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Young Okinawans fight time with theater performances in old local language

Higa-za theater troupe member Ryuji Oroku (left) and troupe leader Haruka Higa are seen performing a play about the Battle of Okinawa in Uchinaguchi, an Okinawan language in danger of dying out, at the Uruma Municipal Ishikawa Museum of History and Folklore, on July 29, 2018. (Mainichi)

URUMA, Okinawa -- Free-flowing "Uchinaguchi" -- a quickly disappearing Okinawan language -- reverberated throughout the venue at a July 29 performance by the Higa-za theater troupe in Uruma, where troupe leader Haruka Higa, 35, stood on stage.

"When we were young, it was wartime," she said in Uchinaguchi, recognized by UNESCO in 2009 as one of several endangered Okinawan languages, spoken by fewer and fewer people every year.

An old woman, played by Higa, is sleeping, when the woman as a young girl appears before her. In the final months of World War II, the girl survived the bloody Battle of Okinawa by hiding in caves in the southern part of Okinawa Island where fighting was particularly fierce.

An old man in the audience nodded in agreement and in recognition. Beside him, a girl who had been accompanied to the performance by her mother gazed steadily at the stage.

Higa, a nursing care worker, founded Higa-za 10 years ago with a group of friends, including classmates from college. They were interested in the old language their grandparents spoke when they talked to their peers. One day, using some of the old language she had learned, Higa approached an elderly woman in the neighborhood whom she had known since childhood.

"Where were you hiding during the war?" Higa asked in Uchinaguchi.

The woman began speaking to Higa in Uchinaguchi. She talked of hearing English when she was hiding in a cave, and escaping from that cave, convinced that she would be killed otherwise. She described how flare bombs sounded, as well as the sound of search-and-destroy machine gun operations. She said that people were killed indiscriminately, and that she herself was prepared to die. Higa was taken aback by the vividness of her neighbor's recollections.

"Experiences from the war can only be expressed in Uchinaguchi," Higa explained. "Something is lost when it's translated into standard Japanese."

When Higa goes to learn Uchinaguchi from elderly Okinawans, they are surprised. "In the past, we were scolded for speaking in Uchinaguchi," they tell her. "Now people like you are studying it, huh?"

In Okinawa, as part of efforts to make locals more "Japanized," the use of Okinawan languages was banned and the use of standard Japanese enforced. Years went by in which Okinawans were prohibited from freely speaking in their mother tongue -- and now most young people don't know Uchinaguchi at all. The old men and women who talk about their memories of the war in their rapidly fading language are living witnesses of Okinawa's history, one very different from that of Japan proper.

Higa-za has performed at various facilities for the elderly and community centers. In the meantime, the elderly woman who shared her wartime experience with Higa collapsed, and two people at the nursing home where Higa works passed away within a year.

"What are we going to become of when all the old men and women are gone?" Higa asks. She feels as though a part of herself will disappear once the island's memories are lost.

Higa-za began shows in which old men and women have dialogues with their past selves, pouring the loneliness of having no one in today's world understand the island's past horrors into the overarching theme. This past February, the group performed at a senior citizens' facility that is home to a woman who is the model for one of the show's characters. After the performance, the woman told the troupe members that she had been forced to stack logs for tank barriers in preparation for the imminent U.S. landing, and that anyone who expressed objections to the war was called a traitor. Higa took notes, hoping to draw on those powerful words in the troupe's next performance.

On stage at the July performance was Ryuji Oroku, 21, a fourth-year student at the University of the Ryukyus, and the youngest member of Higa-za. Upon learning Uchinaguchi in class two years ago, Oroku realized he didn't truly know his homeland. That same year, a 20-year-old woman was killed by an American worker employed by the U.S. military, and a campaign protesting the construction of a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of the northern Okinawa prefectural city of Nago to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in southern Okinawa Prefecture gained momentum. "Why is Okinawa so angry?" Oroku thought to himself. Having grown up thinking it was normal to have U.S. military bases all around him, he is now asking himself why they are there.

On the stage, Oroku performed a one-man show that he wrote himself, in which he plays an old man traumatized by the Battle of Okinawa. When he performs in Uchinaguchi, he feels that he is somehow connected to Okinawa's elderly men and women who actually experienced the war. He feels a step closer to them, he said.

There is no turning back time. But Higa sees those like herself and Oroku as resisting the flow of time. "There will come a time when the old men and women of Okinawa will no longer be around, but those who resist the flow of time will continue to exist," she said. Perhaps this is because the memories are burned into the land.

The wistful line spoken by the old man played by Oroku keeps replaying in my mind: "My war has not yet ended."

(Japanese original by Tamami Kawakami, City News Department, 32 years old)

This is Part 3 of a series.

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