Postcard from... Okinawa


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Standing up one by one at their wooden desks, the students giggled, squirmed or shuffled as they introduced themselves, some practically in a whisper.

“Waa naamee ya. . .yaibiin,” the Okinawa Christian University students managed to get out their names, a  few confidently, but most of them sheepishly.

Their teacher, Byron Fija, was waving his arms around, laughing and trying to encourage the students – who bore the hallmarks of students everywhere, with hoodies and baseball caps and the requisite guy with green hair – to own it. But it was clear that this language didn’t come naturally to most of them.

The language? Okinawan, the biggest of the six main indigenous languages spoken in this subtropical Japanese island chain. Unesco categorises each of the six Ryukyu languages as either “definitely” or “severely” endangered, meaning children no longer learn it as a “mother tongue” in the home or that it is spoken only by grandparents and older generations.

“I’m from here. Of course I should learn the language,” said Kai Irei, one of the students learning elementary Okinawan from Fija (and answering a reporter’s questions in English). “If I don’t speak Okinawan, I can’t say I’m from Okinawa.”