The Ryūkyūan people are an indigenous island people often confused with being Japanese, though the language and culture are different. Their home is the Ryūkyū Islands, formerly independent Ryūkyū Kingdom and known today as Okinawa. While the United Nations recognizes the Ryūkyūan people as indigenous, the Japanese government does not.
The Ryūkyūan identify by a few names, adding to the confusion. These names include Uchinaanchu or Uchinānchu, Shimanchu, and Lewchew. “Uchinaanchu” means “people of Uchinaa/Okinawa Island” specifically in Uchinaaguchi, but the prefectural government adopted the term as an identifier for all Okinawans. Examples of this usage would be the Worldwide Uchinaanchu Festival and World Uchinaanchu Day.
There are also many languages spoken, including Uchināguchi, 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. UNESCO designated the languages of Amami, Kunzan (Kunigami), Uchinaa (Okinawa), Myaaku (Miyako), Yaima (Yaeyama), and Dunan (Yonaguni) as endangered.
I’m third generation Ryūkyūan. Thanks to Japan sacrificing Okinawa during WWII, much of the Ryūkyūan culture has been near eradicated by governments with many of the indigenous languages and traditions at the risk of dying with the elder generations. The Ryūkyūan 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 Ryūkyūan people are “just Japanese” they continue to be occupied, discounted and voice-less.
8 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About “Okinawans”
- Okinawans are actually Ryūkyūan/Ruuchuuan/Loochooan. “Okinawa” is the name of the prefecture, not the people.
- The Ryūkyūan are egalitarian as opposed to patriarchal or matriarchal. They have always treated the sexes as different, but equal.
- Despite the cultural oppression, the Ryūkyūan have retained their animistic beliefs. Women tend to be the spiritual leaders with the responsibilities divided between yuta (a shamanistic practitioner) and Nuuru, the priestesses. The women in my family were a mix of yuta and Nuuru.
- The Ryukyuan islands have star shaped sand in some places.
- The Ryūkyūan have guardians particular to them called shiisaa. It’s always a male and female (egalitarian!) and they protect, bring luck and balance.
- Even though my mother is half Ryūkyūan, there is a lot we don’t know. To avoid discrimination, many Ryūkyūan people claimed to be Japanese until recently.
- There is no written form of Uchināguchi, one of the Ryūkyūan languages. The current written form is borrowed from Chinese and Japanese characters.
- Genetically, the Ryūkyūan people are closer to Chinese than Japanese.
What am I? I’m a quarter Ryūkyūan on my mother’s side. Like most humans, I’m a mixed bag of genetics.
Here’s my approximate concoction: