Dubbed the “Japanese Hawaii”, the tropical islands of Okinawa sits off the southwestern tip of the Japanese archipelago, wedged between Japan’s mainland and Taiwan. Uchinaaguchi (Okinawan language) is spoken in the central and southern parts of the island and is the local language featured in tourist messaging. Along with Amami, Kunigami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni spread throughout more than 160 islands, it’s one of six existing Ryukyu languages from the once-independent Ryukyu Kingdom.
When Japan annexed Okinawa in 1879, it sought to diminish the Okinawan language by imposing strict assimilation policies to replace Okinawan languages with the Japanese language, and prohibited the locals to speak Okinawan in public. The assimilation into Japanese society proved to be detrimental to the Okinawan culture, as its native tongues are now endangered languages. Languages that once flourished in the Ryukyu Kingdom are rarely spoken in daily life today, but can still be found in traditional performing arts and is preserved by the local elders.
Did you know? In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that all six Ryukyu languages are on course for extinction by 2050 if no counter-measures are taken to preserve the language.
You can get around Okinawa without knowing Uchinaaguchi and you’ll certainly surprise the locals with your language skills (or maybe they won’t understand a word you’re saying) since standard Japanese is the official and most widely spoken language in Okinawa. Talk story with the locals and connect with the Okinawan people with these top 5 Okinawan words you should at least know:
Haisai / Haitai
Haisai can mean good morning, good day, good afternoon and is a universal greeting for any time of the day. Haitai is a derivative used by females to induce a more polite, softer tone to the greeting.
Similar to “Yokoso” or “Aloha”, mensore is Okinawa’s greeting to welcome tourists to the islands.
Niffee debiru is an expression of gratitude and appreciation, usually preceeded by ippee to say “Thank you very much!”
How do you describe something that tastes good?
It’s no secret that drinking is a popular Japanese social activity and it’s certainly the same in Okinawa. Before taking a swig of your cold Orion beer, say cheers with a karii toast.
Haisai / Haitai
ほいさい / ほいたい
My name is…
Wannee … yaibiin.
わんねー … やいびーん。
How are you?
Fine, thank you.
Uu ganjuu sooi biin.
Nice to meet you.
How much is this?
Uree chassa yaibiiga?
Kuree nuu yaibiiga?
Do you have…?
Do you speak English?
Eigo nu hanashiyabiimi?
エイゴ ぬ はなしやびいみ
I don’t understand
I’d like… / I want to eat…
…-ya maa yaibiiga?
…-や まあ やびいが
Michi bappe saibitan.
みち ばっぺ さびたん。
It’s a Language, Not a Dialect
Language is at the heart of Okinawa’s culture, so let’s promote and preserve Uchinaaguchi with the intent of changing the course of it’s future. Learn the language, share a connection with the local people and be a part of the growing movement to perpetuate a language rich in history and culture.
I’ve scoured the web to curate this travel phrase list based on limited and inconsistent online resources. Don’t take the information in this post as fact. Leave a digital note below if you’d like to contribute or make corrections to this list.
I see changes since I left in 1960. The Okinawans that I knew called their language “Hogan”. Thank you was Nihee Debiru. Where is was just …ya maiaga. Although I spoke it fairly well at the time I have forgotten a lot over the past 60 years. Wa meant “I” or “my”. II meant “you” or “your”.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Jeremiah! And it’s true, language is ever-evolving. You might want to check out this pretty recent resource on the Okinawan language I found online: https://liuchiuan.com/2017/09/13/rikka-uchinaa-nkai-okinawan-language-textbook-for-beginners-2017/
I was there for 1 year about 1962. I loved learning and speaking “Hogan”. I wish I had memorized more of it. The locals were impressed that I could speak it.
“Hogan”, pronounced more like hoh-gen, just means ‘dialect’ in Japanese.
It’s what the Japanese tried to call all the languages of the Ryukyus (Okinawa, Yonaguni, Miyako, Amamami, etc.) so they’d be sub-standard and lesser than proper Japanese, while also making Okinawans a Japanese people, instead of an independent one.
How do you say “Family”
Family is “yaaningyu” 🙂
Byron Fija has YouTube videos for hogen lessons. Very cool. I didn’t know this was actually a language & not a dialect! Chibariyo——
my grandparents and mom are okinawan. they all speak hogan. (it’s what they call the language themselves; i assume it’s what the japanese call it)
the only phrase I remember is: “kwachii sabitan” (what you say when you’re finished eating)
I was raised in Okinawa but never learned the language, sadly. One exclamation that I understood to mean something akin to “Damn!” sounded to me like “ahk-SAHM-iyo”.
Can you comment/ correct me?