Language preservation in a transnational context: One Okinawan community’s efforts to maintain Uchinaguchi in São Paulo, Brazil


In 2008, thousands of Uchinanchu (‘people of Okinawan ancestry’) from throughout Latin America and the United States, together with Okinawans from the homeland, came together in São Paulo to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Okinawan immigration to Brazil. Sponsored by the Associação Okinawa Kenjin do Brasil, an ancestry organization established in São Paulo in 1926 (Yogui 1998: 127) and that now represents 150,000 Brazilians of Okinawan ancestry, the centenary commemoration lasted four days. Brazilian Uchinanchu and their guests from across the diaspora enjoyed, among other events, a parade, a Brazilian churrasco, artistic presentations, sporting events and seminars for Uchinanchu youth, women and academics. On frequent occasions, moving tribute was paid to the first Okinawan immigrants who disembarked at the Port of Santos from 1908 onwards. For instance, produced in Japanese and Portuguese with occasional code-switching into Uchinaguchi (‘Okinawan language’), the commemorative DVD opened with these salutatory words for Brazil’s first Uchinanchu:

But these courageous pioneers did not shrink from the difficulties [of immigrant life]. They always rallied around the Uchinanchu mottos that helped fortify their resolve: ichariba chode [Once we meet, we are brothers], yuimaru [community spirit], and umanchu nu kukuru [the heart of the people]. They helped each other, raised their families and concentrated all their efforts towards the education of their children. In this way, after decades of difficulties in this immense Brazil, they were able to consolidate the foundations for the Okinawan nikkei community. (Centenário da Imigração Okinawana)

The commemoration was much more than a celebration of the past. It represented, in the words of Akeo Yogui, President of the Associação Okinawa Kenjin do Brasil, “a moment for [Brazilian Uchinanchu] to reflect on the future of the nikkei community and their relation with the homeland” (Comemoração da Associação Okinawa: 4).

The aim of this article is to report on one such “act of reflection” arising out of the centenary commemoration: recent efforts by a private colégio (school) run by Brazilian Uchinanchu in Vila Carrão, a borough of São Paulo, to maintain and revive Uchinaguchi. An obsolescent language of primarily older generations in Okinawa, Uchinaguchi is under threat from Standard Japanese (Heinrich 2005). Significantly, Uchinaguchi is also spoken by a number of elderly issei and nisei (first and second generation) Okinawan immigrants in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. In Brazil, a recent survey counted nearly 200 surviving issei Okinawan immigrants of over 90 years of age, all of whom are native speakers of Uchinaguchi (Comemoração da Associação Okinawa: 45–49). Although no other data apart from anecdotal evidence is available, it appears that many overseas Okinawans in South America speak Uchinaguchi to a varying degree, especially those living in the rural areas of Colonia Okinawa in Bolivia and the interior of the Brazilian states of São Paulo, Paraná and Mato Grosso Sul. And, in the cities of São Paulo, Lima and Buenos Aires, tight-knit Okinawan social networks, like that in the borough of Vila Carrão, have a number of Uchinaguchi speakers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, something that has been similarly reported in certain neighborhoods of dense urban areas on the island of Okinawa (Heffernan 2006). In South America, then, Uchinaguchi appears to occupy Stage 7 of Joshua Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale – “most users of [Uchinaguchi] are a socially integrated and ethnolinguistically active population but they are beyond child-bearing age” (Fishman 1991: 89) –incidentally the same stage Heinrich (2005) assigns the language in Okinawa.

Located about fifteen kilometers from the center of São Paulo, the borough of Vila Carrão has the largest concentration of Uchinanchu in Brazil, approximately 450 families totaling 2,250 people in 2006 (Comemoração do 50° Aniversário: 9). Vila Carrão has its own ancestry association, the Associação Okinawa de Vila Carrão, which was founded in 1956 by twenty-seven Uchinanchu living and working in the area. Today, although Vila Carrão has lost its semi-rural atmosphere to become part of the São Paulo metropolitan area, the ancestry association remains one of the most active of the 44 sub-sedes (branches) of the Associação Okinawa do Brasil. The association hosts frequent gatherings and activities, including an annual Okinawa Festival that sees thousands of people from São Paulo celebrate Okinawa on a Saturday in August. The Uchinanchu presence in the borough is not limited to the ancestry association, however, and many local leaders in commerce and education are of Uchinanchu ancestry. It is not surprising, then, that a privately-run colégio in Vila Carrão, along with Uchinanchu-based efforts at the University of Hawai’i (Hijirida 2006), is one of the only educational institutions in the Okinawan diaspora to offer Uchinaguchi to members of the community.

The presence or absence of heritage languages in immigrant communities is most often viewed from the perspective of language maintenance not language preservation. That is, whereas a heritage language like Italian or Hungarian may erode and ultimately disappear in the later generations of immigrant households in, say, Buenos Aires or São Paulo, the language remains alive and well in the European homeland. This is not the case for Uchinaguchi. Not unlike certain other ‘transplanted’ languages in Latin America (Baldauf & Kaplan 2007; Bonner 2001; Garrett et al. 2009; Ravindranath 2007), caring for the sociolinguistic vitality of Uchinaguchi in the Okinawan communities of South America concerns language preservation as much as it does language maintenance. As such, the heritage language efforts being made in Vila Carrão are being watched by language planners in Okinawa. In fact, as shown in the ensuing discussion, the homeland can play an important role in maintaining Uchinaguchi in Vila Carrão and throughout the diaspora by assisting with teacher recruitment, teacher training, and materials development.

The ensuing discussion is the result of research that took place in the field and online over a period of approximately two years. We visited Brazil on two separate occasions in 2007 and 2008. At that time, we interviewed a number of people to learn more about Uchinaguchi’s role and status in communities in and around São Paulo. Our 2008 visit to São Paulo coincided with the formal commemoration of Okinawan immigration. This offered us an exceptional opportunity to witness the use of Uchinaguchi, which, no matter how modest or halting, served as a symbolic linguistic and cultural resource to link Uchinanchu from throughout the diaspora. A short time after returning to our home institutions, we learned that an Uchinaguchi course was being offered for the first time by a colégio in Vila Carrão. With the assistance of the Associação Okinawa de Vila Carrão and a Brazilian Uchinanchu administrator visiting Okinawa, we initiated email contact with the teacher, students and administrators at the colégio. Over the course of several weeks we gathered information about the Uchinaguchi class. The Okinawa-based researcher also carried out a skype interview with the students and teacher during a class meeting. All interviews for this research, whether face-to-face or online, were in (a combination of) Portuguese, Uchinaguchi, Japanese, or English.

In the following section we begin with a brief background to Uchinaguchi in Okinawa. We then discuss the history and current state of Uchinaguchi in Brazil in order to provide a context for understanding Vila Carrão’s recent efforts to maintain and revive the language. In this section, we point out that increased indexical uses of Uchinaguchi in various media within the Okinawan diaspora in São Paulo represent a valuable, if not unintentional, form of status planning. In the next section, we discuss the Uchinaguchi course being offered at the colégio. Among other issues, we address the rationale for the course, course curriculum and materials, course demographics, and the overall impressions of the teacher and students. We close the article by arguing that the efforts to maintain Uchinaguchi are valuable for Uchinanchu from not only Vila Carrão and Brazil but across the diaspora and including Okinawa itself. As with certain other ‘transplanted’ languages in Latin America, Uchinaguchi’s presence in Brazil indicates that movement to a new country need not preclude a speech community from language revival/preservation efforts being made in the homeland.

Uchinaguchi in Okinawa

Although Uchinaguchi is a cover term commonly used by Okinawans and Uchinanchu for the language of the homeland, linguists treat the Okinawan linguistic situation as one comprising several separate languages that include Central Okinawan, Yaeyama, Miyako and Northern and Southern Amami Oshima (Ethnologue 2009). All of these languages share varying but low degrees of mutual intelligibility and are typologically classified under the Ryukyuan branch of the Japonic language family; Japanese is classified under the other branch of the family (ibid). The Ryukyuan languages and Japanese are mutually unintelligible.

The Ryukyuan language that has been the focus of most research is Central Okinawan – specifically, the Shuri Dialect (Miyara 2000) – which is spoken on the central and southern part of the island of Okinawa. Because the majority of emigrants hailed from this region (Selleck 2003), Central Okinawan was the primary Ryukyuan language carried overseas. Unless otherwise noted, the Uchinaguchi data and examples discussed in this article are Central Okinawan.

The Ryukyuan languages are said to be approximately 65% cognate with the standard dialect of Japanese (Ethnologue 2009). Examples of cognates include the following (Okinawan data is adapted from Sakihara 2006 and Shibatani 1990):

Standard Japanese Central Okinawan
'flower' hana hana
'rice' kome kumi
'sand' suna sina
'hair' ke ki
'breath' iki itsi
'heart' kokoro kukuru

Among others, major phonological developments that serve to differentiate the Ryukyuan languages from Standard Japanese include the fronting of /u/ to /i/ (cf. SJ suna with CO Sina), followed by the palatalization of voiceless alveolar and velar obstruents (cf. SJ suna with CO Sina, and iki with itSi), and the later raising of mid vowels (cf. SJ kome with CO kumi) (Shibatani 1990: 192). One outcome of these phonological changes was the reanalysis of morpho-syntactic structures. For instance, Shibatani (1990: 195) notes that the past tense form katSan ‘to write’ derives from a morpho-syntactic structure equivalent to early Standard Japanese kaki-te aru mono (write-CONJ be thing).” The Ryukyuan languages also differ from Japanese with regard to their pitch accent systems (Heffernan 2006; Sanada & Uemura 2007).

Together with Okinawa’s long, early history of self-rule, these structural developments explain the mutual unintelligibility between the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese. Even so, after the Meiji government designated Okinawa as a prefecture in 1879, language ideologies instituted by those in power in Tokyo ‘devalued’ the status of the Ryukyuan languages and characterized them as hogen, Japanese vernacular dialects considered both undesirable and inadequate as the nation endeavored to become a world power (Heinrich 2004; Osumi 2001). During the first half of the Showa era (1926-1989), for instance, Okinawan schoolchildren had to wear a hogen-fuda (‘dialect tag’) if they were caught using Okinawan language forms (Osumi 2001: 72). Indeed, by the beginning of the Pacific War and throughout the later American occupation of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawans had begun a noticeable shift to Japanese (Shinzato 2003).

After Okinawa’s reversion back to Japan in 1972, however, the Ryukyuan languages, especially Central Okinawan, began to experience a renaissance of sorts. To date, a number of post-reversion language revival efforts have been made in Okinawa Prefecture. These include the establishment of a research centre for the Ryukyuan languages, various grass-roots societies dedicated to the preservation of Okinawan language and culture, language classes at the University of the Ryukyus, and, in 2005, the designation of September 18th as Shima kutuba nu hi, or ‘Island Language Day’ (Heinrich 2005). Shinzato (2003) attributes this resurgence to Okinawans’ renewed interest and pride in their identity, something equally apparent among Brazilian Uchinanchu.

Uchinaguchi in Brazil

Known by the demeaning term Okinawa-san (‘Mr./Ms. Okinawa’) and the targets of bigotry from both their hosts and Japanese immigrants from other prefectures (Kudo et al 2009; Mori 2003), the first Okinawans in Brazil, like those in Hawaii and Peru (Arakaki 2002; Kimura 2001; Ueunten 2002), were soon aware that adjustment to the new country would require suppression of their linguistic and cultural identity. To this end, Okinawan leaders met in São Paulo in 1926 and formalized a number of recommendations for the growing immigrant community. One recommendation addressed language: “As much as possible, we should speak either in normal dialect [i.e. Japanese] or in Portuguese” (Mori 2003: 53). At the same time, another directive warned that “[we] should give up the habit of blindly trusting the words of others” (ibid). Taken together, the subtext of these directives is that, in spite of the overt prestige that they granted Standard Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese, Okinawans at the time did not altogether trust speakers of these languages. Thus, for the first generation of Okinawans in Brazil, Uchinaguchi retained covert prestige as well as a place in the home and community. Today, however, the majority of Brazilian-born Uchinanchu representing the third and later generations speak Portuguese as their first language. Uchinaguchi is still used by older parents and grandparents, but for younger Brazilian Uchinanchu, proficiency in the heritage language generally equates to varying degrees of listening comprehension and the use of certain well-known names, words and phrases like Uchina ‘Okinawa’, haisai ‘hello’, nife debiru ‘thank you’ and gachimaya! ‘you glutton! [said at the dinner table]’. Not unlike the experience of many immigrant languages around the world (Fishman 1991), Uchinaguchi is falling out of use in the domains of the home and community.

But Brazilians of Okinawan descent still maintain a strong sense of Uchinanchu identity, part of which centers around indexical uses of Uchinaguchi (Mori 2003; Miyahira & Petrucci 2010). In the ten to fifteen years leading up to the centennial celebration of Okinawan immigration to Brazil in 2008, the use of Uchinaguchi has seen a resurgence in various forms within the Uchinanchu community in São Paulo.

Sprinkled throughout every issue of Jornal Utiná Press, a monthly Uchinanchu newsletter, are Uchinaguchi cultural expressions such as shimanchu ‘a person from one’s own village’, bingata ‘stenciled textile design of traditional Okinawan motifs’ and shishi ‘a lion-dog’. As with studies of code-switching in Welsh American (Coupland et al 2003) and Maori (King 1995) ethnic newsletters, Uchinaguchi represents an iconic resource by which contributors to Jornal Utiná Press can affirm their identity as Uchinanchu. The expressions are often directly accompanied by a Japanese and/or Portuguese gloss. For instance, an article about a Brazilian Uchinanchu farmer who raises Okinawan vegetables outside São Paulo begins as follows:

Qual o “uchinanchu” que nunca provou ou nunca ouviu falar de nenhum desses alimentos? “Shibui” (“Togan” – tipo de cabaça), “Goyá” (“Nigauri” – Pepino de São Caetano), …
[‘Who is the Uchinanchu who has never tried or heard of one of these foods? Shibui (Togan – a type of gourd), Goya (Nigauri – bitter melon), …’] (Tinem 2006)

The Japanese and Portuguese glosses have been provided either as assistance for Brazilian Uchinanchu to explain their culture to others or, perhaps more likely, as a subtle prescriptive statement that any claim to an Uchinanchu identity requires an awareness of particular aspects of Okinawan language and culture. Jornal Utiná Press also includes a small pedagogical section on language which lists several words and phrases in Portuguese with their Standard Japanese and Uchinaguchi translations. Each “lesson” covers a specific category of expressions like basic verbs or directional words, but the listed items are neither explained nor contextualized so the purpose of the section is not entirely clear. What is most interesting about the section is its title, “Aprendendo o Dialeto” (‘Learning the dialect’). Intentionally or not, the newsletter does not give Uchinaguchi the status of a distinct language but maintains the devalued sense of ‘Japanese hogen’ discussed earlier.

Within Uchinanchu circles in São Paulo, Uchinaguchi also functions as a language of ceremony. The formal discourse at ancestry association gatherings run by older members of the Associação Okinawa Kenjin do Brasil is often interspersed with Uchinaguchi greetings, cultural terms and respectful homage to the homeland and family members from the past. This in itself is not unexpected because occasions calling for the registers of ceremonial discourse and prayer represent one of the last domains in which elders use the endangered language indiscriminately before young and old alike (Campbell & Muntzel 1989).

What is more surprising, however, is the use of Uchinaguchi by younger Brazilian Uchinanchu in music and the theatrical arts. Traditional folk songs played to the chords of the sanshin, a three-stringed guitar-like instrument, have always distinguished Okinawans from other Japanese immigrants in Brazil (Handa 1987). But coinciding with the so-called “Okinawa Boom” in the 90s, a renewed interest in all things Okinawan that swept Japan, was an increased admiration for traditional and more recent forms of Okinawan music from Latin America (Hosokawa 2002; Roberson 2006). In the past ten years or so, several groups of young São Paulo Uchinanchu musicians have played at gatherings throughout the diaspora and on television in Okinawa. Some of their pieces are renditions of well-known Okinawan folk music such as “Tinsagu nu hana” (The balsam flowers). Other songs are new and, reflecting the lived realities of younger generations of Uchinanchu, are sung in a combination of languages. For instance, “Saudade de Uchina” (Nostalgia for Okinawa), written for the Brazilian group Tontonmi by the Okinawan composer Sadao China, combines lyrics in Uchinaguchi, Portuguese and Japanese (Uchinaguchi is in italics and Japanese in small caps):

Kotoba ya kurashi wa ikoku português /Uchinanchu sansei yo / Uyafa fujinu nmaritaru shima / Ichibusaya saudade de Uchina
[‘My language and lifestyle are Portuguese, those of a foreign country / I’m third-generation Okinawan! / To the island of my grandparents’ birth / I desperately want to go to Okinawa’]

Young Uchinanchu use Uchinaguchi in theatrical productions as well. At the centenary commemoration of Okinawan immigration, for instance, a group of ex-bolsistas, alumni of ancestry scholarships to Okinawa, put on a long musical entitled Cem Anos de Okinawanos no Brasil (100 years of Okinawans in Brazil). The musical told the story of three generations of one family, from their time in pre-war Okinawa up to present-day São Paulo. Uchinaguchi had a strong presence throughout the performance and the sight of young Brazilian Uchinanchu speaking the language on stage was striking.

To summarize, Uchinaguchi is a heritage language spoken by first generation and, less proficiently, second generation Uchinanchu in Brazil. Other generations, even though their use of the language may be limited and highly prescribed, apparently view Uchinaguchi as a significant part of the Uchinanchu identity. As sociolinguistic research into the Welsh diaspora has demonstrated, symbolic yet limited use of the language of the homeland, together with participation in the performing arts, reflect each individual’s approach to identity as a “project [that may be] a continuous and more-or-less conscious journey of discovery” (Wray et al 2003).

The recent decision to offer Uchinaguchi classes at a Vila Carrão colégio represents a collaborative journey of discovery by members of a close-knit community. As we reveal in the following section, the stakeholders in the language class demonstrate increased attention to and care for Uchinaguchi, not only because the ancestral language links them to Okinawa but also to family, past and present, in Brazil.

Teaching Uchinaguchi in Vila Carrão

In March 2008, a Vila Carrão colégio began offering an evening Uchinaguchi course at minimal cost to members of the community. Privately run by a Brazilian Uchinanchu, the colégio is well known locally as a school that successfully prepares young Brazilians for the rigorous vestibular entrance exams required for university.

Together with his brother, the director of the school decided that a non-profit class would be helpful for preserving what they consider to be Okinawa’s most treasured heritage: its language. They felt that only through Uchinaguchi could people of Okinawan ancestry fully appreciate their forbearers, as well as the Okinawan arts and lifestyles encountered in the homeland and diaspora. The brothers are strongly determined and firm in their belief that Uchinaguchi represents “the power of Okinawan culture” and the language should therefore be preserved both in Okinawa and in Uchinanchu communities to the greatest extent possible. But perhaps the most significant rationale behind the course was their concern for a continuidade entre as gerações ‘inter-generational continuity’. As one brother put it:

My father was an example for me and my grandfather was without a doubt an example for him. I have felt this with regard to [the community’s] children. We think about this continuity a lot. And with our children we want to maintain connections with Okinawa. … so we thought about how we could do this ... and felt that the lessons were a way that we could offer our children this continuity. (Skype interview)

It was not enough to use Brazilian Portuguese to pass down the family history and Okinawan culture to future generations. Rather, the brothers believe Uchinaguchi is the language in which the community should carry out this transmission. The colégio director is well aware of the significance and formidable nature of the task. On the school website, it is observed that the class represents a ground-breaking project in Brazil, home to the largest Okinawan community outside Japan.

Finding a teacher

The colégio hired an Okinawan woman to teach the Uchinaguchi class. The teacher came to Brazil some time ago and, after taking a language teaching course, began to teach Standard Japanese at a Brazil-Japan cultural center in São Paulo. She grew up in Naha, the largest city in Okinawa, where the Shuri variety of Central Okinawan is still spoken by a fair number of older Okinawans. When asked about her proficiency in Uchinaguchi, she told us that she did not “speak it perfectly.” We were unable to classify her proficiency much further than this. Consequently, to use Nancy Dorian’s (1981) classifications, she is either a “young fluent speaker” with native, albeit flawed, command of the endangered language or a “semi-speaker” whose use of the language is limited to certain domains. Because of her perceived lack of proficiency and with no previous experience teaching Uchinaguchi, the teacher was initially reluctant to take up the position at the colégio. However, when she learned that the curriculum would also touch upon subjects such as Okinawan history, religion, folklore, cuisine, and the performing arts, she agreed to teach the class. The fact that the teacher is an Okinawan and has occasional virtual and face-to-face contacts with Uchinaguchi educators in Okinawa has helped her Brazilian students and the school administrators stay abreast of the latest teaching materials, publications, and multimedia resources.

The students

Over the past year and nine months, fourteen people have enrolled in the Uchinaguchi class that meets for three hours a week at the colégio. All of the students but one are issei (1st generation), nisei (2nd generation) or sansei (third generation) Uchinanchu. The sole exception is a Japanese Brazilian whose partner is of Okinawan ancestry. The students’ ages range from 21 to 78. They represent a variety of occupations including university student, engineer, pharmacist, doctor, masseuse, and pensioner.

Upon enrolment into the class, students were asked about their proficiency in the heritage language. Not surprisingly, given the range of ages and generations present, command of Uchinaguchi varies considerably in the classroom. The sansei students have very little proficiency in the language whereas the majority of the nisei, all of whom are over 50, have a proficiency more representative of passive bilinguals or semi-speakers. For some of the oldest nisei and the sole issei, Uchinaguchi is a mother tongue, but this group’s abilities with the language have diminished across the years because there are fewer and fewer domains in Brazil which call for Uchinaguchi.

Responding to a questionnaire we administered, students indicated that they enrolled in the course for several reasons. Some of the older students viewed the course as a chance to restore their linguistic ability in the language. Others said they wanted to build on the limited proficiency they had already acquired from Uchinaguchi-speaking parents and grandparents. Still others felt the class would help help them communicate with the elderly in the community or understand the lyrics of the traditional Okinawan songs they had heard growing up in Brazil or when visiting Okinawa.

Such a wide range of ages, fluency levels and motivations for taking the heritage language is common for small community classes teaching endangered languages (Kazakevich 2008; Vamarasi 2008). In the case of the colégio in Vila Carrão, this means that the teacher and students often find themselves playing varying and collaborative roles that are dependent on their age and language background. Those students with the strongest skills in Uchinaguchi or Standard Japanese, for instance, help others with certain activities or materials. At other times, when using internet resources or other technology, Brazilian Portuguese and even English prove to be useful in the class and it is generally the younger students who help out.


Because students have different reasons for wanting to study Uchinaguchi, a guiding principle of the colégio’s curriculum is that lessons should have a balanced variety of activities. As a result, the programme calls on an eclectic approach to language teaching with some classroom activities more focused on ‘traditional’ issues of grammar whereas others are designed to teach the heritage language through Okinawan culture. A three-hour class generally includes conversational practice, grammar discussions, studying famous Okinawan folktales and sayings, and accessing and discussing Okinawan language and culture materials available on the internet or through other media.

The class typically begins with the study of one or more famous proverbs widely told in Okinawa. The decision to open in this way is an important one, because, given the high level of proficiency necessary to understand the meaning of everyday proverbs, the activity necessitates collaboration between primarily older students familiar with the proverb and those who are not. From the beginning of the class, then, students are encouraged and in some ways obliged to work together.

The next activity takes a similar focus: the study of an Okinawan folktale. Students recite the folktale in Uchinaguchi together and then carefully discuss its meaning. Throughout the activity the teacher offers further information. The folktales have proven to be a very popular topic in the course. In fact, one nisei student even took it upon himself to translate some of the folktales into Brazilian Portuguese and submit them to the aforementioned Jornal Utiná Press in order to “strengthen our determination to maintain the culture of the Ryukyus, to spread the word of our work [in the language and culture class in Vila Carrão] and to attract others who support the culture so that we can reinforce our efforts” (Tinem 2009).

The Uchinaguchi lesson then moves on to a discussion of key grammatical structures. For this, the class uses Okinawago no nyumon (Nishioka & Nakahara 2000), an introductory Uchinaguchi textbook. Written in Standard Japanese, this text is one of the most popular books available for learners of Uchinaguchi. The teacher explains the grammatical structures and basic expressions for each lesson, and, whenever possible, elaborates on these by drawing on distinctive socio-cultural dimensions of the language under study. Because the textbook is in Japanese and because the teacher herself is a second language speaker of Brazilian Portuguese, it is not uncommon for some of the older students who have good proficiency in both languages to contribute to the discussion as well, thus offering further assistance to those students who have little or no fluency in Standard Japanese and/or Uchinaguchi. Interestingly, some students informed us that the grammar lessons are important part of each class, because, although they speak Uchinaguchi quite well, they don’t believe they speak the language correctly. The grammatical discussion generally leads into a conversation activity where students try to write dialogues using the structures and expressions learned from the text. The students practice their dialogues in class and are encouraged to adapt them for possible use with members of the Uchinanchu community. Admittedly, the grammar lesson and dialogue practice are not communicative per se and they do not result in spontaneous language produced in real time. Instead, forms, expressions and dialogues that come out of the activities are highly structured and rehearsed. Consequently, the approach to teaching grammar and conversation shows the influence of the audio-lingual method (Richards & Rogers 2001).

After these regular activities, the class often makes use of various media with spoken Uchinaguchi such as podcasts and CDs and DVDs with recent renditions of traditional and newer Okinawan music and performing arts. One of the most popular resources commonly used in class is Bairon nu aha uchinaguchi (Byron’s “uh-huh” Uchinaguchi), a weekly podcast that features Bairon Fija, an Okinawan in his 40s who is well known both as a skilled sanshin player and as a fluent speaker of Uchinaguchi. With the assistance of an Okinawan newspaper, “Bairon” has produced more than thirty language lessons to date. The motivation behind the language podcasts is his belief – strikingly similar to that of the founders of the Uchinaguchi class in Vila Carrão – that the people of Okinawa must initiate an effort to pass Uchinaguchi onto the next generations. To that end, the Uchinaguchi podcasts explain subtle differences in pronunciation, choice of words, and issues of usage, eventually revamping certain prevailing misconceptions and correcting some common errors in everyday conversations. For example, in Lesson 15, Fija comments on misunderstandings that can arise out of a subtle phonological distinction between the syllables /tu/ and /to/ (bold fonts are our addition):

Uchinaguche tu, to ’ndichi shikattu sasshiwaki sabiran de chimue nu ataran naibiru kutuba nu osaibi gutu kangeran’ne naibiran. Tatuidun she kaji nu tu, chugoku nu ’nkashi nu na, to. Uchina minyo, jidai nu nagare, ’nkai to nu yu kara yamatu nu yu, yamatu nu yu kara amerika-yu di yuru uta nu aibishiga, kuri tu nu yu kara ’ndichi utataru dushi nu uti, an’naine chimue nu wakaran naindo di icharu kutu nu aibin.
[‘In Uchinaguchi there are many words that are incomprehensible unless you differentiate the sounds, tu and to, so you must think carefully about this difference. For example: the number ‘10’ tu and the old name for ‘China’ to. In an Okinawan traditional folksong, “Jidai nu nagare” (the passage of time), there is a lyric that goes, “From the times of China to Japan; and then to the times of America.” I had a friend who pronounced tu instead of to, and I told him that this would make no sense.’]
(Bairon nu aha uchinaguchi, Lesson 15)

The students have enjoyed the podcasts immensely, especially because Fija’s abilities with the language indicate that it is possible to be a young speaker of Uchinaguchi. At the same time, however, Fija’s lessons are challenging because they are designed for the Japanese speaker. Consequently, as with other materials used in class, cooperative work between the teacher and the students is crucial for everyone to understand and enjoy Fija’s podcasts.


Although just beginning, the Vila Carrão colégio’s attempt to teach Uchinaguchi and Okinawan culture has already shown some positive effects on the Uchinanchu community in Vila Carrão and São Paulo. Enrolments in the community course slowly increased across 2008 and 2009 and the colégio intends to offer the program again in 2010 and the foreseeable future. This success is partly due to the favorable coverage the initial course has received in the community. As discussed above, Jornal Utiná Press has written articles about the language class and activities that have arisen out of the class. Because the newspaper’s target readership is Brazilian Uchinanchu, articles about the language program have the potential to reach the community quickly and effectively. Some responses to our initial questionnaire anecdotally revealed that coverage of the class had led to an increase in people, representing all age groups and even Brazilians who are not of Okinawan ancestry, who support and practice Okinawan songs, musical instruments, and the performing arts. In fact, while we were carrying out our research, we learned that the Associação Okinawa de Vila Carrão, located a short distance from the colégio, had also recently begun to offer informal Uchinaguchi lessons in their kaikan (meeting hall). The language classes at both venues appear to contribute to the developing sense of Uchinanchu pride and identity that younger people from throughout the diaspora have reported in recent years (Miyahira & Petrucci 2007). To borrow the words of one informant from the class: “If you can understand Uchinaguchi, you can take back the Okinawan culture [because] language is the most important cultural heritage.” Young or old, the majority of students we spoke to expressed similar sentiments of recapturing Okinawan culture and lifestyle. Learning Uchinaguchi brought them one step closer to their ancestral heritage. But this is not to say that students favor the homeland over Brazil or that they intend to give up their Brazilian identity or language. Rather, as one student noted, it is Brazil’s tolerance towards its multiethnic and multicultural population that has allowed Uchinanchu to feel secure enough to rediscover the language and culture of Okinawa. The burgeoning success of the Uchinaguchi program then is at least partly due to the cultural receptiveness exhibited by Brazilian society as a whole.


Notwithstanding the positive response received and outcomes accomplished thus far, the colégio’s Uchinaguchi program also faces several problems. To begin with, there is a serious lack of funding to support the operational costs of the classes. The small amount of tuition collected from each student is in no way sufficient to manage the course. As long as it remains non-profit, sufficient funding will remain a significant challenge and the year-to-year running of the Uchinaguchi course will always be at some financial risk. The shortage of adequate teachers and teaching materials is another serious concern for the colégio. As discussed above, there are no Uchinaguchi language texts available in Portuguese, or in English for that matter. Because most Brazilian Uchinanchu no longer understand Japanese, the Uchinaguchi textbooks that have recently become available in Japan are not easy to work with. Some first and second generation Brazilian Uchinanchu do speak Uchinaguchi as a mother tongue, but this fact alone does not automatically make them good teachers. Indeed, some of the most fluent are elderly speakers in the community who lack adequate proficiency in Brazilian Portuguese and/or Japanese for explaining aspects of the Uchinaguchi language to younger students. Another factor that makes teaching difficult is the absence of a standardized writing system for Uchinaguchi. Any phonetic features of the language that are distinct from Japanese, such as the glottal stop, are a thorny issue for language planners working with Ryukyuan languages. Specialized writing systems have been proposed (e.g., Miyara (2000)), but none so far has achieved the status that would merit standardization.

But the most formidable challenge for the Uchinaguchi class is that which has been reported elsewhere in community-based efforts to safeguard endangered languages (De Graaf et al 2008): how can a sufficient level of interest in the heritage language be promoted and maintained among Brazilian Uchinanchu? The language learning activities undertaken by a few highly motivated people at the Vila Carrão colégio have certainly raised the community’s interest in Uchinaguchi, but only to a small degree. The desire of our informant to “take back the cultural heritage” unquestionably requires a much wider diffusion of the endangered language, a task that is further complicated by the fact that Uchinaguchi is transnational. We address this complexity in the remainder of this article.

Concluding discussion

Given the size and generational make up of the class discussed above, it would be tempting to dismiss the colégio’s efforts to teach Uchinaguchi in Vila Carrão as inconsequential to the language’s overall vitality in the São Paulo Uchinanchu community. Some people might evaluate the Uchinaguchi classes as nothing more than a hobby course taken by older adults with an interest in the language and culture of another country. But such a negative evaluation is unfair because Okinawa is not just another country for the students. It is the homeland from which their Uchinaguchi-speaking parents or grandparents emigrated.

As Nancy Dorian (1987) reminds us, any attempt to revive/maintain an endangered language is worthwhile because it raises the awareness of and prestige for the language within the community. No matter how small the community effort to safeguard the endangered heritage language may be, it symbolizes a grass-roots development, from which further language maintenance or preservation projects may spawn. And, as the 100-year commemoration of Okinawan immigration to Brazil demonstrated in 2008, Uchinanchu in Brazil – like those from throughout the diaspora – have retained a strong sense of identity. They increasingly see Uchinaguchi as having a place in that identity. For them, the language represents an ancestral legacy that shaped earlier generations in Brazil and Okinawa. Taken as a whole, then, the colégio’s decision to teach Uchinaguchi, together with the fourteen Uchinanchu from the community who recently accepted the challenge to learn the heritage language, should be praised and encouraged to continue with the joint endeavor.

In a study of Rotuman classes in a small diasporic Rotuman community in Brisbane, Australia, Vamarasi (2008) identifies a number of challenges that are relevant to the teaching of endangered languages in transnational contexts. First and foremost is the question of who is ultimately responsible for the well being of the language. Is it language planners and educators in the homeland, members of one or more communities in the diaspora or some combination of these? In the case of Rotuman, this is far from clear because there are more Rotumans in Australia, New Zealand and the United States than there are on the Fiji-controlled island of Rotuma. Uchinaguchi is in a better position, especially with Okinawa Prefecture’s latest admission that the language represents a linguistic resource that needs to be looked after (Heinrich 2005). However, for the preservation of Uchinaguchi to be successful, more recognition should be paid to communities in the diaspora, especially Latin America where some people still appear to speak the language. Research on Uchinaguchi language planning and preservation has not touched upon what is happening overseas or how communities there might help restore the language (Heinrich 2004, 2005; Osumi 2001; Shinzato 2003). This is partly because, as discussed above, there has been little study of Uchinaguchi in the diaspora to draw from, much less any organized demographic work towards determining the language’s vitality there. But it is also apparent that research centered on the homeland has not adequately considered Uchinanchu in the diaspora because they are not viewed as stakeholders in the preservation of Uchinaguchi. This needs to change. As Ravindranath (2007) notes in her study of Garifuna language endangerment in Central America, even though transnational language planning is complicated by stakeholders representing different countries and disparate needs, each community offers diverse strengths, which, taken together, increase the likelihood that a language can be successfully preserved. Fortunately, a few transnational efforts to revive and raise the status of Uchinaguchi have begun. Apart from the Okinawa-Vila Carrão contacts mentioned in this paper, researchers and educators at the University of Hawai’i, working with their peers from Okinawa, have recently collaborated in Uchinaguchi language classes (Hijirida 2006) and, perhaps more importantly, completed Sakihara’s important Okinawan-English Wordbook (Sakihara 2006). Ideally the future will see language experts, teachers and community leaders in Okinawa, Hawai’i, Brazil, and other peripheral centers like Bolivia and Peru carry out more organized and networked bids to maintain/preserve Uchinaguchi.

Collaborative efforts are especially important for teacher recruitment, teacher training and materials development in diaspora contexts (Vamarasi 2008). Okinawa Prefecture and Okinawan ancestry associations overseas have cooperated on various other matters like general student exchange, diaspora reunions and Uchinanchu business networks for well over forty years and continue to do so (Arakaki 2002; Miyahira & Petrucci 2007, 2010; Petrucci & Miyahira 2009). Nonetheless, a more coordinated and focused effort could be made that involves teacher and student exchange for the purposes of preserving Uchinaguchi. For example, every year Okinawa Prefecture offers ancestry scholarships to young Uchinanchu from various countries (Miyahira & Petrucci 2007). Since both Okinawa Prefecture and the ancestry associations overseas want scholarship students to return to their home countries as effective leaders of the Uchinanchu community, learning or improving Uchinaguchi, alongside Standard Japanese, could be promoted more strongly within the ancestry scholarship program. Similarly, although researchers and teachers from Okinawan universities and the University of Hawai’i have joined together (Hijirida 2006), a more expansive network involving educated speakers and/or researchers in Latin America would certainly help coordinate the effort to preserve and teach Uchinaguchi. People who already speak Uchinaguchi proficiently could gather in person, or virtually, to discuss the state of the language, share ideas and ultimately develop teaching materials appropriate for each community. In our visits to the Uchinanchu community in São Paulo, it became apparent that there are, like Bairon Fija in Okinawa, a small yet influential number of younger people who are fluent in Uchinaguchi, or very nearly so. Language planners in Okinawa and Hawai’i might want to find and encourage these younger speakers, not necessarily as founts of linguistic knowledge, but rather as role models whose proficiency could raise the language’s status throughout the transnational community. As was the case with Okinawan music, Uchinaguchi, if promoted via influential role models, might represent a linguistic resource that could draw Uchinanchu youth together.

Bringing together members of a transnational group in order to preserve an endangered language obviously has its own complexities. The first that comes to mind is financial. Who should fund a coordinated effort to preserve Uchinaguchi, Uchinanchu communities like Vila Carrão or Okinawa itself? There is no easy answer to this question. But the years of successful activities and events that Okinawa Prefecture and diaspora communities have jointly sponsored in Okinawa and overseas serve as a track record. If the desire to maintain a transnational Uchinanchu identity remains strong, some funding can generally be found.

A final challenge concerns the language people use across the network in their efforts to preserve Uchinaguchi. Unlike the Rotuman overseas community which shares English as a common language (Vamarasi 2008) or the Plattdeutsch communities in Mexico and Paraguay which share Spanish (Baldauf & Kaplan 2007), the Okinawan diaspora is represented by five languages: Uchinaguchi, Japanese, English, Spanish and Portuguese. For Okinawans and for North American Uchinanchu, it is often assumed that English is the instrumental language that allows overseas Uchinanchu who don’t speak Uchinaguchi or Japanese to connect with their kinfolk in the homeland and in other communities. But as our earlier research has revealed, English is a problematic choice (Miyahira & Petrucci 2007; Petrucci & Miyahira 2009). Whether they speak English or not, Latin American Uchinanchu are immediately positioned below their English-speaking counterparts from the US and Canada. What is more, English is not necessarily welcome by Latin American Uchinanchu. As a Brazilian said in response to the predominance of English at the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival held in Okinawa in 2006, the use of English in signs and banners at the festival was “very Americanized” (Petrucci & Miyahira 2009: 216). In the same interview, the informant indicated that a more appropriate choice would have been Uchinaguchi. Interestingy, this would be the best language of communication between language planners in Okinawa and members of the diaspora as they endeavor to preserve Uchinaguchi for future generations. Language preservation/maintenance is a daunting task, however. Despite the valiant and growing efforts being carried out in Vila Carrão and elsewhere, Uchinaguchi will most likely continue to serve as an idealized symbol of Uchinanchu identity rather than as a full-fledged vehicle of communication.


We are truly grateful to everyone at the colégio for their unsparing support and interest in our study; without their participation this article would not have come to fruition. Our thanks also go to the many Uchinanchu and ‘Uchinanchu at heart’, both at the Associação Okinawa de Vila Carrão and throughout São Paulo, who made our fieldwork a pleasant and productive endeavor. Needless to say, any errors or shortcomings in this article belong solely to the authors. We would also like to acknowledge that this research was partially funded by Massey University and the Grant-in-Aid for Exploratory Research (19652039) sponsored by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. We should also note that this research received ethics approval from Massey University.


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