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Karate -- A Minority Art, Part 4

There is something that differs between Japanese and Okinawans -- their surnames. Again, this is something that might be hard for Americans (or Westerners) to appreciate. The names "Tanaka" and "Miyashiro" might sound equally Japanese to us, but they might as well be pronounced "Japanese" and "Okinawan". When you hear the name "Higa", you know that the bearer is Okinawan.

While there are some Okinawan names that sound the same as Japanese names, they are usually written differently (in kanji). I suspect that this was done originally to make it easier to distinguish or identify the minority.

Some of the popular Okinawan names as we know them today, are actually the Japanese pronunciations of the the names. Miyashiro (or Miyagi), for example, are the Japanese ways of pronouncing the earlier name: Miyagusuku. The modern Higashionna or Higaonna was more pronounced Hijaunna (with a buzzing sound that I can't write). The Okinawans had their own dialect(s) that was very different from the Japanese language. In fact, Okinawans and Japanese could not understand each other. Of course, the solution was for the Okinawans to be required to learn and speak only Japanese.

This subject is much broader than I can cover. For my purpose, the point is that Okinawan names could be distinguished by Japanese. When Japanese heard or read the name "Motobu," they knew, without a doubt, that the person was Okinawan, a minority.

Funakoshi, Motobu, Miyagi, Mabuni, Yabu, Hanashiro, Higashionna, Higa, Itosu... these are all Okinawan names.

By the way, one Okinawan elder here in Hawaii asked me if I knew why so many Karate experts had the prefix "Cho" in their first names. A quick list came to my mind: "Chomo Hanashiro, Choyu Motobu, Choki Motobu, Chosin Chibana, Chojun Miyagi." He explained that the prefix "Cho" was reserved for sons in families that were closely related to the King of Okinawa.

Now wait a minute... these Karate experts were not only Okinawan but related to the Okinawan royal family? And the Japanese government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and forced its king into exile in Tokyo in the late 1870s? How would it look for these "Cho" people to be teaching a martial art in mainland Japan? Would it do to have relatives of an exiled King to be teaching a minority art on the mainland?

It is certainly something to think about.


Charles C. Goodin