The Ryukyus and the New, But Endangered, Languages of Japan

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 10 21:13:41 UTC 2009

 The Ryukyus and the New, But Endangered, Languages of Japan

*The Ryukyus and the New, But Endangered, Languages of Japan*** *Fija **
Bairon**, Matthias Brenzinger and Patrick Heinrich*

* *

*Luchuan (Ryukyuan) languages are no longer Japanese dialects*

On 21 February 2009, the international mother language day, UNESCO launched
the online version of its ‘Atlas of the world’s languages in danger’. This
electronic version that will also be published as the third edition of the
UNESCO Atlas in May 2009, now includes the Luchuan [Ryukyuan] languages of
Japan (UNESCO 2009). ‘Luchuan’ is the Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) term
for the Japanese ‘Ryukyu’. Likewise ‘Okinawa’ is ‘Uchinaa’ in Uchinaaguchi.
Well taken, UNESCO recognizes six languages of the Luchu Islands [Ryukyu
Islands] of which two are severely endangered, Yaeyama and Yonaguni, and
four are classified as definitely endangered, Amami, Kunigami, Uchinaa
[Okinawa] and Miyako (see UNESCO 2003 for assessing language vitality and

Through publication of the atlas, UNESCO recognizes the linguistic diversity
in present-day Japan and, by that, challenges the long-standing
misconception of a monolingual Japanese nation state that has its roots in
the linguistic and colonizing policies of the Meiji period. The formation of
a Japanese nation state with one unifying language triggered the
assimilation of regional varieties (*hogen*) under the newly created
standard ‘national language’ (*kokugo*) all over the country (Carroll 2001).
What is more, through these processes, distinct languages were downgraded to
*hogen*, i.e. mere ‘dialects’ in accordance with the dominant national
ideology (Fija & Heinrich 2007).

*Fija Bairon teaching an Uchinaaguchi language class at Duisburg-Essen
University (Germany)*

The entire group of the Luchuan* *languages – linguistic relatives of the
otherwise isolated Japanese* *language – is about to disappear. These*
are being replaced by standard Japanese* *(*hyojungo* or *kyotsugo*)* *as a
result of the Japanization of the Luchuan Islands, which started with the
Japanese annexation of these islands in 1872 and was more purposefully
carried out after the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. In public
schools, Luchuan children were educated to become Japanese and they were no
longer allowed to speak their own language at schools following the ‘Ordinance
of dialect regulation’ (*hogen torishimari-rei*) in 1907 (ODJKJ 1983, vol.
III: 443-444). Spreading Standard Japanese was a key measure for
transforming Luchu Islanders into Japanese nationals and for concealing the
fact that Japanese was multilingual and multicultural (Heinrich 2004).

The US occupation of Uchinaa after World War II, which – at least formally –
ended in 1972, marks the final stage in the fading of the Luchuan* *languages.
In their attempts to separate Uchinaa from mainland Japan, Americans
emphasized the distinctiveness of the Luchuan* *languages and cultures and
encouraged their development. This US policy of dividing Luchuan from Japan,
however, backfired and gave rise to a Luchuan Japanization movement. Today,
even the remaining – mainly elderly - Luchuan language speakers generally
refer to their languages as *hogen*, i.e. Japanese* *‘dialects’, accepting
in so doing the downgrading of their heritage languages for the assumed sake
of national unity.

In support of the UNESCO approach, Sakiyama Osamu, professor emeritus of
linguistics at the National Museum of Ethnology, stated that “a dialect
should be treated as an independent language if its speakers have a distinct
culture” (Kunisue 2009). However, linguistic studies also prove that these
speech forms should be treated as languages in their own right (e.g. Miyara
2008), distinct both from Japanese as well as from one another. According to
results employing the lexicostatistics method (Hattori 1954), the Luchuan
languages share only between 59 and 68 percent cognates with Tokyo Japanese.
These figures are lower than those between German and English.  Scholars, as
well as speakers, agree that there is no mutual intelligibility between
these languages (Matsumori 1995). Thus calling them *hogen* (dialects of
Japanese) may satisfy national demands of obedience but is problematic on
linguistic and historical grounds.

*Luchuan language description and dialectology*

The two most important aspects of the UNESCO initiative for the Luchuan
languages are, first, the encouragement to write grammars and dictionaries,
i.e. to initiate a new phase of language documentation and, second, to lend
support, by recognition, for community and official language maintenance
activities. Despite the generally high standards of linguistic scholarship
in Japan, the documentation of the Luchuan languages remains unsatisfactory
(Ishihara 2009). Two reasons might be responsible for this situation. First,
the Luchuan languages are predominantly still studied as ‘dialects’ of
Japan’s ‘national language’ (*kokugo*), or Japanese *tout court*. Second,
Japan’s unfortunate division of linguistics into two branches, i.e. ‘general
linguistic’ (*gengogaku*) and ‘national [identity] linguistics’ (*kokugogaku
*) (Koyama 2003), resulted in an almost complete lack of studies on Luchuan
languages by general linguists.

*Kokugogaku* linguists have always treated, and continue to treat, the
Luchuan languages as ‘dialects’. As a result, the Luchuan languages have
been studied in a dialectology framework, which proves inadequate for
documenting distinct languages. Japan’s ‘National Institute for Japanese
Language’ (*Kokuritsu** kokugo kenkyujo*, literally ‘National Language
Research Institute’) lists 211 publications on the Luchuan languages in
their ‘Yearbook of National Language Studies’ in the last 10 years, 90% of
which refer to these languages as ‘dialects’.  The category under which
these publications are compiled in the yearbook is ‘Okinawa and Amami
dialects’ and even the most important journal for research on the Luchuan
languages is incongruously named ‘*Ryukyu no hogen*’ (Ryukyu Dialects). Most
studies of Luchuan languages have been conducted by dialectologists, who
have no training in language documentation. Hence, not surprisingly, in
employing UNESCO’s (2003) tool for assessing the quality of language
documentation, the Luchuan languages score a meagre 2 points out of a
possible 5, a documentation level referred to as ‘fragmentary’.

Language documentation has developed over the last decade in response to an
increased awareness of the threads to the world’s language diversity among
linguists. The global spread of language endangerment became visible in the
1990s in publications such as *Endangered Languages*, edited by Robert
Robins and Eugenius Uhlenbeck in 1991. Studies followed, focusing on the
underlying processes that lead to language shift, as in *Language Death*,
edited by Matthias Brenzinger in 1992. Nikolaus Himmelmann (1998) and others
initiated the development of descriptive linguistics towards languages
documentation, i.e. the recording, analysing and preserving of endangered
languages. In addition to traditional linguistic descriptions, language
documentation demands a comprehensive approach, which includes in addition
to classical language annotation and analysis, description of the
sociolinguistic environment, as well as questions concerning archiving the
data. Finally, scholars, such as Arienne Dwyer (2006), began to reflect on
the relationship between linguists, speakers and languages, i.e. on ethical
and legal aspects of language work. Today, language documentation – unlike
language description of the past – is predicated on a cooperative approach,
i.e. the active involvement of linguistic communities in the planning and
conducting of fieldwork, as well as in the dissemination of the research

In order to improve language documentation in the Luchuan islands one would
need to encourage linguists trained in language documentation to conduct
research on Japan’s endangered languages and at the same time involve the
existing *kokugogaku* studies (and scholars) within a language documentation
framework. The recognition of the language status in UNESCO’s online atlas
might prove an important influence on this new research outline. How urgent
and important a thorough reconsidering of existing works on the Luchuan
languages really is can be seen in the publications of the ‘Endangered
Languages of the Pacific Rim’ project. While explicitly aiming to document
endangered languages, all publications of the project series perpetuate the
image of the Luchuan languages as ‘dialects’ of ‘national language’.
Research of this type is indifferent towards, at best, and at worst
undermines community efforts to revitalizing local languages. Statements
like the following, both taken from publications of the ‘Endangered
Languages of the Pacific Rim’ project have a devastating effect on language
documentation and maintenance activities.

“Apart from the material recorded and preserved by researchers, the
traditional dialects of the islands and communities of the Ryukyus cannot
escape oblivion.” (Uemura 2001: 193).


“People have to learn a different language. It is desirable for them to
enter into the world of common Japanese language as soon as possible. The
old traditional dialects are becoming useless for their social lives.”
(Izuyama 2003: 12).

This is not exactly the stance one might expect from scholars working on
endangered languages, but more importantly, these views fuel the
ideologically and political mediated misconceptions that there is only one
language in Japan and that there is no future, even for the so-called
Luchuan ‘dialects’. See Heinrich (2009a) for discussion of possible uses,
functions and benefits of the Luchuan languages in the 21st century.

The current situation of Luchuan language documentation is a result of a
politically and ideologically marred research policy. The first assessment
of the Luchuan languages as ‘dialects’ of Japanese were made by Japanese
administrators in the wake of Japan’s annexation of the Luchu Kingdom,
without any linguistic research. In negotiating with Luchuan, actually
mainly with Chinese authorities over the future affiliation and status of
the Luchu Islands, ‘Ryukyu Dispensation Superintendent’ (*Ryukyu shobunkan*)
Matsuda Michiyuki stressed the ‘historical, cultural and linguistic’
correspondences between Japan and the Luchu Islands (Oguma 1998: 28-29). The
first linguistic research revealed a quite different picture. Basil Hall
Chamberlain’s pioneering study of the Luchuan languages, conducted in 1893,
established evidence of a shared Luchuan-Japanese genealogy. In explaining
the difference between Uchinaaguchi [Uchinaa language] and Japanese,
Chamberlain (1895 [1999]: 6) wrote:

“On the whole, we shall not be far from wrong if we compare the mutual
relation of the two languages to that of Spanish and Italian, or perhaps
rather of Spanish and French.”

Chamberlain’s analysis did not comply with Japanese national ideologies
which stressed the firm division of a ‘national language’ into two ‘greater
dialects’ (*dai-hogen*), i.e. ‘Ryukyu greater dialects’ (*Ryukyu dai-hogen*)
and ‘homeland greater dialects’ (*naichi dai-hogen*). This classification
was established by the founding father of Japanese dialectology, Tojo Misao,
in his groundbreaking ‘Dialect map of Greater Japan’ (*Dai-nihon hogen chizu
*). Tojo (1927: 18) adopted Chamberlain's view that the Luchuan languages
were genealogically related to Japanese but then concluded that both are
part of the ‘national language’ (*kokugo*):

“Since [Luchuan] is a language which has split from the same ancestor
language [as Japanese] and, besides this, the use of the language is limited
within the boundaries of the same nation state, I would like to regard it as
one dialect of the national language.” [All translations from Japanese into
English by Patrick Heinrich].

In a later publication, Tojo (1938: 6) substantiated his view, defining
‘dialect’ in the following way:

“If a national language is broken up into a number of language groups, which
differ with regard to pronunciation, lexicon and grammar according to the
different regions in which they are used, the various groups are called

Based on the ideologically-driven claim of Japan being a monolingual nation,
Luchuan people were not considered to be speaking languages of their own. *
Kokugogaku* linguists understood it to be their duty to provide arguments
that allow for classifying the Luchuan languages as dialects, no matter how
clumsy these classifications might be (‘greater dialects’, ‘language
group’). Having established Luchuan as a dialect of the ‘national language’,
its speakers consequently were also Japanese. Such arguments have been
internalized by *kokugogaku* linguists ever since. Furthermore, this
academic deprecation has led to a widespread acceptance of the inferior
status of their language by many Luchuans.

 *Fija Bairon’s lecture on the ‘language – dialect’ issue on Youtube *


Since its establishment during the period of nation state formation,
linguistic research has been instrumental in creating the ideologically
motivated imagination of a homogenous Japanese nation by marginalizing
Japan’s minority languages (Koyama 2003). Up to now, Luchuan languages have
almost exclusively been studied by dialectologists and then of course as
‘dialects’ and not by general linguists, with the notable exceptions of
Osumi Midori (2001) and Matsumori Akiko (1995). There is no tradition of
language documentation or sociolinguistic research of the Luchuan languages.
The political downgrading of the Luchuan languages as ‘dialects’ has made
them invisible in the international discourse on endangered languages, as
for example pointed out by Brenzinger (2007: xv). It still obstructs
adequate language documentation and linguistic research, and most crucially,
it undermines language maintenance and revitalization attempts.

The publication of the new UNESCO atlas challenges these malpractices and is
an important support for pioneering attempts at Luchuan language
documentation, such as the one carried out by Shimoji Michinori. His
recently compiled Reference Grammar of Irabu, a language variety of Miyako,
was accepted by the Australian National University as a PhD thesis in
December 2008. Together with Miyara Shinsho’s (1995) Grammar of Yaeyama,
these works mark a new phase of research on the Luchuan languages. Karimata
Shigehisa’s ‘Ryukyuan audio database’ (*Ryukyugo onsei detabesu*) on the
Shuri/Naha variety of Uchinaaguchi and the Nakijin variety of the Kunigami
language sets standards for the documentation of other Ryukyuan languages.
Easily accessible due to its internet based
it is helpful and popular for speakers, activists and researchers alike.

*Fija Bairon discussing Uchinaaguchi with Karimata Shigehisa*

*Language use in the Luchuan Islands*

The crucial phase of the decline of the Luchuan languages started with
communal language shifts in the 1950s. At that time, local speech
communities decided in large numbers not to transmit their languages to the
following generation. Languages vanish by being used less often and in fewer
domains. With the loss of the last domain, namely the home, the Luchuan
languages have entered the final phase of becoming extinct.

Experts on Luchuan language study are in complete agreement that the natural
intergenerational language transmission of the Luchuan languages was
interrupted in the early 1950s (Hokama 1991, 2000, Matsumori 1995, Motonaga
1994, Osumi 2001, Uemura 1997). This observation has been confirmed by
empirical research across the Luchus (Heinrich 2007, 2009b).

The question why language shift occurred at this particular time is
intriguing and Nakamoto (1990: 467) singles it out as one of the foremost
desiderata in Luchuan language studies. The reason why we still lack
conclusive insights into these language shifts is that language shift is
triggered by a complex mix of seemingly endless variables, of which some of
the most important include economy, community patterns, family networks,
marriage patterns, perception of cultural distance to other speech
communities, religious practices, and assessment of local wealth and future
prospects. It is this complex mixture of variables which leads Brenzinger
(1997: 278) to observe that “no two language shifts resemble each other”, a
view supported by the case of the Luchuan languages. Consider the results of
questionnaire surveys conducted by Heinrich in 2005 and 2006.

*Figure 1: Who do you address in local language? (448 consultants)*

This chart reveals different degrees of language vitality, with the local
language being most widely used in Yonaguni and Miyako. Yonaguni stands out
because the local language is widely used in the neighbourhood, due to the *
Gemeinschaft* (community) character of an isolated island with 1.600
inhabitants. Also worthy of notice is the frequent local language use among
work colleagues, which is largely due to the lack of development of the
secondary and tertiary economic sector in Yonaguni. Note, however, that the
local language in Yonaguni is just as rarely used towards children as
elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the restraint on use of local language
towards children is the most consistent result across the five speech
communities of Amami, Uchinaa, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. (The sixth
Luchuan language according to the UNESCO atlas, i.e. Kunigami, was at that
time unfortunately not recognized as an independent language by Heinrich).
On the lower end of language vitality, we find the Yaeyama language. Since
endangered languages are always spoken in multilingual communities, specific
domains of local language use must be maintained to secure their continued
use. The most crucial domains for local language are the family and the
local neighbourhood (*shima* or *chima* in the Luchuan languages, hence the
term *shimakutuba*, ‘community language’). On the basis of the results
presented in Figure 1, we see that the prospects for language maintenance
are, at present, most favourable on Miyako Island. For more detailed
discussions on language shift in the Luchu islands see Heinrich and Matsuo

Luchuan language endangerment is the result of the local language
suppression campaigns which started in 1907 and became most intense after
1940. They played a crucial role in stigmatizing these languages (Heinrich
2004). Pivotal in subsequent oppression was* *the ‘Movement for enforcement
of standard language’ (*hyojungo reiko undo*). A particularly notorious and
obviously quite effective form of local language repression was the use of
‘dialect-tags’ (*hogen fuda*), the use of which increased drastically in the
1920s and 1930s, peaking at the time of the general mobilization campaign
(Kondo 2006). A stigmatizing dialect-tag had to be worn around the neck to
punish students who used expressions from a Luchuan language in the

Political developments after 1945, with the US promotion of Luchuan
nationalism, led many Luchuans to escape the existing dismal living
conditions by seeking reversion to Japan. While US occupiers sought to
foster the establishment of Luchuan as a national language, the Luchuan
people opted for the opposite (Nakachi 1989: 27), “easily seeing through the
‘Ryukyu-ization’ campaign as a propaganda ploy to prolong the American
military occupation” (Rabson 1999: 146). Instead of an increase in language
loyalty, Luchuans shifted from their Luchuan languages to Japanese, even in
their homes. The hardships that Luchuans experienced under US occupation,
ranging from malaria outbreaks, confiscation of land, the complete
destruction of infrastructure, the collapse of the education system to the
omnipresent discrimination by US Americans (see e.g. Time Magazine
1957-12-12) produced resistance measures. In 1952, on the occasion of
restoring Japan’s sovereignty in the San Francisco Peace Treaty, more than
two thirds of the Luchuan electorate voted for a return to Japan. However,
the US occupation continued (Kreiner 2001: 450-451). Nevertheless, reversion
to Japan was not welcome by all. Luchuans were left with bitter memories of
Japan including pre-war discriminations of various sorts and the Battle of
Okinawa when some Japanese military units imposed forced suicides (*shudan
jiketsu*) on Okinawan citizens (see Oe 2008). Many expressed doubts about

Reversion to Japan, as a means of improving livelihood in the Luchu islands,
led many Luchuans to engage in proving their genuine Japaneseness both to
mainland Japan and to the US (Oguma 1998: 564). Given the ideological view
of Japan as a monolingual nation state, speaking Japanese became perceived
as a key factor in the ‘reversion movement’ (*fukki undo*) which
called to ‘return
Japanese to Japan’ (*nihonjin wa nihon e kaese*). The reversion movement was
predominantly led by school teachers, who were responsible for both, a
strong promotion of Japanese and for constituting the reversion issue as a
popular non-party movement. Yara Chobyo (1902-1997), one of many Luchuan
teacher turned politician at the time and a prominent leader of the reversion
movement, promulgated in 1968 a three-point strategy for reversion in which
(language) education features most prominently (quoted from Anhalt 1991:

1.      Educate Okinawan children as Japanese according to the Japanese
school sysytem

2.      Inclusionon of teachers and all interested into ‘pressure groups’

3.      Spread of the reversion movement on the Japanese mainland

Since the Luchuan languages had been severely stigmatized before, these
languages were given up without much regret at that time. Hence, Japanese
and not the Luchuan languages served as an emancipatory tool in the eyes of
many Luchuans under the US occupation, which ended in 1972 but with US bases
intact down to today. The languages were sacrificed in hope for a better

The language shifts on the Luchu Islands in the 1950s were sweeping (cf.
Heinrich 2007, 2009b). With the rise of the popular reversion movement,
parents started to address their children in Japanese only. In Uchinaa, Yaeyama
and Yonaguni, those born after 1950 can usually no longer speak any Luchuan
language. The situation on Amami and Miyako is slightly different. Amami as
part of Kagoshima Prefecture, has been considered to be part of mainland
Japan since the Meiji period by many. Language shift in Amami was probably
less drastic due to the fact that the Amami people did not suffer from
language repression campaigns. Therefore, language shift set in earlier in
Amami than in the rest of the Luchu islands, but it was less drastic. The
linguistic situation in Amami is today the most stabilized. Mixed
Amami-Japanese, called *tonfutsugo* (literally potato standard) is widely
used across all three generations (Heinrich 2007). Secondly, in Amami the
reversion movement ended in December 1953, when the US returned the island
group to Japan. Miyako also did not experience radical language shifts, but
for quite different reasons. Miyako people shifted only gradually to
Japanese. While a detailed account for this is not yet possible and would
require detailed field work, the reasons seem to include the absence of
in-migration and continuance of subsistence farming.

Nevertheless, all Luchuan languages will disappear by 2050 if speech
communities and supportive linguists do not act immediately. The
establishment of Luchuan heritage language education (Heinrich 2008) and of
Japanese language policy supportive of Japanese diversity (Katsuragi 2005,
2007) are necessary for preventing language loss. Official support for
language revitalization remains weak but some promising developments can be
observed. The most important step was certainly the establishment of the
annual *shimakutuba no hi* (community language day) in 2004, an event
supported by Okinawa Prefecture since 2006 (Ishihara 2009). In the absence
of more comprehensive and structured institutional support, however,
language revitalization will not be possible at some point in the very near
future, and it is already difficult to reverse the language shift. Even in
outlying islands (*ritto*) the use of Luchuan language is declining in
neighbourhoods and only older generations know and speak Luchuan languages.
The retreat of local language use on Iheiya, an outlying islands in the
vicinity of Uchinaa, led to the posting of a billboard which reads ‘On
Sunday it's community language’ (*nichiyobi wa shimakutuba*) (Nishimura
2001: 164).

Today, some of the few remaining domains of Luchuan language use are arts,
prayers, festivals and religious rites. However, even in these domains, the
Luchuan languages have been under pressure (see e.g. Clarke 1979, Ishihara
2009). What is more, these domains are largely detached from daily life. The
current situation is what Fishman (1991) has termed a ‘folklorization’
scenario, i.e. the heritage language is no longer used for communication but
merely as a symbol in very limited situations. Languages can, however, not
be maintained with such symbolic functions alone.

Especially among the young generation a kind of language crossing is
widespread. These new hybrid varieties, in which Japanese is mixed with
elements of Luchuan languages, are widely used in informal situations. They
are not Creoles as some researchers claim (e.g. Karimata 2006), but are a
specific kind of mixed language. Creole languages emerge in contact
situations in which two speech communities do not share a language, and
hence create on the basis of their respective languages a third language for
the sake of communication. Mixed languages, on the other hand, are
purposefully formed for the sake of setting their speakers apart from other
speech communities (Kaye & Tosco 2003: 22). It goes without saying that
present-day Luchuans and mainland Japanese do not encounter communication
problems which necessitate the creation of a Creole. The grammatical matrix
of these hybrid language varieties, which differ considerably between
islands and generations, is that of standard Japanese while the words or
inflections inserted are either from the local languages or are in
themselves mixtures of local language and Japanese (see below). In this way
it is somewhat similar to incorporating English words into Japanese, a
process in which pronunciation and semantic range is also affected.

Mixed language varieties (e.g. *Uchinaayamatoguchi* in Uchinaa or *
Tonfutsugo* in Amami) account for a large percentage of language choices in
private domains today. Across the Luchu Islands, mixed language varieties
accounted for 35% of the language choices among the age cohort between 30
and 60; those younger than 30 chose mixed varieties in 43% of the cases for
communicating in private domains (Heinrich 2007: 8-9).

As an example of mixed Uchinaa-Japanese (uchinaa-yamatoguchi) consider the
following transcription of a radio program in Uchinaa taken from Sugita

Yoosuru ni ano: [waja] mo [fuyuu shii] suru hito ga:, [fuyuu shii] shita ato
ni nani ka shippai shite [[kara nye]] “[Ee shimusa: yaa nankuru nai sa]" tte
iu no to:. [[Sakkoo]] ganbatte shigoto shite ite: nayande: “[chaasu ga yaa.
chaasu ga yaa.]" tte mainichi nayande ru hito ni: “[[Daijoobu yo.]] [Anshi]
nayande mo [yaa,] isshookenmei [soo-ru bun] [nankuru nai sa]” to. Iu
tsukaikata: ryoohoo aru wake desu yo ne:.

[  ] uchinaaguchi

[[  ]] uchinaayamatoguchi


Yoosuru ni ano: [shigoto] mo [namakete] iru hito ga, [namakete] ta ato ni
nani ka shippai shite “[Shooganai naa. nankuru nai sa”] tte iu no to,
[[sugoku]] ganbatte shigoto shite ite, nayande, “doo shiyoo. doo shiyoo.”
tte mainichi nayande ru hito ni, “[[daijoobu da yo.]] [sonna ni] nayande mo
[nee,] isshookenmei [yatteru bun nankuru nai sa]” to iu tsukaikata ryoohoo
aru wake desu yo ne.


I mean, well, to say the person who is doing the [job] [halfheartedly], after
having worked [halfheartedly] and making a mistake, “[Well, it can't be
helped, you know. You deserve it.]”, and to say to the person who is working
[[very]] hard, but being worried like “[What should I do? What should I
do?]” being worried every day, “[[Take it easy.]] Don't worry [so much]. When
you are working so hard, [it will work out.]” It is that we have both
usages, right?

The use of language mixed in such a way is Uchinaayamatoguchi, with this
particular utterance involving particularly extensive Uchinaaguchi. Despite
the lack of any support and prestige, these mixed language varieties are
currently spreading into an increasing number of domains in the Luchu
islands. This language change from below is significant because it testifies
to the lack of Luchuan language proficiency among the younger generations as
well as the desire to use language varieties different from Standard
Japanese in the Luchu Islands. Whether the ongoing language shift to these
mixed language varieties will ultimately replace the local languages in
informal situations or whether it will lead to heightened efforts at
revitalisation of the local languages can at present not be predicted with

Luchuan communities, in particular those in Amami, Uchinaa and Yaeyama are
shifting from Standard Japanese to mixed language in private domains today.
Where the local language is strongly stigmatized, as in Yaeyama, such shift
is less thorough than in places where the local language is less
stigmatized, such as in Amami. For the time being, it seems that both the
Luchuan languages and Standard Japanese are declining in favour of the use
of the mixed language. Yonaguni is an exception in this respect; mixed
language varieties are not popular mainly due to the outmigration of large
parts of the younger generation. Yonaguni has lost two thirds of its
population in the last 50 years.

The shift towards mixed language in most Luchuan Islands today reveals a
yearning for local language. Whether this will lead to Luchuan language
revitalization, to a further popularization of mixed languages or to both,
remains to be seen. Much hinges on the question whether Luchuans can
maintain and develop beneficial usages for the Luchuan languages in the

 *Fija Bairon speaking Uchinaaguchi with his Shuri language consultant
Yakabi Tomoko*

*Is there still a place for Luchuan languages?*

Languages constitute important tools for protecting and expanding the rights
of their speakers and providing a range of meaningful options. Local
languages are, for instance, a powerful tool for renegotiating the terms of
integration of speech communities within the majority society (Kymlicka
1995: 67). It is exactly this that made Kayano Shigeru, the first Ainu to
become a member of the Japanese Diet in 1994, deliver his inauguration
speech in Ainu (Maher 2001). Kayano was a lifelong devotee of teaching Ainu
language and preserving Ainu culture. And may have been one of the very last
people fluent in Ainu as a daily language as well as a ritual language (see
e.g. Kayano 1994). It is this instrumentality of language which leads May
(2001: 315) to state that “the arguments of minority groups for the
retention of their ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities are most often
not characterized by a retreat into traditionalism or cultural essentialism
but, rather, by a more autonomous construction of group identity and
political deliberation.” Readers of Japan Focus will be aware that there is
no shortage of arguments in the Luchu Islands for such deliberations.
Luchuan issues such as the ‘schoolbook debate’ (Aniya 2008), the ‘base
problem’ (Yoshida 2008), its related ‘environmental problems’ (Sakurai 2008)
and the repeated ‘rape incidents by military personnel’ (Johnson 2008)
highlight the necessity of renegotiating the conditions according to which
the Luchu Islands are part of the Japanese state. Language has not been used
as an argument by those seeking such renegotiation to their detriment.

Naming is yet another aspect, where the benefits of local languages is
manifest. As a matter of fact, Fija Bairon, deliberately changed his name
from the Japanese reading ‘Higa’ to the Uchinaa reading ‘Fija’. As motive
for changing his name, Fija points to discrimination both towards him as an
Uchinaa person of Western appearance and Japanese nationality, and towards
the culture he identifies with, Uchinaa. Upon starting to appear in Uchinaa
media regularly, ‘Higa Bairon’ decided to henceforth adopt the name ‘Fija
Bairon’ (see Fija & Heinrich 2007 for details). His new name serves Fija as
a welcome entry to discuss naming issues with people he meets or interacts
with through the media. It serves Fija as a means to inform and influence
fellow Luchuans on their views on Uchinaa’s cultural and linguistic heritage
as well as on their views of him as a person. Fija also prefers the
Uchinaaguchi terms Uchinaa [Okinawa], Uchinaaguchi [Okinawan] and Luchu
[Ryukyu], and this article follows his terminological suggestions.

*Fija Bairon at Radio Okinawa*

Personal names and toponyms give testimony to Luchu’s oppressed past.
Consider once more the example of Fija / Higa. The name was originally
written with the Chinese character denoting ‘east’ (東) which was read
‘Fija’. It was only after 1624, when the Satsuma Domain (today’s Kagoshima
Prefecture), which had invaded the Luchu Kingdom in 1609, tried to conceal
its influence on the Kingdom *from* the Shogunate, that Luchuans were
forcefully made to change the written characters of their names. The reason
was that Satsuma wanted them to appear more ‘foreign’ in order to obscure
its influence on the Kingdom. This is the background upon which the Chinese
characters denoting ‘Fija’ were changed from 東 into 比嘉 (Beillevaire 2001:
83). Still, the name continued to be read as ‘Fija’. After all, Fija sounded
‘un-Japanese’ enough to the Satsuma colonizers.

Things changed again with the establishment of the Meiji state, i.e. the
establishment of a state into which one imagined Japanese nation needed to
be moulded. The Chinese characters比嘉were then required to be read ‘Higa’ in
order to assimilate Luchuans with such ‘un-Japanese’ sounding names into the
newly invented linguistic and cultural homogeneous nation. Recovering the
names as read before assimilation into the Japanese nation state exposes the
problems of Luchu’s colonial past (see e.g. Christy 1993, Oguma 1998) and
its lingering influences on its linguistic and cultural heritage today. How
Luchuans name themselves, their islands, communities and languages has not
been for Luchuans to decide. If Luchuans want to restore control over their
fates, their cultural and linguistic heritage, then names might be a good
place to start. This, in a nutshell, is what led Fija to abandon the
Japanese name Higa in favour of Uchinaa Fija.

*Language rights and true recognition *

Within the discourses on linguistic diversity, four different directions can
be discerned, a linguistic, an aesthetic, an economic and a moral discourse.
The linguistic discourse is rather straightforwardly concerned with the
ongoing loss of linguistic diversity on an unprecedented scale. It has been
framed in a seminal article by Michael Krauss (1992: 10) in which he wrote
“[o]bviously we must do some serious rethinking of our priorities, lest
linguists go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously
over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated.”
This line of thought underlies a large part of endangered language studies,
which seek to describe languages before they vanish in order to gain a
better understanding into parameters of human language or into histories of
language development and spread. The latter point has been repeatedly made
with regard to the Luchuan languages (e.g. Uemura 2003). The aesthetic
discourse is likewise straightforward. Many of us enjoy diversity,
regardless of whether it is in food, in landscape, climate or in language.
Luchuan ‘folk music’ (Roberson 2003), literature (Molasky & Rabson 2000) or
speech contests (Hara 2005) enjoy the popularity they do largely due to an
audience enjoying the diversity which is thereby presented. Economic
discourse, that is to say, assessing the economic benefits which specific
languages offer their speakers and the way such benefits can be measured and
influenced, is the least developed field. Pioneering work in this direction
has been undertaken by scholars such as Coulmas (1993) and Grin (2003). Such
work still awaits application in the field of Luchuan languages.

The moral discourse, finally, is well developed in the West but
underdeveloped in Japan. Moral discourse on language endangerment stresses
that it is the languages of those on the shorter end of the power divide
which get lost. The major underlying sentiments of this kind of discourse
are that of fairness and support for linguistic diversity. Language
frequently appears in key documents of the United Nations on human rights
and there is a growing literature on this topic in Western scholarship (e.g.
de Varennes 1996). In Japan, the issue of language rights has yet to emerge
as a prominent form of discourse. The large scale lack of such discourse is
primarily due to absence of a frame for ethnic autochthonous minorities in
Japan (see Nakamura 2006). That is to say, in contrast to the West, no
interpretive schema is readily available in Japan where the right to use
one’s language can be derived from one’s ethnic, cultural or otherwise
framed minority status. Most Luchuans do not conceive of themselves as
language minorities. Despite compelling evidence that the Luchuan language
varieties are languages in their own right, the majority of Luchuans call
these language varieties ‘dialects’ (see Fija & Heinrich 2007). As we have
seen above, the framing of Luchuans being part of the Japanese ‘nation’ was
the main objective of the Luchuan irredentist reversion movement of the
1950s and 1960s. It is hence not surprising to see that the sole attempt, to
date, to claim language rights by the Okinawan Society for Language
Revitalization (*Uchinaaguchi fukyu kyogikai*) in 2005 has so far been
totally ignored. One of the key tasks in language maintenance and the
rationalization for language documentation and language education will thus
be to frame the relevance of such endeavors in a Japanese context. Here,
again, the inclusion of the Luchuan languages into the ‘Atlas of the world’s
languages in danger’ provides for much needed assistance to all those who
seek to maintain the Luchuan languages or to establish Luchuan heritage
language education.

At present, institutional support for language documentation and education
programs is dismal. There exists only one chair for Luchuan linguistics
(Prof. Karimata Shigehisa at the University of the Ryukyus), too little for
overseeing the six Luchuan languages on the various levels of linguistic
description. No study program on Ryukyuan linguistics has been established.
Contrary to expectations, the ‘Research Centre for the Languages of Okinawa’
(*Okinawa** gengo kenkyujo*), founded in 1978, has no rooms, no budget, no
phone number, no homepage. It is merely a name under which activities of
predominantly dialectological research are summarized. Three research
institutes for Luchuan Studies exist worldwide (Hosei University Tokyo,
Waseda University Tokyo, University of Hawai’i). The notable fact is that
none of them is located in the Luchu Islands. Language documentation
programs are not established at these centres at present, nor does language
constitute a research focus there. No archive exists where Luchuan language
data is collected, maintained and made accessible to researchers and
community members. There are no conferences on Luchuan linguistics and no
plans or initiatives exist for establishing institutions for Luchuan
language documentation and maintenance. In short, the lack of adequate
institutional support and funding is another factor which contributes to the
endangerment of the Luchuan languages. Nevertheless, there are some
promising developments. They include the establishment of the ‘Society for
Okinawan Language Revitalization’ (*Uchinaaguchi fukyu kyogikai*) in 2000,
the establishment of a ‘Sub-committee of Endangered Languages’ (*Kiki gengo
shoikai*) at the Linguistic Society of Japan in 2003, and Shimoji
Michinori’s recently established Luchuan linguist mailing-list. Many more
such activities need to follow.

*Matthias Brenzinger with linguistics students at the University of the

Since language shift in the Luchu Islands originated as a product of
Japanese language nationalism, reversing language shift requires the
reversal of the ideological views which led Luchuans to abandon these
languages in first place. To a considerable extent, language attitudes in
the Luchu Islands have already changed. This is evidenced by the positive
language attitudes many hold towards local languages today. A questionnaire
survey by the local newspaper *Ryukyu Shinpo* revealed that more than 90%
expressed some kind of affection for *hogen*, i.e. the Luchuan local
languages (*Ryukyu shinpo sha* 2007: 25). Questionnaire surveys conducted by
Heinrich revealed that an average of 73% of all consultants across the
Luchuan Islands support the idea of introducing their respective local
language into local school education. In view of such changing language
attitudes, the restoration of the local languages might become possible.
This requires the establishment of language documentation, revitalization
and teaching programs. Towards this end, a reorientation of linguistic
scholarship is unavoidable.

*Fija Bairon discusses Uchinaaguchi teaching materials with Sugita Yuko*

Japan’s newly recognized multilingualism in the UNESCO Atlas raises some
inconvenient questions about Japanese scholarship. How is it that Japan, a
country with hundreds of universities and thousands of linguists never
doubted that it was monolingual? What is it which makes scholars term
languages ‘dialects’, despite the well known lack of mutual intelligibility
and unshared linguistic innovations between them, the need to develop
distinct orthographies, independent language development going back to
pre-history, in other words, clear indications that they are dealing with
languages? Linguistic scholarship in which such questions are not tackled
reflects a clear political agenda. It reproduces Meiji period
nation-imagining ideology despite the fact that such ideology has long been
critiqued (see e.g. Koyama 2003, Lee 1996, Yasuda 1999). The suppression of
linguistic diversity in Japan takes sometimes bizarre forms. A talk by Fija
Bairon at the University of the Ryukyus titled ‘*Hogen aibiran, Uchinaaguchi
*’ (‘It is not a dialect, but Uchinaa language’) was reported upon in BBTV’s
‘Dialect news’ (*hogen nyusu*) program in February 2009. On the other hand,
it is exactly these kinds of contradictions which lead to reflection and
discussion about the status of the local languages in the Luchu islands.

Recognition of Japan’s linguistic diversity does not affect Japanese
citizens alone. Recognition of Japanese linguistic diversity and a shift
towards valuing Japan’s multilingual heritage also affects perspectives and
treatment of the languages of Japanese migrants. Japan’s policy of
internationalization (*kokusai-ka*) incorporates strong elements of
nationalism. *Kokusai-ka* policy has placed much attention on national pride
as a basis for Japanese interacting on a global level. Hence, the running
gag that *kokusai-ka* (‘internationalization’) is actually
*kokusui-ka*(‘nationalization’). Much Japanese discourse on
*kokusai-ka* regularly perceives internationalization as requiring a
reaction to counteract unwelcome outside influences. It thus reproduces a
rigid confrontation between the Japanese state and the outside world (see
e.g. McVeigh 2002).

In language shift driven by language nationalism, the loss of local
languages is the victory of uniformity and of cultural and linguistic
intolerance. A state and its inhabitants not valuing the linguistic and
cultural plurality within the confines of its own borders cannot
convincingly claim to be just doing that with regard to international
languages and cultures. One either values plurality or one does not.
Gottlieb (2007) is right in her assessment that Japan’s internationalization
crucially requires an undoing of the foreigner-Japanese binary, which, in
turn, involves reducing the ‘foreignness’ of foreigners and, of equally
crucial importance, debunking the idea of an inherent and uniform
‘Japaneseness’ among Japanese nationals. In this sense, the Luchu Islands
can serve as an important means for the ‘de-parochialization’ of Japan’s
majority, which recognizes only their language and culture. It can serve as
a means to create more tolerant orders and attitudes, more befitting today’s
diversifying and globalizing world.

The release of the online version of the UNESCO Atlas is an important
instance of internationalizing the discourse on Japan’s language situation. The
release of the atlas coincided with a workshop on language
the Luchuan languages (‘Linking language and heritage’), held at the
University of the Ryukyus in Nishihara Town, Okinawa.

*The organizers of the workshop Ishihara Masahide and Patrick Heinrich*

Leading scholars on the Ryukyuan languages were part of this workshop and
the UNESCO initiative triggered an academic discourse among them. Most
scholars welcomed the acknowledgment of the Luchuan speech forms as
languages and took this as a chance for encouraging language documentation.
Others reacted defensively and felt uneasy about this emancipatory step
pushed from abroad. Some feared that the UNESCO atlas might have opened a
Pandora’s Box in that “we might end up with hundreds of languages in Japan”.

*Christoph Goro Kimura (right) reporting the release of the UNESCO Atlas to
participants of the workshop (from left: Shibuya Kenjiro, Yamada Takao,
Patrick Heinrich)*

Some linguists frankly confess that even though their own research findings
prove a deeply rooted linguistic distance between Japanese and the Luchuan
languages and also among them, they still opt for retaining the term *hogen*,
i.e. dialect, for purely socio-political reasons. Even speaking about
Luchuan ‘languages’, to them is almost a rebellious act, challenging no less
than the unity of the Japanese nation state. Whether language or dialect,
however, is not a question of personal taste or an academic dalliance; the
fate of the Luchuan languages heavily depends on the right choice. The right
choice, we argue, can only be that of a linguistic scholarship which is
detached from Japanese nation state ideology and squarely centred on
linguistic facts.

*At the language documentation workshop: Hara Kiyoshi, Matthias Brenzinger,
Karimata Shigehisa, Patrick Heinrich*

For decades, Japan and Japanese scholars have played leading roles in UNESCO
activities related to the documentation and support of endangered languages
all over the globe. It was long overdue that the Japanese finally also
started to look at the language diversity in their country. The new, now
international discourses on Japanese language diversity will hopefully not
only spur language documentation, but also foster language maintenance
activities. At a market in Matsuo in Naha City, an elderly woman stated that
only old people and foreigners are interested in Uchinaaguchi. She further
suggested that professors at the University are much better consultants on
Uchinaaguchi than the speakers on the ground.

Discrimination against the Luchuan languages, by downgrading them to
Japanese dialects, has had far-reaching effects: Even though many thousand
still speak the Luchuan languages, most are no longer confident of their
language skills. They furthermore are reluctant to speak their languages in
public. Community language activities on Uchinaaguchi generally do not
include ‘ordinary speakers’, such as taxi drivers or local traders. Language
related activities are confined to selected groups of intellectuals, who
focus on discussing Uchinaaguchi as a cultural treasure, with strong elitist
pretensions. Those still speaking the languages on a regular basis are not
part of such activities. They are not even aware of the fact that they are
the true speakers, the only ones who can actually safeguard the Luchuan

*Matthias Brenzinger, from the Institut für Afrikanistik at the University
of Cologne, Germany, coordinates the information on endangered African
languages south of the Sahara in UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in
Danger. He is Secretary General of WOCAL (World Congress of African
Linguistics) and congress chair of WOCAL6, which will be held at the
University of Cologne in August 2009. Since 1995, he has been concerned with
language documentation in Japan and by Japanese scholars.  He can be
contacted by e-mail: Matthias.Brenzinger at   *

* Fija **Bairon **hosts a radio show in Uchinaaguchi on Radio Okinawa every
Sunday from 13:00 to 15:30. He teaches Uchinaaguchi at various culture
centres in Okinawa and has also taught the language at Germany’s
Duisburg-Essen University. He can be contacted by e-mail in Japanese:
fijabyron at *

*Patrick Heinrich is a sociolinguist and visiting researcher at the
University of the Ryukyus. He is currently conducting language
documentation<>on Yonaguni Island. He can
be contacted by e-mail:
heinrich at*

* **Recommended Citation: Fija Bairon, Matthias Brenzinger,  Patrick
Heinrich, "The Ryukyus and the New, But Endangered, Languages of Japan"  The
Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 19-2-09, May 9, 2009.


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for instance the following letters to the editor of
*Ryukyu shinpo* during the occupation period:

“Are we really Japanese?” (*Ryukyu shinpo* 29.7.1965)

“A rebuttal to ‘Are we really Japanese?’” (*Ryukyu shinpo* 1.8.1965)

“Japan is not the motherland” (*Ryukyu shinpo* 24.1.1966)

“A rebuttal to ‘Japan is not the motherland’” (*Ryukyu shinpo* 15.2.1966)
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