Songs for the Forgotten, 2008



I wrote in alphabet traditional folk songs of Okinawa, Japan, which were originally written in hiragana. I left some of them at various places on the island on which I grew up, some near American military bases in the mainland, and I put one in a bottle, which was then released offshore. I wanted to know if these songs still make sense to Okinawan people written that way, in alphabet. And would Americans in the bases or someone in a far away place who may pick up the bottle see something in them? I cannot know the result, since all I have is the photographic documentations, just hinting processes that may or may not take place.

A while ago I realized a simple fact that Okinawan language does not have its own writing system. They borrowed Japanese hiragana, which was brought to the island in the 13th century. Although they had long relationship with China, Chinese kanji was used rarely, only for official documents and was never fully integrated into people’s everyday practice.

Lyrics of these traditional folk songs now look somewhat unsophisticated, probably because they are written nearly exclusively in hiragana, it’s the most basic and rudimentary form in Japanese writing system, which consists of hiragana, katakana, and kanji). l don’t understand much of the lyrics since I don’t speak the language; they look just like gibberish to me. The language is dying, not that many people speak Okinawan now. Yet, the songs survived.

It has been a wonder to me why Okinawan people chose to return to Japan after the series of oppressions they suffered (and none of which I experienced). But now I can see there’s something with the language that ties the islands to Japan. I don’t want to be too sentimental for the lost futures, yet I can’t help but think of what would be happening if things had happened differently few centuries back, or in 1972. I could have been seeing those songs written in alphabet; then these gibberishes may have different meanings now.


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