Preserving Uchinaguchi through Cultural Capital

476368377The culture of Okinawa, Japan is quite distinct from other Japanese islands. It became a part of Japan in 1879, but has a strong American influence because of three decades of military occupation following WWII. Today, 20% of the island is made up of over 30 U.S. military bases. This history has resulted in the near extinction of the Okinawan language, called Uchinaguchi, which was systematically suppressed when the island was annexed by Japan. Because of ubiquitous U.S. presence, Okinawans perceive more of a need for English competence than for learning the language of their ancestors. Once the U.S. ceded control of the island back to Japan in the 1970’s, the island underwent changes that many Okinawans perceived as another occupation, but this time instead of U.S. military projects, Japanese business took over the island. Japanese power over Okinawa can even be seen in the language politics: Uchinaguchi was long considered a dialect of Japanese despite the two languages having less than 60% in common. In 2009 UNESCO recognized Okinawan as its own language along with five others spoken in the region, all of which are endangered. Native speakers are aging and dying off.