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Breathing life into a dying language

The Uchinaaguchi class opened with a “good morning.”

Ukimi soo chii,” said the teacher, Chogi Higa.

Ukimi soo chii,” the students repeated.

For student Tokie Koyama, the greeting was a bittersweet echo of her childhood on Okinawa.

“It makes me cry,” she told the class. “I miss home.”

Famous for its military bases and World War II battlefields, the Japanese island chain of Okinawa is also home to a language as different from Japanese as English is from German. A Japanese speaker in Higa’s class would be lost from the get-go — “good morning” in Japanese is “ohayo gozai masu.”

These days, the lingua franca of the Okinawan islands is Japanese, not Uchinaaguchi. Higa’s students are studying a dying language. But for them, it is a language full of emotional triggers, conjuring up parents who used it so their children wouldn’t understand, or grandparents thrilled to hear the younger generation speak a few words in the mother tongue.

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The youngest student is in high school; the oldest, an octogenarian. Most are second-, third- or fourth-generation Okinawan Americans, though a few are drawn by an interest in island music and culture. Twice a month, they greet each other with a “Hai sai” and wrestle with such phrases as “Uganjuu-yamiseemi” — “How are you?” — that are tongue twisters for English and Japanese speakers alike. Higa’s Gardena classroom is perhaps the only place in the continental United States to learn Uchinaaguchi.

“Being Okinawan is so different from being just pure Japanese, though of course, I’m American first,” said Joan Oshiro, 68. Oshiro is fluent in Japanese but heard only snippets of Uchinaaguchi growing up in Hawaii. “Spanish may be more practical, but this is a way to learn a little bit about yourself and pass it on to your children.”

Higa remembers wearing a wooden plaque labeled “dialect user” as punishment for speaking Uchinaaguchi at school — a common memory for older Okinawans. In the postwar years, mainstream radio and television programs in Japanese saturated the airwaves. Bombarded by these influences, Okinawans didn’t pass their language to the next generation. Japanese became the language of the home, the school and the workplace.

In the islands, elderly Okinawans still shoot the breeze with one another in Uchinaaguchi. The folk music wafting out of open pub doors is still sung in the old tongue. But the language needs help to survive. Revival efforts in recent years have included speech contests and radio programs. Thousands of miles away in Southern California, Higa is doing his part.

For many years, he hosted an Uchinaaguchi program on a Los Angeles Japanese-language radio station. He has been teaching the Uchinaaguchi class, open to members of the Okinawa Assn. of America, for more than a decade. Between the two sessions, he has about 40 students.

“The performing arts are very popular. Young people are taking Okinawan dance, learning folk songs, the sanshin, but they don’t know the language of the songs,” said Higa, 72. “We’re trying to educate those born here, so they can carry on Okinawan culture.”

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Uchinaaguchi is believed to have split from Japanese between the 2nd and 8th centuries. It contains archaic traits, such as the consonant “p,” that no longer exist in modern Japanese. The long “o” in Japanese is a long “u” in Uchinaaguchi, and the letter “e” often becomes “i.”

Some words are similar. Sensei — teacher in Japanese — is shinshii in Uchinaaguchi.

But arigato — thank you — is nifee-deebiru. The word for “goodbye” in Japanese, sayonara, is guburii-sabira in Okinawan.

There are almost as many variants of the Okinawan language as there are islands in the Okinawan chain. Some are nearly as different from one another as they are from Japanese. UNESCO’s list of endangered languages includes five from Japan’s southernmost islands — Kunigami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni in addition to Uchinaaguchi.

Shoichi Iwasaki, an applied linguistics professor at UCLA, is studying Ikema, spoken on the Miyako islands in southern Okinawa. He and several colleagues are compiling a dictionary, even as they realize that the language is unlikely to survive.

Uchinaaguchi, on the other hand, has a chance. It is the language of the main Okinawan island. If nothing else, it will live on in the lyrics of popular songs, much as Cajun French does through Louisiana-born musicians like Wayne Toups and Michael Doucet.

Iwasaki, who admires Higa’s efforts, wonders what the future holds. Pride remains strong among Southern California’s many Okinawan Americans, but there aren’t many people qualified to teach Uchinaaguchi.

“He is really passionate about preserving the language. But he cannot do it alone,” Iwasaki said of Higa. “He has to train some younger teachers. I don’t know if he has somebody to pass on his passion — I hope he does.”

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The students laughed as they repeated the phrase Akisamiyoo — “Oh my goodness” or “Oh my God.”

There is no equivalent in Japanese. Akisamiyoo is uniquely Okinawan, like the twang of the banjo-like sanshin, the fried dough balls called andagi and the vaguely Hawaiian shirts favored by island men. It is a salt-of-the-earth expression, Higa added, prompting more giggles from students who could recall their own parents using it.

“Is there a high-class way to say it?” one asked.

“The high class is like, ‘Oh.’ That’s all,” said Rosa Yakushi, 76, who grew up in Peru’s large Japanese community.

After class, the students snacked on spring rolls, blueberry cake and Hawaiian spam musubi, as well as andagi made by Higa’s wife.

“At our age, nothing sinks in,” Dina Yogi, Yakushi’s sister, joked. Still, the Lima-born sisters are regulars at Higa’s classes. They soldier on, repeating their Hai sais and Guburii-sabiras because it is the language of their deceased parents.

“Nowadays, we say, ‘Gee, we wish we’d asked this and this,’ ” Yogi, 75, said about her parents, who were born in Okinawa. “It’s mostly sentimental.”

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At the Uchinaaguchi class’ 10th anniversary celebration in November, Jane Kuniyoshi, dressed in a pink sweater with a cream-colored flower in her hair, took the microphone. In Uchinaaguchi, she spoke about her mother’s descent into dementia: Clara Higa Serrera, who was raised in Hawaii by Okinawan parents, spoke English mixed with a little Japanese. But as her mind slipped away, she reverted to a language she had barely used since childhood.

Maa san,” delicious, she would say after tasting a broth of sweet potato leaves and miso that Kuniyoshi had prepared. “Akisamiyoo!” she would exclaim when Kuniyoshi reminded her that she was more than 90 years old.

Without Higa’s class, Kuniyoshi would not have understood her mother’s simple phrases. But Kuniyoshi, a retired teacher in her 70s, is far from fluent in Uchinaaguchi. She wrote her speech in English, and Higa translated.

“Who knew that by coming here in 2002 and learning Uchinaaguchi, that would lead to my later relationship with my mom before she passed,” she said.

cindy.chang@latimes.com


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