What’s Up With Okinawan Names? A Language History

What’s Up With Okinawan Names? A Language History

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Okinawa Names
Why are Okinawan names difficult for even mainland Japanese speakers? How the languages of the Ryukyu kingdom survived - despite attempts to eradicate them.

Ever see a street name in Okinawa and find yourself hard-pressed to pronounce it – despite having solid Japanese skills? You’re not alone. The diversity of names owes itself to the Ryukuan languages. The languages survive today – despite Japan’s attempts to wipe them off the map.

What’s in a Name?

What’s Up With Okinawan Names? – A Language History

Why are Okinawan names difficult for even mainland Japanese speakers? How the languages of the Ryukyu kingdom survived – despite attempts to eradicate them.V…

An audio-visual version of this post is available on our YouTube channel.

Imagine, if you will, touching down at Naha Airport on the famously idyllic Okinawa Island. The three-hour flight from Tokyo is quickly forgotten as you alight from your plane. Tourist you are, you head out for a night on the famous Kokusai-doori street in downtown Naha.

Soon, you’re sampling locally-distilled Awamori, eating champloo, and downing a few Orion beers on the side. Entranced by the tropical air and excited by the next day’s prospects of white sand beaches and turquoise waves, you begin chatting with the locals around you. Self-introductions follow; maybe an exchange of business cards (名刺, meishi).

This is when you start to notice something interesting.

We’re gonna rock down to Gajoko Avenue

At first, many of the names you’re encountering sound familiar to you. There might be a few Suzuki, Sato, or Takahashi. (Although perhaps these were from fellow tourists or mainland transplants.)

Amongst the locals, though, are still a few names you recognize by sound – Uehara, Miyagi, Nakamura. Looking at the business cards, though, the kanji characters that make up the names aren’t what you expected. There are quite a few people named Higa, a few named Kaneshiro.

And then there are some you’d never heard before. Gajoko, Yohena, Nakandakari? Rakujaku? Are you sure these weren’t foreigners of some type?


Seemingly by accident, you would have just stumbled onto a fascinating aspect of what makes Okinawa, in truth, a very different place from the other four main islands of Japan. That’s the profusion of Okinawan – Ryukyuan, really – surnames whose pronunciations and kanji confound mainland Japanese.

This is just one of the aspects of a long Okinawan history separate from the entity that became modern Japan. These names are a clue as to the reality of Okinawa and the Ryukyuan languages. They’re also a clue to a long and fascinating history of a people and language apart.

Welcome to Ryukyu

In truth, for most modern Okinawans, Japanese is their native language. By and large, however, it was not the native language of their grandparents.

Let’s briefly continue our imagined trip to Okinawa. It’s the next day. You’d been surprised at the unfamiliar names you’d encountered the night before. But walking around the Okinawan capital of Naha, most of the conversations you’ll overhear will still be in Japanese.

Sure, the Japanese in question might have some dialectal tinges and some words that sounded distinctly foreign. Yet, besides hearing some American English spoken by servicemen from the nearby base, Japanese would still appear the native language of Okinawa. Only a trip to hear elders on the outlying islands would call this image into question.

In truth, for most modern Okinawans, Japanese is their native language. By and large, however, it was not the native language of their grandparents.

These elders continue to speak five separate languages. We can break them down into innumerable distinct dialects based on the island and insular region that together make up the Ryukyuan language continuum. These languages are now on the verge of extinction.

But despite the moribund nature of Amami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni as living tounges, their presence and cultural importance are felt everywhere in Okinawa. They’re on signage, in music, in place names – and in the names of the Okinawans themselves.

The Lost Kingdom

International Boulevard in Naha, Okinawa.
International Boulevard in Naha, Okinawa. (Picture: denkei / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The islands that make up Okinawa Prefecture were, in fact, only fully annexed to the modern Japanese state in 1879. For hundreds of years previous, they’d been under the near-colonization of one specific Japanese samurai domain – Satsuma, in modern Kagoshima. Before that, they’d been ruled as a fully independent kingdom. This was the Ryukyu Kingdom, whose reach extended out from the modern Okinawa Island.

A significant maritime trading empire, the kingdom spread its influence over the outlying regions of the Miyako, Yaeyama, Daito, and Amami Islands throughout the 15th century. These island-bound regions all shared cultural and linguistic ties to Okinawa. Together, they make up the area known as the Ryukyus. (Unlike the rest of the Ryukyus, the Amami Islands were directly annexed by the invading Satsuma samurai. They’re now part of the territory of Kagoshima Prefecture.)

The kingdom’s trade was focused on China, to whom it paid tribute. Chinese cultural artifacts had a major influence on Ryukyu. This is evident from the architecture of the famed Shuri Castle (which, tragically, recently burnt down) to the organization of the Ryukyu court system. China remained the main influence on Ryukyu up until the samurai invasion in 1609.

Yet, linguistically and ethnically, Okinawa was not an insular offshoot of China. Nor were the Okinawans “Japanese,” in the sense we now think of the word. Rather, the Ryukyuans are their own separate ethnicity – one whose language remains Japanese’s only sister.

All in the (Japonic) Family

Japan is often touted as one of the most homogenous countries on Earth. Its people are supposedly an ethnic singularity and its language an isolate.

This myth of racial and linguistic unity played an important part in nationalistic propaganda both before and after WWII. To this day, the country is not exactly known for its open acknowledgment of local minority groups.

This holds true for its huge Chinese and Korean minority populations. But it tends to be doubly true for its two indigenous groups – the northern Ainu and the southern Ryukuans.

The Ainu were finally recognized as an indigenous group by the Japanese government in 2008. However, the Ryukyuans are still officially considered “Japanese.” Moreover, the Ryukyuan languages are officially considered Japanese “dialects” (方言, hōgen) within Japan. This, even though each of the five Ryukyuan languages (Amami, Okinawan, Miyako, Yaeyama, and Yonaguni) are completely unintelligible to Japanese speakers (and to each other).

To briefly grasp how different the Ryukyu languages are from Japanese, take a listen to native Okinawan Byron Fija speaking in Central Okinawan. If you speak Japanese yourself, it’ll likely be totally unintelligible – and if you don’t speak Japanese, the sound of the language itself should tell you all you need to know.

Byron Fija on Ryukyuan Languages in Uchinaaguchi

Byron Fija explains that there are 6 Ryukyuan languages

Byron Fija teaches about Ryukyuan Languages in Central Okinawan. Interesting, Byron’s surname – Fija – is the Ryukyuan pronunciation of the most common surname in Okinawa, Higa.

Shared Origins, Disparate Evolutions

By any linguistic standard, these are clearly separate languages from Japanese. Yet, unlike the Ainu language – which is almost entirely unrelated to Japanese – Ryukyuan does have a direct connection to the tongue of its northern neighbor. This is because Ryukyuan and Japanese share a common origin.

Although the exact timing and nature of the split between the ancient proto-Japanese language and Ryukyuan is murky, it appears that it occurred on the island of Kyushu.

(Kyushu, interestingly, was historically home to now-extinct ethnicities besides the modern Yamato Japanese people; the Hayato and Kumaso peoples have left their mark -and genetic markers – on Kyushu history, and may have spoken an Austronesian tongue.)

Debate about the dating of this split is contentious. It may have happened anytime between 500 BCE and the 12th century CE. Yet happen it did, as speakers of proto-Ryukuan migrated to the Okinawan islands and supplanted the languages of the small hunter-gatherer peoples who lived on those lands previously. Now separated by the sea from Japan and isolated on small islands, proto-Ryukuan developed into the five languages that (barely) survive today. Back in Japan, the Japanese language as we know it slowly came into being, finally becoming recognizably “modern” during the Edo era (1603-1868).

Throughout these long centuries, the Ryukyuan people and kingdoms developed their own indigenous culture, political systems, and even a local religion focused on priestesses (noro) and female shamans (yuta).

Writing on the Wall

The use of kanji-based surnames for aristocrats and warriors became more prominent during the centuries of Satsuma occupation. However, the Satsuma samurai themselves soon worried over the Ryukuans appearing too culturally Japanese.

While the Ryukyu islands possessed a similar linguistic origin to Japan, much of their history and cultural development was markedly different. Rice cultivation on the islands began much later. The introduction of Sino-Japanese writing came later still. This seems to have happened in the 13th century. As so often occurs in history, the bearer of this new knowledge seems to have been religion – or, more precisely, Buddhism.

In 1265, during the early days of the reign of King Eiso of Okinawa, a Buddhist monk by the name of Zenkan (禅鑑) washed up on the island’s shores. Zenkan’s exact origins are a mystery; he may have been Ryukuan himself, or he may have been Chinese.

Either way, King Eiso took a liking to the monk and sponsored the building of a temple for him to the north of where Shuri Castle now stands. With this first Buddhist temple now established, monks began flocking to the Ryukyus from the Japanese mainland.

Why hiragana reigned supreme

King Eiso was more than happy to help promote their religion in exchange for the benefits it brought him. Namely, more access to trade and prestigious culture. That included Chinese and Japanese writing.

Buddhism and writing spread from the top-down, making their way from the Okinawan court across the islands. Yet unlike across the waters in Kamakura Japan or in other lands where Chinese culture held great prestige, Ryukyu did not hold fast to Chinese logographs – kanji. Rather, hiragana phonetic characters – mostly used in informal settings in Japan – became the syllabary of choice.

It wasn’t until the invasion and semi-occupation by the samurai of Satsuma that kanji began to take precedence in the court. Even then, hiragana remained more popular throughout the islands as the means by which to express oneself in writing.

By Any Other Name(s)

With the language of the Ryukyus being so different from Japanese, it only makes sense that the names of local people, too, would historically be different. In ancient times, the people of Ryukyu used a complex naming system that bore some similarities to old Japanese naming conventions. People had a juvenile name (warabina) used from childhood. Unlike in Japan, however, this name continued to be used well beyond childhood and remained the most important personal name.

Initially, Ryukyuans used only these names. Eventually, powerful families adopted clan names to tell each other apart. These were usually toponyms – names for the regions they lived in or ruled. Later, people of different classes would also attach specific suffixes or prefixes to their juvenile names to indicate social status.

A common name for a peasant might be Tuku (徳), while someone of the warrior class would have the right to affix a prefix to this name to make it Umi-tuku (思徳). Meanwhile, an aristocrat would be distinguished by an additional suffix – his name might be Umi-tuku-gani (思徳金). Each of these is written in kanji, yet is pronounced in a distinctly Ryukyuan fashion. Aristocrats, especially following the Satsuma invasion, would add numerous titles after this given name.

Be Japanese (but not TOO Japanese)

The use of kanji-based surnames for aristocrats and warriors became more prominent during the centuries of Satsuma occupation. However, the Satsuma samurai themselves soon worried about the Ryukuans appearing too culturally Japanese.

This anxiety revolved around the perceptions of neighboring China. The Ming (and later Qing) dynasties believed Ryukyu to be a tributary state, and any appearance of samurai takeover would provoke conflict. Thus the samurai were careful never to be seen by Chinese envoys and allowed the Ryukyu kings to nominally maintain rule over the islands.

In 1625, just to be safe, Satsuma banned the use of surnames in Ryukyu that appeared too “Japanese.” Strict restrictions on the wearing of Japanese clothing or speaking the Japanese language followed.

This is one of the major reasons why there are so many names that sound like average Japanese surnames in Japan, yet use kanji that appear strangely different. For some examples:

NameStandard Japanese kanjiOkinawan variant

Annexation Brings “Modernization”

Traditional roof in Okinawa
Picture: yasushi uesugi / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

By 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration and the fall of the 268-year-old Tokugawa shogunate, Ryukyu had been under Satsuma control for well over two centuries. The war toppled the shogunate and restored the Japanese emperor to power.

The Satsuma domain, long a semi-independent fief on the edge of Tokugawa control, itself had pushed this conflict. Satsuma’s strong samurai establishment had chafed under Tokugawa demands and mismanagement. Ironically, by helping create a new centralized, modernizing state, the lords of Satsuma would also forfeit all claims to their private colony.

In 1872, the Ryukyu Kingdom – which had technically still been an independent country under de facto Satsuma control – was forced into becoming a domain in the Japanese feudal system. In 1879, as the feudal system officially gave way to the new modern model, this Ryukyu Domain was finally annexed, becoming Okinawa Prefecture.

New names, old pronunciations

The Ryukyuan Kingdom was no more. Japan exiled its last King, Sho Tai, to Tokyo and gave him a conciliatory peerage. The Ryukyuan people were proclaimed to be Japanese citizens – and as such, would now need standard Japanese names.

The modernizing Meiji state had ruled that all Japanese citizens must have only a surname and a given name. Ryukyuan commoners, long having only had juvenile given names, often adopted local place names as their new surnames. This resulted in the profusion of names in Okinawa with characters like 城 (castle), 宮 (shrine), and 川 (river) in them.

However, as these place names were still pronounced in Ryukyuan, common-looking names were in fact pronounced completely different from counterparts in Japan. 宮城, the very common “Miyagi” on the mainland, was pronounced “Naagusuku.” Names chosen from Japanese standards could also be pronounced differently, as most Okinawans associated certain kanji with different sounds; 上村, usually pronounced “Uemura,” was often pronounced “Kamimura” in Okinawa.

And then there were the names that continue to confound mainland Japanese to this day. Many of these are place names which still maintain much of their Ryukyuan pronunciations: 我如古 is Ganeko or Gajoko, 饒平名 is Yohena, Nohina, or even Yorohena; 仲村渠 is Nakangari; 大工廻, which to most mainlanders looks like the still-strange “Daikue” is often “Rakujaku” or “Dakujaku.”

The new system also allowed for only one first name. Legally, juvenile names were now out. Children were often officially given Japanese-sounding first names, which they were called once they entered the school system. In reality, their families and friends still used their non-official juvenile names at home. Native juvenile names only started disappearing from Okinawa after WWII.

The Persecution of the Ryukyuan Languages

The use of Ryukyuan languages was declared illegal and considered an act of sedition.

The Meiji government had one goal for both of the indigenous peoples – Ryukyuan and Ainu – they had just assumed direct control over: assimilation. For both the Satsuma colonists of Ryukyu and the Mastumae lords who had previously colonized the Ainu in Hokkaido, keeping these subject people separate had been of political expediency – ruling foreign peoples gave them clout other samurai domains lacked. Now, though, Japan was a modern centralized country, and both of these people groups needed to be “made” Japanese.

In the newly proclaimed Okinawa Prefecture, the result was the importation of mainlander bureaucrats and educators (at first mostly from Satsuma) to fill all positions of local control. The use of Ryukyuan languages, deemed “backwards,” was discouraged.

In Okinawan classrooms, children who spoke in their native tongues were made to wear hogen futa (方言札, dialect cards) around their necks. Pupils were made to police each others’ language usage. Wearing the card was a great source of shame. Native Okinawans whose names had common kanji began to pronounce these as mainland Japanese did for fear of sticking out in an anti-indigenous power structure.

Persecution gets worse before WWII

The persecution of native Ryukuan languages only worsened in the lead-up to WWII. As the war progressed, Okinawans – supposedly Japanese – were seen as a potential 5th column in the case of American invasion. Any sense of a separate identity from the rest of Japan had to be beaten out of them – sometimes literally. The use of Ryukyuan languages was declared illegal and considered an act of sedition. Merely using one’s native (and for many Okinawans, often only) tongue could result in the death penalty.

Then, in the final days of the war, the Ryukyuan homeland became the site of the bloodiest fighting in the entire Pacific. Okinawans, still so often considered potential traitors to the Japanese Empire, were put into army uniforms and made to defend the front lines of the largest amphibious invasion in that theater. As many as 140,000 Okinawans died during the 82-day battle, killed in bombings, firefights, or compelled to commit suicide rather than suffer capture. The Okinawans had paid a terrible price to defend a homeland they had no choice in belonging to.

Okinawan Resurgence

Once a source of shame and derision, being Okinawan has now become a source of pride.

After 70 years of forced assimilation, 27 years of American occupation following the war, and 48 years more as a returned prefecture within Japan, the Ryukyuan languages are still being spoken, even today. Alas, the vast majority of those speaking it are the very elderly, their numbers decreasing by the year.

Even so, the five languages continue to exist in popular spaces – in traditional songs accompanied by the three-stringed Sanshin, in poetry, plays, and signage. For the average Okinawan, aspects of the languages survive in the daily conversations they have in their own local dialect of Japanese – Okinawan Japanese (ウチナーヤマトグチ), which incorporates Ryukuan words and grammatical features into standard Japanese.

Young people, some made aware of the value of their native culture by its increased profile on the mainland and abroad, have begun a Ryukyuan revival. TV and radio programs are held in Okinawan, and traditional folk arts groups have sprung up. Once a source of shame and derision, being Okinawan has now become a source of pride. Many from the prefecture consider Japanese to be their nationality, but Okinawan to be their identity.

And then, of course, there are the names. Whether a Higa, Kaneshiro (once pronounced Kanagushuku), Oshiro (once Ufugusuku), Miyagi, Aragaki, or Uehara (once Wiibaru), the Okinawan names remain. They serve as a marker for Okinawa’s deep roots, and for a Ryukyuan future that will still surely exist – in whatever form it might eventually take.

またやーさい!Mataya-sai – until next we meet!

What to read next


しるびあたるたりーに。「古琉球における文字の導入・使用について。」桜美林論集 (36), 37-49, 2009

In Heinrich, P., In Miyara, S., & In Shimoji, M. (2015). Handbook of the Ryukyuan languages: History, structure, and use.

Takara, Ben (February 2007). “On Reclaiming a Ryukyuan Culture.” Connect. Irifune: IMADR. 10 (4): 14–16.

(3/10/2020.) 「一度聞いたら忘れない!沖縄の珍しい苗字まとめ。」沖縄ラボ。

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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