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The Ikema Project: An Attempt to Preserve an Endangered Language of Ryukyu

The Ikema Project: An Attempt to Preserve an Endangered Language of Ryukyu

Shoichi Iwasaki reports on a four-year collaborative project of international Linguistics researchers

by Shoichi Iwasaki, UCLA Asian Languages and Cultures Department

It takes a little over two hours by plane from Tokyo to Miyako Island in southern Okinawa. Driving north for about thirty minutes from the airport, you arrive at a bridge (opened in 1992) that connects Miyako to the small island of Ikema. Ikema Island, just about 180 miles northeast of Taiwan, once flourished with bonito fishing, but now is a very quiet place with about 800, mostly elderly, islanders. The indigenous variety of speech on the island is completely unintelligible to speakers of Standard Japanese. Ikema is also used in two other communities, but most of the active speakers, estimated to be 2,000 in total, are 65 years or older, and it is predicted to die out within 30 years. The Ikema Project was inaugurated in 2005 with faculty members and graduate students from North America (UCLA, University of Alberta, and Stanford) and Japan (Kyoto University).

Ikema is one of many varieties of the Ryukyu language family, which is believed to have separated from the mainland Japanese language family sometime between the mid 3rd and 6th centuries AD. For this reason alone, research on Ikema is critical. The project is, however, framed in the developing research paradigm of “Endangered Language Study,” and proposes going beyond purely historical linguistic research by working closely with the community members to raise awareness of the rich cultural and linguistic heritage they are about to lose, and to collaboratively preserve and analyze it as much as possible for the future generations.

A study of Ikema also provides a valuable perspective on the ‘homogeneous’ myth surrounding Japan. During the aggressive campaign of standardizing language throughout Japan, the vernacular speakers were made to believe that their speech was inferior and with less value and relevance. We have met a number of speakers who still remember the infamous hoogen fuda ‘dialect placard’ which students at school had to wear around their neck if they were caught speaking in their ‘dialect.’ Our team is now recording oral histories of their language-related experiences to trace and preserve the local linguistic history.

Other projects our research team have accomplished over the past three-and-a-half years include a compilation of a booklet of local wisdom concerning birth and child care, preserved in their language; the creation of a sample website containing a children’s story accompanied by narration in Ikema; the videotaping of festivals and ceremonies; the establishment of a Skype based communication network between the researchers and community leaders; and assisting in digitizing precious photographs with historical value taken on the Ikema island in the 1960s. At the same time, with the help of remaining native speakers, team members have been recording, transcribing, annotating, and translating narratives, stories and conversations in Ikema for linguistic research.

Our research team presented our preliminary reports at the First International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation in March, 2009 in Hawai’i to researchers and activists concerned about the future of endangered languages in all corners of the world. To broaden the perspective of our team’s goals and to share our concerns and findings, Shoichi Iwasaki (ALC) will host a workshop at UCLA in October, 2009. At this workshop, not only the Ikema project team members, but also established experts, as well as young scholars on Ryukyu languages, will come to share their research and concerns. One Ikema speaker is also expected to participate in order to teach UCLA students Ikema during the workshop.

Shoichi Iwasaki and the Ikema Project received funding in part from the Hiroshi Wagatsuma Memorial Faculty Grant fund in 2007-08.

Asia Institute