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Teaching 'Uchinaguchi' Okinawa language and the Battle of Okinawa in the US

Wearing a "kariyushi" Okinawan shirt, Chogi Higa teaches Uchinaguchi, the Okinawan language, in Gardena, near Los Angeles. (Mainichi/Hojin Fukunaga)

LOS ANGELES -- As June 23 draws near every year, 78-year-old Chogi Higa experiences a mix of emotions as he reflects on the preciousness of peace, and the issue of United States military bases in Japan's southernmost prefecture, Okinawa.

This is because June 23 is Okinawa Memorial Day, the day the Battle of Okinawa -- one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater in World War II -- officially ended with the suicide of a Japanese army commander. It's also because Higa, originally from the village of Nakagusuku in central Okinawa Island, is a living witness of the Battle of Okinawa, in which at least 200,000 troops and civilians were killed after the U.S. military descended on the prefecture.

Higa, who now lives near Los Angeles, is one of at least 60,000 people of Okinawan descent said to be living in the continental U.S. On June 14, he was found teaching Uchinaguchi, the Okinawan language, in English at the office of the Okinawa Association of America, in Gardena. His 10 or so students who attend his monthly lessons are immigrants from Okinawa or their descendants. "What is churakagi?" "Chura means beautiful. Churakagi is a beautiful person," he told his students.

Sue Dolbee, 56, who said her mother was from Okinawa, said that she began studying Uchinaguchi because she liked how her mother sounded. Uchinaguchi was difficult, she added, but learning it was fun.

Higa started giving Uchinaguchi lessons in 2002. It was because he felt that unless one knew the words that were connected to the culture, traditions could not be passed down. In his classes, he uses materials that he ordered from Okinawa to teach his students about Okinawa's history, including the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Battle of Okinawa.

"Those who experienced the war are decreasing in number, but we must not allow history to be forgotten. We must pass down to young people the preciousness of life," Higa said. He has also conducted a lesson on the Battle of Okinawa for a Japanese language school.

At the time of the battle, Higa was just 4 years old. As the village of Nakagusuku turned into a battlefield, he, along with his grandmother and two older brothers, fled to the northern part of Okinawa Island. As they dodged U.S. naval gunfire, he saw many dead bodies. There was no food, and for about three months, they lived on things like sago palm and grasshoppers. "Even as a child, I was keenly aware of the brutality of war."

This is why, when he was detained in a prisoner-of-war camp and given cookies and chocolate from the U.S. military, Higa was moved by how prosperous the U.S. was and dreamed of going there. In 1960, after graduating from Okinawa Prefectural Futenma High School, he crossed the Pacific on an immigrant ship, relying on an uncle who lived in the U.S. to help set him up. He worked as a live-in housekeeper in an American home while attending college near Los Angeles. After graduation, he worked at a supermarket chain until his retirement.

Higa's expression became dark, though, when conversation turned to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, in southern Okinawa Island, to the Henoko district of Nago, in the northern part of the island. He hopes for the reduction of U.S. military bases in his home prefecture, but he also feels indebted to and trust toward the U.S., where he has lived for some 60 years.

"It's painful to have the U.S., my second home country, criticized from a fellow Uchinanchu (Okinawan person)," he said. He can't help but think the problem would be resolved if only the base was relocated somewhere outside Okinawa Prefecture.

(Japanese original by Hojin Fukunaga, Los Angeles Bureau)

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