“Okinawa Part 3”
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
This coming week I’ll be in Okinawa. This will be my third trip there in the past year and a half. For my first trip I joined a delegation of Chamorros who attended the Japan Peace Conference, an annual gathering organized by peace activists. Different prefectures take turns hosting the conference, the only condition being that it must be held in an area with “contested” US military facilities.
Last year I travelled with Ed Alvarez, the Executive Director of the Commission on Decolonization and former Senator Marilyn Manibusan on a weeklong speaking tour to different universities and community groups. The focus for this trip was “decolonization.” We often hear about Okinawa through the concept of “demilitarization,” since almost 1/5 of the main island is US military bases. As the bases are both a scar of the war that engulfed hundreds of thousands of Okinawans and a testament to their subordinate status to the rest of Japan, they are regular objects of protest.
The discontent over the bases is constantly evolving and has helped to create a small but determined decolonization movement. Okinawa has had an independence movement ever since its forced annexation by the Japanese in the late 19th century. This movement has always been torn however, as you can see in other movements for the restoration of an old regime, such as in Hawai’i. Should Okinawa return to the old political status of the Ryukyu Kingdom? Or should it become something else? Okinawa is actually numerous islands and dialects, how would they become unified? Okinawans have always retained a distinct ethnic identity despite attempts by the Japanese government to force/encourage them to assimilate. We will see how much this difference in ethnic identification and grow to sustain a movement for a different political identification.
On my trip last year, many people wanted to know more about formal processes of decolonization, such as the Commission on Decolonization, the meaning of different political status options, and how to hold a plebiscite. Although the decolonization process in Guam stalls and disappears regularly, we nonetheless have an infrastructure in place that others can look to when seeking ideas or inspiration. The people I spoke to were also looking for theoretical guidance, or ways of theorizing decolonization ideologically. It is not a word that is commonly used in Okinawa and so sometimes the questions were very direct “how does one decolonize?” “Is decolonization always the same or does it change from one place to the next?” “Does decolonization mean doing everything yourself?” “What can your relationship be to your former colonizer? Can you remain close or would that not be decolonization?”
This trip to Okinawa is slightly different. I will still have meetings with decolonization and demilitarization activists, but the focus of this trip is to discuss language revitalization. The main Okinawan language Uchinaguchi is in a similar state that Chamorro is. Both are considered endangered and within a few generations of face extinction because the youngest generations don’t speak or understand them. Although more and more people are complaining about the Chamorro language classes in GDOE, whenever I’ve discussed the classes with Okinawans they become jealous and wish they could create similar enrichment classes.
At the University of the Ryukyus I will speak and participate in an “Island Language Symposium” focused on different islands where they are working to revitalization the native languages. Activists and academics from New Zealand, Guam, Hawai’i, Okinawa and even Wales will talk about the state of their languages and share ideas for how to revitalize them.
The theme for Chamorro Month this year is “Tungo' i Fino' i Mañaina-ta yan Na'setbe Kada Diha” or “Know the Language of Our Elders and Use it Everyday.” As part of my talk I will describe how colonization has affected the Chamorro language, even the point where we are stuck today and cannot take the final step to revitalize our language or bring the Chamorro language back to a healthy and vibrant point. We have come to the point where we can be proud of the Chamorro language, and have in many ways rejected the colonial lies that used to make us feel like our language was something that needed to be thrown away. We are now at a point where the language is “beautiful” and all studies show that nearly everyone, non-Chamorro and Chamorro states that the Chamorro language is wonderful and should be preserved. But why isn’t the language returning to a healthy state?
Why don’t Chamorros who are fluent in the language use it with their children? How have we come to this point where people substitute having a convincing accent for speaking the language or they show their love for the language by getting tattoos and t-shirts but not actually learning and using it? This will be a focus for the symposium, how do we get people past the simple rhetoric on the “beauty” of the language, and actually get people to use it again?