GARDENA — On Nov. 25, the Okinawan language class, known simply as Katayabira Uchinaaguchi (Let’s speak in the Okinawan Language), celebrated its 10_year anniversary — a milestone in the preservation of the endangered language.

As president of the Okinawa Association of America, Chogi Higa launched the first known Okinawan language class in North America. The celebration incorporated speeches and comical skits by its students, who all received certificates of completion for the year 2012. Special awards were also given to Julian Ely for his academic dedication for the past 10 years, as well as to Hiroko Higa for her support of the class since its inception.

“I am very proud of all of my students,” instructor Higa said. “They are crucial participants in the survival of the Okinawan language.”

Historically, Okinawa belonged to the Ryukyu Kingdom and was ruled by its own king. During the late 19th century, it was annexed by Japan and underwent an assimilation process. Okinawan culture was looked down upon, and an effort was under way to convert them into speaking the mainland Japanese language.

In an effort to assimilate Okinawans into speaking mainland Japanese, it was institutionalized into their educational system.  Students who spoke any hougen (Okinawan dialect) were made to wear a hougen fuda, a wooden plaque around their neck, in an effort to humiliate them into not speaking in what Japanese considered an inferior dialect.

“I spent a lot of time wearing the hougen fuda in school,” Higa recalls about his childhood.

Higa did not dwell on the discrimination that he felt while growing up, but became proactive in an effort to preserve and foster Okinawan culture. As the former president of the Okinawa Association of America and the Japanese Prefectural Association, he has been focusing his efforts as an Okinawan language instructor for the past 10 years and proudly asserts the proverb “Nmarijima nu kutuba wasshii nee kuni n wasshiin” (Forgetting your native tongue is like forgetting your native country).

Since the turn of the millennium, the perception of Okinawans has been changing with the success of Okinawan pop stars, and worldwide publicity of Okinawan health and longevity.

In 2009, the Okinawan language was designated as endangered by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Okinawan language preservationists, such as Higa, were enthusiastic about this designation of Uchinaaguchi being recognized as a “language” rather than a “dialect,” and they are hopeful that the designation will spawn more concerted efforts to preserve it.

With the success of his Uchinaaguchi language class, as well as the blossoming popularity of Okinawan culture, Higa optimistically said, “Acha nu neen chi ami,” or  “Tomorrow is a new day.”

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