My Music Is My Soul, My Language Is My Armor

Posted in Articles, Arts, Asian Diaspora, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive on 2015-09-14 00:48Z by Steven

My Music Is My Soul, My Language Is My Armor

Psychology Today

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Ed.D.
Stanford University

Byron’s story of identity, healing, and empowerment

“One night at a pub I heard the sound of traditional Okinawan folk music, and it was like being hit in the head with a hammer. The impact was like a bolt of lightning! The song told the story of how in life there are things that each of us is born to do. I realized that I had been trying to erase the reality that I was born and raised here on this island. Suddenly listening to the music my hardened heart melted and I was freed.”

Byron has captivated me with his story since we first met in 1999, two mixed race guys, one an elder researcher, the other a young searcher in the throes of an identity quest. Born and raised in Okinawa by a native woman and her family, his face is marked by the genes of his father, an American whom he never met and whose name remains a mystery. With looks that branded him as an American, associating him with an occupying army and military bases and making him a scapegoat for hostility, Byron’s youthful life was full of strife and he had to fight to stay alive and maintain his dignity. He struggled to find himself, even venturing to Los Angeles to become an American rock star.

But when he had his great awakening he put away his electric guitar and devoted himself to the study of the sanshin, a 3-stringed snake skinned instrument. He set out on a road of discovery, immersing himself in the study of Okinawan traditional folk music of the islands. Music led him to language, as he wanted to understand the words of the songs he was singing. But years of neglect have taken their toll and it is a language no longer used in daily life, understood only by the middle aged, spoken only by the elderly. Byron felt anger at the society that did not value its own language, though he understood the history of incorporation into the Japanese nation, subsequent forced assimilation into Japanese language and culture, and self chosen accommodation, that had drastically reduced the use of the language. So he sought out elders and asked them to teach him…

Read the entire article here.

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In Japan’s Okinawa, saving indigenous languages is about more than words

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Asian Diaspora, Media Archive on 2014-12-01 20:53Z by Steven

In Japan’s Okinawa, saving indigenous languages is about more than words

The Washington Post

Anna Fifield, Tokyo Bureau Chief

NISHIHARA, Japan — Rising in turn at their wooden desks, the students giggled, squirmed or shuffled as they introduced themselves, some practically in a whisper.

“Waa naamee ya — yaibiin . . . (My name is . . . ).” One by one, the classmates at Okinawa Christian University managed to get out their names, a few confidently, but most of them sheepishly.

Teacher Byron Fija waved his arms around, laughed and tried to encourage the class, which looked like a college group anywhere — some in hoodies, others in baseball caps and one guy with green hair.

But it was clear that the language — Okinawan — didn’t come naturally to most of them.

It’s the biggest of the six main indigenous languages spoken in this subtropical Japanese island chain, once the independent Ryukyu kingdom but now best known for hosting most of the American military bases in Japan…

…Fija is almost evangelical in his promotion of Okinawan, poetically called “uchi-naa-guchi” here.

In addition to teaching, Fija, 45, plays the sanshin, a three-stringed Okinawan banjo, and sings. For five years he hosted a radio show in Okinawan.

He sees the language as intrinsic to his identity. A product of the military occupation, he is the son of an Okinawan mother and an American father, a man he has never heard from.

Fija cites two experiences that motivated him to embrace the local language and culture.

First, he learned to play the sanshin.

“Someone told me that my playing was fine but my Okinawan sounded American, even though I don’t speak any English. Maybe it was because I don’t look Japanese or Okinawan,” Fija said after class, wearing a traditional Japanese outfit with an Okinawan pattern. His Okinawan pronunciation, he said, was the equivalent of a Japanese person singing in English “I rub you” instead of “I love you.”.

Then, in the 1990s, he spent a year or so in Los Angeles, hoping to make it as a rock star. But as he discovered how hard that was, he had an epiphany. Because of his Caucasian looks, he said, he had never really been accepted as Japanese. But with no knowledge of his father and little proficiency in English, he clearly wasn’t American, either…

Read the entire article here.

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