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Karate -- A Minority Art, Part 8

Almost there, promise.

At the time that Karate was introduced to the Japanese mainland, many Okinawans continued to speak the Okinawan dialect. We tend to call this Hogen, but Mark Tankosich has told me that "Hogen" refers to any dialect.

Hogen is not like an accent. In the United States, people in different parts of the country have different accents. Our Hawaiian pidgin sounds different than a Southern drawl and a Northern accent. However, we are all speaking the same language. If you can get through the accent, you can understand what the person is saying.

My wife was born in Hawaii. It is funny, but she has a very hard time understanding what people are saying in movies like Braveheart. Other local people have told me the same thing. I literally have to translate for my wife sometimes.

But the Okinawan dialect is not Japanese. Perhaps there are some similarities, but a person who speaks Japanese could not understand a person speaking Okinawan Hogen, or vice versa. They might as well come from different countries -- well I guess that Japan and Okinawa (the Ryukyu Kingdom) were different countries.

When Japan abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom and make Okinawa a prefecture, the people living there were required to learn and speak Japanese. This was not optional. In schools, Japanese was the mandatory language. Students speaking Okinawan Hogen were punished.

But in the 1920s, many of the older Okinawans still spoke Okinawan Hogen. Some could not speak or write Japanese, and some might have resisted Japanese as a sign of resistance and cultural pride.

Privately, I would think that most Karate teachers in Okinawa spoke Okinawan Hogen. But when they taught in the public schools, they would have had to speak Japanese. Thus, the teachers who taught in the public schools would have had Japanese language skills, they had to.

On the Japanese mainland, Karate teachers would have to speak Japanese. If they spoke Okinawan Hogen, they might as well have been speaking Martian -- no one could understand them except other Okinawans. Okinawan Hogen would have sounded like gibberish.

In Hawaii, the Japanese, who arrived here to work on the sugar cane plantations before the Okinawans, would tease the Okinawans by chanting "long rope, long rope." Okinawa literally means "long rope."

Okinawans call mainland Japanese "naichi." This can sound like "no blood."


Charles C. Goodin