Monday, April 11, 2011

Kaida Moji’s Mystery an English Translation of a Japanese Article

The following is an article I found in a JTA Coralway magazine that I thought would be appropriate for our human interest story for Sunday. The magazine was one of those free magazines in the seat pouch of an airliner we were flying on back in 2003 during a visit to Okinawa. The article was entirely in Japanese but with a bit of help from my friends, Yoneko and Kay, it is being presented here in Translation to English. The article is titled "Kaida Moji’s Mystery" and was written by Masao Higa. I have scanned the pictures from the book to go along with the posting. By left clicking on the image you can view them in a larger format. Simply use your back button to return to the posting after viewing. The pictures were taken by photographer Norimi Kengo. I take no credit for this article but feel that this is information that should be presented to non-japanese speakers as well. There are many Uchinanchu people who live outside of Japan that no longer have the ability to speak Japanese so this is being provided as in English to help them understand some of their cultural heritage.

Yonaguni Island is home to a strange zoukei moji (alphabets which are based on representational shapes). In modern culture, Kaida moji is a term used to reference patterns on bandanas. However, until 1885 (Meiji 18), Kaida moji was actually used as a form of communication before official schools were established. This language was integrated very closely with certain Islanders of Okinawa. So what exactly is this Kaida moji? Anthropologists flew to find out.

Each Island in the Ryukyu chain lives and breathes its own traditional manners and customs. There are numerous origins and mysteries behind these established customs. However, when we ask the islanders of these origins, there is a sentiment that too much time has passed to uncover their ancestors’ thought process. Kaida moji is another example where many years have passed and information has been lost over the generations. In mid-July, I journeyed out to Okinawa with the hopes to solve these mysteries.

Kaida Moji is just one alphabet originating from the Yaeyama region. According to the Okinawa Dictionary (created by the “Okinawa Times Corp”). Kaida moji is different from kanji, and was used in Yonaguni Island. It was referred to as Yonaguni Kaida moji; however, it was used all over the Yaeyama Islands.

During the Ryukyu Kingdom era, an established form of writing did not exist. However, natives created various symbols to communicate messages from the kingdom to the people. One example includes a symbol used to notify everyone when the kingdom was collecting taxes. In 1893 (Meiji 25), an adventurist by the name of Sasamori Gisuke traveled to Yonaguni Island and saw this Kaida moji. Gisuke also documented what he witnessed in his book, “Minami Island Exploration.”

Do the elders of the Island remember Kaida moji?

We departed from Naha and headed toward Ishigaki Island. Before crossing to Yonaguni Island, we stopped by the Kihouen Boshukan (museum) on Taketomi Island in hopes of also meeting Toru Uesedo, the museum director. Unfortunately, we were unable to. However, we were able to see various records. The next day we journeyed off to Yonaguni Island. It’s been 20 years since I’ve visited this Island. I can only fathom how it has changed.

Twenty years ago, it was 1975 (Showa 50) and I was in north Japan for an international expo. I had established an Okinawa exhibit called “Umiya Karaishi” to showcase native Okinawan tools. That was for a research project I conducted 49 years ago with my friend and artist, Seitoku Oshiro. On that trip, I remember looking down from a small, two-motored plane. We were near the airport by a sugar factory and I could see the smoke stacks not too far ahead. I remember feeling a little worried about the flight, but we landed safely on Yonaguni Island. Now, twenty years later, I looked down below me at Hatoma Island as we left Ishigaki Island and in thirty minutes, once again, I’ve landed back on Yonaguni Island.

First, I visited the Yonaguni heritage office and inquired about Yonashiro. I wanted to know more about Kaida moji so I asked him to introduce me to some native Islanders. He had three individuals in mind, all who were over 70 years old, and so I immediately decided to visit them.

However, when we arrived and introduced ourselves, I felt the same sentiment; that too much time has passed to recollect these precious meanings. I felt stuck at a dead-end. Out of the three, there was only one who barely had a memory about Kaida moji. His name was Yuko Kubura and he currently lives in Sonai.

Kubura was born in 1928 (Showa 3), and is 75 years old. His family and he came from a farming background. Talking to him was beneficial in discovering various farming techniques used in the past. Kubura remembered seeing Kaida moji and the wooden blocks they were written on, but had no recollection of how it was used. After hearing his stories, I thought maybe that wooden block will soon become the key to finding the next step in solving this mystery.

The Purpose Behind the Danuhan Mark

The yaaban (also known as: ya no han) are visible not only on Yonaguni Island, but also on Taketama Island and the majority of the Yaeyama Islands. This is a certain mark used to distinguish one’s tools from another. Just like emblems are branded on Shogun shields, each house had a separate yaaban mark.

In Yonaguni Island, this yaaban mark is called a “danuhan.” In the Yonaguni dialect, a mountain is called a “dama,” and night is referred to as “duru”… in other parts of the Ryukyu Island, various alphabet sounds are slightly altered depending on the region of the Islands. For example, ヤ、イユイヨ=ディ、ドゥ、デ、ド thus ‘Yanuhan’ became ‘Danuhan’ due to a difference in these dialects.

However, the Danuhan mark seems to not have served a prominent role in the Yonaguni Island due to the fact that we only see these marks used on the backs of plates, trays, and cooking utensils. So exactly how was this mark used, and what does it mean? During large parties, it was frequent that one would borrow plates, utensils and various other cookwares from relatives and neighbors. Therefore, the mark became useful when it was time to return borrowed goods to their appropriate owners. In Kuberyou –san’s house, he has a tray with the danuhan mark on it still.

Until recently, there was another term, “mimi ban” that served a similar purpose as the yaaban and danuhan marks. Mimiban was something other than an alphabetical mark, it was a shape cut in the back of a cow’s ear to differentiate and decide which cows belonged to which owners. The yaaban and mimiban are not letters for an alphabet, but rather symbols.

Yaaban and Kaida Moji Collaborate to form Communication

According to historical documents, the yaaban marks also served more purposes other than distinguishing individuals’ homes.

“Nanpou Bunka No Tankyu” (South Culture Research, published in 1939) and its sequel published in 1942 are two books authored by Kaomura Tadao, and contain important documentations to understand the nature of the Showa 10 era.

In these documents, we found that Kaida moji was used not just for government or tax purposes for the emperor, rather it was also used to communicate in regular homes; and specific examples are recorded. In addition, how Kaida moji served to be beneficial was recorded along with photographic evidence of Kaida moji written on paper.

In his book, Kaomura documents Kaida moji representing marine products such as fish and octopus. On the other hand, he also specifies agricultural produce such as potatoes and green onions. In addition, grains such as rice and chestnuts are also depicted. Moreover, examples of Kaida moji are documented to represent quantity, measurement and (price) units using figures that look like pictures. Here is an example:

These symbols can be translated to the following meaning = First symbol represents the Irimatsuda (person’s) yaaban, and the last symbol = Kominuke’s yaaban. The symbols in between translate to “8 ropes, 2 units of chestnut, 1 bundle of bamboo, and please send it to Yanbarusen”

From, Komine

According to Kaomura, the use of danuhan and yaaban spread all throughout the Island.

The Meaning Behind Kaida Moji

How was the danuhan, yaaban, and Kaida moji used together on the Island as a means to communicate? On the way back from Yonaguni Island, we crossed over to Taketomi Island again to help accurately answer this question more.

Luckily, we were able to meet Kihouin Boushu museum’s director, Toro Uesedo. Also, the Kihoukan Taketomi’s yaaban was displayed at the museum along with examples of wooden name posts (“ita-fuda”) written in Kaida moji, and on the bottom of baskets. In addition, we saw documents from the kingdom to the islanders written with Kaida moji which were delivered to individual homes.

Moreover, according to the Jousei Tou museum director’s explanation, we found differences in the way Taketomi Islanders and Yonaguni Islanders created their yaabans. In Yonaguni andTaketomi, danuhan and yaaban were symbols used to understand the relationship between the head house and branch house (houses of the second, or third son, etc). The natives used to place a mark on the head house.

Nevertheless, what does the “Kaida” in Kaida moji stand for?

Some documents presume that Kaida was put there on the island by the government office which was called kaiya during the Ryukyu Kingdom era. Due to various accents circulating, it’s possible kaiya turned into kaida, and hence Kaida moji.

The Island Society’s Communication Tool

Again, I felt it was a difficult journey trying to uncover the mystery behind Kaida moji because it has been lost or is in the process of disappearing.

Kaida moji was used as a means of control by the government or royal government (Ryukyu Kingdom) but we found out that islanders used it in conjunction with the yaaban and danuhan in the same way as a means of communication from house to house.

Coming home from this Kaida moji journey, I have realized the strong connection between people and people, house to house and uncovered more evidence of the strong collective concept which existed in the past.

Otaku, Okinawa. 2011. "Kaida Moji’s Mystery an English Translation of a Japanese Article". Okinawaology Blog. Posted: March 28, 2011. Available online:

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