By RYOKO OHNISHI, Rafu Staff Writer

As part of a collaborative research project led by three professors — Shoichi Iwasaki, UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, Tsuyoshi Ono, University of Alberta in Canada, and Yukinori Takubo, Kyoto University — eight people from Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture visited UCLA  to demonstrate their culture through songs and dances on Nov. 16.

A total of 70 people, including students who taking linguistics classes and non-students interested in Okinawan culture, attended and enjoyed the songs, traditional plays and music.

UCLA students and members of the public formed a big circle in the conference room and danced the “Kuicha,” instructed by Nishihara Midori no Kai.  (Photo by Sadao Tome)

The Miyako Islands are located between Okinawa Island and Taiwan. One of the furthest northwest islands is Ikema Island, which is known for preserving the old-time Ryukyu Kingdom culture and languages. In the 19th century, many Ikema people emigrated to Nishihawa village on Miyako Island.

The Ikema language is different from that of mainland Okinawa, and it is believed that about 3,000 people are using the language today. However, because of standardized education, people under 50 years old cannot speak the language. The collaborative project is to document and preserve the languages and culture for future generations.

Eiko Ogawa, a member of the Midori Kai Senior Citizens Club of Nishihara Village on Miyako Island and instructor of its choral group, Yurinokai, led the traditional “Kuicha” (celebrating dance), which is equivalent to “Kachashi” on Okinawa Island, performing with the students.

The participants circled the Young Research Library conference room as they sang and danced.

The Midori Kai also spent two days introducing their languages and culture to students.

At the end, Ogawa said, “I am very happy to know that students in the U.S. are so enthusiastically studying about our culture. We are such a small community, but you shed light on us.”

Okinawan languages are called Luchuan, Ryukyuan or Uchinaguchi, which were designated as endangered  languages by UNESCO in 2009.

The audience applauds one of the dancers. (Photo by Sadao Tome)

Hiroyuki Nakama, former principal of Miyako High school, spoke about his experiences of being punished by wearing a hogen fuda (dialect tag) when he spoke in his dialect in the classroom when he was in elementary  school.

“I had to find somebody who spoke a dialect to give this tag to,” he said. “Otherwise, I had to wear this all day. It was similar to bullying. But at that time, we all felt ashamed that we could not speak the  standard language.”

Chogi Higa, who has been teaching Uchinaguchi (Okinawan language) at Okinawa Association of America since 2002, said, “Ikema’s language is different from mainland Okinawa language, and when I heard it, I could not understand. It is very significant to put our efforts on preserving the languages and culture of Okinawa and Ryukyu Kingdom culture and take them over to the next generations as much as  possible.”

The event was sponsored by UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

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