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All photos by Ryukyu Mike

Going to Okinawa? Here are some key phrases in Okinawan dialect that are guaranteed to impress the locals.

Japanese is the official language in all of Japan and is understood by everyone in Okinawa. There is also a native tongue, however, preserved by the elders.

This Okinawa language goes back centuries, to the days when the islands of Okinawa were the independent Ryukyu Kingdom. Scholars call it Okinawa-Hogen, or the Okinawan Dialect; it’s U-CHI-NA-GU-CHI, to a native.

This post won’t get you speaking like a native Okinawan, but if you print it out and stuff it in your wallet before visiting Okinawa two things will happen:

1. Your thick wallet will make you look richer than most Americans who visit here.

2. If you actually use a few of these words and phrases, you’ll be treated like royalty and maybe get some free drinks!

Here are the phrases, spelled phonetically.

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

1. HAI-SAI, U-CHI-NA MEN-SO-RE !

“Hai Sai” is a universal Okinawan greeting that means good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

It’s a whole lot easier to remember than all that stuff Japanese people have to say.

“Uchina” is: Okinawa and “Mensorei” means “Welcome”, only it’s used much the same as “aloha” is used in Hawaii. When you depart Okinawa, or a bar, for that matter, you may hear “ MATA MENSOREI” meaning, “come back again, sometime!”

2a. II-CHA-RI-BA-CHO-BE

When an Okinawan says “Ii cha ri ba cho be” after meeting you, be flattered, bow and shake their hand and try to ii-cha-ri-ba-cho-be back to them. It means “We have met and now you are family”.

If you can’t remember that tongue twister, you need a back-up plan. These phrases will make them love you:

2b. MA-JUN-NU-MA-YA, MATA-MA-JUN-NU-MA-YA and SAKI-NU-MI-DU-SHI-GUA

Ma-jun-nu-ma-ya means “Let’s go drinking together”. Mata ma jun nu ma ya, means “Let’s go drinking again, sometime” and Saki nu mi du shi gua, means “We’re drinking buddies”.

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

3. JIN-GUA

“Jingua” means Money! Now, if you touch your index finger to your thumb (making the internationally recognized OK symbol) and lower your hand to waist level and twist your wrist outboard, so the palm of your hand is facing up, you just learned how to say Jingua without moving your lips!

When you’re out of money, or you stumble across the occasional beggar asking for some, just say “Jingua mo nai” meaning “I don’t have any more money”.

Note: Some of the phrases used above include words like, ”mata” and “mo nai”. These are actually Japanese words mixed with uchinaguchi.

OK, we got the money thing down; let’s go spend some!

4a. HI-MO-JI

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

Himoji means “I’m hungry,” plain and simple.

How hungry you are and how much jingua you have will determine where you’re going to eat. A lot of the restaurants in Okinawa display plastic, realistic-looking foods in their window, with the prices clearly marked in yen.

Others don’t, so you have to ask. Maybe if you ask in the local dialect, they won’t charge you tourist prices!

4b. CHA-SA-YAI-BI-GA ?

How much does this cost? You may have to say it twice in a high-class restaurant; they’re expecting a foreigner to speak anything but uchinaguchi and some of the staff in these establishments are not Okinawans, anyhow.

But, if they are Okinawan, you may get a heap of extra helpings for your efforts!

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

5a. KU-WA-CHI-SA-BI-RA

This is what you say when food or a drink is presented to you. It’s “Thanks for the food or drink”.

5B. U-SA-GA-MI-SO-RE !

The typical response to your thanks for the food or drink, meaning “Dig-in or drink-up, enjoy”!

5c. MA-SAI-BI-NA ?

When you hear this, you’re being asked “How is it, good?”

5d. MA-SAI-BIN-DO / MA-SAN / IPPEI MASAN

It’s good. / It was good or delicious. / It was totally delicious!

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

6a. NU-CHI-GU-SUI-YA-SA

Take a sip of cold tea, beer, juice, anything that makes you feel good inside and exclaim “Nuchigusui or nuchigusui yasa!”

This phrase is difficult to translate, but it means “gives you a healthy feeling inside”.

I’ve been to Nuchigusui Festivals where health foods were sold, nurse stations were set-up to check blood pressure and sugar levels and all kinds of physical activities were practiced, but the only time I’ve ever heard anyone exclaim “Nuchigusui” is when they sip a drink.

6b. MA-KAI-I-CHA-BI-GA ?

Where are you going?

6c. A-SHI-BI-GA

I’m going to play – standard answer for all children in the world, isn’t it? Well, adults use the phrase, too. It could mean going to play golf, going drinking with your friends, going for a walk, or just going somewhere out of the house to relax.

7. WA-NE-UTA-UTAI-BU-SAN

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

Say this and you’re going to Karaoke until the sun comes up!

Translation: “I want to sing a song.” Twenty-four hours a day, in Okinawa, there’s a karaoke bar open somewhere.

People will drink and sing until they pass-out. If their friends are still drinking and singing when they wake up, they’ll join-in and drink and sing until they pass-out again!

Modern karaoke systems have the music piped-in over the telephone lines, so any language you want is available, English, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, German, Chinese, Japanese, even Uchinaguchi !

8a. CHU-RA-KA-GI

This word means “Beautiful”, usually only said when referring to a female. You wouldn’t call someone’s house, dog or car churakagi.

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

8b. YA-NA-KA-GI

The opposite of 8a, If you happen to offend a husband by calling his wife beautiful, point to yourself quickly and say “yanakagi”. I only use this word to describe my wife’s dog; it’s too crude to use on humans, unless you’re looking for a fight.

8c. I-NA-GU-N-GUA

Meaning: Daughter. Nice to know before you get drunk and start hitting on some Sumo Wrestler’s 20 something year old offspring, sitting at the bar with him.

8d. I-KI-GAN-GUA

Definition: Son. Sumo wrestlers don’t mind drunken women hitting on their sons, go figure!

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

9. KU-SU-KWEE, or KU-SU-KAY!

Okinawans don’t cuss, they just don’t do it. But, there’s a special time when they use this expression.

Have you ever been walking down a dark alley or street and feel the hair stand-up on the back of your neck? There’s a presence, something creeping up behind you, a ghost, a bad vibe or an evil spirit.

Well, Okinawans worship their ancestors and believe there are spirits watching over them at all times. Anyone who died an unnatural death or was lost at sea and never given a proper burial has a spirit floating around, just waiting to snatch the healthy spirit from your body.

When someone sneezes, their spirit temporarily leaves their body and this is the ideal time for one of the floating spirits to snatch it away.

So, you should look slightly above the person who just sneezed, shoe the spirit away with both hands and say “Kusu Kwee!” just as someone walking down a dark alley would when they feel an evil presence.

Translation: Eat pig shit!

10a. NI-HE-DE-BI-RU

If you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for being such a good reader: Nihedebiru!

10b. MA-YA-GUA

Mayagua is a cat.

10c. IN-GUA

Photo by Ryukyu Mike

A dog is ingua. For some unknown reason cats and dogs get along just fine on the islands of Okinawa. It must be the peaceful atmosphere. You’ll see stray dogs and cats hanging-out together on street corners, just minding their own business.

Now, if you were really trying to learn Uchinaguchi, you should be able to pretend you’re the cat in the photo to the right and say:

We have met and now we are family. Let’s go drinking together, play and sing karaoke. By the way, I’m starving; you got any money?

Community Connection

If you’re going to Okinawa, be sure to get in touch with Ryukyu Mike. Other Matador members who have traveled in the far south of Japan include Turner Wright and Tim Patterson.

Language Learning


 

About The Author

Ryukyu Mike

Ryukyu Mike is a wildlife photographer who lives in Okinawa. His work has appeared in Apogee, Bootsnall, In the Know Traveler, NihonSun and Wend. Visit his homepage: Mike's Ryukyu Gallery.

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  • Travellohr

    This is hilarious! – and handy. My wallet would indeed be bulging carrying this comprehensive list around with me. Thanks for the words!

  • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

    Damn… and people say Kansai dialect is the most difficult. This is more like the original island language.

  • http://www.collazoprojects.com Julie

    Fun article, Mike!

  • Alan

    Thanks for the article! Although I feel as if I’m going to be tongue tied if I tried to say any of this stuff.

  • http://matadorabroad.com Tim Patterson

    Okinawa really does feel like a foreign country relative to the rest of Japan.

    • Ken

      If you go to Aomori prefecture, you will find another foreign country.
      Each word is different from std Japanese.
      It is called Tsugaru dialect.

      • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

        Ken,
        Thanks for reading and commenting. It gets way more complicated. There are over 160 islands down here in the Ryukyu chain and as Japanese Words mentioned, many different dialects within Okinawan Hogen. Years ago, I had a college professor who had lived on several of the outer islands. In fact, did her thesis for her Doctorates degree on the cultures of the various island people. She taught us 7 different ways to say “thank you” and none of them sounded anything like “domo arigatto”!

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

    Travellohr, Turner, Julie, Alan and Tim, thank you all. For being the first 5 to respond, when you come to visit the first round of drinks is on me and you’ve got free translation services the rest of the night !

    Warning: After the 3d round, I start singing Okinawan Folk Songs.
    After the 5th or so, I pass-out !

  • Rob

    Thanks very much for the helpful language tips! We Americans have a reputation in most other countries of having no knowledge of the local language, so these types of phrases can go a long way towards building good will and making friends.

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

      I agree – making the effort to learn a few words of the local language can really go a long way.

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

    Thanks, Rob ! The highest form if compliment I get from Okinawans is when they ask me,”Are you 1/2 Okinawan; you speak like one of us”? It could have something to do with spending 1/2 my life here !

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/rsw Tim Patterson

      That is a pretty cool compliment, Mike!

  • http://www.japanesewords.net/ Japanese Words

    Great list and very helpful. Each of the islands also have their own dialects and words as well.

  • aaisha(jordan)

    hi….i agree with all of you
    becaus this islands make you feel happy and the hope will always with you

    • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

      Aaisha,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Sounds like you’ve been here before!

      Cheers,
      Mike

  • Pingback: Tokyo Nightlife: 3 Killer Clubs for When Roppongi’s Charm Wears Thin

  • Lauren

    i live in okinawa, on one of the bases. i went on a tour the other day and asked the guide what to say when someone sneezes. he told me, but wouldnt translate, saying ‘it isnt very nice’. now i know!

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com RyukyuMike

    Lauren,
    Well, if ya learn to pronounce it fluentlt, you’ll sueprise a lot of people !

    Cheers,
    Mike

  • Brandy Keippala

    Thank you so much! Hosting an exchange student tomorrow and just now finding time to learn the difference between Japan and Okinawa! And with one from an island, I’m a bit worried! :-)

  • Mysticsaviour

    Hmm, I can detect hokkien Tone.

  • Hazel Hart

    This is great! How do you say “I love you”? :)

  • Stephen Mick McClary

    Great article! One spelling error though” II-CHA-RI-BA-CHO-BE should read II-CHA-RI-BA-CHO-DE (with a ‘D’ and not a ‘B’) Thanks for the unchinaguchi primer! Nihei debiru!

  • Tomos Burton

    I find Uchinaguchi really interesting. I’m Welsh, so I sympathise with the language being oppressed. I’ve found karaoke in minority languages like Uchinaguchi really hard to find. I can translate other songs though.

  • leandros

    The Okinawan language can’t be considered as a mere “dialect” of Japanese. However, not the same thing can be stated about “Uchina-yamatuguchi”, a local dialect spoken especially by young people, and characterized as an Okinawanized japanese, with Japanese grammar and Okinawan Okinawan and Uchina-yamatuguchi are often confused.

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