Lessons from Okinawa


Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

Writing has many, many dimensions of meaning that go beyond representing the sounds of spoken language — and my work with the Endangered Alphabets Project has put me in the privileged position of working with cultures more aware of this fact than us in what I’ll loosely call the West.

We can barely imagine, for example, how a simple series of letters can be a reminder of centuries of scorn or abuse. The very idea never occurred to me until I was asked to carve a proverb in Okinawan, or Ryūkyūan.

I agreed, of course, but before I could start there was a heated discussion among the very people who had requested the carving as to which script should be used. To my astonishment, one party argued that it should be written in the Latin alphabet.

When I asked why, they pointed out that the Japanese script was the script of their conquerors and oppressors. It would remind the Okinawans that they had lost their autonomy, and for centuries had been treated as not only non-Japanese but as backward, even primitive. The same discussion came up later when I did a carving in Ainu, as the mainstream Japanese have treated the Ainu, too, with appalling contempt and scorn.

What I assumed from that experience was that there was no Okinawan script, or else my friend would have asked me to use it. Later I discovered this was both true and false, depending on your definition of writing.

Fifteen years ago my own definition, despite having been a writer all my adult life, would have been pretty much a Valley Girl response: “It’s, like, letters? And words? That you, like, read?” The Endangered Alphabets, though, have taken me to areas where writing consisted of other graphic elements, which convey meaning in entirely different ways.

Sail with me now, in the David Attenborough fashion, to the Yaeyama Islands, part of the Okinawa Prefecture of what is now southwestern Japan, where an entirely unique system of symbols was used for a highly unusual purpose: taxation.

After the Satsuma Domain conquered Ryūkyū in the early seventeenth century, it levied an annual tribute to be paid by Ryūkyū. Ryūkyū in turn imposed a poll tax on Yaeyama, allocating a fixed quota to each island that was prorated by community and then by individual islanders, adjusted by age and gender.

Use of conventional writing was sparse on the islands, the remotest of the southern end of the Japan chain, so ingenuity was called for. The government office on Ishigaki informed community leaders of the quotas, checking their calculations using warazan (or barazan), a straw-based method of calculation and recording numerals not unlike South American quipu.

The numbers, though, needed to be converted into specific nouns, given that the tax would be paid not in money but in specific goods or items of property. So the quota for each household was written on a wooden plate called itafuda or hansatsu, using symbols called kaidā.

This highly local graphic system remained in use, being periodically refined and improved, for at least 350 years until the poll tax was abolished in 1903, and at roughly the same time a nationwide primary education system was introduced. In the words of Wikipedia, these developments “lowered the illiteracy rate and made the kaidā glyphs unnecessary.”

But here’s the thing. The word “illiteracy” equates the kaidā with backwardness and ignorance, perhaps unwittingly reinforcing the view of the mainstream Japanese toward the Yaeyama islanders, just as the word “unnecessary” suggests that using kaidā was a shortcoming or burden.

For centuries, the Western assumption has been that if a culture used a graphic system of communication it was a sign they were too intellectually limited to have developed what we call writing. But what if such a graphic system works better? In fact kaidā, like many cultural practices all over the world, was an ingenious, low-cost solution using readily-available skills and materials, and as such not only a part of their cultural heritage but a cause for pride.

I wasn’t there at the time so I can’t say, but strongly suspect that the introduction of conventional writing was accompanied by a belief, spoken and unspoken, that the Yaeyama islanders were making social and intellectual progress by abandoning the kaidā and starting to do their taxes like everyone else.

As with many traditional writing systems, especially ones with a strong graphic component, kaidā survived on Yonaguni and Taketomi as a cultural artifact used in folk art and on T-shirts. In some cases this has become even more specific, with younger people using their own family’s symbol as a kind of family crest on household tools, boxes, and other possessions.

As it happens, Ryūkyū had another indigenous writing tradition that was not as official as kaidā but considerably more personal, even intimate, and which was even more the target of contempt and derision from mainstream Japanese culture: hajichi, or women’s hand-tattoos.

Hajichi are a very unusual but significant form of graphic language, both highly endangered and a great illustration of the intimate relationship between graphic systems and their culture of origin, according to a blog post by Alexis Miyake.

“When Okinawa was under the rule of the Ryūkyū monarchy,” she wrote, “Uchinanchu (Okinawan) women wore indigo tattoos known as hajichi on the backs of their hands. These tattoos functioned as symbols of the transition from adolescence to womanhood and also as indicators of social status.

“In tattoos of the lower classes, commonly used icons included arrowheads, circles, and squares. According to historians, the arrowhead represented daughters never coming back to their families once they married into another house, just as arrowheads never return to their origin. The circle represented winding thread and the square represented a sewing box; these two items were important because back then, a girl could not marry if she didn’t know how to sew.

Uchinanchu women who came from higher-class families had more intricate, ornate tattoos that sometimes went all the way up their arms. Little is known about these upper-class tattoos, as documentation in English is scant. No matter their status, all Uchinanchu women were said to value their hajichi over their wealth, their husbands, and life itself, as the tattoos were thought to ward off evil, ensure safety, and bring happiness.”

These tattoos are a perfect example of forms of graphic communication that fall outside the Western definition of writing (i.e. a formulaic set of abstract phonetic symbols), yet are clearly rich, complex and extraordinarily important, and make use of available indigenous materials — ink, sharpened bamboo, and skin.

Unfortunately, they are also an example of the way in which a new dominating culture tries to eradicate the meaning-symbols of cultures they want to control or suppress.

“When Japan took control of the Ryūkyū Kingdom in the late 19th century, the practice of tattooing was banned,” Alexis Miyake wrote. “The reasons were multifold. Tattoos were looked down upon by Japanese so­ciety; at the same time, Japanese authorities wished to strengthen their own influence by reducing the influence held by village head priestesses.

“According to ancient Ryūkyūan beliefs, women ruled the spiritual domain and were believed to possess innate spiritual powers; they were called onarigami while men were called umiki — the rulers of the secular domain. Hajichi functioned as signifiers and transmitters of female power.”

The stigma was so consistently reinforced that, “Eventually, the hajichi became a symbol of shame; in some photos of Uchinanchu women, their hands are held palms up or tucked into their sleeves in order to hide the hajichi on the backs of their hands.”

According to Alexis Miyake, there is now the beginning of a renaissance in the use of hajichi. In 2015, she wrote, “Today, attitudes have changed. The contemporary generation in Okinawa is becoming more aware of ancient indigenous traditions, and a resurgence in the lost art of Uchinanchu tattoos can be seen among some younger Okinawan women.”

In 2020, an exhibition featuring pictures taken of hajichi was organized in Japan, and advocacy stickers are now in circulation, even in the U.S., to support the use of and respect for hajichi. Modern tattoo artists are trying to strike a balance between reviving the art and offending traditionalists; some will only tattoo women of Okinawan heritage:

Needless to say, I’d love to hear from anyone who can tell me more about either of these traditional forms of writing, or any others from the region. I’d love to hear how the hajichi revival is going, and whether the kaidā forms are being used, for example, by local artists, watering their roots.



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