NISHIHARA, Japan — Rising in turn at their wooden desks, the students giggled, squirmed or shuffled as they introduced themselves, some practically in a whisper.
“Waa naamee ya — yaibiin . . . (My name is . . . ).” One by one, the classmates at Okinawa Christian University managed to get out their names, a few confidently, but most of them sheepishly.
Teacher Byron Fija waved his arms around, laughed and tried to encourage the class, which looked like a college group anywhere — some in hoodies, others in baseball caps and one guy with green hair.
But it was clear that the language — Okinawan — didn’t come naturally to most of them.
It’s the biggest of the six main indigenous languages spoken in this subtropical Japanese island chain, once the independent Ryukyu kingdom but now best known for hosting most of the American military bases in Japan.
Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879 and then occupied by the United States for almost 30 years after World War II. Okinawans say they feel that Tokyo treats them like second-class citizens, citing as evidence the noisy, invasive American bases concentrated in the islands.
And the suppression of their languages, almost to the point of extinction, is to them Exhibit No. 2.
No one knows how many native speakers of each of the six Ryukyu languages remain — estimates range from a handful for those spoken in outlying islands to a few hundred for Okinawan. They are distinct from each other and from Japanese.
UNESCO categorizes the Ryukyu languages as “definitely” or “severely” endangered, meaning that children no longer learn the language as a mother tongue in the home or that it is spoken only by grandparents and older generations.
The agency estimates that, if nothing is done, half of the world’s 6,000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the century, taking with them “cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge.”
But that outcome could be avoided, UNESCO says, with policies to maintain or revitalize mother tongues and teach them to younger 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.”
Fija is almost evangelical in his promotion of Okinawan, poetically called “uchi-naa-guchi” here.
In addition to teaching, Fija, 45, plays the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan banjo, and sings. For five years he hosted a radio show in Okinawan.
He sees the language as intrinsic to his identity. A product of the military occupation, he is the son of an Okinawan mother and an American father, a man he has never heard from.
Fija cites two experiences that motivated him to embrace the local language and culture.
First, he learned to play the sanshin.
“Someone told me that my playing was fine but my Okinawan sounded American, even though I don’t speak any English. Maybe it was because I don’t look Japanese or Okinawan,” Fija said after class, wearing a traditional Japanese outfit with an Okinawan pattern. His Okinawan pronunciation, he said, was the equivalent of a Japanese person singing in English “I rub you” instead of “I love you.”.
Then, in the 1990s, he spent a year or so in Los Angeles, hoping to make it as a rock star. But as he discovered how hard that was, he had an epiphany. Because of his Caucasian looks, he said, he had never really been accepted as Japanese. But with no knowledge of his father and little proficiency in English, he clearly wasn’t American, either.
In the United States, he found his identity. He was Okinawan.
Here, language is imbued with politics.
Ask any proponent of the Ryukyu languages in Okinawa the most basic question about them and you will immediately hear a spiel about why they are languages in their own right and not dialects of Japanese. Advocates see efforts to classify them as dialects as further evidence of oppression.
The Romance languages Spanish, French and Italian share about 80 percent of their vocabulary, linguists say. But Japanese and the Ryukyu languages, while in the same “Japonic” family, have only 60 percent of their words in common, making the gap between them greater than that between English and German.
“Ever since the Japanese annexation of Okinawa, our languages were considered to be second class, not to be spoken in public,” said Shinsho Miyara, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of the Ryukyus and chairman of the Ryukyu Heritage Language Society.
Such efforts haven’t amounted to much, partly because the Okinawan prefectural government isn’t fully on board.
There’s a “welcome” sign in Okinawan at the islands’ main airport, but it’s misspelled: “mensoore” instead of “mensooree.” The islands now have one day annually — Sept. 18 — designated to promote the local languages, but nothing much is done to promote them the rest of the year.
Miyara said it is crucial to try to save the languages. “We need this to rebuild our identity and our confidence and to promote our culture,” he said. He pointed out that local schools teach Japanese language and history but not Okinawan.
“It’s as if we were blindfolded in 1879 when Okinawa became part of Japan,” Miyara said. “We need to remove the blindfolds. Language can be the basic foundation for our future.”
Patrick Heinrich, a Ryukyu language specialist who teaches in Italy, says he’s “slightly optimistic but not that optimistic,” that Okinawan can be saved. He is doubtful about the other five languages.
“Of course, endangered languages need government support, but it’s not sufficient to teach them at school,” Heinrich said. “Ultimately, people have to start to use these languages again in situations where it’s natural to use them. But to get people to really speak again, that’s not so easy.”
Encouraging Okinawan could also have economic benefits. Tourism is one of Okinawa’s main industries, and promoting local products using local languages could boost their attraction, analysts say.
All around the main island, restaurants play up the local cuisine, which includes a bitter gourd called goya and a bright purple sweet potato that’s turned into butter and ice cream, among other things. (Spam seems to be in nearly every dish, another legacy of the American occupation.)
But not everyone supports the effort to save the languages. Shigehisa Karimata, a linguistics professor at the University of the Ryukyus, says that the indigenous tongues are dialects, not languages in their own right, and that because the onetime kingdom is part of Japan, its languages should be considered Japanese.
“This abstract idea of an ‘Okinawa identity’ doesn’t really exist,” he said, contending that Okinawa is a collection of diverse cultures. “It’s the same way as not all Japanese is the same. It depends on where you are from.”
The young people in Fija’s class see it differently.
“If we, the young generation, lose interest in this language and culture,” said Samuel Kinjo, a 20-year-old from Naha, “then it will become just another part of a great big country called Japan.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.