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.
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!”
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”.
“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!
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!
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!
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?
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.
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 !
This word means “Beautiful”, usually only said when referring to a female. You wouldn’t call someone’s house, dog or car churakagi.
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.
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.
Definition: Son. Sumo wrestlers don’t mind drunken women hitting on their sons, go figure!
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!
If you made it this far, I’d like to thank you for being such a good reader: Nihedebiru!
Mayagua is a cat.
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?
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.
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
100,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
100,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points