Uchinanchu means Okinawan people in the indigenous language known as Uchināguchi, a Ryukyuan language spoken primarily in the southern half of the island of Okinawa. Central Okinawan distinguishes itself from the speech of Northern Okinawa, which is classified independently as the Kunigami language. Both languages are listed by UNESCO as endangered.
“Uchinanchu is a word that describes people born in Okinawa (Okinawan natives). Originally, it is said that Okinawa became Okina-, which later changed into Uchina. Okinawan people refer to themselves as Uchinanchu,” according to HereNow.city.
“Uchina-nchu, Shimanchu and Uminchu all refer to an Okinawan person, but with a slightly different nuance for each term. Uchina-nchu is probably the most encompassing of all Okinawans. Shimanchu, simply translated, means “island person” (shima = island and chu = person)… Uminchu, on the other hand, is likened to “ocean people” or “people of the sea.” The image of an Uminchu is of one who lives by the nature of the ocean. Uminchu are fearless and respectful of the oceans surrounding the once island kingdom.” From huoa.org newsletter, Uchinanchu Spotlight: Nobuo Takeno May/June 2012, page 5.
The Uchinanchu people are an indigenous island people often confused with being Japanese, though the language and culture are different. The United Nations recognizes the “Ryûkyû/Okinawa” (Uchinanchu) people as Indigenous, the Japanese government does not. The Uchinanchu identify by a few names, adding to the confusion. Uchinanchu, Shimanchu, Lewchoo… all are names of the indigenous people of Okinawa Prefecture, formerly known as the Ryukyuan Kingdom.
I’m third generation Uchinanchu and at 53 I’m just discovering what this culture is about… the tragedy is I’m not alone. Thanks to imperialism, much of the Unchinanchu culture has been eradicated by the Japanese government. Today the Uchinanchu people ask for their land to be returned to them, and the US military bases to be removed. As long as the world thinks the Uchinanchu people are “just Japanese” they continue to be occupied, discounted and voice-less.
I found out the real situation of the Uchinanchu while I was researching for Tortured Willows. In the process of looking for “my people,” I found myself. I watched a live broadcast of a Uchinanchu celebration and was shocked at my emotions. I was crying. I realized I have always been an outsider, an alien. I saw faces that reminded me of my mother, grandmother… of my own. I never knew I needed a people until I found mine.
This page is my attempt to share what I myself am just learning about the Uchinanchu people and their fight to regain the homeland as well as cultural identity. I may get some things incorrect, so please enlighten me. If you find resources I don’t have, please share! I invite you to learn about these amazing people—third-gen my people—with me.
5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About “Okinawans”
- Okinawans prefer to be called Uchinanchu or Shimanchu.
- The Uchinanchu are egalitarian as opposed to patriarchal or matriarchal. They have always treated the sexes as different, but equal.
- Despite the cultural oppression, the Uchinanchu have retained their animistic beliefs. Women tend to be the spiritual leaders with the responsibilities divided between yuta (kind of like a shamanistic witch) and noro, the priestesses. My family were yuta and noro both, as far as I can tell. I’m yuta.
- The Ryukyuan islands have star shaped sand in some places.
- The Uchinanchu have guardians particular to them called shisa. It’s always a male and female (egalitarian!) and they protect, bring luck and balance. I make shisa keychains and give them away on Etsy for $1 +postage, but if you see me in person I will happily give you as many as you need. We need as many lucky guardians working in the world as we can and you can find them here.