◎ JADH2016

Sep 12-14, 2016 The University of Tokyo

Digitally Archiving Okinawan Kaida Characters
Mark Rosa (Ph. D., University of Tokyo, 2016)

The native Okinawan kaida writing system, created in the Yaeyama islands in the 17th to 19th centuries to track tax payments and record family holdings and contributions, and developed most highly on Yonaguni at the end of this period, has never been encoded digitally. This short paper will use two newly-discovered records, one stored in the archives of the National Museum of Ethnology in Suita, Osaka, and another in the library at the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, as a sample of the kinds of texts that digital encoding can be valuable for.

“Full writing,” in which any verbal utterance can be expressed, was never developed for the various languages of the Okinawan islands. A system of partial writing called sūchūma was used for simple tallies of money, food, firewood, and other items, and combined with families creating symbols (called yaban on most islands and dahan on Yonaguni) to indicate their names, made basic record-keeping possible. In the southwesternmost islands – the Yaeyamas and Yonaguni – glyphs were devised for animals and foodstuffs, creating the kaida writing system in which more detailed records became possible: names, dates, items taken or possessed, and numbers.

The number of available samples of kaida writing is still – and might always be – small. The system began to fall out of favor when the first Japanese school was built on the island in 1885, and declined further when the hated capitation tax came to an end in 1903. The last reports of active use of this system date from the 1920s, and today only a small handful of islanders, all born around this time or earlier, can remember how to write it even partially: one such is Nae Ikema, born in 1919 and aged 96 at the time of writing. (Many more islanders of all ages can write their families’ dahan.)

No attempt has previously been made to encode these characters so that they can be preserved and transmitted digitally. The more primitive sūchūma, being basic shapes such as circles, squares, triangles, crosses, and lines, could conceivably be covered by existing Unicode characters, but the numerals are distinctive enough from Japanese/Chinese to warrant their own encoding, and the pictographs are unlike anything seen in those two languages.

This work will introduce a TrueType font for kaida characters, created by the author, and will explore the above-mentioned records from the University of the Ryukyus and National Museum of Ethnology and attempt to recreate them digitally. The addition of private individuals’ dahan in the Private Use Area will be necessary for the records to be complete.

The next stage will be to make ordinary speech digitizable by creating an input method editor for the language in general, written in today’s Japanese- based kanji and kana, and not just the historical writing system. This presentation will conclude with a brief introduction to this future step.


kaida writing, yonaguni, native okinawan writing, partial writing, unicode