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Ryukyu Language & Oyata Arts


Uchināguchi, the Okinawan Language, is a language of the Northern Ryūkyūan islands, typically found on the southern half of the largest (main) island of Okinawa and many of the surrounding islands. Taika’s parents and grandparents spoke it. Northern Okinawan language is classified as Kunigami. There were many Ryūkyūan languages. As King Shō Shin (1477–1526) unified the Ryūkyū kingdom and Shuri became the capital, the dialect of Shuri-Naha Uchināguchi became what we might call the ‘Queen’s English’ of the Ryūkyū kindgon.


Many people refer to Uchināguchi as a Japanese Dialect but this is not correct, it is very much its own language with the same distant roots as Japanese. Hōgen is the Japanese word for dialect and when people would refer to Uchināguchi as Hōgen it would infuriate Taika. Later, as part of the Japanese movement to exclude other languages, the government would incorrectly label the Ryūkyūn langages as Hōgen as part of their campaign to iradicate them. The Japanese government still refers to each of the Ryukyu languages as Hōgen though the rest of the world scholars consider them separate languages with Japonic language roots. Uchināguchi only shares 60% of the same vocabulary with Japanese.


Uchināguchi is a Japonic language that was derived from Proto-Japonic and thus Japanese is very much related and has a lot of cross-over and related words (60%). Some use the same characters and have similar pronunciations though frequently different. The diversion between Uchināguchi and what became Japanese is estimated to have occurred as far back as the 1st century AD to the 12th century. Research and discoveries continue but experts do not completely agree, though it most definitely has been a thousand years or more. The Chinese and Japanese characters were introduced around 1265. Prior to the Satsuma Domain, documents were written in Hiragana. In 1879 Japan annexed the Ryūkyū islands. Within approximately 10 years the Japanese government began actively suppressing other languages including Uchināguchi.


In October of 1930 Taika was born on Henza, a small island visible from Okinawa on the east side. The island is a mere 2.5 miles east of Okinawa so visible on a clear day. Within a year of his birth, Kana Oyata age 35, relocated his family to Kita Daito, an island another 215 miles east of Okinawa but still within the Ryūkyū kingdom. The original language of the Daito islands was Hachijō language. Hachijō descends from Eastern Old Japanese. Hachijō has lexical similarities with the dialects of Kyushu and also the Ryukyuan languages. 


Taika’s father Kano was born on May 14, 1896 and his mother Kanami was born Mar 1, 1889. Both his parents were born shortly after the Japanese government had already began forcing the Japanese language aggressively to the Ryūkyū islands however all of Taika’s grandparents grew up speaking Ryukyuan languages with a mix of Japanese. Taika stated that he grew up in a mixed language household and much of the Japanese was pronounced with the different Uchināguchi pronunciations. Some of the Ryukyuan languages had 3 vowels instead of 5 like Japanese and some had 5 vowels but 2 of the 5 were extremely rare in use. This made words like Te (Japanese) pronounced Ti/Di in Uchināguchi as there was no ‘e’ sound. Taika talked to me several times about how Kadena air base was pronounced like Kadina. The Kerama islands were pronounced like Kirama. Of note, words in our system like Tuite are half Uchināguchi and half Japanese. To(ru) is to grab or seize in Japanese and Tui is the Uchināguchi equivalent. Tuidi would be the correct Uchināguchi way of saying it but Taika said that it sounded like Tweety to U.S. Serviceman which produced giggles related to Tweety Bird. Taika then changed the Uchināguchi Di pronunciation to the Japanese Te.  This hybrid of two languages makes the use of Tuite very specific to Oyata lineage.

Another example often misquoted in relation to a lineage chart Taika released around 1992 is the family name of Ikemiyagusuku. The Japanese equivalent is Miyagi. Taika was related to the Ikemiyagusuku family and the lineage chart showed a different connector indicating family on the chart rather than the connectors on the chart indicating training partners or direct instructors.


At about the age of three, Taika was sent to mainland Japan, Osaka, to live with his aunt and be educated there. It is unclear if it was the city of Osaka or the prefecture. He would return home to Kita Daito when possible up to midway through World War II when he was selected by the Imperial Japanese Navy for special training on the Kaiten, suicide submarines.  Taika told stories of how in Japanese mainland grade school they would place a sign on him that read Baka 馬鹿. This translates to Fool or Foolish is most Japanese dictionaries, but Taika referred to it as meaning stupid. He was forced to wear this sign around his neck anytime he used Uchināguchi or pronounced things wrong such as using the ‘i' sound for ‘e’. This is equivalent to what was used in the United States as the ‘Dunce hat’. This practice is referred to as a ‘Dialect Tag’ by language researchers. Students were expected to wear this tag around their neck. They had to wear it around their neck until someone else broke the rules and they could bestow the tag around the next violators neck. This promoted peer pressure as there was usually only one tag per classroom. When a student was frequently tagged, their parents would be brought in or in Taika’s case, his aunt. By the mid 1930’s, the official stance was that speaking other languages was unpatriotic and suffered punishments within school systems. Taika being on mainland Japan made this even harsher. The Movement for the Enforcement of Normal Language (Futsūgo reikō undo), began in 1931 shortly after Taika’s birth. By 1937 it was renamed the Movement for the Enforcement of Standard Language. During war time, things got even more serious. During the Battle of Okinawa there was a military decree stating that anyone caught using Ryūkyūan languages would be treated as a spy requiring the shooting and stabbing to death of said users by the Japanese military.

Post WWII, Taika at some point returned to mainland Japan, Tokyo, attending a university. He attained an engineering degree. It is unclear as to the dates of this endeavor.

Taika had exposure to various Ryukyu languages and Japanese throughout his childhood until his departure to the United States in 1977. He frequently mixed Uchināguchi, Hachijō, Japanese and English (possibly others) during a conversation. Many native Japanese speakers that were within his life protection art found translating for him difficult due to this frequent mixture of languages. 

Lee Richards owns approximately 18 various Ryukyu Language dictionaries and related language study books. At a later date a list of books will be placed here for people that wish to dig deeper into the topics. Most books were purchased decades ago before the internet became as vast as it is today so modern research will produce many more sources.


* Update: 2023-03-31

This is a portion of a historical paper related to Taika Seiyu Oyata and his ties to the Ryūkyū Language. Taika grew up with a Ryūkyū Language, not a dialect of Japanese. He learned Japanese as well as English, thus having three languages he frequently used, quite often all three within the same sentence. I will devote more time to this endeavor later but a particular student was asking some questions in relation to this so I am posting this smaller bit in more of a draft form today to help with his understanding. More to come...

* Update: 2023-06-28:
Added languages spoken on Kita Daito as well as 60% similarities between Uchināguchi and Japanese.  Added hyperlinks.

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