states is, more
often than not, unstable. Speakers of minority languages are often
pressured to express their loyalty to the state by abandoning their
mother tongue. Exactly this happened in the Ryukyu Islands after 1879.

Language shift before 1945

During the first eight years of Japanese rule over the Ryukyu Islands
a strict policy of preservation of ancient customs was implemented. It
was only in 1879 that the first two exceptions were made. The Meiji
government ordered that this policy should not apply for education and
industrial development. Starting in 1880, the view began to prevail
that Japanese language dissemination was unavoidable in order to gain
control over the islands and to govern them in the interests of
mainland Japan. Following the reorganization of the Ryukyu Domain into
Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, Vice Minister of Education Tanaka Fujimaro
was dispatched to the archipelago with the objective of developing and
implementing an educational policy for the prefecture. In his history
of Okinawa George H. Kerr describes how Tanaka, upon visiting the
prefecture, decided that Ryukyuans had to learn Japanese and therefore
ordered that a Conversation Training Centre be established. Such
training facilities had been founded throughout Japan prior to the
implementation of the 1872 educational system in order to provide for
teacher training. In contrast to teacher training facilities in
mainland Japan, the Conversation Training Centre in Okinawa was also
responsible for the compilation of a bilingual Okinawa-Japanese
language textbook titled ‘Okinawa Conversation’ ( Okinawa taiwa). It
was written by mainland officials from the Department of Education in
collaboration with some Ryukyuan members of the pre-modern ruling
class. The textbook was used from 1880 onwards in all schools of the

The efforts to render Ryukyuans Japanese through language education
became more comprehensive after the proclamation of the Imperial
Rescript on Education in 1890. Attention shifted from mere
communicational needs to national citizen education and imperial
subject education. These attempts grew more intense in Okinawa
Prefecture following Japan's 1895 victory in the Sino-Japanese War.
Following the integration of Taiwan into the Japanese empire in the
same year, the greater differences between Taiwanese and Japanese made
policymakers and the local population aware of similarities between
Ryukyuans and mainland Japanese.

Starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, efforts to
spread Japanese increasingly employed coercive measures. Ryukyuan
languages were banned from schools in the so-called Ordinance to
Regulate the Dialect in 1907. When a Movement for the Enforcement of
the Standard Language was established in 1931, language dissemination
activities attained a new quality. Together with the Department of
Education, the movement developed schemes for Japanese language
dissemination beyond the public domain. Japanese was promoted through
debate or presentation circles. In order to secure a thorough spread
of Japanese, relatives of school children were invited to participate.
Speaking a Ryukyuan language during such presentation circles was
considered an unpatriotic act, and children taking part in debate
circles risked being penalized if they failed to speak Japanese.
Japanese language dissemination became increasingly seen as an
important instrument for forcing Ryukyuans to adapt to mainland
customs and traditions. In accordance with the National Spiritual
Mobilization Movement, launched in 1937 after the outbreak of the
Sino-Japanese War, the local Department of Education and the Movement
for Enforcement of the Standard Language compiled a policy platform
called Programme for Education in Okinawa Prefecture. The programme
placed Japanese language dissemination high on its agenda. In order to
forcefully implement language policy measures, committees responsible
for the supervision of language dissemination were set up in all local
communities. An ordinance proscribed the Ryukyuan languages at
government offices and at various other public institutions. People
who addressed the staff of post offices or governmental offices in
Ryukyuan had to be refused service and employees caught using a
Ryukyuan language risked punishment.

In short, Japanese language dissemination at the time relied heavily
on negative and coercive measures. One of the most notorious forms of
punishment was the so-called dialect tag which had to be worn around
the neck by the last pupil to have used Ryukyuan in class. The pupil
wearing it was then responsible for passing it on and therefore had to
monitor the language use of his fellow students. The use of the
dialect tag increased drastically in the 1920s and 1930s, peaking at
the time of the general mobilization campaign. The view prevailed that
the perceived language problems of the Ryukyu Islands were best solved
by their eradication, by punitive means where necessary. It is worth
of note here that the use of the dialect tag was not exclusively
confined to Okinawa Prefecture. It included Kagoshima Prefecture and
the entire Tohoku region, two regions with distinctive local dialects.
Nowhere, however, was the use of the dialect tag more prominent than
in the Ryukyu Islands and it was only there that attempts were made to
ban the local language varieties in private domains.

Language ideology, the determination of what language(s) ought to be,
played a crucial role in the language shift processes in the Ryukyu
Islands. As an effect of language modernization the national language,
kokugo, became to be represented by, if not equated with, its standard
variety. In addition, the view emerged that Standard Japanese was
‘correct’ and that deviations from it were ‘wrong’. The ideology of
linguistic nationalism was furthermore based on the belief that all
Japanese nationals had equal access to the national language and hence
should be equally proficient in it. Therefore, lack of respect for and
proficiency in (Standard) Japanese became to be perceived as
anomalous. The effects of insufficient proficiency were embarrassment
and the reasons for deviant language attitudes and language behaviour
were sought at the individual level.

As an effect of such ideological beliefs, the Ryukyu Islands thus
stood out as the region in which (perceived) embarrassing language
behaviour was most pronounced. There was resistance against such views
and the suppression of the Ryukyuan language and culture by local
activists and scholars of Okinawan studies. These included Jahana
Noburo, Iha Fuyu, Higashionna Kanjun and Kinjo Choei as well as by
mainland scholars of folklore studies such as Yanagita Kunio,
dialectologists such as Tojo Misao and folk art scholars such as
Yanagi Muneyoshi, to mention only some of the more prominent. However,
the endeavours to end the oppression of Ryukyuan languages failed due
to the growing pressure on Ryukyuans to adapt to mainland Japan
language and culture during the Sino-Japanese and later the Pacific
War. After 1945, much of the research of the aforementioned scholars
was used to construct a Ryukyuan identity, which was embedded in a
larger Japanese context in order to resist the unwelcome US occupation
(see below).

The dissemination of Standard Japanese and the suppression of the
Ryukyuan languages had drastic effects on the language ecology of the
Ryukyu Islands. Standard Japanese came to be exclusively used in the
public domain. It thus replaced the variety of Shuri (Okinawa), the
ancient capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had previously served as
the language of official and inter-island communication. Due to
further consequences of the modernization process such as an
increasing mobility of the population, a growing rate of exogamy and
an extension of infrastructure, local language varieties also came
under pressure and were increasingly often replaced by Standard
Japanese in private domains too. Drastically changing political
circumstances notwithstanding, language shift from the Ryukyuan
languages to Standard Japanese continued unremittingly after 1945.

Language shift after 1945

The only land battle of the Pacific War fought in Japan took place in
Okinawa. Before Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers on
September15th 1945, more than one quarter of the Okinawan population
was dead and a military government was set up for the Ryukyu Islands.
US Military authorities exercised exclusive control over the islands
until 1972. While the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 restored Japanese
sovereignty, occupation did not end for the Ryukyu Islands in spite of
the fact that petitions had been handed in, in which more than two
thirds of the Ryukyu electorate asked for a return to Japan in July

Circumstances for language planning could hardly be worse than they
were in the Ryukyu Islands immediately after 1945. With Okinawa Island
being completely destroyed and the population living in temporary
camps, language planning was not a priority issue. Provision of food
for the population and reestablishment of infrastructure proved to be
more urgent tasks. In some cases, pupils learned writing by drawing
script characters with their fingers in the sand of nearby beaches.
There was, in addition, a drastic shortage of qualified teachers due
to the fact that many teachers (and pupils) had been killed. Many of
the surviving teachers filled administrative positions left vacant by
the departure of mainland personnel, increasing thereby teacher

Two groups vied to dominate language planning activities between 1945
and 1972. American military authorities sought to encourage the use of
the Ryukyuan languages (and English), while important Ryukyuan
institutions promoted Standard Japanese. A report compiled in 1944 by
anthropologists from Yale University for the preparation of a possible
occupation of Japan stressed exploitations of and discrimination
against Ryukyuans by mainland Japanese. On this basis, the American
authorities developed a policy of encouraging Ryukyuan autonomy. Such
policy rested above all on US perceptions of the strategically
important location of the Ryukyu Archipelago. US authorities thus
explored the Yale-report as a basis to legitimize their attempts to
split Okinawa from Japan, that is, to preserve it within the orbit of
American power as a bulwark with respect to US policies toward China,
Taiwan, and Korea.

Along the lines of a policy encouraging Ryukyuan independence,
mainland Japanese teaching materials were initially banned and
American authorities called for the compilation of Ryukyuan textbooks.
A Textbook Compilation Office was set up. However, the prevailing view
among its members was that the development of Ryukyuan textbooks was
unrealistic. Attempts at developing Ryukyuan teaching materials ran
into several problems, such as the absence of a modern written
Ryukyuan style since official records had been written in classical
Chinese prior to the Japanese seizure of the Ryukyus and the fact that
pre-modern literature had largely been composed in Chinese and
Japanese written styles. Furthermore, a fixed orthography did not
exist, nor resources and materials on which such textbooks could be
based. As a result, the idea of Ryukyuan textbooks was quickly
abandoned. With American interest in language planning quickly
declining as well, Japanese textbooks were imported from mainland
Japan after 1951.

In contrast to US postwar planning for Japan, development and strict
implementation of a far-reaching occupation policy for Okinawa, ‘the
rock’ as GIs derogatively called it, had never been high on the agenda
in the early occupation years. It took until Communist victory in
China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in the following year
before a long term policy for the island was framed. By that time,
however, a return to the pre-war policy of Japanese language spread
had taken root. Thus, after a short period of uncertainty about
language education in school, the practices established before 1945
were continued. The only difference was that Japanese language
education was no longer called ‘national language’ (kokugo) but
‘reading lessons’ (yomikata). A conference of school directors in 1950
determined that school education should follow exactly the pattern of
mainland Japan, with Japanese as the language of instruction.

Whereas the first initiatives in language planning were taken by
American occupation authorities, the focus shifted soon to Ryukyuan
educators. Standard Japanese served Ryukyuans as a symbol of their
struggle for the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. Part of the reason was
that the Americans were already using Ryukyuan languages as a means
for distancing the Ryukyus from Japan, and thereby, implicitly, for a
continued affiliation with the US. Ryukyuans were clearly aware that
the US administration was trying to prolong the occupation in their
own interest by claiming that Ryukyuans were not Japanese. While the
US was thus trying to undo the effects of linguistic and cultural
assimilation of the past 50 years, such language and identity planning
was not supported by Ryukyuans. US language policy only produced
resistance which meant, with a view to language, continued Standard
Japanese language spread. Whereas the view that Ryukyuans were a
different nation than the Japanese prevailed among the US authorities
and, to a certain degree, also among Ryukyuans in the early years of
the occupation, political activities aiming at Ryukyuan independence
declined drastically after 1950. The presence of extensive military
infrastructure, land confiscation, noise pollution, crime,
prostitution, poverty, all had the effect of leading the overwhelming
majority of Ryukyuans to favour immediate reversion to Japan. US
American occupation thus inadvertently reinforced Ryukyu Islands-
mainland Japan bonds. Promotion of Standard Japanese after 1945 thus
continued to serve as a means to foster a Japanese identity for the
Ryukyuan population and a means of resisting the unwelcome US

Due to the continued efforts to promote Standard Japanese after 1945,
use of Ryukyuan languages or Ryukyuan interference on Standard
Japanese were again condemned as bad language. Even the dialect tag
saw a revival. Other oppressive measures against Ryukyuan in schools
included less drastic forms of punishment and admonition, such as
counting the instance of use of Ryukyuan words by individual pupils.
Those found using such words too frequently were requested to use only
Standard Japanese in class or had their names recorded in the class
register. Local linguists such as Karimata Shigeihsa and Takaesu
Yoriko reported to me that they had experienced such measures in their
early schooldays in the 1960s and 70s.

Natural intergenerational language transmission in the Ryukyuan
languages was interrupted from the early years of the US occupation.
The diverse mosaic of sociocultural contexts and experiences makes it
difficult to generalize a single, monolithic Ryukyuan language
situation. In most cases people born after 1950 no longer speak
Ryukyuan languages, particularly those living on Okinawa, the main
island. Speakers of Ryukyuan tend to include younger people in the
outlying islands of the Okinawa Island group as well as in the other
island groups. It can be noted that there exist differences between
local communities within island groups which seem to reflect the
various degrees of radicalism with which Standard Japanese was spread.
Furthermore, language shift occurred faster in the cities than in the
countryside. As a result, the sociolinguistic situation is complex. In
addition to the older generation, usually proficient in a Ryukyuan
language variety, the middle generation often has passive skills and
some of them can even be regarded as semi-speakers. The young
generation is overwhelmingly monolingual Japanese. In addition,
contact varieties of Standard Japanese and Ryukuyan varieties have
emerged. These varieties are summarized under the term
Okinawan-Japanese (uchinayamtoguchi). They show strong variation
according to region and age of its speakers. The study into the
current use of these contact varieties is still little developed, due
to the fact that they are so widely spread and considered to be of
little prestige.

Attempts at language revitalization

In recognition of the endangerment of local cultures and languages
several attempts have been made to revitalize languages at risk in the
Ryukyu Islands. The early efforts initially concentrated in the
northern Amami-Oshima island group. The earliest language revival
organizations on Okinawa Island is that of Okinawa City (formerly Koza
City), established in 1955 as Koza Society of Culture. By the
mid-1990s more than half of all local communities in Okinawa
Prefecture had societies devoted to the maintenance and promotion of
Ryukyuan culture. In 1995, the Prefectural Society of Okinawan Culture
was founded as an association of these societies. It organizes the
popular annual Ryukyuan public speech event called Let's Speak the
Island Languages Meeting. The threat of language loss has led to
numerous popular publications about Ryukyuan languages and various
language textbooks. News in Okinawan is broadcast daily on local
radio. In recent years, presentation circles and plays in Ryukyuan
languages have been incorporated in the school curriculum as part of
local culture classes. There are also a few language classes as part
of extracurricular activities. Furthermore, Ryukyuan language classes
are offered in tertiary education as part of general education where
they enjoy huge popularity. Since all five universities in the Ryukyus
are located on Okinawa Island, the variety taught there is that of
Okinawa, more specifically Shuri/Naha.

The most important institution for the revival of a Ryukyuan language
is the Society for Spreading Okinawan (Uchinaguchi fukyu kyogikai). At
its constituting meeting, the society formulated as its objectives the
establishment of dialect classes at elementary and middle schools, the
organization of Okinawan teacher training, and the development of an
Okinawan standard orthography.

While a standard orthography has now been established for the language
varieties of the Okinawa Island group and teacher training is being
held, Okinawan has not been introduced in schools. In other words,
education in both public and private schools is conducted exclusively
in Japanese and it is not possible to study Ryukyuan as a second
language in the schools. Introducing classes in Okinawan requires the
approval of the Okinawa Education Council, which has so far not been
supportive of the scheme. Other activities of the Society for
Spreading Okinawan include the design and distribution of an Okinawa
language button. Wearing the button signals that the bearer wishes to
be addressed in Okinawan. Furthermore, the Society organized the first
Island Language Day which was held at the Naha community centre on
September 18th this year. An estimated 100 endorsed a declaration
asking for the recognition of Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni
as independent speech communities. (Note that the language varieties
of Amami-Oshima, which are located in Kagoshima Prefecture, are
absent). The language declaration claims the rights to use these
languages in private and public domains, to receive language
instruction in order to develop language proficiency, and the right to
receive public services in these languages.

There are other research and speech circles in the Ryukyu Islands. On
Okinawa Island alone, I could trace such circles at community centres
in Shuri, Naha, Urasoe, Tomigusuke, Haebaru, Kochinda, Nishihara,
Tamagusuke, Okinawa City, Ginowan, Chatan, Kadena and Ginoza. With the
exception of Chatan, where children are being taught Okinawan, these
circles are usually visited by people over 50 who primarily look for
opportunities to use Okinawan. Participants do not actively endeavour
to spread the language to new speakers and domains of usage. These
circles can therefore not be seen as language revival institutions in
the strict sense.

The future of the Ryukyuan languages

The most important measure of language revitalization is that of
passing the retreating language on to younger generations. This is of
course easier said than done. The current popularity of things
Ryukyuan throughout Japan however offers opportunities for language
revitalization since it includes appreciation of the local languages.
Two examples illustrate both renewed interest in Okinawan languages
and the difficulties in passing the languages to new generations. In
its issue of April 11th 2001, the Okinawa Times reported on a student
from Osaka who started studying Okinawan after starting his studies at
the University of the Ryukyus. He states that it struck him that there
were language varieties in Japan which he could not understand at all.
In a letter to the editor, published in Okinawa Times on September 7th
2005, a 17 year old high school student from Uruma City on Okinawa
criticizes elderly speakers for not using the local language when
talking to her and urges them to pass the languages down to younger
generations. In concluding, she writes: ‘I, who was born in Okinawa,
feel ashamed for not even understanding jokes in the language of
Okinawa. Will the dialect really vanish just like this? Don't you have
the impression that a great quality of Okinawa will be lost?’

The situation is difficult, but there is hope. In particular the
current dialect boom in Japan might be useful for Ryukyuan language
revitalization. With Standard Japanese being thoroughly spread among
the young generation, varieties other than Standard Japanese are
experiencing a revaluation. It can be noted that in trend-spots such
as Shibuya young women, always quickest to set and respond to
linguistic trends, are inserting as much dialectal elements as
possible in their speech. As an effect, the formerly ubiquitous shouts
of ‘totemo kawaii!’ (totally cute) are in the process of being
replaced by their equivalents from local varieties such as ‘namara!’ (
Hokkaido) or ‘sekarashika!’ and ‘chikappomenkoi!’ (Kyushyu).

The dialect boom has been reinforced and picked up by Japanese mass
media. One of the current linguistic bestsellers is ‘Chikappomenkoi
hogen renshucho’ (Totally cute dialect exercise book). Many popular TV
shows have dialect corners and the number of web-sites on local
varieties is constantly rising. Ryukyuan local varieties meet thereby
with particular interest. In the music industry, the case of Isamu
Shimoji (35) is worth of note. Originally from Miyako, Shimoji was a
company employee on Okinawa until a few years ago. When he threw in
some Miyako language into a karaoke rendition of an Eric Clapton song,
friends convinced him to give a concert of Miyako songs at a local
community centre. Soon self-produced tapes made it to the airwaves of
the local radio station FM Okinawa. Shimoji went on to produce a CD of
contemporary popular music titled ‘Kaitakusha’ (Pioneer) which is
almost completely in the Miyako variety. The CD is selling very well
throughout Japan.

The recent Japanese Okinawa boom notwithstanding, resistance against
attempts to revitalize local languages are far from being unknown. For
example, in a letter to the editor, published in Okinawa Times on
December 3rd 2004, a government official opposed the idea of reviving
the Ryukyuan languages and having them taught in school. She writes:
‘I have come across the misunderstanding that the Okinawa dialects are
believed to constitute language systems of their own because terms
such as Okinawan or island language and the like exist. As a matter of
fact, they are merely instances of corrupt accents and Old Japanese
words which have not vanished but continue to be used in Okinawa. (…)
Although there have recently been voices calling for teaching the
dialects as languages to children, such a practice would be dreadful.
What is the idea of teaching corrupt accents? If pupils are not taught
to speak proper Japanese they will face humiliation when grown up
because of the language barrier.’

In addition to resistance, many attempts at reviving the Ryukyuan
languages simply fail. For instance, a course on the language variety
of Yoron Island started in 2004 only to be cancelled after a few
sessions because it failed to attract participants. As a rule,
activists aiming at language revival are left to rely on their own
wits and funds. It seems that this is not enough to achieve a
broad-based revival.

There exists no language policy comprehensively addressing the
linguistic situation in the Ryukyu Islands. There is also a lack of
professionally trained linguists. Several branches of linguistics such
as sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology are absent. Much of the
linguistic research in the Ryukyu Islands is conducted by amateurs,
who find support from linguistics professors at the local
universities. A research grant of the Japanese Ministry of Education,
Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for a project called
"Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim" which ran from 1999 to 2003
provided a much needed impetus for professionally conducted research.
In spite of the fact that the Ainu and the Ryukyuan languages were
recognized as endangered Japanese languages, however, research focused
exclusively on language documentation.

While endangered languages require efforts with regard to description
and language planning, the latter point has so far been completely
neglected. Literally no research has yet been conducted on how the
Ryukyuan languages can be revitalized. As it stands, there is no
reliable information on questions as fundamental as how many speakers
of the different language varieties exist, how old they are, where
they are located, and what level of proficiency they have.
Furthermore, nothing is known about local awareness concerning the
possible loss of their languages in the speech communities themselves,
the attitudes of the speech communities toward language endangerment,
and, to be based on such fundamental information, realistic goals for
language revitalization have not yet been set.

It is a sad fact that the local universities and the International
Clearing House of Endangered Languages at the University of Tokyo pay
little attention to these aspects of sociolinguistic research. As an
effect of such neglect, both issues of the UNESCO Red Book of
Endangered Languages completely fail to mention the Ryukyu languages
(and have grossly optimistic views on the Ainu language situation).
While concentrated efforts are being made to document Ryukyuan
language varieties, the greatest need seems to be for language
planning rather than on documentation. In particular, acquisition
planning, that is to say, the planning for new speakers, is an issue
that can ill afford any further delay.

To be sure, the survival of the Ryukyuan languages hinges on language
choices to be made by the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands. Only they
can choose to maintain and transmit their languages. But while
grassroots movements have sprung up and a wide-spread appreciation of
local culture and language can be noted, there is not such sentiment
evident in official institutions. As it stands, the most urgent task
in language revitalization is to secure support from local education
boards, the prefectural governments at Okinawa and Kagoshima as well
as the Japanese state. Having the Ryukyuan languages supported by
these institutions would have a huge symbolic meaning, increasing
their value and encouraging their future study and use. They could
also provide the material and institutional support for a wider
language acquisition program.

Thus far, however, it appears that the extent of language endangerment
and its consequences have not been fully realized by the Okinawan
government, or, if realized, is not perceived as a problem. There is
also little awareness of the danger of language loss even among those
supportive of the local languages. When I interviewed the local
photographer and documentary filmmaker Higa Toyomitsu, who has made
audiovisual recordings in Okinawan of more than 500 survivors of the
Battle of Okinawa, even Higa, at first, showed a lack of awareness
about language endangerment. When I pointed out that there was a need
to find new domains of usage and new speakers of the language in order
to secure the future existence of the local languages, he answered:

Well, there are such places where you can use Ryukyuan languages.
These places exist and I make my recordings there. I myself am such a
place. It doesn't matter whether someone speaks well or not. As long
as these people are there, the language will be there as well. No
worries (daijobu)!

After I explained that the language would vanish with its present
speakers if no counter measures were taken, Higa lamented that too few
people were getting involved in issues of cultural and linguistic

If you make attempts for revitalization, everybody says ‘great’. But
when it comes to making an effort, they don't do anything. I mean,
look, even the scholars here don't do anything. They only care whether
their own field of research is affected. But if you say, let's do
something for the revitalization of such and such island language,
they will do nothing. They only do something for their research. And
if it is for some bigger issue, even they won't do anything. What I
would like to see is scholars really getting involved. So what would
you make out of something like that? [Laughs].

The remarks by Higa point to the fact that it would be naïve to simply
equate statements about concern with evidence that people are really
aware of what is at stake and/or that they are ready to get involved.

Language loss affects more than language use–it affects identities. To
start with, the Ryukyuan languages, or their absence, profoundly
affect Ryukyuan identity. The collapse of a language is always
accompanied by thoroughgoing changes in local culture. Attempts to
revitalize languages are therefore not purely linguistic endeavours.
Leaving behind languages which have been passed on for hundred of
years inevitably constitutes a decisive break with the past. Powerful
symbolic links to a shared culture and history are forever lost.

Viewed from another angle, a further decline of the Ryukyuan languages
would weaken the multilingual and multicultural bases of Japanese
society. This is crucial, because the current policy of ignoring
linguistic and cultural diversity within the Japanese nation
contradicts and runs counter to other efforts aiming at
internationalisation. The latter policy appreciates and cherishes
linguistic and cultural diversity on an international level while the
former ignores such diversity on the national level. While there has
been an upsurge in literature pointing out and describing Japan's
multilingual tradition and heritage in recent years many people and
institutions continue to cling to the modernist paradigm according to
which there is a one-to-one congruence between the Japanese state,
nation and language. Producing evidence about Japan's multilingual and
mulicultural past and present is one thing, having it reflected in
popular attitudes and in official policies quite another.

As it presently stands, modernist language ideology which claims
linguistic homogeneity across nation states continues to serve as
self-fulfilling prophecy – in Japan as in many other places across the
world. Every two weeks a language dies while thousands of others
continue to decline. This reinforces the validity of modernist
nation-imagining ideology. To many the view of the linguistically
homogenous nation appears to be more true, natural, normal and
historical day by day. This is one of the major reasons why it is so
very difficult to save a threatened language. With every day, it seems
to become easier to perceive language revitalization as an unfeasible
endeavour. When I asked Shimoji Toshiyuki [Shimoji toshiyuki?] from
the Local Research Society of Miyako (Miyako kyodo kenkyukai) whether
there were people who would oppose language revitalization and whether
he could imagine the local language varieties being taught in school,
he sounded first optimistic about the idea and then, slowly, gave in
to the view that prospects were rather bleak, enumerating, as he did,
the difficulties involved:

If it were possible to save the dialects, and if one could get pupils
to use them at school, this would be good. I think that this would be
really good. I don't think that anyone would be against it. Well, I
don't know, but I don't think that someone would oppose the idea.
[Pause] Dialect [pause] at school [pause]. Even if one wished to teach
it at school, how should it be taught? To start with, there is the
question whether the teacher would be able to speak the dialect.
People who speak the dialect properly would need to train the
teachers. One would need to incorporate it into general education
(sogo gakushu). You know, the curriculum is already set and there is
the question to which extent the dialect can be incorporated into the
curriculum. There is no need to do it in a half-hearted way like
having two lessons a year or so – if it is incorporated into school
education, it would need to be done properly. Even if you were to
teach it, say one hour a week, I don't think that this would allow
pupils to engage in conversations. And one would need a leader who
would pursue all these things [pause]. It's difficult, isn't it?

Shimoji is right. It is difficult and everything he mentioned indeed
needs to be done. But while that appeared to be almost insurmountable
to him, it is most important to recognize that it actually can be
achieved. The Ryukyuan language might very well survive in the event
that such action is taken. It won’t happen, however, unless a growing
number of people become involved, readers of Japan Focus not excluded.

Patrick Heinrich studies and teaches Japanese culture and linguistics
at Duisburg-Essen University ( Germany). His fields of research
include history of linguistics, language ideology and
sociolinguistics. He is currently working on a monograph on reversing
language shift in the Ryukyu Islands. He wrote this article for Japan
Focus. He can be contacted by e-mail: patrick.heinrich at
The author would like to thank Matt Allen, Donald Seekins, Jim
Stanlaw, John Whitman and Mark Selden for comments which helped to
improve this article. Posted at Japan Focus, November 10, 2005.
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